Saturday, 25 July 2015

One Life. Live It. (The Camel & I)

Yours truly, circa May 1993, somewhere near Tenom, Sabah.
I was a part of something big a long time ago, something that has had a deep influence on me ever since. It has been nearly a quarter century since I got up close and personal with the ultimate 4X4 adventure, the Camel Trophy, and it is still a part of me. In my own mind at least.
No, I was not fortunate to have been one of the participants vying for the coveted Trophy. After being captivated by the cool and oh-so macho ads for several years, the opportunity to be among those rugged adventurers came along in 1992, when I was about to turn 30.
I was living and working as a journalist in Sabah when it was announced that the beautiful north Borneo state had been chosen to host Camel Trophy the following year, 1993.
What joy, what excitement! I had just completed my first ever major 4X4 expedition, the Borneo Safari, and was already hooked.
But my own life was in a state of flux. An opportunity had come along that I could not pass up, a chance to work with The Star, a major national newspaper that also meant a big step forward in my career from the small regional newspapers that I had been working for (and enjoyed doing so, might I add).
With Team Italia (from left) Giovanni Formica, me, Francesco Rapisarda,
Matteo Ghiazza and a journalist whose name I do not recall.
Not only were the Camel Trophy selection trials set during a period when I was busy with preparations for the big move across the South China Sea, the actual dates coincided with the wedding of my only brother. So, I had to pass on it, and probably miss my best opportunity to be a part of this great adventure.
While still in Sabah, shortly before Christmas, my Sunday morning lie-in was shattered by the telephone. I ignored it, but it would not stop. So, I had to get up and answer it.
“Paul, can you go to Milan?” It must be some kind of bad joke. On a Sunday morning. I had already resigned from my job in Sabah.
But the voice was familiar, the nice PR (public relations) lady from Sabah Tourism Promotion Corporation.
“Can you go to Milan?” she repeated when I mumbled something unintelligible.
“Milan, as in Italy?” I asked. The furthest I had been sent on assignment in the past three years was Semporna (yes, that’s also in Sabah).
“Of course Italy, is there any other? More importantly, do you have a passport?”
Yes, I had a passport, and within 24 hours, after a lot of hurrying to collect air tickets and round up cash, I was on my way to Europe for the very first time.
It was the bad luck of my good friend Freddie Ch’ng who was supposed to go but had his house broken into and his passport stolen a couple of days earlier. Sorry, Freddie, your loss was my gain.
The reason for this surprising turn of events was the Camel Trophy. The Italians had invited the then Sabah Foundation chairman, Tengku Adlin, to go and give a talk in the northern city of Milan about the coming event, in particular about the “Lost World” of the Maliau Basin.
So it was that a son of Borneo landed at Malpensa Airport, dressed in full Camel Adventure apparel while, all around, the local signoras were bundled up in furs and the gents in great coats.
The airport was being renovated so the aero-bridges could not be used. We had to walk across the tarmac to the terminal. I had brought winter gear but it was in the luggage. Not a good start.
After a few more misadventures through inexperience, we finally made it to the Milan office of RJ Reynolds, where their PR Francesco Rapisarda manager showed me what the Camel Trophy had been all about.
Tengku Adlin (2nd right, front row) and the other local officials.
In the event just past, Guyana 1992, the clippings from newspaper coverage alone, excluding other media, was compiled into a book two inches (50mm) thick! That was how wildly popular the Camel Trophy was!
He reeled off more figures - more than a million Germans had applied to take part, along with several hundreds of thousands in each of the other European nations involved, including Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Russia, etc.
We were then introduced to the Italian team of Matteo Ghiazza and Giovanni Formica, who would pilot the Sandglow Discovery through the jungle trails of Sabah in the coming months.
Tengku Adlin gave a passionate speech about the wonders of Sabah that they could look forward to seeing, and we learned that state’s name may not be familiar to the Italians but they all knew the name of Sandakan. Well, Sandokan anyway, close enough. Apparently, it is a place featured in a popular series of stories for children so every Italian grew up dreaming of visiting Sandokan some day.
An icon of Camel Trophy, the pontoon raft in action.
For the fortunate four (two primary participants and two reserves) from each other participating nations, Italy continued to be a part of the story because a week of intensive training was held in the mountainous north of the country. But I was not a part of that and, in fact, thought that was about as close as I would ever get to the iconic event.
I was in Kuala Lumpur when the adventurers and crew flew into Kota Kinabalu.
Then, another unexpected phone call. Would I like to go back to Sabah? To cover the Camel Trophy?
And just like that, I was off on another adventure, this time even greater than Milan.
Leaving familiar KK behind, I could barely believe I was really going to be part of the great adventure as I rode the rickety train from Tanjung Aru to Beaufort where we joined up with the convoy of yellow (okay, technically Sandglow) Land Rovers, also riding on a special train, on our way to Tenom.
