The mere mention of 'Camel Trophy' sends most seasoned Land Rover enthusiasts into a fit of excitement, overloaded with admiration for what is widely recognized as ‘the driving Olympics’. Worshipped as mankind's toughest automotive event, the Camel Trophy held no prisoners and successfully separated the men from the boys.
Dumping teams of people into our planet's wilderness with the task of navigating through relentless environments, squalid heat, and impossible terrain that no vehicle had before traversed, the first event took place in 1980 – a group of Americans tackling the Trans-Amazonian Highway in several Jeep CJ5s.
Although this inaugural trip proved to be somewhat of a disaster, it did capture the imagination of adventure-starved public figures and explorers at heart. The teams returned home to a heroes' welcome – the Camel Trophy was born.
And so, the organizers duly turned to Land Rover, stuck in their tenure under British Leyland. Despite the unfriendly reputation, BL was happy to supply vehicles; first the Range Rover Classic then the Series III 88in.
Although BL collapsed and died, the Land Rover brand survived to ensure an iconic relationship with Camel Trophy organizers remained – seeing Ninety, One-Ten, Discovery, Defender and Freelander models employed as each year’s event grew in size.
Although the challenge rapidly became popular enough for millions of hopefuls to wage war over only a handful of places, parent company BMW felt that attention was being drawn away from the vehicles, and decided to sever ties with the competition.
This marked the end of the Camel Trophy as the world knew it, and while attempts were made to revive the brand, they were to no avail. The event now lives on as a subject of legend, with a thriving fan club celebrating all things 'CT'.
Meet the Ives Brothers
By 1989, 14 countries were represented by two drivers sharing one vehicle. Competition over the course of previous events had been fierce but, unlike Formula 1, comradeship was key to surviving. Teams had to support each other, with special awards given out at the finish line for camaraderie. Yet, as humbling as these awards may have been, there was one that everyone was after the winner’s trophy.
Although every event suffered trials and tribulations, the 1989 Amazonian trek remains recognised as the most difficult of them all. You would imagine, therefore, that the victors of such an event would showboat and revel in one-upmanship; but you would be wrong.
Plucky brothers Joe and Bob Ives represent the last of a dying breed of gentlemanly explorers obsessed with adventure, rather than glory. Men who set the foundations for a generation that has since tried to follow in their footsteps – and that includes myself.
As a 19-year-old, I cracked open the sump on my Land Rover Series III trying to replicate their manoeuvres over one of 1989’s timed courses. Technically, they owe me a new one.
It’s odd respecting somebody you have never met before, but standing in Bob Ives' courtyard as he strolled across the concrete to greet me, I found myself dumbstruck. This was Bob Ives; Camel Trophy winner 1989. A bona fide legend to those who appreciate graft and adventure. And Joe Ives was en route!
Once Joe had arrived in his Land Rover Discovery, the pair introduced me to the actual Land Rover One Ten responsible for such Trophy triumph. Battered and bruised, their 4x4 remained the closest to Indiana Jones in automotive form possible.
The Land Rover One Ten
Their Land Rover was no show pony – despite an emotional and historic connection for the Ives brothers, their One Ten remained on the farm for demanding tasks, not to mention ferrying Joe’s children to school.
Equipment from the Amazonian trial still lurked inside the cabin and the chassis was amazingly original. Sadly, the engine wasn’t; having died long before Joe and Bob managed to acquire the One Ten from Land Rover themselves, some years after the impressive 1989 slog.
Regardless of what was original and what was ‘new’, the fact this vehicle still survives is a testament to Land Rover’s indestructible design; and Joe and Bob’s dedication. The thought that I was to jump into the cabin and tackle their demanding off-road course sent a shiver of excitement down my spine.
Clambering onto the rear bench seats, I could almost smell the sour, red Amazonian mud. Surrounded by exposed metal and sharp edges, mated to the refinement of a cement mixer, the cabin bore 30 years of use with pride.
To be frank, I was so mesmerized to be present in a vehicle idolized upon the TV screen, that it could have been on fire and I wouldn't have noticed. As the diesel unit clattered into life on a plume of black from the exhaust, we set off for their off-road course. Today was going to be a good day.
Off-road with Joe and Bob Ives
I was suddenly back in 1989, watching over the shoulders of the winning pair as they communicated back and forth about the best angles of approach. Their tact and dexterity radiated confidence, the off-road track weaving between trees and undergrowth peppered with deep troughs, bogs and ruts. Sat behind the wheel, Bob made it seem oh-so-easy, cresting the cross-axles and sudden undulations at a relaxed pace.
Approaching the mother of all muddy inclines came a moment that will live with me forever. They looked back with enthusiasm and asked me to take the wheel. They didn’t have to ask twice.
The off-roading manta practised by those trained by instructors is simply thus; as slow as possible, as fast as necessary. For these guys, the process was far different. I was asked to stop (with mandatory brake squeal) at the bottom of an almost impossible gradient. It was the level boss of inclines.
The only reason I knew the vertical ascent could be accomplished was the sign of tire tracks visible beyond the bonnet, and Bob’s steely cool upon talking me through the procedure.
‘What would you say is the best plan of action?’ he asked me. ‘Second gear, low range?’
In the presence of greatness, I simply nodded to agree. He shook his head. ‘You want to be in third gear by the time you tackle the bottom of the slope. You’ll need as much speed as possible to get up and over. You might take off a little, but keep the wheels straight and you should be fine.’
