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A History of the Land Rover Camel Trophy: Part 6, 1996-2000

  • Greg Fitzgerald
  • Jul 24, 2020

a history of the Camel Trophy Part 6: 1996 - 2000

The late 1990s would be the final days of the iconic Land Rover-based Camel Trophy, the end of a glorious 18-year partnership. The 1996 event would become considered the final traditional event, with the 1997 and 1998 events drifting further and further from the traditional convoy format. Finally, in 1999, Land Rover would end its involvement with the event. There would be a final event, a boat-based event in the South Pacific in 2000. Then, it was all over.

Check out the rest of our History of Camel Trophy series:
Part 1: 1980-1983
Part 2: 1984-1986
Part 3: 1987-1989
Part 4: 1990-1992
Part 5: 1993-1995

Camel Trophy 1996: Kalimantan

Winner and Land Rover Award: Miltos Farmakis & Nikos Solirchos (Greece)
Team Spirit Award: Samuel de Beer & Pieter du Plessis (South Africa)
Special Task Award: Dmitriy Surin & Alexei Svirkov (Russia)
Trucks: Discovery 1 5-door 300tdi (teams), Defender 110 300tdi (support)

 

Camel Trophy 1996: Kalimantan yellow Discovery Series II

 

1996 was Camel Trophy’s final visit to Indonesia, home of several events over the history of the event. This time it would conquer the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo – their third visit here, including one trip to the Malaysian side in 1993.

To many people, this was the last “traditional” Camel Trophy, with a primary focus on the Land Rover convoy. The 1997 event would begin to drift from this format, which would end up the death knell for Land Rover’s participation. But if 1996 was the spiritual end of the mud-and-trucks Camel Trophy, there was no better way to go out.

Camel Trophy would conduct a full east-west transit of Borneo, from Balikpapan to Pontianak. It would be the first-ever motorized crossing of Kalimantan; many of the roads were entirely overgrown. Many of the bridges needed repair, which ended up calling on the skills of American team member Ken Cameron, a log home builder from Vail, Colorado.

The event took place in the rainy season, as Camel Trophy tended to do, and the jungle sometimes was so thick that the convoy had no choice but to divert to easier routes. New for 1996, a team of four trucks would go ahead each day and conduct a reconnaissance mission before the rest followed. The nations rotated this role, with each getting a few tries at recce duty.

After 925 miles of slogging through the jungle, as well as a second round of special tasks, Camel Trophy 1996 came to an end. The Greek team took the Camel Trophy as well as the new Land Rover Trophy, while the South Africans took the Team Spirit Award and the Russians the Special Tasks. It was another year for the record books…but it was also the spiritual end of the convoy of camaraderie that had come to define the event.

Mongolia 1997

Winners: Stefan Auer & Albnecht Thousing (Austria)
Team Spirit Award: Rikard Beckman & Marie Hansen (Sweden)
Trucks: Discovery 1 5-door 300tdi (teams), Defender 110 300tdi (support)

 

Camel Trophy 1997: Mongolia wooden bridge Land Rover

 

The 1997 event would see many changes to the Camel Trophy format, which had been more or less the same since the early 1980s. By the late 1990s, adventure sports had become a huge market, and although off-roading was a huge part of it – as Land Rover sales would show – there were other markets that were going untapped during the Camel Trophy. Mountain biking, kayaking, and orienteering were all massively in vogue at the time, often televised. The growth of the Camel Trophy brand, which now encompassed a large range of adventure clothing, in the minds of the organizers, involved embracing these activities.

So, for 1997, the Discoverys were outfitted differently, and the format was changed. Since its introduction in the 1990 event, the Discos had been equipped basically the same way. Michelin tires around steel wheels, a Safety Devices roof rack and brush guard, a hefty Superwinch Husky or Warn winch. For 1997, the steel wheels were swapped for alloys with smaller BF Goodrich Mud Terrain tires, and a new and custom Safety Devices rack was designed to hold a 2-person Perception kayak and a Lee Cougan mountain bikes.

The convoy was gone, as was the determined transit-style route. The goal was not to traverse anything untraversed, but rather to explore Mongolia. Teams were given a map and an early GPS system. The teams navigated a route, punctuated by eight stops where activities were done outside the vehicles.

