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Time to get the winch out! A classic Camel Trophy shot from Australia ’86 : credit: © Philippe Cornut
Photographer and writer Nick Dimbleby talks exclusively to LRM about his new book, a definitive history of the Camel Trophy, which is launched this month

GP: I know you’ve been a huge fan of the Camel Trophy for many years. Why was writing this book so important to you?

ND: Ever since I first became involved with Camel Trophy I’ve wanted to write a definitive history of the event. I knew there were so many stories that needed to be recorded, particularly as no-one who was involved with the event is getting any younger. It’s been 41 years since the first in 1980, and that’s half a lifetime for most people. Memories fade and ultimately disappear, so I felt that now is a good time to be documenting these stories for the record.

 

Two Camel Trophy Discoverys on the plains of Mongolia, May 1997 (Photo: Nick Dimbleby

The pandemic is the main reason why this book exists. I’d wanted to do it for a long time, but I never had the time to dedicate to it. At the end of March 2020, I had two months of work disappear overnight, and as we moved into April it became obvious that I was going to have a lot of time on my hands at home. My family would probably say that I should have started redecorating the house, but instead I took it as a golden opportunity to write this book. I started by talking to friends and colleagues that I’d worked with on Camel Trophy, and then I widened the net to individuals like Duncan Lee and Duncan Barbour that had left the event by the time I started to take part. Fortunately, the Camel Trophy community is strong, so it didn’t take long to get contact details for all the people I needed to talk to. Unfortunately, some individuals like Gwil Berry and David Robus from Land Rover died several years ago, and sadly, another chap I interviewed, Peter Beardow, passed away only a few weeks after I’d spoken to him. I have dedicated the book to all the individuals who took part in Camel Trophy who are no longer with us. Sadly, there are more than you might expect. 

22-year-old Nick Dimbleby on his first Camel Trophy in 1996 – he claims not to have changed a bit…!

How did your enduring fascination with the Camel Trophy come about?

As a Land Rover enthusiast growing up in the 1980s, an interest in Camel Trophy was inevitable! I remember being on holiday in France aged 12, which would make it 1985, and seeing the photography from that year’s event (Camel Trophy Borneo) in Tout Terrain, 4x4 and Auto Verte magazines. There were all the shots of the Ninetys
submerged up to their windscreens in water, rolling over at speed and being dangled from underneath helicopters and I remember thinking, ‘I want to do that’. I was starting to get into photography at the time, and it all came together eventually. I decided that I wanted to be a photographer shooting Land Rovers doing crazy things in remote parts of the world. I’m fortunate enough that that’s exactly what I have ended up doing!

The photographic and film crews getting stuck in during Camel Trophy Guyana ’92. Much of Nick’s book describes the behind the scenes life of Camel Trophy (Photo: Simon Fitzgerald)​​​​​​

In the process of writing this book, I contacted an old friend, Philippe Cornut, who I first met in France in 1994.Philippe was running Land Rover Experience in France at the time, but in 1985 he was the photographer who had taken the photos in the French 4x4 magazines. As part of the research for this book I spent a day looking through his archive, which included some shots from that flooded section on the 1985 event. He was genuinely touched when I told him that his photos had been an inspiration to me. As he said, “la boucle est fermée” – it’s gone full circle!

 

The Camel Trophy ambulance inches its way over what passes for a bridge in Madagascar ’87 (Photo Philippe Cornut)

Going on the Camel Trophy for the first time as an event photographer must have been a dream come true! How did you come to be invited?

My first event was 1996.  I’d have loved to have done a Camel Trophy before then, but I was at school, college and then uni so it just wasn’t possible. I’d left uni in 1995 and because I was working regularly for LRO as a freelance photographer and writer, I was offered the opportunity to go on the 1996 event when journalist Brett Fraser decided that he wasn’t able to dedicate the three weeks away you needed to take part. I was asked if I wanted to go instead, and as someone at the start of their career, I quickly said ‘yes please!’. It was a fantastic start to my full-time professional photographic career.


Competitors had to get stuck in (Photo: Lee Farrant)

What was it like being on your first Camel Trophy?

