I flew to South Africa as an automotive journalist to cover Land Rover’s first Global TReK Competition for Land Rover Line and several print journals. When I got there I found out to my surprise (and delight) that I had been drafted along with John Lloyd and Gene Cussons to form and additional 12th team of competitors. So in the end I had the rare privilege of both reporting the action and being part of it.
No problem I thought, our team had very impressive credentials. John Lloyd is LRs man in charge of Land Rover Experiences (Driving Schools) worldwide and has years of off road driving experience all over the world. Gene Cussons has driven Land Rovers all over Africa, and runs a Land Rover Centre and a Land Rover Driving School. TReK was taking place at his game farm. I am a Driving Instructor for Land Rover North America. We are all Land Rover professionals and would work well as a team. It was only later, after a lavish welcome dinner and sampling of fine South African wines that panic set in. Fellow teammates and I casually glanced at the competition schedule and our mouths dropped as we read: Mountain Biking! Kayaking! As the blood drained from our faces, my wife Mary Beth, reminded me about the very enjoyable canoe trips we had taken in college. OK, maybe kayaking wouldn’t be too bad, and sure I used to ride my bike several miles a day at the University … 15 years ago! Panic returned. David Saunders, Land Rover’s Launch Planning and Programs Global Manager, and the man responsible for taking TReK to the global stage, and, more to the point, responsible for my recruitment, assured me that it would all be great fun.
Reassured by his words (or was it the glass(es) of Amarula cream liqueur he pressed into my hand) I retired for the evening somewhat calmer. TReK was created by Bob Burns, Training and Development Manager Off Road Programs for Land Rover North America, as a way to “test employees' mettle, ability to work as part of a team and Land Rover vehicle knowledge.” TReK is a team building event Land Rover style, a one day Camel Trophy. Land Rover retailers that achieve high Customer Service Ratings are invited to send a 3-person team to compete in a variety of “special tasks” which run the gamut from vehicle knowledge questions to off road driving skills and outdoor sports. Since its inception in 1996 TReK has grown steadily both in North America, where last year’s event pitted 46 teams against one another, and overseas, where this year every major Land Rover market held their own TReK competition to select the finalists who would fight it out in Africa. From Johannesburg the TReKkers were transported by charter flights to Umhloti Lodge and Game Farm situated in the heart of South Africa’s Lower Veldt, near world famous Kruger National Park. In the center of the game farm, and without the benefit of fences to keep out wildlife, a tented safari camp had been erected to house the competitors.
Those of us used to sleeping in backpacking style tents were in for a surprise. African style camping involves large comfortable canvas tents that include front porches with real furniture! “Too luxurious” exclaimed Team USA. Best of all we wouldn’t be eating our own cooking, nor freeze-dried camping food, but gourmet fare prepared by a full time catering staff. Upon arriving, the 11 teams, representing Australia, Austria Dubai, Holland, Ireland, Japan, Latin America, South Africa, Turkey, United Kingdom, and United States, were issued their TReK Kit (logo clothing, backpacks, etc) and escorted to their tents past the 12 gleaming competition Discoverys. The black and orange TReK Discoverys were too hard to resist; each team detoured to find their vehicle and were delighted to see their individual names stenciled on the vehicle’s front fenders. Upon closer inspection, frowns creased the faces of some of the competitors. Surprise, all the competition vehicles were identical 5-speed manual, Td5 diesel, right hand drive Series II Discoverys. Yeah those of us accustomed to shifting gears with the right hand would have to learn to do it with the left hand, and learn fast! Lunch was followed by an afternoon of non-competitive refresher training. The teams were rotated through winch, GPS, pioneering skills (bridge building and other ‘rope-craft’), and vehicle familiarization seminars. It was hard to concentrate on proper winching technique or what exactly the numbers on the GPS receiver meant when standing in the middle of the African Bush with antelopes, giraffes, and even the odd leopard about. The morning wake up call came a bit too soon for some teams who were still fighting the effects of jet lag. The US team for example had flown for 15 hours!
