Trophy hunters


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One of last summer's highlights for Pat : credit: © Nick Dimbleby
Owners of the limited edition Defender Works V8 Trophy were invited to take part in the first-ever Land Rover Trophy at Eastnor Castle – former editor Pat was there to join in the challenge

Land Rover doesn’t like using the c-word anymore. No, not that one. I am referring to the Camel Trophy, of course, the off-roading Olympics which ran from 1980 until 2000. An annual event that took more than 500 amateur adventurers from 35 countries on the Land Rover ride of their lives.

For two decades participants took their distinctive Sandglow Land Rovers through seemingly impenetrable forests and up impassable mountain tracks. It was an event that won the hearts and minds of wannabe adventurers and 4x4 enthusiasts the world over.

Then enter the PC police and suddenly smoking (sponsor Camel was a cigarette brand and not an animal with two humps) and bashing through virgin forests were not deemed to be cool anymore. And that was that for over two decades.

Well, we did have the two Land Rover G4 Challenge events (held in 2003 and 2006) but they were more like modern-day adventure races with a small element of off-road driving. I should know, I attended both.

Something you don’t often see –  the grounds of Eastnor Castle looking like the savannah​​​​​​

Then in February 2021 it all changed: Land Rover Classic announced it was building 25 adventure-ready Defender Works V8 Trophy vehicles. Owners would have to cough up £195,000 for a 90 and a bit more for one of the reworked 110 old-style Defenders, but as a bonus they would be able to take part in the first-ever Land Rover Trophy at Eastnor Castle.

This was supposed to have happened in 2021 but because of lockdowns and travel restrictions it didn’t take place until July this year, by which time only 11 of the 25 owners were available to take part.

How does a Defender Works V8 Trophy compare with, say, my or your old Defender? Well, Land Rover Classic first had to get its hands on 25 low-mileage old-style Defenders before popping in their 5.0-litre V8 engines which deliver almost 400bhp. The engine is mated to an eight-speed ZF auto transmission, while brakes and handling are also changed to cope with the uprated power output. According to the normally accurate Land Rover rumour mill, the 25 were sold within 48 hours.


Day 1

Suited and booted: Pat, left, with 'co-driver' Neil and their Trophy V8

I find myself at the Eastnor Castle Land Rover Experience centre along with 11 of the 25 owners of these low-volume yet highly sought-after overpriced yellow Defenders. However, if one considers the £225,000 price tag of an all-electric Defender from Twisted, or what Urban charges for one of its V8 Defenders, then maybe these 11 new owners got off lightly. For some of the 11 this is the first time they are seeing their new limited-edition old Defenders. Others have had to bring theirs to the UK for the three-day Land Rover Trophy event which just happens to coincide with the hottest two days in the history of Great Britain. I hope none of them experience overheating problems. I’m talking about the V8s, of course, and not the competitors.

I feel very privileged to be taking part. The other member of the media team is none other than Neil Watterson, the editor of Land Rover Owners International. Over the past decade Neil and I have shared many a Land Rover on UK press events and I only have the utmost respect for my adversary-turned-teammate because of his immense knowledge of all things Land Rover.

While staff members from Land Rover Classic do vehicle handovers to the other 11 participants, Neil and I are handed the keys to ‘our’ 90 by Matthew Bailey, the Business Development Manager at Classic Land Rover. “We are immensely proud of the final product that we are handing over to the excited customers today. I remember when we came up with this idea and at long last we are now at the unique event stage.”

The likeable American team of Max Thomason and Jonathan Steppe finished 2nd overall

The inside of our 90 looks nothing like the cabin of the last old Defenders to roll off the production line on that sad day back in 2016. These have full black leather interiors with tasteful yellow stitching. Seats are of the Recaro sports variety while our friends at Elliot Brown developed the Land Rover Trophy clock face. Externally the Defender has additional underbody protection, a Warn winch, mud tyres, raised air intake, roof rack, spot-lights and a roll cage. All very handy when roaming the streets of Amsterdam or Munich.

