Golden oldies Camel Trophy

The rise and demise of an era

For two decades the Camel Trophy was the epitome of all things adventure, perseverance, toughness and – of course – Land Rover. From humble beginnings the event morphed into the ultimate test of man and machine as teams from around the world competed in the roughest conditions imaginable to walk off with the ultimate accolade. TONY YEO reflects on South Africa’s participation and the birth of the local event, the Camel Adventure.

What began in 1980 as nothing more than a promotional idea became a legendary event that saw adventurous individuals vying for the opportunity to participate and become the epitome of the

‘Camel Man’. That was easier said than done, though…

Even if you were lucky enough to be selected from around 70 000 entries received, you were then pitted against competitive, muscular and testosterone filled athletes in the provincial selections. If you were successful, you would make it to the semi-finals, only to endure more excruciation exercises, endurance tests, medical examinations and phycological evaluations. Of course, your driving skills were also put to the test. Still, it wasn’t the end. You were now in the final four… of which only two could move on to the next round.

In the early stages of South Africa’s involvement in the event, sanctions – and various other reasons – meant that we weren’t allowed to participate in the international Camel Trophy. Not deterred by such trivialities, a group of well-known businessmen came together and negotiated and many months later, South Africa’s very own Camel Adventure was born.

Land Rover South Africa obviously played a major part in all of this, and it was a huge undertaking. Many people were involved, a handling everything from marketing to logistics. I drew the ‘ace card’ and was tasked with driving and providing technical training.

In this form the event ran from 1992 to 2000 and every year eight months were spent on selections and preparations. By 1993 democracy was firmly on track in South Africa and we had just wrapped up that year’s Camel Adventure, when we received a surprise invitation to participate in the Camel Trophy. The first order of business was to select the best four candidates from the 1993 Adventure. They were to participate in the international event in Turkey, where the best of the best from 20 nations would be selected to compete in Camel Trophy 1994 in Argentina, Chile and Paraguay.

From entry forms received, prospective candidates were invited to attend selection events in their respective provinces. The fortunate few who got the final nod there were then shipped of the a ‘bundu camp’ near Bloemfontein, which served as the headquarters for most of the training and final selection of finalists to represent South Africa in the international event. Klaus Hass and Etienne van Eeden prevailed through it all and were selected to represent South Africa. And they did so admirably, bringing home the coveted Team Spirit Award.

In 1995 it was the turn of Marc Pincente and Paul Leslie- Smith to represent our country, this time in Camel Trophy Mundo Maya in South America. After many gruelling days of sweltering heat, 90 percent humidity and 1 700km through tropical jungles and swamps, the pair finished second overall and were narrowly pipped to the Team Spirit award by the Czech competitors.

In 1996 the final selections were held at Rust de Winter near Pretoria. After a tremendous week of camaraderie, Samuel de Beer and Pieter du Plessis were selected to represent South Africa in Camel Trophy Kalimantan, Indonesia. They competed in a Land Rover Discovery TDI with no mechanical modifications and only a few extras such as an air-intake, roof rack, roll cage and sump guard and a few lights added. With its black bonnet, mustard body colour and massive Camel decals on the door it was an impressive sight to behold. Sam and Pieter placed third in the overall standings and in true South African fashion, walked off with the Team Spirit Award.

For the 1997 event Brendan O’Leary and Paul Goosen braved the freezing temperatures of Mongolia to represent South Africa as activities such as cycling, kayaking and orienteering were addedto the mix. It seemed that the originality of Camel Trophy was dwindling as less focus was placed on the actual vehicles and the driving skills of the competitors.

Camel Trophy 1998 was held at Tierra Del Fuego in Argentina. Siblings John and Mark Collins represented South Africa in a Freelander. They cycled, rowed, kayaked and skied their way to second overall. For the third time in five years our boys also received the Team Spirit Award.

By 1999 the writing was on the wall, so to speak and there was no event. A year later, Camel Trophy as we knew it was no more and rubber ducks and surf boards were the order of the day as Tonga, Samoa and Fiji hosted the competition. It also ended up being the last Camel Trophy as the cigarette sponsorship was withdrawn and Land Rover ended its involvement too.

More about the CAMEL TROPHY

The Camel Trophy began in 1980 as a team expedition over the Trans-Amazonian highway. Over the next eight years, the expeditions crossed Sumatra (Indonesia), Papua New Guinea, Zaire, Brazil, Borneo, Australia, Madagascar and Sulawesi (Indonesia) before returning to the Amazon. In the 1990’s, the event headed to Siberia and the USSR, followed by Tanzania, Burundi, Guyana, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Belize, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Kalimantan and Mongolia.

Over the years the event evolved from a mud-plugging expedition to involve elements of adventure sport, such as kayaking, mountain biking and winter sports. Teams were selected by each competing nation in competitions held nationally, designed to test the athletic, engineering and driving prowess of potential candidates.

In 1998 the Camel Trophy returned to Argentina and Chile for the penultimate Tierra del Fuego event. Shortly thereafter, Land Rover, a major sponsor, announced that it would not sponsor future events as it felt that the Camel Trophy was moving away from adventure and exploration. This ultimately led to the cancellation of the 1999 event, which was to be held in Peru.

In 2000 the Camel Trophy returned, albeit in a different format which saw the 32 competitors exploring Tonga and Samoa in RIB powerboats. It was to be the last Camel Trophy event, though. Around the same time Worldwide Brand Inc. – the owners of the Camel Trophy Brand – was in the process of being sold to Japan Tobacco Inc. The latter subsequently chose to change direction and instead concentrate on the Camel Active fashion brand.

For the first event in 1980 the three German teams used Jeeps to explore the Amazon. After that the organisers approached Land Rover and over the next 20 years everything from the Range Rover, Series III and Defender to the Discovery and Freelander were used, all painted in the distinctive ‘sandglow’ colour scheme that has become synonymous with Camel Trophy.

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