23 July 2022
For eight years, Iain Chapman ran the Camel Trophy at the pinnacle of its fame and popularity. This is his story…
"I never really had what you’d call a plan,” confesses Iain Chapman with a wry smile and a twinkle in his eye, “but I always made a point of embracing every opportunity in life that came my way!” And during the course of the six or seven hours I spend in the delightful and inspiring company of the man forever associated with running the Camel Trophy, it becomes crystal clear that this is precisely what he did!
Iain’s third year as Event Manager, Tanzania-Burundi 1991
“I left Perth High School in 1964 without any idea of what I wanted to do,” he says. “There was no such thing as careers advice in those days, but I’d been an enthusiastic Rover Scout and was into rock-climbing and hill walking, and I was a passionate Munro-bagger. So when I heard about an opportunity to join the Ordnance Survey as a trainee cartographic surveyor, it sounded ideal. A job that would keep me outdoors and active that involved maps seemed to be a good fit!
“I passed the interview and was told to report to the OS surveying school at Southampton for a one-year training course. The OS would then decide where to post me but because my father had been taken ill, I asked if I could be posted close to home. I was pleasantly surprised when the OS sent me to its office in Perth! I thoroughly enjoyed the work and was given a Series II painted in Ordnance Survey purple as a company car, and I had an official warrant card that gave me the right to go onto any land in Scotland. During the four years I spent with the Ordnance Survey I did a lot of off-road miles in that Series II, and it was the start of my lifelong passion for Land Rovers.
“In those days the Ordnance Survey was run by the British Army’s Corps of Royal Engineers. At an OS event I met a senior Royal Engineer surveyor and we got chatting, and he encouraged me to apply for a short-service commission and I decided to give it a try. I passed the entry board and was sent to Mons Officer Cadet School for six months intensive training and was commissioned into the Corps of Royal Engineers as a Second Lieutenant in 1968. In theory my commission was for a minimum of three years, but I ended up staying for ten. Needless to say, Land Rovers were a daily part of Army life, as were Bedford RL lorries!
Iain in the army, pictured top left
“My first posting was to Paderborn in Germany. This was the height of the Cold War, of course, and the British military had a huge presence in Germany at that time. I had various postings in Germany and was there for a total of seven years. I was promoted to Lieutenant and later to Captain, then to Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, as the Ops Officer of 39 Engineer Regiment (Airfields), and finally to 8 Field Squadron RE at Tidworth. I thoroughly enjoyed my Army career and of course you didn’t need a plan because the Army decided what you would do and where and when you would do it!
“The problem was they wanted me to go to Staff College as a prerequisite for promotion to Major, and once I’d done this I’d be given a staff job. This didn’t sound like much fun to me. By now I was married with a son and a daughter and I’d worked out that I was never going to make much money in the Army, so I decided to leave.
“I saw a job advertised with IBM for a sales role and the money looked good. They offered me the job and I became the person responsible for selling their office equipment across a patch that included Coventry, Rugby and, funnily enough, Solihull. Most people under 40 will never have heard of things like golf-ball electric typewriters, but they were the red-hot office tech in the late 1970s and I sold them by the bucket load! Nevertheless, it was increasingly clear to me that this would be a temporary career move and so I started to think about what else I might do.
Sideways view on Siberian pre-scout in late 1989
“I stumbled across an advert for Chief Development Officer at the Underwater Training Centre at Fort William and applied for it. Some years earlier, when I was in Germany, I’d completed an Army shallow water divers’ course and become a specialist Royal Engineers Diving Officer. Basically, the Army was responsible for diving between high- and low-water, while the Royal Navy Clearance Divers took care of the deeper stuff. I did a lot of diving in Germany, often to do with locating and clearing munitions and other second world war stuff that had been dumped and was now becoming an issue as Germany’s massive post-war development boom gathered momentum. We fished out all sorts of interesting things and also got involved in various local community initiatives with the civilian population, such as unblocking waterways. I hoped my diving qualification and experience would help when I applied for the job in Fort William. They did, and I got the job and the family moved to Fort William.
“The Underwater Training Centre had been initiated by the Government’s Manpower Services Commission to provide a high-quality training environment for commercial divers, including deep-water saturation dive training, driven primarily by the unacceptable accident rates that prevailed at the time in the North Sea oil industry.
“I remember discovering that the Training Centre was supposed to have a Range Rover on strength for high-speed casualty evacuation for divers with the bends who couldn’t be airlifted for specialist treatment. I couldn’t find it anywhere! Rumour has it that it was being used on the Devon farm of a well-known Tory MP!