I don’t know of any other 4x4 or Land Rover event where owners take delivery of their vehicle at the start and then go on to compete in it on muddy and dusty trails where the chances of damaging something are very, very real. This probably explains why after the handover and lunch at our Base Camp, the first afternoon was spent doing some training.

Winching was the first order of the day

Teams were split into three groups and we all headed off in different directions. First up for our group was some winch training as each vehicle was equipped with a top-of-the-range Warn 9.9CTI winch and, unlike most modern winches, it still has the harder-to-handle steel cable, just as they would have had on the old Camel Trophy event.

All the driving, winch training and challenges are hosted by the very friendly and experienced Eastnor Land Rover Experience staff. Many have partaken in similar type events in the past and are enthusiasts themselves.

Neil and I have done a fair bit of winching in the past but it is good to get to grips with the basics again: it’s been a while since I last used a winch. Most of the training focuses on winching in a safe and controlled manner.

Eastnor’s trails were uncharacteristically dry, but then it was the UK’s hottest-ever day

From here we head to the nearby off-road tracks of Deer Park. Some of you may have camped here while attending Land Rover shows at this venue in years gone by.

To start off with the tracks are of the gentle variety but then we are told to engage low-range. This can be done while still slowly rolling forward; in fact it goes into low a whole lot easier then, than if standing still. As we start to climb a gnarly section of rocky track the radio crackles to life and the instructor warns us of extreme side slopes.

Our 90 is a right-hand drive model but as most of the 11 other Defenders are going to Europe, many left-hookers. I can see some drivers in front of us struggling to stay in the tracks with their 110s. I just steer straight on and not up the side slope, even when the 90 slides. I just use the power to get us out of the slide.

On several of the steep declines the 90 just runs away with us and so I have to apply lots of heavy braking; the Defender doesn’t have hill descent control. It even does this when we select low-range first gear. It doesn’t feel right and is probably something that can be sorted with a software tweak.

Editing Land Rover mags, building log bridges – is there no end to Pat’s talents?

After an hour of off-roading we head to the bridge building section where we are met by brothers Simon and Marc Day – these chaps have been involved in more Camel Trophies than anyone else I know. Marc competed in the Trophy in 1988 while Simon was in charge of Special Tasks on several events. Towards the end of the Camel years Simon set up D3, the company responsible for the Camel Trophy logistics and competitions from 1998 onwards. We are in very capable and experienced hands. Simon and Marc show us how to tie several types of knots, a skill we will most certainly find useful over the next couple of days. After dinner at Base Camp all the teams head back to the hotel to cool down. Did I mention it was pretty hot?


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Day 2

After a cooked breakfast at Base Camp the first day of the competition kicks off. Teams are organised into groups of three and we are paired with two of the German teams.

Our first challenge is to recover a stuck new Defender. Instead of using our winches, and to save time, we use a recovery rope but the surface is too slippery and the V8 struggles for traction. We then decide to attach a second recovery vehicle to the first one and this makes the world of difference. The new Defender is now easily recovered from the steep incline.

Then it’s time to put our knot tying skills to the test by building a bridge using logs and rope. Once done all teams have to drive across and back over the bridge to make sure it works. There’s something about driving an old yellow Defender over a log bridge…

Build the bridge, drive over the bridge – this is where you have to have faith in your teammates

Top: driving blind. Above: spill the least water you can while driving around a tricky course

During lunch I slip away for a sneaky swim in the lake: it is, after all, the hottest day ever recorded in the UK. After lunch we do some more off-roading before taking on a few challenges. These are not done as a group but rather as individual teams. These include driving blindfolded, driving over a technical track with a bucket of water on the bonnet (the team that spills the least water is declared the winner) and finally driving on some train tracks with missing bits. Despite the severe heat Neil and I tackle the challenges as best we can, while having loads of fun in the process.

