The immeasurable impact that this adventure/ expedition/ competition had on the Land Rover brand cannot be overstated. I hope I can do it all justice in this shortened form, so grab a winch line and let’s wade into the chest-deep river rapids! Below, there is a list of the winners, a look at some of the vehicle modifications, and a short history of the G4 Challenge.
The Ultimate Adventure
The iconic Camel Trophy event was staged in the 80s and 90s in some of the world’s most spectacularly remote locations: the Amazon jungle, the equatorial rainforests of Sumatra, Borneo and Sulawesi, the plains of Mongolia, Siberia and more. It grew from humble beginnings as an amateur off-road event to become the most famous event of its kind in the world. The Olympics of Four-wheel Drive
The ‘97 Camel Trophy arguably gave birth to the famous Land Rover slogan: ‘You’ve only got one life – live it.’
There was no prize money, equally, it cost nothing to enter, besides a hard grind getting through the gruelling selection process, and perhaps a bit of luck. The prize, if there was one, was simply to get to the finish, both for the team vehicle and as an individual achievement.
Besides the need to hack a path through an impassable jungle, the teams took part in competitive tasks such as navigation, or a timed driving stage, while other tasks were designed to leave a lasting legacy, like repairing a bridge or erecting buildings, which did not only allowed the convoy to move forward, it also left something tangible behind for the locals.
If you’re looking for a bare-bones origin story, you could arguably trace it back to one guy’s idea, Andreas Bender, 27, who planned and led three teams on a drive 1,600 km down the Transamazonica highway from Belem to Santarem in Brazil. This was to be a one-off promotional event, however, the images of this first journey caught the imagination of all those who saw them.
This first ‘Camel Trophy’ expedition/jolly was nowhere near as organized as those events that would follow.
Three (folklorically rented) Ford U50s (license-built Brazilian Jeep) set out from Belem, tracing the route of the Trans-Amazon Highway, which even today, is not fully paved.
The three tiny Jeeps slogged through the jungle mud, sand, heat, and humidity their ‘highway’ being anything of the sort! Twelve days later the six Germans made it to Santarem intact, though the battered Jeeps didn’t fair quite as well, and a new event was born – the “Olympics of Four-Wheel-Drive.”
The event was expanded into five (still German-only) teams this year and they found the beginnings of a beautiful friendship with Land Rover, who supplied them with two-door V8 Range Rovers. This year they headed to Sumatra for a 1,000-mile southward trek from Medan to Jambi in the village of Berastagi in North Sumatra.
The event was marked by extreme heat, mud, massive river crossings, makeshift bridges, huge quagmires, bureaucracy and lots and lots of mosquitoes. After a long, hard epic slog through the jungle, the expedition finished in the town of Jambi, in the south of Sumatra, and the seed was planted to widen entries internationally.
1982 Papua New Guinea
The first ‘international’ Camel Trophy was joined by Dutch, Italian, and American teams, and now had two teams from each nation. Papua New Guinea has some of the world’s most remote tribes, with a culture almost entirely untouched by the rest of the world.
The start was in Mount Hagen and did not disappoint with the common Camel Trophy themes: mud, makeshift bridges, raging rivers, quicksand… Once again they selected the Range Rovers, after the good experience in Sumatra.
In between all this, they encountered the locals. Perhaps the most famous was the Mud Men, who wore enormous masks of dried mud. Legend has it that their ancestors had been defeated in battle and had fled into the Asaro River to hide. After dusk, they attempted their escape, but by then they had become covered in dried mud from the river bottom. They came out of the river looking like spirits, terrifying and scaring off the enemy. (perhaps this story is for the benefit of tourists) The photo is a great image though, with the Range Rovers defining the Camel Trophy’s quest to discover the hidden and impenetrable jungles of the world.
The Series Land Rover made its only appearance in Camel Trophy in 1983. 2.25 diesel-powered 88″ Series III station wagons, and 109″ wagons for the support crew, a fitting farewell to the leaf-sprung Land Rover. They had ‘hot climate equipment packs’, which included double fan belts, an 8-blade fan, fan shrouds and an oil cooler as well as a roof rack, winch, auxiliary lights and jerry cans.
The journey went from Kinshasa to Kisangani in the northeast with incredibly poor road conditions. Refuelling was a challenge and a major headache due to the failing infrastructure, and one of the trucks went up in flames due to an oil stove accident.
On the humanitarian front, the Camel Trophy matured, and the team doctor began to hold clinics in the villages they visited. As the event continued, this spirit of giving back (to the hosts) would become more and more a component of Camel Trophy.