Iain as a qualified specialist Royal Engineers Diving Officer
“I was at UTC for around 18 months before a colleague, Terry Hall, and I decided in 1980 to set up our own diving company, TI Diving Services International Ltd, in Aberdeen. One of our first major clients was a wealthy but controversial Japanese businessman who had made it his personal mission to recover what was supposed to be a fortune in gold and platinum that had gone down in the Tsarist Russian Navy armoured cruiser Admiral Nakhimov during the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War. The Soviet government considered the wreck to be its property so the whole thing was very political.
“Mr Sasakawa had convinced himself that the stories regarding gold and platinum ingots were true, and Terry and I moved out to Japan to run his dive team. The wreck was almost 300 feet down and after a few months it was obvious that we needed a specialist dive support vessel and I was sent back to the UK by Mr Sasakawa to buy one, although my bank manager in Inverness was a bit nonplussed when the $10m I’d been given to do so arrived in my bank account!
“Eventually we found the perfect ship, a multi-purpose, crane-equipped dive support and workshop vessel of 4100 tons named the Northern Installer, and I did the deal. The ship was sailed to the dive site in the Straights of Tsushima, between Japan and South Korea, and she immediately made the whole project far easier and quicker.
“I wasn’t there when Sasakawa released photographs of what appeared to be the recovered cargo of gold bullion, platinum and British Sovereigns, which he claimed was worth billions of dollars. He offered to give the lot to the Soviets in return for them restoring the disputed Kuril Islands to Japan. Some of the ingots turned out to be lead, and to be honest I never really discovered whether the dive team had really discovered anything of value, or whether the whole thing was a PR stunt driven by Sasakawa’s politics. Either way, the expedition was terminated at that point and as far as I know the treasure might still be down there, if it was ever there in the first place of course!
“We’d done very well out if it financially, though, and it had certainly been a great adventure. Sasakawa was an interesting character and had a habit of coming to meetings on the dive support ship dressed in a full admiral’s uniform.
“After the Japanese adventure we got involved with the first ROVs, or Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicles, ever to operate in the UK and we were very successful with things like dam surveys and the like. We then commissioned a pioneering hydraulically powered ROV but this coincided with the OPEC problem that led to the price of oil crashing, and our markets disappeared overnight. We won a contract off the coast of Tasmania and that was going well until the support boat ran over our ROV which sank and was a total loss. Our insurers were very good about it and paid up, but we eventually wound up the company in 1984.
Deeside Piper newspaper, February 1987
“Ever without a plan, I considered retiring at that point, but I was approached by Ferranti Offshore Services Ltd to manage their Subsea Interventions division, which focussed on diver-less intervention at depths as far down as 10,000 feet. I accepted their offer and would go on to spend four years with them. I was based in Aberdeen and living at Aboyne, and with more spare time on my hands I joined the Deeside 4x4 Club and entered their events in my Lightweight. I also built a bobtailed two-door Range Rover pick-up which was a very capable off-roader, although nowadays what I did would be considered an act of vandalism!
“It was while on a club off-road outing that I came across an application form for the 1987 Camel Trophy buried at the bottom of one of our lunch boxes, and I remember the conversation with other club members about whether it was worth applying. Everyone said it was a waste of time, a fashion shoot or a fix, so I put the form in my coat pocket and thought no more about it.
UK selections for the 1987 event. Iain bridge building with Bob Ives in the background
“A couple of months later I was in a meeting in my office in Aberdeen when my PA, Liz, who’d been with me for years, came into the room to say that something important had come up. I stepped outside and she very excitedly told me that she’d taken a call asking me to report to Beverley, near Hull, for selection trials. I had no idea what she was talking about until she explained rather coyly that she’d found the Camel form in my pocket, decided it was something I’d enjoy doing, filled it in and sent it off!
“It was a very pleasant surprise and I decided to give it a go. I turned up at Beverley in my tweed jacket and my plus-fours and stood out like a sore thumb. As well as being dressed rather differently to everyone else I was considerably older than all the other candidates, who all seemed to know each other. Duncan Barbour, George Bee, Ronnie Dale and Bob and Joe Ives were people I’d get to know very well during the trials and over the ensuing years, and all would become lifelong friends.
