Record-setting Sand Ship Discovery Jeep appearing at festival
The 2,000 miles that Patty Upton will bring her Jeep from Salmon, Idaho, to Butler County for the 12th annual Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival is a jaunt compared to the five-year, 56,000-mile record-setting journey she and her late husband, Loren, took in the 1966 CJ-5 they named Sand Ship Discovery.
They traversed jungles, mountains and swamps in South America and the Sahara desert in North Africa without GPS or a cellphone while dealing with breakdowns in remote locations and sketchy border crossings.
Their epic road trip in the mid-1980s earned them a place in Guinness World Records.
“The hardest part in anything is taking that first step,” Upton said. “Once you’re committed, you're committed. There were challenges, but the life-threatening stuff is anti-climactic because we lived through it.”
She said she and Loren always wanted to take their Sand Ship Discovery to Jeep festivals and shows so they could tell people the story of their journey, but they couldn't because they were working when the events were held.
Unfortunately, Loren died in August at the age of 87.
“So I thought the time is now,” Upton said.
In mid-May, she took the Jeep by trailer to a Jeep festival in Flagstaff, Ariz. After the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival, she is taking it to an events in Toledo, Ohio, and Colorado.
“She's one-of-a-kind,” Upton said about the Sand Ship Discovery.
Before the couple’s successful journey, Loren made three unsuccessful attempts. Each ended at the notorious Darien Gap, a dense jungle between Panama and Columbia.
Loren’s first attempt was made in 1975 in a Ford F-150 pickup truck. The next two attempts in 1977 and 1979 were made in Jeeps. The Jeep CJ-7 used in the 1977 trip was destroyed after it went over a cliff. In the 1979 attempt, Loren ended the journey and abandoned the Jeep after refusing a Colombian park official’s demand for a payoff to enter the gap.
The successful attempt began on Loren’s birthday on June 14, 1984, in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, the northernmost point on the North American continent, in a 1966 Jeep CJ-5.
Before traveling to Alaska, he made a few changes to the Jeep. He painted the Jeep red, had the roof raised 4 inches to make some room for his 6-foot-4-inch frame, mounted big tires and had a four-speed transmission installed.
He drove it to Panama where Upton, who was working as a secretary for the Canal Zone Girl Scout Council, joined him in October that year.
Upon entering the Darien Gap in February 1985, they hired a group of local men to help them float the Sand Ship Discovery across a rive by lashing it to two hollowed-out tree trunks, she said.
The locals used machetes and axes to clear a trail through the forest. The area was so rugged, the group spent 2½ days hand-winching the Jeep just 315 feet through one especially challenging area. In 30 days, they managed to travel only 37 miles before the rainy season arrived and halted the expedition for the rest of the year.
“Loren stayed with the Jeep and I went back to Panama. He lived near a native village. He stayed near the village with the Jeep for nine months,” Upton said.
In January 1986, Upton and two cousins reconnected with Loren.
“Within four days, the Jeep was tuned up and packed, and we hit the trail,” Upton said.
They avoided the area where the park official stopped Loren in 1979 and made it to a farm where both of the Jeep’s rear axle shafts broke and stopped the journey for the rest of that year.
The farmer agreed to watch over the Sand Ship Discovery while the Uptons took the axle to Medellín, Columbia. They went back to their jobs and returned in 1987 after new parts for the Jeep had been delivered.
With the Jeep fixed, they got back on the trail on March 4 that year and completed the Darien Gap crossing. It took them 741 days to travel 125 miles through the gap, she said.
They didn’t set a speed record, but they were entered into the 1992 Guinness Book of Records for the first all-land crossing of the gap.
Once back on the road in Colombia, they continued south on the Pan-American Highway to a road that is the southern most road on the South American continent.
Next, they crossed the Straits of Magellan to the Island of Tierra del Fuego and traveled as far south as possible to an area near Ushuaia, Argentina.
The Darien Gap and the deserts of Africa, the next part of the journey, were the only places they traveled that didn’t have roads, she said.
After arriving in South Africa in September 1987, they spent six months touring. During that time, she became sick and was hospitalized with severe dehydration, bacterial dysentery and malaria. She recovered and the journey resumed in March 1988.
While driving through the southern Sahara Desert in Sudan in June when temperatures reached 130 degrees, the right rear axle shaft broke. They had already used the spare they brought with them.
“That was the closest we came to a real life threat,” Upton said.
The last village they encountered was 90 miles behind them and the last person they saw was 45 miles back. They estimated they were 40 miles south of the Egyptian border.
The following day Loren hiked up to the top of a nearby mountain and discovered that the Nile River was about 1 mile away.
Using a tin box that served as one of the Sand Ship Discovery’s kitchen drawers and some empty plastic gas cans, they created a makeshift raft that they used to float down the Nile.
“We floated two days down the river to a village to get to a phone to order new parts,” Upton said.
They made their way to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, where she waited for the new axle shafts to arrive at the U.S. Embassy. Loren found a ride back to the Jeep and waited for her.
It took her 70 days to make it back to the Jeep, and they fixed it in 15 minutes, she said.
They got back on the trail and made it to Egypt after traveling 4,500 miles in four-wheel-drive through Africa.
“Most Jeeps don’t see that in a lifetime,” Upton said.
In October 1988, they pulled into Israel, where they hit a roadblock caused by human nature and not Mother Nature. Israel and Jordan were at war, and the Uptons were not permitted to drive the “final mile” across the border to Jordan, but they were allowed to walk.
They drove back to Egypt and took a ferryboat to Jordan. From there they drove through Syria to Turkey and then continued to Bulgaria and Romania before attempting to enter the Soviet Union.
They were expecting the paperwork they needed to enter country to be waiting for them in Bucharest, but the documents didn’t arrive. Once again, the journey came to a halt.
They traveled to England, where Loren stayed with the Jeep. Upton returned to the U.S.
In 1989, she returned to England and the couple proceeded through Europe, after obtaining the paperwork they needed to drive through the Soviet Union. Once through the Soviet Union, they drove through Finland and Norway, where they ended the journey on July 4, 1989.
However, not driving that “final mile” between Israel and Jordan haunted the Uptons. In 2018, with Loren beginning to experience health problems, they returned with the Sand Ship Discovery.
“On May 3, 2018, we drove that final mile,” Upton said.