On paper, that sounded easy. But when positioned in a vibrating cabin, the wellbeing of three inhabitants at the mercy of your abilities and surrounded by differing controls all requiring undivided attention, the task felt monumental. Blipping the throttle to select first gear brought home what could potentially go wrong – the One Ten could slide, or roll over, or the world could end.'
Bob’s confidence felt ill-placed. However, it’s wasn't my skills that his certainty rested with; but rather the Land Rover’s surefooted ability. Quite frankly, the indefatigable drivetrain paired with chunky off-road tires offered more grip than Donald Trump has on reality.
Having watched the retro footage countless times, now was my chance to experience a genuine taste of the Camel Trophy.
The steering wheel flicked from side to side as the front-end scrambled in the thick mud, both engine and transmission battling it out for audible supremacy. Catching as fast and smooth a gearchange as I could muster, with the accelerator hard down and slamming the spindly gearlever into third, the bonnet line shot upwards before we were pressed hard into our seats.
Progress was rapid enough to crest the summit, but not before momentum reduced to a crawl. Any slower and it would have been a tricky reverse manoeuvre back to the starting point. I would surely have killed everyone.
It wasn't quite over yet, however. Atop the gradient lurked a bog of thick density. As the axles plunged into deep sludge and buried the sills beneath the surface, the smell of burning foliage upon the Land Rover's hot exhaust fast became intoxicating. The churning diesel engine bellowed like Brian Blessed in full battle cry.
Tire grooves, already packed with filth, struggled to maintain grip, but the sheer grunt spewed out by the drivetrain saw us through, giant rooster tails of earthy clay sprayed from the wheelarches like demented vines.
Sharp noises from beyond the bulkhead resulted in a compulsory lift-off from the throttle, revs screaming louder still as slow progress was made through the ooze. I was immediately told to get back on to full power. ‘You can never over rev a diesel,’ Bob hollered above the engine’s upheaval, the odour of hot oil wafting through to the cabin.
The engine was wound down to a slow tickover after reaching a level plateau of lush, damp grass. It was here that I was instructed to point the Land Rover’s stunted snout towards a small clearing between several trees.
‘Line the wheels up and take your feet off the pedals as we go down the hill, let the engine braking take you down the slope.’
It sounded like the advice of a madman, but having been in a similar situation before, I understood this to be the truth. My Converse trainers hovered over the pedals as the vehicle nosedived towards the undergrowth below. My stomach churned in that split second before engine braking kicked in to keep the speedometer below 5mph.
What had previously pinned me against the headrest now lurched my head forward. The seatbelt hugged my chest in the same fashion that the front arches embraced the slowly rotating tires; the descent so steep that the 4x4's rear end felt featherlight – almost unstable.
Every undulation left a distinct impression that the rear wheels were lifting, as the low range gearbox whinnied upon clambering upwards from the hill’s trough towards yet another mud bath.
'Go, Go, Go!'
The ruts before us left little choice in the way of direction, dictating our route of travel akin to a stern mistress. The Land Rover’s hull lifted and fell over the pitted furrows and grooves, its bulk lumbering with undying tenacity over yawning crinkles masked by the course’s abundant slurry. We needed to keep the revs up again, as there was yet another incline ahead.
The wheel almost whipped from beneath my palms as tire walls and differentials breached the trenches that veiled chunks of rock and tree root. I couldn't help but remain fixated by the terrain visible ahead. We turned down a gentle track towards the finishing point as hedges and greenery draped themselves over the roof rack; bright spotlamps illuminating the branches within.
‘Go, Go, Go!’, Bob cried out in that same tone heard during 1989's event footage. The lights reflected back against pools of water dense enough for sunlight to bend around them. Snapping into fourth gear with a charismatic clunk from the drivetrain, the force of the water on the underside resonated against my ribs – lunging tarns of water-logged soil sprayed across the bonnet and upwards towards the door tops.
We drew to a halt with soak dripping from every body panel. The temperature needle hadn’t budged from its stance in the middle of the gauge – but the One Ten oozed a hot stench, even though the powerplant sounded content.
I didn’t dare ask how I had performed, certainly not with an actual Camel Trophy winner in the passenger seat, although his smirk told me that I hadn't presented my abilities as truly unspeakable. The driver’s door clicked open as Joe announced: ‘Bloody good! Some excellent driving!’
They were being sympathetic to the cause. There was no plan to be coy and fish for compliments, but with the Land Rover still in one piece and our limbs intact, the feeling of accomplishment tickled the heart with delicate fingers.
As we spoke over mugs of tea beside their mud-spattered Land Rover One Ten, it slowly hit home what had occurred. Completely unworthy, I had received a tutorial from legitimate Camel Trophy legends. The very men I had worshipped as a boy, totally infatuated with the footage showcasing Joe and Bob’s outstanding talent in the toughest part of the world.
Laughing about deadly hornet stings and being cut open by winching cables, the overwhelming admiration for these casual pioneers in off-road prowess left me very humble indeed; for what I had undertaken was small fry when compared to those challenges of the 1989 Camel Trophy.
Departing in the decadent ambience of my battered Range Rover P38a after tales of lunacy and triumph out in the Amazon’s most treacherous territory, Britain's tarmac felt somewhat tedious. Boring. Suburban.
With the One Ten fading from view, I had met my idols. Regardless of what the ‘never meet your heroes’ mantra may infer, mine were truly amazing.
You can check out a further interview Joe and Bob in the video below:
Photography by Gillian Carmoodie, videography by Ollie Whittaker
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