UK selection for the 1987 event. Iain taking out the winch with Duncan Barbour behind the wheel
“I’m often asked what I remember of those selection trials and to be honest I thought it was all very British in the sense that it seemed pretty amateurish! There was some off-road driving, some questions about car mechanics and a lot of knot-tying and lashing, and much of it seemed pretty pointless to me at the time, which is why I was astounded to learn that I’d been chosen to be in the UK team. I’d been teamed with George Bee, also with a diving industry background. In addition to George and I were two journalists in the rear seats, Ian Adcock and Jerry Hart.
“And that’s how I ended up in Madagascar for the 1987 Camel Trophy. Having never participated in a Camel event before I had no idea at the time that history would subsequently decide that the 1987 event was what you might call a game changer! The whole event was a total shambles, really, and at one point there were stand-up rows with the organisers and mutiny among the competitors!
Iain and George Bee were Team UK in the 1987 event
“Since its inception, Camel Trophy had always been a bit of a light-hearted affair that had operated under its own rules. It was really no more than a thousand-mile off-road drive with some special tasks along the way to break-up the monotony and keep everyone entertained. It was supposed to be fun! But by 1987 the teams had become more competitive and when the organisers seemed to be playing fast and loose with the rules, tempers flared. There were accusations that the US team was being favoured over the rest, and it all got a bit out of hand. In the end, the organisers called time after just 12 or 13 of the planned 20 special tasks had been completed. Future Camel events would be run very differently indeed.
“And as for team UK, we were ahead at the end of the first special task but it all went pear-shaped after that, and the event was won by the Italian team. It was the first time that the VM-powered Range Rover Turbo D had been used on the Camel, although the Range Rover had been utilised twice before in 3.5 V8 form, in Sumatra in 1981 and Papua New Guinea in 1982.
“I’d come away believing that the event needed to be run much more professionally and with clearer rules, but I also felt that there needed to be a better recognition of what it was all about. The reality is that R J Reynolds were sponsoring it because they wanted to sell more Camel products. It was as simple as that and it wasn’t the ‘Olympics of off-roading’ as some had described it. Many people saw it as a Land Rover event, but the reality was that Reynolds didn’t really care whose vehicles they used, and there had been regular discussions about changing to other manufacturers. I also thought it would benefit from having past-competitors involved in the selection and training of future competitors.
Discussing the route with Event Manager Chris Drew (left) and George Bee, Madagascar 1987
“I wasn’t the only one who believed things needed to change. Chris Drew was the event manager in 1987 and he got a lot of stick from the teams and the press, but his bosses at Reynolds stood by him and he came up with some dramatic changes that would be introduced for the 1988 event. These included holding the special tasks at the beginning and the end of the event so they didn’t interfere with the completion of the route itself, and the bringing in of professional specialists. These included UK-based public relations agency Jardine PR, a company called World Championship Promotions who brought vast expertise and professionalism in the areas of motorsport regulations and competition rules, and an adventure travel company called Sobek who looked after route planning, travel and logistics.
“Meanwhile I’d gone back to work at Ferranti and Camel Trophy was soon just a memory, but out of the blue I got a call from Chris asking me if I would like to join the event team for 1988 as a marshal. I arranged to take all my annual leave in one go and joined the team on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The 1988 event went very well indeed and there was none of the animosity and unpleasantness that had marked Camel Trophy the previous year.
“Chris Drew’s boss, Duncan Lee, called me when we were back in the UK, inviting me to London for a chat about Camel Trophy. Chris had decided to take on a new role at R J Reynolds back in the US, and he’d been asked by Duncan to identify a possible successor as Camel Trophy event manager. Chris had suggested me, hence the invitation to a chat in London. Duncan asked me if I was interested and I told him I most certainly was, and four weeks later, after I’d served my notice at Ferranti, I moved down to London and started my new job as Manager, Special Events at R J Reynolds. I was shown to my new office and I remember there was a desk, a chair, a lamp, an empty bookshelf and single cardboard box with a dozen files in it – the entire history of the Camel Trophy up to that date. I realised I had a lot of work to do!
Winching manoeuvre on the Indian pre-scout in 1990
“Over the next eight years I would organise and run a total of eight Camel Trophy events in the Amazon, Siberia, Tanzania-Burundi, Guyana, Malaysia, Argentina-Paraguay-Chile, Mundo Maya in Guatemala, and Kalimantan, and also complete the final planning for the 1997 event that was held in Mongolia. I quickly built my own team and I like to think I led from the front! My bosses in R J Reynolds quickly got to the point where they were happy with what I was doing and they pretty much left me to get on with it, with just a few budget and reporting meetings throughout the year.