The sixteen-day, 1,000-mile drive was gruelling. Temperatures and humidity combined to make a suffocating environment. The conditions weakened the team members, already worn from battling the battered tracks but they arrived at the finish line in Kisangani intact (excluding one burnt-out 109″). This would be a testament to the durability of the Land Rovers in future events as well.
Camel Trophy picked up the Trans-Amazonica Highway once again, in Santarem, where the first event’s Jeeps had ended their journey in 1980. A dozen teams would take on ‘The Great Adventure’, two each from Belgium, West Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland.
The new Land Rover One Ten was the feature vehicle for the teams (and support staff).
This year, though, it was the middle of a (particularly) rainy season – a not insignificant factor in the Amazon Rainforest and another recurring theme of the event. Fast-moving rivers had completely washed away the roads. Bridges had to be fabricated. Trees were felled, lashed, and winched across.
After two weeks of hard-fought progress through an unforgiving jungle, Camel Trophy arrived in Manaus thoroughly battered. It had been a hard slog through the already unforgiving Amazon forest, echoing the first expedition in 1980, but the wet season complicated things even more. The relatively short distance (in Camel Trophy terms) of 900km took the teams two weeks.
16 teams from eight countries lined up at the start with the new Land Rover Ninety (One Ten for the support crew). The Borneo edition returned to the jungle arena in the Indonesian part of the world. The popularity of the contest must have taken the organisers by surprise, because at this point they were getting over half a million applicants, from all walks of life. Qualification was, of course, a long, tiring, gruelling affair to end up with just two or three dozen contestants!
Rain once again conspired to make this event extra tough, with many a truck spending a lot of time underwater – enough to coin the phrase “Yellow Submarines”.
The route was adjusted constantly as the previously scouted roads had been washed away entirely. This toughest edition so far even led to airlifting the vehicles at some point and progress was a painfully slow and challenging slog. The jungles of Borneo conspired to challenge the trucks terribly along the way, with many mechanical difficulties and the teams and their Land Rover 90s found themselves almost beaten by the tough conditions. This year marked the introduction of the ‘Team Spirit’ award, which must have helped the teams into Balikpapan for the finish.
Australia was an entirely different proposition and would cover 2000 miles of northern Australia in a ‘mere’ 13 days. A far cry from three hundred meters in one day, in the jungles of Borneo! The Nineties and One Tens featured once again, and the route ran from Cooktown in Queensland to Darwin, NT.
International demand was massive. A British team finally entered amongst thousands of applicants worldwide. If they were expecting to drag their Land Rovers through a jungle, the weather was dry and the rains and mud never happened. It was still quite the adventure crossing the Australian Outback though. The intense heat was the major challenge, along with the Ozzie wildlife trying to kill you, not least of which the large local crocodiles.
1987 brought back the Range Rover, but this time with the turbo diesel instead of the V8. They would travel the full length of Madagascar, from Diego Suarez to Fort Dauphin, a distance of over 2000 km. This would be the first time a vehicle would travel the full length of the eastern coast, taking over 16 days. They faced wildly differing terrain from tropical jungle to dry savanna on supremely difficult, disused tracks.
A near-mutiny tainted the event because of the haphazard planning and scoring system.
The lack of consistency led to many disputes regarding the rankings and results, also an indication of the level of stress everyone was under as well as the amount of commitment and work needed to take part in the first place.
This led to many changes in the structure of the event, becoming a far more professional outfit (strange to think that with the huge level of interest, they were still approaching the expeditions in an amateur way). This would be the last time the Range Rovers took part in the competition but paved the way for its introduction into the North American market.
Back to Indonesia this time, tackling the island of Sulawesi. And this time with a bit more professionalism on the special tasks after the chaos of last year. Once again the driving distance was about 2000 km, bookended by a couple of days of special tasks at the beginning and the end of the event. The route went from Manado, around the northern extremity to Ujung Pandang.
The 110s took a hammering, suffering rollovers, driveline issues and problems with bridge crossings
The roads were again often unused and covered in jungle growth. Many hours were spent clearing a way with chainsaws, bridge-building and digging at landslides. Some tracks were barely wider than the Land Rovers!
The Turkish team would end up taking the Camel Trophy this year, in their first appearance in the event. Once again, the event had been a full transit of the island and a great success. After twelve days of hard-fought progress through the jungle in varying conditions, they made it to the end in high spirits.
This year was arguably the pinnacle Camel Trophy. It had it all. We were back in its spiritual home, Brazil and tackling one of the most difficult routes. This was also the last year for the venerable 110s as event trucks (mostly support vehicles from here on). It kicked off in Alta Floresta and ended in Manaus, linking up with the 1980 and 1984 events to create a continuous path across the Amazon.
