Camel Trophy: when the going gets tough

| 20 Jun 2022
Classic & Sports Car - Camel Trophy: when the going gets tough

Chances are that you’ve heard of the Camel Trophy, but you don’t know exactly what it is and you’re not sure why you’ve even heard about it.

After all, it’s been more than four decades since the first event in 1980 and, let’s face it, 42 years is half a lifetime ago.

The event ran from May 1980 to July 2000, and during that time 566 competitors from 35 nations visited 24 countries.

Classic & Sports Car - Camel Trophy: when the going gets tough

A convoy of Land Rovers trundles through a village in Kalimantan, Borneo, in 1985

During its 20 years of existence, paid for by a tobacco company, no-one famous took part, and the only remnants of it today are a handful of YouTube videos, and a few magazines and videos on eBay.

The Camel Trophy should be a relic consigned to the dusty annals of motorsport history, yet it still garners plenty of interest from a worldwide following.

Why? Probably because it was held in some pretty exotic places, and the people involved did some incredible things.

Classic & Sports Car - Camel Trophy: when the going gets tough

Bob Ives’ Land Rover Discovery slips off an inflatable raft – thanks to a snorkel, the engine kept running throughout

Although the 1980s and ’90s feel like a long time ago, it’s not until you look at the vehicles, cameras and technology used on the event that you realise just how far things have come.

There was no digital photography (everything was shot on film); GPS and satellite navigation was in its infancy (it was non-existent for the first 12 years of the event); and in an era before Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, the way that the event was presented to the wider world was very different from how it would be today.

Although classed as a motorsport event, it was neither a traditional race nor a rally – this was an endurance epic that demanded far more from its competitors than simply driving skill.

Classic & Sports Car - Camel Trophy: when the going gets tough

The event leader, Andreas Bender, helps to keep a group of Land Rovers moving through the mud

Every year, would-be competitors were put through a rigorous selection process to ensure that the right type of people were chosen to represent their countries on an adventure that became known as ‘the Olympics of four-wheel drive’.

Because the competition was strictly amateur, there were two stipulations: anyone who held a professional racing licence was not allowed to enter, and you couldn’t be a serving member of the armed forces.

There was never any pay or prize money for the competitors – simply taking part was reward enough.

Classic & Sports Car - Camel Trophy: when the going gets tough

A Land Rover Discovery being driven on the limit by Team UK in Kalimantan, 1996

Once they had impressed the organisers and been selected, team members took part in the adventure of a lifetime: it may be a cliché, but the Camel Trophy really was an experience that money couldn’t buy.

Combining hardcore off-roading with a trip into the unknown, each event took place in exotic and remote locations.

There was an element of competition among the teams, but, instead of racing, the emphasis was on driving skills and a will to win.

Only after demonstrating these would the top team lift the eponymous trophy – and only once did it head to Britain, with brothers Bob and Joe Ives emerging victorious from the Amazon in 1989.

Classic & Sports Car - Camel Trophy: when the going gets tough

Participants had to drag their Defender 110 through a mire whilst traversing the Trans-Amazon Highway

After three West German teams shook apart their Ford U-50 Jeeps on the first trip through the Brazilian rainforest, for 1981 organisers switched to Land Rover with a squad of 10 Range Rovers.

The partnership would endure for 17 years, moving to 88in Series IIIs for 1983, then encompassing the Defender and Discovery before a final outing for the new baby Freelander in 1998.

The classic 1970s Leyland colour Sandglow quickly became part of the Camel Trophy ‘look’, augmented by roof-racks, additional lighting, winches and bull-bars.

Classic & Sports Car - Camel Trophy: when the going gets tough

The Camel Trophy became known as ‘the Olympics of four-wheel drive’

The incredible photography, film and stories that emerged from these expeditions remain fascinating, and last year there was renewed interest with Land Rover launching a Works V8 Trophy tribute edition and the highly original winning vehicle from the 1990 expedition (a three-door Discovery) selling on US auction site Bring a Trailer for $140,000.

Could it be that the Camel Trophy has come of age?

Words and images: Nick Dimbleby

Camel Trophy: The Definitive History by Nick Dimbleby is published by Porter Press (£60, ISBN 9781913089375)


Flat-out in a unique rally Range Rover