It was amazing. Receiving a Camel Trophy Peli case loaded with Camel Trophy clothes and boots was a really special moment.  It’s then that you realise that you really are going to go on a Camel Trophy!  Part of the story I wanted to write at the time was the experience of selections, so I asked to take part in the UK National Selections even though I was going no matter how bad I might be as a competitor! I wanted to experience first-hand what the competitors had to go through. As you might expect, it was really tough, and I was one of the first to be kicked out! I like to think that was because I was keener to get behind the camera and capture everyone else going through the trial, rather than running up a muddy hill with a full jerrycan of water on my shoulder. I still have the mud-splattered yellow Camel Trophy bib, number 50, that I wore on the Selections. After National Selections I went along to International Selections in Spain, where I covered the final selection of the teams. Then it was on to the event in April 1996, and from then on, I didn’t look back! 

Dramatic scenes during Zaire ’83 (Photo: Camel Trophy Club)

After your first Camel Trophy, you joined the official photo crew for the final three events. How did that come about?

My friend Dominic was working on a stand at the Earl’s Court Boat Show in early 1996 when he happened to meet Lee Farrant, who was the director of photography for Camel Trophy. Dominic, who’s a long-time Land Rover enthusiast, suggested to Lee that he and I should meet, so Lee gave Dom his number and said I should call him. Even though I already had a place on the convoy, I called Lee and, as luck would have it, we lived barely half a mile from each other in London. We met in a local pub, and I showed him some examples of my work (I’d been taking photos of Land Rovers for LRO for over six years whilst at college), and he made me a proposal. He offered to pay me a small daily fee, as well as supply me with film and process it on the event. In return, Camel Trophy could choose and use any of the photographs I took, but everything else that was left over at the end was mine to do whatever I wanted with. As I was basically only getting paid for a couple of articles and had been paying for my own film up until then, it didn’t take long for me to take Lee up on the deal! A lot of the photos I took on the event were selected for use in the official edit, so after the event, Lee asked me to be part of the official team for the next three events (1997, 1998 and 2000). It was a real case of being in the right place at the right time, and I am very grateful to Lee and Dom for making the first contact! I have subsequently photographed many expeditions and events, including the two Land Rover G4 Challenge events.  

The 1985 airlift was the stuff of legend (Photo: Andreas Bender)

What impact did Camel Trophy have on your career aspirations and development?

I think it’s fair to say that doing Camel Trophy ’96 was a great springboard into professional life as a full-time freelance photographer. Working with the other companies that were involved with Camel Trophy introduced me to other areas of photography, and I started to broaden my client list through word-of-mouth recommendations, which is a fantastic way of getting work. I was very fortunate. Not long after Camel Trophy ’96, I was invited by Land Rover to go on the Calvert Expedition in Australia, then LRNA’s Bill Baker invited me to come and take part in the inaugural Land Rover TReK event in the USA. Within six months I’d travelled to three continents photographing Land Rovers!  Bill Baker moved to the UK in early 1997, and he asked me to do more and more projects with Land Rover global, and so my working relationship with the company began. The first big job I did was a preview for what was then the soon-to-be-launched Land Rover Freelander in April 1997. 

Two Defenders and Discovery in the Atacama Desert during the pre-scout for Camel Trophy Argentina-Paraguay-Chile ’94 (Dan Smith/Lee Farrant Photography)

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It sounds like the Camel Trophy was responsible for you making some pretty important career choices?

Camel Trophy helped me decide that I should continue working as a freelance photographer. I had been photographing Land Rovers semi-professionally since 1990, when I was still at school. After university, I was looking to join the BBC as part of the Production Trainee Scheme – my intended career path had been to work in TV production.  Securing the work on Camel Trophy and the doors that subsequently
opened confirmed that I should keep working as a freelance photographer. I’ve never had a formal job interview, and I’ve never worked full time for a company in my life. To be fair, I’m probably unemployable!

Looking back, what do you think made the event so compelling and why did it attract such a huge following?

Camel Trophy was a fantastic mix of exotic locations and great-looking vehicles doing interesting and challenging things. There was also an element of the unknown that made things exciting, along with potential jeopardy and/or hardship for the crews taking part. It was Reality TV before Reality TV was invented! The photography and film really were key to making the event a success: the incredible film footage and photography helped promote Camel Trophy to a wider audience, and because the material is so good, it’s lasted the test of time. 