In order to add to the challenge and general misery, the event was (once again) planned in the rainy season.
The locals found it incomprehensible for the Camel Trophy to try and make Manaus, so they started betting on the outcome. The dirt track (during dry season) became a quagmire and a dreadful slog. Brazilian supply trucks were often stuck in the treacherously slippery conditions until the dry season which was months away.
Some days they covered only a few winch-dominated miles, trying to dig their vehicles out of the clinging mud, with special task sections bracketing the route. Bob and Joe Ives were the winners this year, and this event catapulted the two Brits to international fame, arguably the best-known of the contestants.
The Discovery 200Tdi three-door made its debut this year and would be the postcard for Camel Trophy for the following 7 years. The destination was also a break in tradition from the tropical jungles that had made for some epic copywriting and worthwhile marketing-spend for the head sponsor.
The event also bridged the divide between the West and the Soviet Union in more ways than one.
In a couple of firsts, this international event took place on Soviet soil, and they even sent a couple of Soviet airforce transport aeroplanes to pick up the Land Rovers in England – most definitely a first at the time. The early-production G-WAC Discoveries were also among the first non-political vehicles to drive through Red Square.
The event began in Bratsk and continued through the Tiga Forest to Kachug, then to Lake Baikal, then turned west again, ending in the city of Irkutsk. Miles away from the jungle some of the most remote regions in the world. The tundra was a vastly different proposition to the hot and humid jungles, but the Discos came through with flying colours and a new era had begun.
1991 Tanzania Burundi
This year the plan was to trace Dr. David Livingstone’s 1866-71 expedition to the source of the Nile. The route started in Dar es Salaam and headed west through some classic African landscapes to Bujumbura, crossing borders for the first time. The event traded in the tropical jungle for the African sub-saharan savannas. But, once again, they planned the event for the rainy season for added drama and challenge, and many hours were spent at the winch with sleep at a premium.
This time the Special Tasks Award joined the Team Spirit Award and the Camel Trophy, and they implemented a points scale, which helped take the uncertainty out of the awards. A record 17 nations completed the 1700 km route in the newly launched 5-door Discoveries – along with support 110s and 127s.
South American jungle, this time destination Guyana. The start was in Manaus, Brazil and they headed north to cross the border to Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. This turned out to be a dry year, and the event was defined by dust-filled potholes in a stunning contrast to the treacherous conditions of 1989. Not a Brazilian supply truck in sight!
However, there were many river crossings in wet Guyana, and it was also the first Camel Trophy in which the contestants trekked to the Kaieteur Falls and spent a night away from the trucks.
1993 Sabah Malaysia
The north of Malaysia would play host to the Land Rovers this year. The route looped from Kota Kinabalu around the state of Sabah and ended back in the capital after traversing some of the world’s oldest jungles. The route also took in the Maliau Basin conservation project, known as “Sabah’s Lost World.” It is here that the Camel Trophy put down a research station for the locals, after trekking into and out of the region in twenty-four hours. The rest of the event featured the typical river raft crossings, deep mud, rutted tracks and dense foliage and once again the teamwork stood out as they helped each other conquer the obstacles.
1994 Argentina Paraguay Chile
This was a first for the Trophy visiting three countries in one event, totalling 2500 kilometres. The event began at Iguazu Falls in Argentina then traced the Parana River along the Paraguayan border before crossing the Atacama Desert and ending at the Antofagasta on the Chilean coast.
Extremes were endured here from tropical humidity to barren dry desert, and temperatures ranging from minus 20 to nearly 40 degrees °c, testing the participants far more than their vehicles.
1995 Mundo Maya
This is the only Camel Trophy not named for a host country. They crossed five countries, from Lamanai in Belize, through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and ending in Honduras. The event began in the Jaguar Temple of the ancient city of Lamanai, before heading to the Yucatan, then south El Peten in Guatemala. They crossed the border to El Salvador and drove the toughest roads of the trip to the ruins of Copan in Honduras.
The oppressive heat and humidity, and the physical challenge of the jungles made way for the Guatemalan and Honduran highlands, with very challenging mountain tracks and dense jungle. Here they also put down a research centre in the ‘Cloud Forest Reserve’. Then it was back into the tropical jungles of Belize, to finish – in keeping with the Mayan theme – at Xunantunich (Stone Woman) temple.
The 1995 event would mark the beginning of a change in the tone of the Camel Trophy, shifting further from being just a 4×4 competition centred around the Land Rovers. Special Tasks and local humanitarian efforts like constructing bridges and buildings began to be more of a focal point for the events.