The route was still challenging, and a number of vehicles overturned, alongside the usual winchfests and stuckage. The Austrians took the Camel Trophy, the Swedes the Team Spirit Award. The Special Tasks award was eliminated; it was so integrated into the event there was no way to break it out anymore.

Tierra del Fuego 1998

Winners: William Michael & Marc Challamel (France)
Team Spirit Award: Mark Collins & John Collins (South Africa)
Land Rover Award: Patricia Molina & Emma Roca (Spain)
Trucks: Freelander XEDi diesel (teams), Defender 110 300tdi (support)

 

Land Rover Camel Trophy 1998: Tierra del Fuego

 

Nobody knew it at the time, but 1998 would be the final Land Rover-based Camel Trophy. The Mongolia 1997 event changes were amplified for 1998, with an even heavier focus on adventure sports. This year, the teams took on Tierra del Fuego, in southern South America. They also took it on in winter, adding another element.

The vehicles would change too. The new Freelander had come out in many countries for 1997 (it wouldn’t come to America until 2002), and was already a popular seller. Though not nearly the off-road vehicle the Discovery or Defender or Range Rover were, they were perfectly fine for this new-style event. However, due to their smaller size, the Freelanders were used more for the vehicle-based challenges; each team also had a Defender 110 to carry their mountain bike, canoe, snowshoes, skis, and snowboards. Yes, the event had become even further multidisciplinary with its winter setting.

There was no route at all this time, and each team was free to explore Tierra del Fuego at whim, connecting a series of checkpoints. The only requirements were to check in on departure at Santiago, Chile, and on arrival at the end in Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s southernmost city. In between, over 3,000 miles, the teams had to visit a series of checkpoints, categorized as “Discovery” or “Adventure.” The 200-plus “Discovery” locations were places to drive to in the Freelanders, either natural vistas or cultural sites. From each Discovery site, the teams then used one of the pieces of adventure equipment in the Defenders to go to an “Adventure” site. Scoring was based on some count of how many of these sites were visited.

The Freelanders actually held their own at the event, skirting over the snow and mud with their lighter weight while the equipment-loaded Defenders bogged down.

The finishing ceremony in Ushuaia ended with the French taking home the Camel Trophy, the South Africans taking the Team Spirit Award, and the all-female Spanish team taking the Land Rover award for visiting the most Discovery locations.

Peru 1999 – The Camel Trophy That Wasn’t

At the beginning of 1999, Land Rover ended their involvement with the Camel Trophy after 18 fantastic events. The 1997 and 1998 events had shown the format drifting from the original model. The Camel Trophy had traditionally benefited Land Rover as a marketing tool, with their vehicles front-and-center in every piece of media related to the event. With the advent of adventure sports taking participants away from the vehicles so much, the value for money wasn’t there to sponsor it anymore.

25 February 1999

Over the last 18 years, Land Rover and Worldwide Brands Inc., sponsors of Camel Trophy have worked together to build an unrivaled international event. This reputation has mutually benefited both parties providing the ultimate showcase for Land Rover vehicles and Camel Trophy Adventure Products. As lifestyles change, Camel Trophy has successfully evolved into a multi-disciplined event. This shift in direction is targeted primarily at broadening the appeal to an even wider audience. Land Rover and WBI as a direct result of this shift in strategy have decided to dissolve the co-sponsorship agreement of the world's foremost international adventure challenge, Camel Trophy.

Driving will still play a part in the event, but the emphasis has moved away from a 4x4 focus, and as such, no longer maximizes Land Rover's sponsorship objectives. The partnership, has ended on a high after last years' ground-breaking event in Chile and Argentina, which offered an ideal showcase to demonstrate the world-beating off-road capabilities of the Freelander, Land Rover's newest lifestyle 4x4.

"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. However, as the event now includes so many other sporting activities, the emphasis can no longer remain solely on 4x4," commented Nick Horne, WBI Special Events Director.

Speaking about the decision, Rover Group Marketing Director Martin Runnacles said: "We have enjoyed a unique relationship with the Camel Trophy event over almost two decades and it has played a major role in sustaining the image of Land Rover as the manufacturer of the best 4x4's in the world. However, with the changing character of the event it will no longer provide us with an active demonstration of Land Rover's brand essence - limitless capability. We wish Camel Trophy every success with their new format. As for Land Rover, future activities will concentrate on our customer base with the emphasis very much on rugged off-road adventure."

