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The Olympics of 4x4: A Look Back at the Incredible Camel Trophy

Seventeen years of Sandglow-colored Land Rovers.

Conner GoldenWriterManufacturerPhotographerGetty ImagesPhotographer

Ever since the debut of the new Land Rover Defender late last year, the marque's rock-crushing, sand-pounding, mud-murdering yet still chic 4x4 continues to enjoy the media limelight, as both enthusiasts and customers appear to be head-over-heels for the updated icon. After all, this is the first time the Defender has gone truly global, and aside from the original Willys Jeep and the Toyota Land Cruiser, there isn't a 4x4 out there as evocative of the adventuring spirit as the OG Defender.

Adventure in the DNA

That's not just clever PR from Land Rover itself, either. The original Defender—and by extension, the decades of Series Land Rovers that pre-dated it—established itself as the outright king of the safari rig. It put the "over" in overlanding long before it became a trendy Instagram-centered activity reserved for waxed and polished Tacomas with empty jerrycans and rows of club badging. Before glossy Range Rovers patrolled the moneyed shopping districts of major cities and filled valet lots, both the Land Rover and Range Rover names were strongly associated with the dusty, distant reaches of the globe, where endeavoring explorers and hunters pushed past the boundaries of what you may find charted on maps.

Land Rover did its best to foster this association with adventure, especially in the 1980s. In the overlanding world, this was the decade of the Camel Trophy, an incredible competitive expedition that sought to shine a roof-mounted lightbar on the crooked, rutted, mud-slick corners of the globe, all from the driver's seats of the world's best 4x4s.

Birth of the Camel Trophy

As the name implies, the Camel Trophy began life in the halls of the West German office of the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, the parent of the namesake Camel cigarettes. In 1980, a German-only contest for a twelve-day off-road adventure navigating the Trans-Amazonian highway attracted a great deal of attention, eventually selecting six lucky participants. The Ford U50s (Jeep CJ5s built under license) failed to make it through the 1,000-mile trial, but the event proved so popular Land Rover stepped in the following year to supply a fleet of purpose-built Range Rovers for the job. With a fresh lineup of top-tier off-roaders, the event was soon opened to applicants around the globe, each vying to represent their countries in the knee-deep muck.

The Golden Years

The partnership was magic from the outset. For almost 20 years, Land Rovers and Range Rovers of various types and configurations challenged the treacherous backroads of the world's most inhospitable landscapes in places like Sumatra, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Australia, Madagascar, Sulawesi, and Siberia. Much of the challenge involved was simply making it to the finish, but the later introduction of "Special Tasks" raised the level of competition. These designated tasks ran from winching, river fording, and orienteering, to non-motorized competitions like swimming and mountain biking. Elsewhere, accompanying geologists, ecologists, and other specialists performed surveys and collected samples, while bridges were constructed, packages of medical supplies and aid were delivered in remote villages, and research stations were built.

The Olympics of 4x4

By the mid-1990s, the Camel Trophy had become known as the "Olympics of 4x4," and inspired over a million applicants to put their names in the pith helmet for consideration. Before they could even hope to set foot in the finalist's circle, selected applicants had to participate in rigorous local competitions to showcase proficiency in 4x4 driving, physical activity, orienteering, trail marking, and mechanical knowledge. One such event in California included a six-mile run through the wilderness before immediately crossing a body of water on a set of ropes. Better still, the pool of selected drivers wasn't filled with professional off-road drivers, either—the event only accepted amateurs.

The End of the Two-Decade Run

Eventually, this all came to an end in 1998. As the aforementioned "Special Events" gained in popularity, the focus turned to the physical aspects of the competition rather than the adventure driving portion. The 1998 running in Tierra del Fuego incorporated more relaxed activities like winter sports, and the use of the then-new Land Rover Freelander dispelled some of the romanticism. After the somewhat weak 1998 event, and subsequent discontinuation after the boat-only 2000 event, Land Rover dropped out of the Camel Trophy and went on to launch a successor called the G4 Challenge that ran until 2008.

Camel Trophy Quick Facts

  • First year held: 1980
  • Last year held: 2000
  • Nickname: The Olympics of 4x4
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Vehicles Used in the Camel Trophy by Year

  • 1980: Ford U50
  • 1981: Range Rover
  • 1982: Range Rover
  • 1983: Land Rover Series III 88
  • 1984: Land Rover Defender 110
  • 1985: Land Rover Defender 90
  • 1986: Land Rover Defender 90
  • 1987: Range Rover TD
  • 1988: Land Rover Defender 110
  • 1989: Land Rover Defender 110
  • 1990: Discovery 200tdi
  • 1991: Discovery 200tdi
  • 1992: Discovery 200tdi
  • 1993: Discovery 200tdi
  • 1994: Discovery 200tdi
  • 1995: Discovery 300tdi
  • 1996: Discovery 300tdi
  • 1997: Discovery 300tdi
  • 1998: Land Rover Freelander
  • 1999: Event Not Held
  • 2000: Ribtec 655 (boat)

Camel Trophy Event Locations by Year

  • 1980: Trans-Amazonian Highway
  • 1981: Sumatra
  • 1982: Papua New Guinea
  • 1983: Zaire
  • 1984: Brazil
  • 1985: Borneo
  • 1986: Australia
  • 1987: Madagascar
  • 1988: Sulawesi
  • 1989: The Amazon
  • 1990: Siberia
  • 1991: Tanzania, Burundi
  • 1992: Guyana
  • 1993: Malaysia
  • 1994: Argentina, Paraguay, Chile
  • 1995: Guatemala, Mexico
  • 1996: Kalimantan
  • 1997: Mongolia
  • 1998: Tierra del Fuego
  • 1999: Event not held
  • 2000: Tonga-Samoa