The last visit to Indonesia for Camel Trophy, host to the most events in the history of Camel Trophy. This time they would conquer Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. Many consider this the last “traditional” Camel Trophy, with the primary focus on the vehicle convoy.
This year was a full east-west transit of Borneo, from Balikpapan to Pontianak as the first-ever crossing of Kalimantan by vehicle (motorised as opposed to donkey or ox-power). Roads here were completely overgrown and bridges needed repair. As usual, the event took place in the rainy season with jungle so thick that the convoy often found themselves with no choice but to divert to an easier route.
A new element was sending four trucks ahead each day to conduct reconnaissance, rotating the teams in this role.
After the arduous 1500-kilometre slog through the jungle, it came to an end – in more ways than one. The charm of the Camel Trophy lay in the camaraderie and teamwork to drag the whole convoy across the line. When this central focal point was dropped, it lost some of its allure, as we shall see.
Adventure sports had become a huge market in the ’90s and this year’s event would see many changes. Although offroading was still hugely popular, other aspects like mountain biking, kayaking, and orienteering were all in vogue at the time, and the Camel Trophy brand needed to embrace these activities.
The Discoveries sported (pun intended) different equipment, and the format was changed.
The steel wheels were swapped for alloys with smaller BF Goodrich Mud Terrain tyres, and a new roof rack was designed to hold a kayak and mountain bikes.
Twenty teams turned out for the event in this vast, remote land. They were expected to navigate a route through Mongolia independently with a map and GPS.
Gone were the convoy-style, machete-wielding, river-raft-vehicle-floating activities.
The route was still a mighty challenge involving many a winch line and a couple of overturned vehicles. Temperature extremes were encountered from the cold mountains to the desert heat of the Gobi and the teams competed in 4×4 driving, orienteering, kayaking and mountain biking. The event finished in Kharakorum, where Mongolia’s largest Buddhist monastery can be found.
1998 Tierra del Fuego
The Freelander made its debut in the event this year, and it transpired to be the last Camel Trophy to feature Land Rovers. With even more focus on adventure sports, the southern point of South America in wintertime added an extra layer.
Although the new Freelander was nowhere as rugged as the Discovery or Defender, it suited the new event layout pretty well. However, due to their smaller size, each team also had a pack mule in the form of a Defender 110 to carry the mountain bikes, snowboards, canoes, skis etc.
There was no route this time, each team was required to connect a series of checkpoints and find their own path.
The only requirements were to check in on departure at Santiago, Chile, and at the end in Ushuaia, Argentina. Over a distance of 5000 kilometres, the teams had a series of checkpoints to drive to in the Freelanders, and from there launched their gear to find an ‘adventure’ location. Scoring was based on how many of these sites the teams found and visited.
The lightweight Freelanders fared surprisingly well, often ‘floating’ over the snow and mud while the heavily laden Defenders got bogged down. This event covered the longest distance of any Camel Trophy.
A no-show at the start this time.
At the beginning of 1999, Land Rover ended their involvement with the Camel Trophy. The previous years had shown that the format was drifting away from the original vehicle-focused model. In Land Rover’s own words: “…the emphasis has moved away from a 4×4 focus, and as such, no longer maximizes Land Rover’s sponsorship objectives”.
And from WBI (representing RJ Reynolds): “There are few sponsorship relationships that have withstood the test of time as successfully as Camel Trophy and Land Rover. This has been an excellent association for us and over the years Land Rover has given the event an outstanding level of support”.
The end of an era!
2000 Tonga Samoa
Land Rover’s only involvement was unofficial, with some leftover Defenders being used as support vehicles. The ‘vehicles’ being used for this event were Ribtec 655 RIBs (Rigid Inflatable boats) with a sponsorship by Honda. For the land-based events Honda CR-Vs and Honda TRX 450 ATVs were put to the test. The event was a 1,000 nautical mile route from Vavu’a in Northern Tonga to Malolo Lailai in Fiji, with several 10-hour sea crossings made.
However, the end was in sight. The sponsors weren’t happy. Much like Land Rover moving away from the event during the last couple of years.
The iconic image of the Camel Trophy seemed to be built on a daring convoy of Land Rovers conquering remote jungles. The new format just didn’t have the same appeal.
Besides, the world was changing. The tightening of tobacco advertising regulations meant Camel, as a brand, found it increasingly difficult to try and find a loophole in the strict regulations. As such, being head sponsor, they were forced to stop the event in its entirety.
The magic Lives On
It is hard to overstate the impact the Camel Trophy had on Land Rover as a brand. It is a twenty-year run of events that will never be hosted again in this new world of global awareness but remains an incredibly strong image, not just of the times they were held, but as a halo effect demonstrating offroad ability. Land Rover may never have had the same exposure to a global audience, showcasing their products in impossible situations in the most remote places on earth.