As Land Rover focuses on new sponsorships, the Camel Trophy event will continue to push the parameters of adventure for the year 2000.

Camel Trophy 2000 – Tonga Samoa

Winners, Team Spirit Award, and Island Adventurer Award: Wim Van Herzeele & Xavier Scheepers (South Africa)

 

Land Rover Camel Rrophy 2000: Tonga Samoa boats

 

It’s ironic that an event so associated with Land Rovers was bookended on either side with events that didn’t use them. The first event, back in 1980, used locally-built Jeeps. The final event, in 2000, would be sponsored by Honda, and was a marine-based event, using rigid hull inflatable boats (RIBs). The boats were Ribtec 655s, built-in Southampton, England, and powered by Honda outboard motors. They were joined by Honda CR-Vs for the land-based events and Honda TRX 450 ATVs. Some leftover Defender 110s were used in support roles. The 1,000 nautical mile route from Vavu'a in Northern Tonga to Malolo Lailai in Fiji. It included several 10-hour sea crossings, a crossing of the International Date Line. The South African team swept the podium.

The changes didn’t stick. The sponsors didn’t feel like they got enough bang for their buck, much as Land Rover did. The magic of the Camel Trophy seemed to be built on the legendary convoy of Land Rovers; throw in mountain bikes and boats, and it wasn’t the same.

The Spirit of the Trophy Lives On…

The Camel Trophy probably wouldn’t have lasted that much longer, anyway. It was born in the same spirit that led tobacco manufacturers to sponsor and create so many sporting events in the 1980s – to get around tightening tobacco advertising regulations. Camel couldn’t run a magazine ad anymore, but they could create an iconic 4x4 event with a bunch of Land Rovers painted the same color as their logo, slogging through jungles that recalled their old ads, with participants wearing Camel-branded safari shirts like their old advertising models, smoking Camel cigarettes whenever possible. This same mindset permeated sports, particularly motorsports, in the 1980s and 1990s.

But by the 2000s, international regulations clamped down on this loophole. It’s unlikely the event would have lasted much past the early 2000s in any format with the Camel name attached to it – and with the event more or less organized and underwritten by tobacco company RJ Reynolds (RJR), it’s unlikely it would have continued with different sponsorship. The management had technically shifted to Worldwide Brands, an RJR subsidiary that marketed “Camel Trophy” brand clothing, and it was not officially affiliated with cigarettes anymore. But the “Camel Trophy Adventure Wear” logo was nearly identical to the one on the cigarette cartons, and the rules had become extremely strict. The Camel Trophy would have probably gone the way of the Winston Cup by the mid-2000s.

For all the nostalgia around the event today, it is virtually impossible that we will ever see a new Defender or Discovery painted Sandglow in a rebooted Camel Trophy for the 2020s, solely due to the implications and complications of the Camel name. But the legendary accomplishments in the event in the 1980s and 1990s continue to rub off on Land Rover nonetheless – the sponsorship dollars and wrecked factory-fresh trucks more than paying for themselves decades later.

Camel cigarettes may be toxic in today’s market, but the Camel Trophy remains massively popular. Bootleg videos on the Internet have spread the love to a new generation of Land Rover enthusiasts. Go to any Land Rover event, and a good number of trucks there will have a Camel Trophy decal stuck to them. There are Camel Trophy tribute trucks, along with clubs full of people with the original trucks who gather and recreate events all over the world. In 2020, the Camel Trophy Club planned a massive 40th Anniversary event, which has been sidelined by the pandemic. Indonesian Land Rover clubs sometimes recreate the iconic routes of the many events held in their country.

Many others fantasize of the glory days, with visions of piloting a Discovery with their nation’s flag fluttering from the bumper, their name written in thick black type on the front wing. Only a few hundred people ever had that privilege. Thousands of others have been inspired by them, daydreaming of slogging a big yellow Land Rover through thick slick mud and drowning it in piranha-infested rivers.


  • Written By
  • Greg Fitzgerald
  • Adventure addict. '90s Land Rover daily driver. Historic preservationist. Personal vehicles: 1994 Discovery I, 1994 Range Rover Classic, 1961 Series II.
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