My favourite activity of the day is when both team members have a go at driving the V8 in a big field, through several gates at best speed. I literally drive it like I stole it but without rolling it. Can life get any better?   


Day 3

Moving heavy blocks around requires rope skills and ingenuity​​​​​​

I note a few tired looking competitors clocking in at the base camp hot breakfast on the final day of competition. Or maybe they had enjoyed a few too many scoops the night before? Fortunately for all it has cooled considerably and by the time we leave base camp for our next set of events, light rain starts to fall. This is more like the Eastnor I know. We are once again paired with other teams, and first up is a winching challenge which requires several people working together. It involves individually moving several heavy blocks which make up a pyramid, from one square to another.

Sounds easy? Anything but. We have to work together safely using two winches and a large hook which is on an elevated pulley system. Controlling the hook by using two winches is not easy and myself and one of the other team members use another rope which is attached to the hook, to pull it where we want it to go.  After nearly 15 minutes we are eventually done. It has been one of my favourite challenges so far.

Water challenge was welcome in the heat

We head to the Musto Water Driving challenge next, which involves driving through some tight gates on a cement 4x4 track which has twists, turns, cross-axles and side slopes, before finally taking our 90 through a water run. Some tricky reversing is also involved. Neil drives for this challenge while I’m outside the vehicle guiding him through the gates.

For some owners it would be their first experience of what a Defender is capable of

We have one more challenge before our lunch break, the Elliot Brown Time Trial. Neil and I have to drive the same technical course and see if we can complete it in exactly the same time. We use the old Camel Trophy trick and flip on the windscreen wipers so that we can count the number of times they flick to and fro during the drives. We both drive the course in exactly 196 windscreen wiper to and fro swipes, but yet our times are ten seconds apart. That is ten windscreen wiper flicks. Maybe one of us can’t count…

Mental and physical challenges proved equally as difficult

After lunch the fun continues as we have to solve three challenging puzzles in the forest. Each one is against the clock and we manage two of the three. Finally, all teams are called back to base camp and everyone is split into two teams. One of the Defenders has been placed on a floating barge on the far side of the lake with a rope and pulley attached to each side of the barge. The two teams then stand on opposite banks of the lake and once Simon sounds the hooter the tug-of-war commences. We have a few burly team members and easily win this one.

Eastnor Castle provides an iconic backdrop. This Defender and barge were used for a tug-of-war across the lake ​​​​​​

The obligatory group photo with Eastnor Castle as a backdrop follows before we are sent away to freshen up for the gala dinner.  At the dinner Eric Tick and Jurgen Straatman are crowned winners of the event – their prize is an all- expenses paid trip to Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, in a Land Rover, obviously.

I chat to LRM subscriber Eric, the popular winner, about his team’s victory and owning Defenders. “Defenders have a special place in my heart and this is my third Defender; all have been 90s. I always wanted to have a V8 which is why I purchased one of these 25 limited edition Defenders.” I have to ask Eric if he had any reservations about off-roading it? “I did think to myself on the first day that we are crazy taking these sought-after Defenders off-road, but the great thing is we have done challenges one would not normally do in your Defender. Now I have the confidence to do it all again in the same Defender. Which is what they are for right?”

Overall winners Eric Tick and Jurgen Straatman,  pictured with Michael van der Sande, the SVO MD

Finally, I ask if he enjoyed the event. “I am glad the challenges and events were not just all about driving, it was a great mix and loads of fun. Some of the people here have maybe not done off-roading or driven a Defender before, so they couldn’t make it too tough. I think they got the balance right. We are massively proud of winning this event. It means a lot to me and my teammate.”

While the last Camel Trophy event was nearly a quarter of a century ago, the experience of crossing a log bridge or powering through thick mud in a Sandglow Yellow Defender will always stir something special in the Land Rover enthusiast. Judging by the wide smiles on the faces of the owners of these unique Defenders, the inaugural Land Rover Trophy did just that.


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