The event is still immensely popular even to this day.
Routes are recreated, tribute trucks are built around the iconic colour, and many clubs still celebrate the event years later. The image of a Sandglow Yellow Discovery submerged up to its roof in a raging river, winching through a rain-drenched muddy track, or even hanging off a log bridge is something only a couple of hundred people have ever had the privilege of doing but continues to inspire thousands.
|Camel Trophy Winners
|Winning Competitors’ Names
|Team Spirit Award
|Special Tasks Award
|Land Rover Award
|Klaus Karttna-Dircks and Uwe Machel
|Christian Swoboda and Knuth Mentel
|Casare Geraudo and Giuliano Giongo
|Henk Bont and Frans Heij
|Maurizo Levi and Alfredo Redaelli
|Heinz Kallin and Bernd Strohdach
|Jaques Mambre and Michel Courvallet
|Mauro Miele and Vincenzo Tota
|Galip Gurel and Ali Deveci
|Bob Ives and Joe Ives
|Rob Kamps and Stijn Luyx
|Spain – Canary Islands
|Menderes Utku and Bulent Ozler
|Alwin Arnold and Urs Bruggisser
|Tim Hensley and Michael Hussey
|Spain – Canary Islands
|Carlos Martinez and Jorge Corella
|Zdenek Nemec and Marek Rocejdl
|Miltos Farmakis and Nikos Sotirchos
|Stefan Auer and Albnecht Thousing
|William Michael and Marc Challamel
In 1980 three Jeeps headed into the Amazon and indirectly initiated a long-running association with Land Rover. Over its history spanning two decades, the whole Land Rover range appeared in the sandglow colour scheme: Range Rover, Series III, Land Rover 90, Land Rover 110, Defender, Discovery, and Freelander.
The vehicles were only used for a single event, except for the support vehicles. Many remained in the host country and some competitors even bought them personally once they had reached the finish. They were heavily modified by Land Rover Special Vehicles which included adding a host of expedition, recovery, and safety equipment:
- Safety Devices roll cages
- Underbody protection and steering guards
- Modified electrical systems
- Dixon Bate tow hitches and recovery points
- Mantec snorkels
- Transmission breathers
- Michelin XCL or BF Goodrich Mud Terrain tyres
- Upgraded suspension and transmission components
- Auxiliary fuel tanks
- Webasto fuel-burning heaters
- Brownchurch / Safety Devices roof racks
- Hella driving, spot, fog, convoy and work lamps
- Brownchurch Bullbars and bush wires
- Numerous tools
- Garmin, Terratrip and other navigation and communication equipment
In 2003, Land Rover sought to recreate the halo effect of the incomparable Camel Trophy. The event had many of the elements of Camel Trophy 1998, incorporating adventure challenges such as mountain biking and canoeing in a test of stamina and skill.
The ‘G4’ aspect meant that the competitors would visit four different countries, often across the world from each other. The 28-day event started in New York, via South Africa and Australia and ended back in Utah. The cars used were a mix of Freelander, Defender and Range Rover in a showcase of Land Rover’s ability to use most of their vehicle lineup. The competitors also competed solo instead of as a team and a brand new Range Rover was the first prize.
The 2006 Land Rover G4 Challenge promised to be tougher than the inaugural event delivering a more vehicle-based focus. The route started in Thailand, crossed through Laos and then headed for South America, to Brazil and Bolivia. It was a very challenging event for the competitors and vehicles alike, from the far-eastern hot and humid jungles to the altitudes of Bolivia. This year the Freelander was joined by Range Rover Sport and the new Discovery 3.
This event was far more environmentally conscious, with the whole event being carbon offset, waste-managed and the concept of ‘tread lightly’ being implemented. The competitors had a rough time of it but must have been extremely grateful to have participated as this proved to be the last event of its kind for Land Rover.
The 2008-9 event was to take place in Mongolia over three weeks, but it was cancelled in December 2008 during the selection stages. Land Rover was forced to end the event citing the current global economic downturn with all focus turned to the new product launches. The nature of the event, with its many logistical challenges, suddenly seemed like quite an extravagant expense on the bottom line.
Although the event only took place twice and didn’t have half of the gritty, muddy vehicle-based focus charisma of the original Camel Trophy, the orange-coloured trucks still have a large following. There are many G4 clubs and the images from the events instill a similar sense of adventure.
These expeditionary events may never happen again, but the spirit lives on. After all, One Life, Live It!
Sources: Jaguar Land Rover (images), Camel Trophy Club, Roverparts.com