The morning of day two was dedicated to learning about the African bush and its many creatures including first hand experience with some of the deadliest snakes in the world. As the snakes, spiders and scorpions were passed around, the ‘advice’ of John Lloyd was in the minds of many: “if you leave anything on the ground in Africa, something will eat it or take up residence in it!”
After an al-fresco lunch, the competitors, staff, press, and VIPs formed a 30 Land Rover convoy and made their way to the first event of Global TReK ’01: The Longmere Triathlon. The task’s description read as follows: “a multi terrain three discipline race encompassing running, mountain biking, and kayaking”. Simple enough for some teams, mighty hard for others as some team members had never ridden a bicycle, nor kayaked. Some participants couldn’t swim! Regardless of technical proficiency, all competitors gave their all, arriving at the finish line exhausted but with smiles on their faces. Team USA summed it up best, crossing the finish line they announced: “I’m tired”.
After the competitors toweled, off the convoy once again formed and headed back to TReK Central at Umhloti Game Farm where hot showers and a much deserved dinner awaited. Although calling it an early night may have been in the minds of the competitors, the organizers planned instead a nighttime off road drive. As the teams drove their Discoverys through very demanding terrain, the need for teamwork became evident. Drivers had to learn to trust their teammates. Spotters outside the vehicle could see all the obstacles and thus guide the drivers through the jumble of rocks and trees that littered the trails. How successful each team was at working together, would become clear during the competition. After only a few hours of sleep, the teams were awakened at 5 a.m. for the start of TReK day 3.
First on the agenda was the head to head competition of the Service Drive. Readers familiar with TReK competitions in the US will recognize many of the events at this year’s Global TReK. The events may have been the same, but the setting and the vehicles were something the US team had never experienced before. The Service Drive pitted all the teams in side by side timed competition where vehicle knowledge (where is the starter relay?), orienteering (collect the spare tire which is hidden 300 meters away at an azimuth of 087°) and brute force (manhandling the team’s Discovery across an uneven uphill grassy field!) were all tested. When it was all said and done, size did matter, with the South African team pushing their vehicle to a first place finish.
Out of breath and overheated even in the cool of dawn, the teams headed for a quick breakfast. During the next 12 hours, they would compete in 11 different events, sometimes against the clock, other times in head to head competitions. Our first event was the “Accelerator Paddle” a kayak race to three floating buoys to recover codes hidden in diabolically designed gadgets at each buoy. Each gadget could be ‘opened’ to reveal the code only by using specific parts from the team’s Discovery. The South African team learned that “haste makes waste” when they dropped the lug wrench needed to open the first gadget in the middle of the lake, thus becoming the only team to return a team Discovery with a part missing! My favorite gadget was a wood box with a small peek hole. Obviously the code was inside the box, and one saw it by looking through the hole. But the inside of the box was pitch black. Eureka! by inserting two electrical fuses on the underside of the box, the code was backlit making for easy reading. Who dreams up these things?! Though still wet from the paddling, our team headed over to the “Ride Comfort” mountain bike relay race. Perched atop ‘suicide hill’, we awaited the starting gun. Too bad our bikes didn’t have Hill Descent Control, we sure could have used it! Suffice it to say that the bottom of the hill was the location for many a spectacular wipe out! At least our team had gotten the ‘physical’ tasks out of the way early and with only minor injuries.