It felt like being in an Indiana Jones movie as we enjoyed the scenic views of the Padas Gorge from the flatbed cars and carriages reminiscent of the Wild Wild West while a couple of helicopters swooped up and down the railway, shooting video.
The next few days were spent camping near the river as the participants were put through their paces, competing in various special stages and exhibiting newly-acquired skills in setting up the inflatable pontoon raft that could ferry a heavily laden Discovery across the river.
To say I was happy would have been an understatement. I loved the challenges, the great outdoors, the camaraderie of the multinational participants and crew, as well as the local 4X4 enthusiasts from the Kinabalu Four Wheel Drive Club (KFWDC) who were drafted as officials. Many of them remain my friends to this day.
Riding on the roof of a Discovery as the convoy made its way back to KK for the finale was icing on the cake.
The Americans won the Camel Trophy that year and the popular and ever-cheerful team from the Canary Island were presented with the Team Spirit Award.
The Malaysian team did not do so well, coming 16th out of 16 competing teams. Some things did not go well that are best left unsaid as I prefer to focus on the positives that came out of the event, and these were huge.
I longed to own one of those magnificent Land Rovers but, for many years, it remained a dream that was out of reach.
I settled for buying and wearing the Camel Adventure apparel, boots, watch, and whatever memorabilia I could lay my hands on.
From the first 4WD, a beat-up Isuzu Trooper I acquired in Sabah just before the 1993 event, I went on to buy more 4X4s, and eventually owned only 4X4s and no saloon cars. As part of the job, I had chances to take part in other adventures, including numerous Ford Lanun Darat trips, the Trans Sahara 2004 with the Petronas Adventure Team, the Mercedes-benz Paris-Beijing 2006 and several Ford Adventures in Cambodia.
But, I never forgot the dream and one day in 2008, I managed to buy a used Discovery of my own so that I could build a replica. I called it “Humphrey” because the Discovery has a hump in the roof, and of course, camels, too. And it is ever so English, like Land Rovers.
'Humphrey' on adventure.
I have gone on to more memorable adventures after shipping it and myself back to my home state of Sarawak, to explore the highlands of Long Semadoh and Ba’kelalan, and crossed the border into the Indonesian part of Borneo, retracing parts of the Camel Trophy 1996 route through Kalimantan to Balikpapan, and visiting Banjarmasin, Sampit, Pontianak and other exotic places.
One is never enough, so I went and acquired a 1986 Land Rover 110, and then another, this time a 2012 Defender. Eventually, the newcomers were also repainted in that iconic shade of yellow, Sandglow LRC 361. So yes, you could say I liked the Camel Trophy.
Out of the blue, on the 25th of July, 2015, I received an email from a Mr. Nick Leadbeter, Chairman of the UK-based Camel Trophy Club, inviting me to be an Honorary Life Member. I am honoured, and I accepted.
The adventure continues even if the event itself ended with the old millennium.
So, what is it that made the Camel Trophy so special to me? Yes, it was a marketing exercise, with interested parties trying to get you to buy their stuff. But unlike the millions of other advertising stunts we are bombarded with each day, the event took on a life of its own, one that was larger than real life.
The beautifully shot stills and videos in the ad campaigns sold us on the idea that there was more to life than the daily grind, that there was a big, wide world out there that we could go explore, even in the late 20th century.
The reality was even better. Gather the fittest and brightest young men and women (military folks excepted) from around the world, give them identical vehicles and equipment, and let them loose on the wildest and toughest terrain out there.
While the “Trophy” bit shows it was a competition, and there were indeed competitive stages that pitted one nation against another, what really made the Camel Trophy memorable was the transport stages.
“Transport” may sound humdrum but just getting from Point A to B in the areas that Camel Trophy went to was truly an adventure.
Mud and sand, bogs and dunes, giant trees or not a blade of green at all, the organisers went out of their way, literally, to scout the world’s most inhospitable places. The Amazon, the Congo, Borneo, Patagonia, Siberia, the Maya heartland, all locales whose names alone would excite Indiana Jones as well as wannabes.
And the best, really best part, was the teamwork that got everyone and every car through each seemingly impassable obstacle. Russians working alongside French helping Japanese and Portuguese, all communicating with some English and a shared love of adventure.
When the finale was over and the trophies handed out, what really remained for the participants and fans was not who won or did not win, but the extraordinary experiences they had shared along the way.
Of course, the event was a big boost for Land Rover as well, even if the reality was that Camel Trophy actually began with three Jeeps! Over the years, unforgettable of the various models of Solihull’s finest have been etched permanently in the subconscious - a Landy can go anywhere, if the drivers are up to it. Which is why I ended up with three of them.
One Life. Live It.

Matteo Ghiazza blows his horn.
More vintage photos from Camel Trophy Sabah 1993

Today ... because one is never enough.

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An honour, gratefully accepted. Thanks, guys.