After International Selections in Turkey, Camel Trophy traveled to Asia for 1997. Mongolia was the perfect choice. Many labels are applied to the mystical country: "A land of contrasts", "a land that time forgot". Mongolia covers an area three times the size of France, yet its population numbers only 2.2 million - allowing for an average of around 1.4 people per square kilometre. Forty competitors from twenty nations gathered in the rain at the huge Suhbaatar Square in the modern capital of Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia's Prime Minister Enkhsaikhan drove the first Camel Trophy Discovery from the podium in the centre of the square, flanked by local horseman in traditional dress.
From here, the teams moved on to the stunning natural arena at Turtle Rock to witness Naadam - a Mongolian sports festival, where participants took part in the traditional sports of horse riding, wrestling and archery. That night, teams, journalists and support drivers slept in Mongolian "gers" - tents favoured by the nomads for centuries - a chance for a good night's sleep in anticipation of the next day's competitions.
The convoy took their Land Rover Discovery team cars over existing bur poorly maintained roads and tracks through a country of extremes - from the subzero temperatures of the northern mountains to the heat and sand of the Gobi desert, encountered temperatures ranging between -12 degrees and +45 degrees Celcius.
Freelance journalist Spencer Matthews described the event as "transitional" - The event was beginning to evolve away from the mud plugging expeditions of Mondo Maya and Kalimantan. The emphasis no longer lay with the Land Rovers but with competitive disciplines and the most consistent performers would win. Along the way, the teams competed in mountain biking, kayaking, 4x4 driving and orienteering. Although the Discovery played an important part, and still heavily modified, they had the least radical specification than any previous team vehicle. A new-style roof rack had to be developed by Safety Devices and Land Rover to accommodate the Perception two-man kayak and two Lee Cougan mountain bikes.
A new colour scheme and Land Rover alloy wheels shod with BF Goodrich Mud Terrain tyres may sound like minor cosmetic changes on paper, although their impact on the vehicles' overall appearance was considerable. New, more colourful clothes completed the Camel Trophy makeover, making this perhaps the most "designer" Trophy to date.
In between each of the competition sites, time was allowed for the participants to explore the countryside, the culture and the people. With only a map and GPS to guide them, each team had to make their way across the vast plains of Mongolia. Teams could quite literally travel for miles without seeing another living soul, save the odd herd of yaks or Mongolian sheep. Occasionally a "ger" would hove into view, and teams would stop and meet the locals. Not a word would be understood by either party, but somehow a shared experience of welcoming and friendship could be felt. Many participants confessed to having asked locals the way.
"When in doubt the most accurate directions are from the Mongolians. They all understand the map perfectly."
Doug Mays, Team USA 1997
After the second set of competitions at Selenge, the strong team of Stefan Auer and Albrecht Thausing from Austria took a lead that would remain unreachable until the end. Other teams were not so lucky, with the Russians being the first to roll their fully-laden Camel Discovery during the driving competition, damaging the roof rack-mounted kayak.
"As we rolled I prayed for our car. We broke only one mirror. We were very lucky, as we rolled over once and landed back on the wheels."
Pavel Nouianzine, Team Russia
Whereas the Russians managed to repair their kayak with tape, team Greece were less fortunate after their own roll, which turned the Discovery over two and half times. The British pairing of Karen MacDonald and Trevor Smith were the next to put their Land Rover on its roof; this time en route to the next competition site at Erdene Bulgan.
"Some of you tested the Land Rover Discoverys to the limit preferring to see Mongolia upside down. But at least you now know how tough and reliable they are!"
Gwill Berry, Marketing Operations Director, Land Rover
Unfortunately for Team Switzerland, Alain Duret fractured his collarbone on the mountain bike course at Erdene Bulgan. One of the Swiss journalists, Leo Kalbermatten, stepped into his shoes having competed in Camel Trophy Sulawesi 1988.
"My fitness isn't what it used to be. I didn't expect to come back to Camel Trophy and take part again. I've already done it once!"
Leo Kalbermatten, participating journalist 1997
The Greek Discovery became bogged in a permafrost valley in the Hangai Nuruu mountain range. Turning around to assist, the Turks and a support Defender that had been tailing them themselves became hopelessly bogged. As if to make things worse, a fierce snow blizzard closed in, bringing visibility to just a few metres. In temperatures below -10°C and at a height of over 3,000 metres, the teams had a fitful night's rest before rising early to continue their attempt to find solid ground. It was thirteen hours before they regained their earlier position at the top of the mountain.
The event finished in the ancient capital of Kharakorum, home of Mongolia’s largest Buddhist monastery
The Special Task award was replaced by the Land Rover Award for the best drivers, Team Romania. The immensely likeable Swedes took the Team Spirit award and the Austrian team of Stefan Auer & Albnecht Thousing came away victorious with the Camel Trophy.
(Some content from an excellent account of Camel Trophy Mongolia '97 by World Off Road)
- Team Vehicles: Land Rover Discovery 300Tdi
- Support Vehicles: Land Rover Defender 110 300Tdi
- Distance: 1,000 miles plus - no set route
- Number of Teams: 20
- Austria - Stefan Auer & Albnecht Thousing (Camel Trophy)
- Canary Islands - Antonio Eateve & Micael Lofgren
- France - Jean-Jacques Andr & Philippe Rydin
- Germany - Thomas Bergreider & Caraten Stocker
- Greece - Nikos Kostopouios & Mike Argyris
- Holland - George Derksen & Aletta van Beeck
- Italy - Piero Poli & Dennis Dalla Santa
- Japan - Masuro Sato & Mayumi Ugajin
- Morocco - Abdouh el Glaoui & Anouar Debbagh Zrlouil
- Portugal - Miguel landoro Ferriero & Antonio Jorge Leitao
- Russia - Pavel Noulanzine & Vladimir Moisseev
- South Africa - Brendon O'Leary & Johan Goosen
- Spain - Jean Olive & Ignacio Roviralta
- Sweden - Rikard Beckman & Marie Hansen (Team Spirit Award)
- Switzerland - Matthais Kunz & Alan Durret (substitute: Leo Kalbermatten)
- Turkey - Timur Sagiou & Fuat Onoz
- United Kingdom - Karen McDonald & Trevor Smith
- United States - Christopher Vannest & Douglas Mays