Nick’s research has unearthed many old photographs that have been languishing in filing cabinets and lofts around the world. This image is from Zaire ’83 (Photo: Camel Trophy Club)

There was a period where the Camel Trophy became the target of significant criticism. What are your thoughts on that?

In the early 1990s, Camel Trophy was criticised by many of the UK Land Rover and off-road magazines for a variety of reasons, most notably tobacco advertising and environmental concerns. Land Rover was co-sponsor of the event from 1992, and they produced their Fragile Earth document to reinforce their environmental protocols. Camel Trophy generally had a positive effect on the countries it visited. Right from the early 1980s, the event’s doctor and medical teams treated local people in the villages they travelled through, and the Camel Trophy convoy repaired many a bridge to allow the convoy to carry on. This was then left for the benefit of the local population. In the later years, Camel Trophy paid for and built scientific research centres and other buildings that benefited the local people. Several ex-event vehicles were donated to various local and international charities at the end of the event, too. There was also the enormous amount of money that was spent locally to feed, accommodate and entertain all the competitors, support staff and media. Another thing that Camel Trophy were keen to stress, is that the event always followed existing tracks
and trails. In the jungle these were often quick to be reclaimed by the rapidly growing foliage, so that’s why you saw imagery of people hacking through the jungle. They were actually following an existing track – it just hadn’t been used for a while!

The Camel Trophy came to an end after the 2000 event. Why do you think this happened?

As you might imagine, I was very disappointed when the event reached the end of its life in 2000. The main reason that it stopped was because RJ Reynolds, the tobacco company that had started the event 20 years previously, was sold to Japan Tobacco International (JTI), and they were more interested in the core tobacco business than the clothing, watches and boots that were associated with Camel Trophy.  The Camel Trophy clothing, watches and boots had been set up under the brand diversification umbrella, to allow the event to continue in the face of anti-tobacco legislation. In the late 1990s, the event changed significantly with the introduction of the competitive disciplines of kayaking, mountain biking, orienteering and, of course, off-road driving. These replaced the competitive Special Tasks that had allowed the organisation to find a winner each year. 

One of the Special Tasks during Camel Trophy Madagascar ’87 (Photo: Camel Trophy Club)​​​​​​

Why do you think the event is still captivating audiences and enthusiasts years later?

That’s a good question. It’s been 21 years since the last Camel Trophy, and 23 years since the last event featuring Land Rovers, yet it’s still talked about and well-known today. There are lots of videos on YouTube and numerous Pintrest boards, even though neither of these media existed when Camel Trophy was active. Why? I think one of the main reasons is because the event was always incredibly visual. The Sandglow Land Rovers looked fantastic, and the locations that the events went to were spectacular and exotic. Each year there was fresh batch of eye-catching photography and striking video, and even though the vehicles are no longer in production, the Range Rover, Defender, Discovery and even the Freelander are iconic 4x4s of the era. There is also, perhaps, an element of looking back to the 'good old days’. The event ran before a time of health and safety (although it must be said that the event’s safety record was excellent) and in the pre-internet age that the majority of the Camel Trophys took place, there was more of a sense of adventure. The world was less connected, so there were more areas where it was more remote. Satellite communications and GPS were also in their infancy (they only appeared for the first time on Camel Trophy ’91), so there wasn’t the safety net that we have nowadays. All this technology is undoubtedly a good thing, but the point is we look back at this era as being simpler and perhaps more adventurous. Humans often look back and reminisce that things aren’t as good as they used to be, even if that might not be the case. 

What are your views about Land Rover’s G4 Challenge events that were supposed to replace the Camel Trophy?

I was lucky enough to be one of the two Land Rover photographers working on the G4 Challenge events. The G4 Challenge was undoubtedly a different event to Camel Trophy, and it was great to have experienced both. The final chapter in the book is entitled ‘The Legacy’, and it looks at the Land Rover G4 Challenge and other events that Land Rover were involved with post-Camel Trophy. Clearly, it’s not the main focus of the book, but I thought it was important to look at what filled the huge Camel Trophy-sized hole that appeared in Land Rover’s off-road and adventure marketing plan after Camel Trophy finished. Because I have photographed and worked on every major Land Rover event since 2000, I am ideally placed to talk about this. Maybe if this book does well, then a G4 Challenge book might be my next project. Having said that, I’m keen to get back to travelling again, so this might be one to consider when I retire – which hopefully won’t be any time too soon!

