Oasis on the Playa
In the spring of 2015, I planned an expedition to the Great Basin Desert with some of my travel buddies from Prometheus Design Werx (PDW) and Exploro. It was to be a quick weekend of high desert trail riding and exploration and an escape from the monotony of the city surrounding us. Our vehicles for the journey were far from ordinary. Patrick from PDW showed up in his fully restored FJ40, a beautiful green Land Cruiser which boasts an array of custom features including a diesel engine swap. On any other day this four-wheel drive would have been the star of the show, but Elias from Exploro had something even more special in store: an ultra-rare HJ47 diesel that had also been fully restored. It was part of a limited run production built for Toyota Execs touring a mining operation in Australia, and one of just four like it in the world. The cabin space, width, and headroom are exponentially larger than an FJ40 series, and it features four doors and a small caged truck bed on the back. This one sits on 255/55/16 KM2 Mud Terrains and sports a massive 3 Dog roof-top tent on a custom rack for camping.
We started our trek on the outskirts of a massive dry lake, its scorched surface reflecting in pale shades of white and tan in the sun. Our camp for the night lay on its opposite bank, so we aimed the Land Cruisers across the dusty expanse and set off. The fine silt swirled behind our classic FJs, and the wind carried it off toward the distant horizon—what an experience.
Eventually, our group arrived at a small hot spring and set up camp in the grasslands that surrounded the oasis a few hundred yards away. Hot spring etiquette dictates no one should be camped on the spring, so all travelers have access. We broke for lunch and set up awnings, camp chairs, and tables and explored the paradise of hot creeks and grasslands on foot. I’ve often seen Osprey nesting in the area, bats hunting insects, and all variety of waterfowl taking refuge in the wetlands. We spotted wildlife passing here and there, but it was the clouds looming in the distance that caught our attention.
A fast-moving hail storm rolled in across the lake bed, bringing a storm of alkaline playa dust with it. We packed up any exposed gear and supplies and sheltered under the awning of Patrick’s FJ as it passed. The high desert weather, temperatures, and winds can be very unpredictable.
As evening closed in we pitched some large tents that were loaned to me for trial at Bay Area Expeditions. They were heavier and more cumbersome than what I would typically use, but the conditions were calm, and they made for a luxurious camp space. The area was full of snakes, spiders, scorpions, and sand spiders that live in the teeming oasis, so it was nice to have a floor for a change. Everyone had massive private rooms to sprawl out, organize equipment, and deal with clothing. Being able to stand in a shelter to change is always a bonus in my opinion.
Just as we had settled in, the moon came out, and we decided to take the FJ out for a night drive. The high desert by moonlight can be so bright, you don’t even need a headlamp. It’s a surreal experience. The HJ was committed to the roof-top tent setup for the night, but Patrick’s FJ40 was free and ready to go. At the turn of the key, its small diesel rumbled to life, and we made our way out into the desert.
The following day we decided to explore trails to an abandoned ghost town. It was a functional mine from the 1930s all the way until the 1980s, and in its heyday housed a few hundred people. The conditions must have been incredibly austere. Many of the town’s buildings were constructed from railroad ties, and those are the few that are still standing.
Below (second image) : Intact Issue of Vogue from 1984
People raised families in the town, and apparently, there was even a school. Railroad tracks nearby would have provided some potential access to supplies, but life would have been far from easy. After taking some time to absorb the scene, we began the trek back to camp for our final night.
Above: Our camp under the moonlight.
The group broke camp early on the final morning. It was a long way back to civilization, and we wanted to enjoy the drive home. As we rolled across the playa to the steady thrum of the diesel engines, it was hard to not want one of these Land Cruisers. Their capability, compact size, solid axle construction, and utterly simple mechanics paired with Toyota’s construction and timeless design make them nearly irresistible. Perhaps that’s why these 40-year-old vehicles are still so popular today, and why most people expect them to be in the future. All I know is that when it comes to adventures, they’re hard to beat.
Team Members: Patrick Ma (PDW), Elias Fedorowski (Exploro.co), Chris Van Loan (BAE), Agustin Bella III (BAE), Photos by: Chris Van Loan (BAE)
Story by: Chris Van Loan (PDW)