The construction of the Transamazonica highway by the Brazillian government involved the felling of millions of trees, the construction of hundreds of bridges and the movement of billions of cubic metres of red clay. In a short time the jungle reclaimed the thin ribbon. For a quarter of the year the road is underwater. The Brazilian government called the Transamazonica the "Road of the Century" but locally it was commonly known as the "Highway of Tears".
The Camel Trophy concept began in 1980 when three teams from West Germany set out to drive 1,600 km of the Transamazonica highway in an event planned and led by Andreas Bender, just 27 years old. For this first event, the compliment of six crewmembers drove Ford-built Jeeps CJ6s, hired locally from Hertz (or so the story goes), the only time Camel Trophy didn't involve vehicles from Land Rover.
The three teams started their journey near the Atlantic coast at Belem, a city of 200,000 inhabitants which stands at the mouth of the mighty Amazon river. At 0600 on Day One, the three West German teams took delivery of their Jeeps and quickly packed their vehicles with all their food, clothes and equipment and set off on their adventure, followed by a few film and support vehicles.
The road was bone dry as it had not rained heavily for some time. The Jeeps danced and rattled over the deep ruts and cracks in the earthen road, throwing up thick clouds of dust. It was so dusty the crews resorted to wearing facemasks to enable them to breathe.
After only a few miles, the first of many problems arose. The road was so rough that all the hastily-packed gear worked loose and was falling out of the soft-top Jeeps. The repeated stops to secure since everything made for a long day before the participants arrived at a hamlet called Tocantins.
The convoy had to catch a ferry, a rickety wooden raft, across one of the Amazon's tributaries but there was a long queue of trucks and the only way of crossing the river was to brine a local policeman who oversaw the loading of the ferry. 400 cigarettes and a couple of t-shirts did the trick and the convoy crossed the river as night falls.
"It falls dark in the jungle around 6pm as if someone has pulled a curtain across the sky."
Andreas Bender, Event Director 1980-86
After disembarking from the ferry, the Camel Trophy convoy continued at a snail's pace as it was nearly impossible to make out the pot holes and deep ruts in the dancing beams of the Jeeps' dim headlamps. After 50 miles or so, the convoy pulled into Maraba. The town is described as like something out of a Western movie having grown from a population of 15,000 to 100,000 people in two months due to a gold rush.
Electricity and clean water was more difficult to come by than gold.
The organisers of the Camel Trophy had booked hotel rooms for the convoy months before at $2 per bed, however the gigantic influx of gold prospectors had caused the hoteliers to let all the rooms for $50 each. The two Brazilian support mechanics, Alberto and Luiz, went off in search of accommodation. After some time in the overflowing, boiling town, they returned saying they had found beds for them all for the night ... in the local brothel. Although the beds were freshly made, they were full of fleas and bed bugs.
The next morning the Camel Trophy doctor, Dr Jurgen Aschoff, gave out crews and ointments to relieve the itching. Rumour has it he was already treating one of the photojournalists with penicillin for a dose of "the clap" caught from "one of the ladies" in Rio de Janeiro prior to the start of the event.
From Maraba, the road is very rough and quiet. Only three other trucks were seen on Day Two, one was upside down by the side of the road. Potholes the size of a house and huge ruts continued to make the driving very difficult.
One of the Jeeps had been suffering carburettor problems all day and its bonnet mounted spare wheel had fractured its mountings and the fabric of the bonnet itself. The spare petrol jerrycan mounted on the right hand wing lost its cap and was splashing petrol all over the bonnet and into the engine compartment. As one of the other crews tried to raise the alarm, the Jeep burst into flames and was a total loss.
One vehicle down, the two remaining teams battled on, followed by the two Brazilian mechanics, a medical crew, the organisers and a small film crew.
Frequently the vehicles got struck in mud holes, river crossings or pot holes. There were hours and hours of pushing, pulling and hard graft - none of the vehicles were fitted with a winch - before the convoy reached Itaituba, a pulsating town dominated by the magic word: Gold! It was very different from Maraba as the gold mining was organised and dominated by a few very rich individuals. A small airport was used to fly the miners and all the equipment out to the mines spread around the jungle. The miners couldn't operate in the jungle interior without the aircraft bringing in supplies, food, tools, medicine (and even girls!) and flying out the gold. All the aeroplanes were owned by one man. It was said that he could buy governments!
From Itaituba, the convoy heads on for the finish line at the river port town of Santarem. They refuelled each time they came across a fuel station, which usually consisted of a tarpaulin-covered wooden shack supplying rusting barrels of fuel mixed with rainwater and dirt. A piece of hose was used to siphon the contaminated fuel into the vehicles.
The drivers squeezed the last reserves from themselves and the vehicles as the road disappeared to become a cracked, dried-up sandy track or miles of bottomless mud. The vehicles were very worn and "tired" as the convoy headed towards another ferry crossing and the finish. One of the Jeeps has yet another puncture eight miles from the finish and has no spares or repairs left. They carried on, on three good tyres. The vibration as so severe that the hood sticks sheared off so the crew simply threw the soft top into the jungle. The convoy finally made it to the finish at the Hotel Tropical in Santarem with very "kaput" Jeeps!
For twelve days, the heat, mud and insects of the Amazon jungle had been a living nightmare for all of the teams. Although by the standards of subsequent 1990s events this first effort was small, it was nevertheless tough, the teams making slow progress through the quagmires and swamps of what was the world's longest road.
As the Camel Trophy participants staggered filthy and exhausted into the hotel reception, the doorman refused to let them in. Surely they were gold prospectors or bandits? The manager had to be convinced that the dirty adventurers are the gringos who reserved the rooms in the hotel.
Behind the teams lay over a thousand miles of dirt and sweat, the battle against mosquitoes and leeches, against hunger and thirst, against exhaustion and despair is over. It was not only a victory over one of the harshest jungle tracks in the world, but most of all, a triumph over themselves.
With a thousand miles of adventure, the legend of Camel Trophy was born.
On their return to Europe, the teams received a hero's welcome, little realising that they had captured the imagination of nations around the world. Certainly no one involved with this first Camel Trophy even remotely realised how the event would grow during the next two decades or of its subsequent success. Klaus Karttna-Dircks and Uwe Machel, the winners of the first Camel Trophy, had earned themselves a place in the history books for their success on expedition that would very soon become the most famous of its kind, the Olympics of 4x4.
- Vehicles: Jeep CJ6
- Distance: 1,400 km
- Number of Teams: 3
- West Germany - Klaus Karthna-Dircks & Uwe Machel (Camel Trophy)
- West Germany - Fritz Fuchs & Heinrich Schoner
- West Germany - Manfred Berger & Richard Knar (Did not finish)