Promoted to Event Director for Guyana ’92
“In any given year we would be running that year’s Camel Trophy, wrapping up the previous year’s event and planning the next two events, so there was never a dull moment! The recces and pre-scouts were vital in determining whether we thought we could hold a successful event in a given geography, and some recces led to us dropping locations that had initially seemed promising, such as Ivory Coast, Alaska, and Vietnam. India was in a pretty advanced stage in the planning process but our pre-scout expedition there convinced me that we wouldn’t be able to make it work.
“Looking back, I think my military training was probably the biggest asset I had when it came to running Camel Trophy. In every country we would try to secure contacts at the highest possible level among local politicians, police and the military. Military people in every country have a sort of common language and respect that’s difficult to put into words. I knew that once I’d made contact with the appropriate senior officers locally, I would be able to hold a successful event.
With Team USA 1987, Don Floyd (left) and Tom Collins
“I worked with a lot of great people from Land Rover over the years who personally put a huge amount of work into Camel Trophy, although I have to say that there were times when it seemed to me that corporately Land Rover were not totally committed to the event, and I certainly think they did not get as much out of it as they could have.
“Over the years we had to contend with a number of other significant issues, including the re-branding of the event to promote Camel Trophy merchandise rather than Camel cigarettes, which was driven by the restrictions that were being imposed on tobacco advertising around the world. We also had to manage changes within R J Reynold’s internal organisation that led to us reporting to a new entity, Worldwide Brands International, and later to a subsidiary of WBI called Global Events Management.
Closing ceremony for the 1991 event
“And in the early 1990s we found ourselves the target of significant criticism from the rapidly-strengthening environmental lobby who were accusing us of causing significant damage and destruction. Land Rover, which was by then a formal co-sponsor of the event, responded with its ‘Fragile Earth’ policy and its ‘Tread Lightly’ principles, and the media were asking how Camel Trophy fitted into those environmental standards. We were quick to point out the various ways the Camel Trophy had already benefitted the countries that had hosted it, in terms of foreign currency brought in, repairs to infrastructure that the teams had carried out, and the effort that went into protecting the environment during each event. Nevertheless, we realised that we needed to up our game and be seen to be ‘giving something back’, and all subsequent events featured an environmental or ecological project that the teams would become involved with.
“I wasn’t totally surprised when the event finally fizzled out. The 1997 Camel Trophy which was the first one to take place after I’d left, ended up being a strange event with mountain bikes and kayaks, and of course the final event in 2000 was not really worthy of the Camel Trophy name, in my view! The media had lost the plot and it failed to attract a meaningful audience. And don’t even ask me what I think about the G4 thing that followed!
Discovery 2 in India during the 1998 Trek
“Nevertheless, I had eight hugely enjoyable years running the event and I’m very proud of what we achieved during that time. After I left, I set up a consultancy offering specialist expedition and event planning and I continued to work for Land Rover on various projects. One of these was very special and involved a great guy called Bill Baker, who had been the marketing and PR guru behind the hugely successful launch of the Range Rover into the North American market in 1987. Bill had been assigned to Land Rover in the UK and he and I worked closely on the planning and execution of the ‘New Discovery Trek’ in 1998 that was the world’s longest test drive of a new vehicle. Bill and I drove the whole thing together and were joined by journalists from all over the world for particular sections. We drove through 28 countries on four continents, covering over 30,000 kilometres in 58 days.
“I also worked on an ambitious project for Guinness World Records that was envisaged as a London-to-London world record attempt, but after I’d put a year of effort into it the organisers cancelled it on the grounds that it would be too costly. By contrast, the Mission Antarctica project was a huge success! I was contracted by a charity led by the explorer Robert Swan, the first person to walk to both Poles, to plan, organise and execute the removal of 2000 tons of mixed waste from the old Soviets base at Bellingshausen on King George Island.
“I moved to the charity’s base at Darlington and over the next few weeks developed a plan that involved hiring a suitable ship, a tug-boat, tractors with front loaders, buckets and backhoes, a pontoon dock, skips and a crew of 12. It all came together remarkably well and we delivered the waste to a recycling plant in Uruguay.
“In 2001 my wife, Jenni, and I decided to try something different and before we knew it, we’d bought a hotel in Canterbury! It brought a whole new set of challenges and experiences, and we used to host Camel Trophy weekends at the hotel on a regular basis. I’ve always enjoyed my involvement with the Club and Camel enthusiasts generally, and I still do. We ran the hotel for 12 years before selling it to someone who walked in off the street one day. Needless to say, we weren’t actually planning to sell up at the time!”
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