The impressive Camel Trophy (Photo: Nick Dimbleby)

What do you think about JLR Classic’s decision to launch the £200,000 Defender Works V8 Trophy?

It is remarkable that 23 years after Land Rover stopped being involved with Camel Trophy, that there’s still enough interest and excitement in the event to produce a special edition Defender that has a strong Camel Trophy influence! Clearly the Trophy Works V8 is a very different type of vehicle to the more spartan diesel models on Camel Trophy, but when I first photographed the vehicle in Eastnor back in December 2020, it really felt like I had gone back in time to the days photographing Camel Trophy Defenders in the woods at Eastnor! It’s fantastic that Land Rover Classic want to honour their heritage in this way – I just wish I had the means to buy one!

There is a thriving international club scene that is based on original event vehicles that of late has also embraced replica, tribute and homage vehicles created by enthusiasts. What are your thoughts on that?

The Camel Trophy Club has been in existence since 1997, when it was founded by Neill Browne so that like-minded Camel Trophy enthusiasts could share knowledge and experience about their demobbed Camel Trophy vehicles. Nowadays the club has members from all around the world and exists to connect the global Camel Trophy community. This includes Camel Trophy vehicle owners, ex-competitors and support staff, as well as anyone with an interest in Camel Trophy. There are two museums: one in Portugal, the other in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, both of these have been closed recently due to Covid-19. The Camel Trophy Club were also the grateful recipient of a huge collection of original transparencies and photographs from Camel Trophy 1988-2000.  Their assistance with imagery for the book was much appreciated. 

International Selection events were impressive gatherings (Photo: Lee Farrant)​​​​​​

And finally, given the complexities of the Camel Trophy story, how difficult was it to complete the book?

There was a lot to write about, and it has taken me several thousand hours to complete the book. It really has been a labour of love. I have hours of recorded interviews with dozens of individuals, and I have spent months researching contemporary reports. I spent a lot of money buying magazines from all around the world and then translating the articles using Google Translate.  Many of my friends and colleagues in the off-road scene have helped enormously.   David Bowyer, for example, supplied many photos that he’d taken at UK National Selections in the 1980s, as well as original brochures and press kits from the period. Former Event Directors Iain Chapman and Nick Horne have been incredible sources of material, as has Duncan Barbour, Graham Fazakarley (competitions manager 1983-1987) and Andreas Bender (event manager 1980-1985). Many individuals have opened up their personal collections of Camel Trophy images, magazine articles, original brochures and stickers, and I am very grateful to them. Being able to share this material with like-minded enthusiasts is one of the reasons I was keen to do this book. There really are some amazing photographs and I’m so pleased that almost every image in the book will be new to most people. Every page is a wow moment, helped by fantastic design by fellow Land Rover enthusiast Martin Port. 

Some of the hardest images to find were those from the events in the 1980s. The first three events were run by Camel Trophy Germany, while the others, up to 1987, were run by a different team to the individuals who looked after Trophy from 1988 to the end. I was determined to find new photography from these years and, with help from my friend Paul Entwistle in Germany, I was able to contact the original Camel Trophy photographer, Wolfgang Drehsen, who is now in his mid-70s. When he sent over 40 original Kodachromes from those first years, I really felt that I had something special. It was the same with the first event manager Andreas Bender who shared images from his pre-scouts in the 1980s and event photos from the first event in 1980. Graham Fazakarley provided images of the prototype Camel Trophy Land Rover One Ten and Ninetys being built, while Land Rover’s Chris Horne, who was one of the company’s observers on the first event to feature Land Rovers in 1981, shared an amazing selection of photos that he took during the 1981 Camel Trophy in Sumatra. An American photojournalist called Fred Stafford supplied many of the images from 1982. It really is a privilege to be able to share these with the readers of the book.

The rest of the images – from 1989 onwards – were produced by photographer Lee Farrant and his team – a team that I was honoured to be part of from 1996 onwards. As Philippe Cornut said – it really has gone full circle.

‘Camel Trophy – the Definitive History’ by Nick Dimbleby is published by Porter Press at the end of September and is priced at £60 for the classic edition (porterpress.co.uk)