Throughout the Game Farm, teams were tackling all manner of obstacles and challenges. Pioneering skills common to third world driving, were put to the test at the Lazy Snake Ravine. Here each team was asked to get their Discovery across a deep gully. This two part task first had the team members moving logs to build a ramp allowing the vehicle to be driven down the embankment. Then the team had to build a log bridge across the gully and finally cross the bridge, trusting their safety to their rope craft. Winching know-how was being tested at “Rig-It-Right”. A disabled and abandoned vehicle at the bottom of a deep ravine blocked the team’s path. The task: use the Discovery’s winch to first move the disabled car back on to the trail and then to winch it up the 40 foot high bank. The winching involved a number of different direction pulls, the use of snatch blocks to redirect the winch line, and double lining to winch the vehicle up the bank. All was done against the clock, but safety, particularly when winching, can never take a back seat. So Paul Lloyd of Land Rover’s Driving Experience at Solihull kept a keen eye on the team members and enforced all the safety rules. Not an easy task as this was the first time some of the teams had ever used a winch in the field. The US team not only raised the disabled vehicle to the top in record time, but did it without penalties and in a totally safe manner. No doubt thanks to the winch training they had received from Bob Burns and his team of expert Driving Instructors. Two GPS orienteering tasks kept the teams wishing they had paid more attention during the GPS training seminars. One event not only required the teams to navigate to precise locations using their GPS receivers, but also asked them to answer specific questions about Land Rover, Land Rover vehicles, and African flora and fauna. Only after correctly answering the questions, were they given the next set of GPS coordinates where more questions awaited them.
In another navigation exercise the teams were given a map with a number of marked locations. The task sounded simple enough, drive to the marked locations in the allotted time. The catch: do it by driving the least. Careful map reading and route planning were paramount. “Fuel Line” was a pioneering skills task which made more than one team member a bit uncomfortable. The teams used the vehicle’s winch to rig an aerial cable ‘tramway’ across a deep ravine. Then a team member had to shimmy along the cable to the far side and rig a way to move several 55 gallon fuel drums back across the ravine. The Japanese team had made it across to the far side of the ravine when they realized they had left the straps and gear needed to hoist the drums, in their vehicle on the other side of the ravine. Back across the wire they went. Two trials courses were part of the competition. “Don’t touch” was the typical trial course where the vehicle is driven, with the help of spotters, through a number of gates w/o touching them. “Points of Contact” used tennis balls hanging from trees as the gates, but this time the driver and spotter’s job was to drive through them and hit each tennis ball with the vehicle’s side mirrors only. (Who stays up nights thinking of these diabolical events?) Both courses were, as would be expected, very gnarly, with rocks, trees, steep climbs and drop-offs, off-camber sections, loose soil and mud. As a matter of fact a number of teams had to winch their vehicles out of the mud while driving through the gates. One team’s Discovery became so buried in the mud, that the competitors were unable to dig down to their winch and the vehicle had to be towed out. The ‘main-event’ at all TReK competitions, at least from the spectator’s point of view, is the TReK Test Drive. Two vehicles compete side by side on purpose built obstacle courses where precision driving (keeping all 4 tires on 2 inch wide ‘rails’), vehicle control (driving up a log fence with two tires off the ground), and clever quick thinking (which way do the gates open?) are put to the test.
After a day and a half of competition the local talent from Land Rover South Africa emerged as the winners, with team U.K. in second place and team USA in third. As a matter of fact the USA team was the top finisher among the teams from left drive countries. Great show Land Rover Greenville! With the competition behind them, the teams were treated to a couple of days of R&R at one of South Africa’s premier wildlife game reserves: Sabi-Sabi. Here the competitors enjoyed traveling in open top Land Rover Defender game viewers and mingling with Africa’s big game. Lion, leopard, cheetah, elephant, rhino, cape buffalo, zebra, giraffe, and dozens of different antelope all came out to see Land Rover’s finest. In the words of John Edwards, Land Rover’s director of global marketing, TreK is “a complete Land Rover experience that only Land Rover can give, and it helps us spread the word … everyone is a winner and that includes our customers past, present and future”. TReK will be a yearly event in the Land Rover calendar across the world. Local markets will hold yearly selection competitions, with the winners meeting in September in some exotic locale around the world.
Taking part in TReK and spending time at Sabi-Sabi was a once in a lifetime experience for these faithful Land Rover employees who will, we are sure, “bleed green” til the day they die.
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