A brief history of the Camel Trophy

The adventurous way to get dirty

2y ago

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When you hear the words ‘Land Rover’ in 2018 you probably think of an enormous black SUV with tinted windows and 20-inch alloys, pompously cruising around Kensington and Chelsea, dropping off Hettie and Felix at prep school. The Prada-clad mum behind the wheel will barely venture out of the borough, let alone take it off road. But things weren’t always this way, a Land Rover was something else entirely. A Land Rover was the best 4x4xfar.

In the 1980s the mere mention of Solihull’s finest would evoke images of adventure, exploration, and freedom; all of which were encompassed by the legendary Camel Trophy. Run consecutively for 20 years between 1980 and 2000 (except for 1999), the Camel trophy pitted man and machine against the toughest terrains on Earth, providing the ultimate test of endurance.

The three Jeep CJ6s take on the Amazon in 1980

The three Jeep CJ6s take on the Amazon in 1980

The first event, originally planned as a one-off publicity stunt for Camel tobacco, came about after 6 Germans had the bright idea of driving the notoriously tough Transamazonica Highway in Brazil. 1600km of dusty, rutted, broken dirt road with several treacherous river crossings through the Amazon. To cut down on costs, they allegedly rented the vehicles when they got there, three Jeep CJ6s. After battling the jungle and all its creepy-crawlies, the battered Jeeps made it almost to the finish line, though I doubt they got their deposits back from Hertz. Nevertheless, the teams returned to Germany as heroes, having captured the imaginations of adventure junkies everywhere, not least Land Rover.

For the next year’s event all competitors would be in identical factory-supplied V8 Range Rovers. They sported glorious Sandglow Yellow paint complete with Camel stickers, roof racks, snorkels, spot lights, bridging ladders, and some mean looking bullbars. This became the signature look for Camel Trophy Land Rovers for the next 17 years and, to my eye at least, is every bit as iconic as the more famous Gulf and Martini liveries.

Everyone say cheese

Everyone say cheese

As the event was still in its infancy, the thousands of applications were narrowed down to just 10 German men and women. Once again the teams drove 1600km, this time crossing the equator through the Sumatran rainforests. The convoy of Range Rovers proved brilliantly reliable through the cold mountain regions in the North and in the heat of the treacherous tropical swamps in the South. From then on, no other brand than Land Rover would be used on the expeditions.

Over the next two decades Land rover became synonymous with the Camel Trophy with all models from Series IIIs to Freelanders taking part over the years. The format was expanded so that nations could compete against each other and by 1990 Germany was competing against 15 other nations. 'Special Tasks' were introduced that became mainstays of the event, ranging from winching, orienteering, and timed rally stage sections to physical competitions like kayaking and mountain biking.

SEND IT

SEND IT

By the late 80s the Camel Trophy had become quite a big deal; in 1989 over a million would-be explorers applied for positions to represent their countries in one of the most demanding challenges on Earth. The Trophy was no simple long-distance drive; with all-amateur teams crossing some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth, the challenge became known as the Olympics of 4x4, testing not only driving skill but mental and physical endurance as well.

Averaging 4 hours sleep per night, the teams had to navigate over vast areas never before crossed by cars. Upon reaching remote settlements, supplies would be given to locals as well as medical aid. Wells, buildings, and bridges would be built while wildlife and geographical surveys were undertaken by specialists hitching rides with the convoy.

Keeping calm and carrying on

Keeping calm and carrying on

This was proper old-school exploring in wild locations like Borneo, Siberia, Mongolia, and all over South America, and it was a huge marketing success for Land Rover. Images of tooled up yellow 4x4s crossing vast deserts and battling through malaria-ridden rainforests kept adventurous types rushing to dealerships well into the 90s. Towards the end of the decade, however, less and less emphasis was being put on the driving. The Special Tasks were becoming the event’s focal point with exploration and adventure taking a back seat.

English Channel ferry, circa 1992

English Channel ferry, circa 1992

In the 1998 Tierra del Fuego event, a fleet of Freelanders and Defenders crossed 6000 miles of remote snowy terrain, completing challenges along the way which, for the first time in the event’s history, included winter sports. The plucky Freelander surprised its critics with its lightweight helping it skip over the snow and ice and gliding over the mud rather than just ploughing through it like the bigger, heavier Defenders. The focus of the event, though, were the 200 'Discovery' and 'Adventure' locations. Dotted around the Southernmost parts of South America, these were optional destinations where teams could stop and complete challenges like skiing and mountain biking.

This was to be the last Camel Trophy Land Rover would take part in and the penultimate event as a whole (the final event in 2000 put the teams in boats instead of 4x4s). Land Rover briefly set up the G4 Challenge in 2003, their own version of the Camel Trophy where entrants were competing to win a brand new Range Rover but the event ended in 2008 following the global financial crisis.

G4 swapped Sandglow Yellow for Tangiers Orange

G4 swapped Sandglow Yellow for Tangiers Orange

The legacy of the Camel Trophy lives on with ‘One life. Live it.', the famous motto of the Trophy, adorning Land Rovers everywhere. It helped to popularise overlanding and has spawned numerous small-scale off-road adventures all over the world. With the current push towards alternative fuels and environmentalism, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to see herds of brightly-coloured Landies convoying through rainforests again, but next time you see Chelsea-mum in her Chelsea tractor, just think how much cooler it would look in yellow with a roof rack.

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Comments (22)

  • Great article. It sounds like it might be my sort of thing too. Whenever I see something that smacks of "a track", I wish I had my car with me. Even if it isn't a Land Rover with snorkel and bull bar and is in fact a 1999 Mitsubishi saloon.

      2 years ago
  • Great read - funnily enough I was thinking about the Camel Trophy yesterday when I saw an old sand-coloured Discovery on a local driveway, sadly without any snorkels or racks though. Had many a Camel Trophy toy car and always wanted a real one! -Rob

      2 years ago
  • I was aware of the two liverys but nothing more! I enjoyed reading that :)

      2 years ago
  • Lets do this again and bring some Suzuki Jimnys along.

      2 years ago
    • YES! We could call it the Donkey Trophy

        2 years ago
  • Great Article.. I love Land Rovers since I was a child. It's sad that Camel Trophy and G4 challenge has came to an end. This is a picture of my Discovery 2 which is one of the 62 built for 2003 - 2004 G4 challenge.

      2 years ago

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