The Camel Trophy – All That Counts Is To Win! Or Not?
" Yeah - We made it! " What a feeling, after four weeks in the South Seas at one the world’s largest orienteering race – the first ever in 20-feet rigid inflatable speedboats. Within a stretch of almost 1000 nautical miles between Tonga and Samoa, 326 locations waited for us to be discovered. Each of the 16 teams from all over the world pursued its own strategy with the goal to find as much location markers as possible and to reach them before the competing teams. Optimal organization in the team was the prerequisite for the victory, as much as a reliable, well waited boat and a precise chart and satellite navigation. Constant urge and drive over 13 competition days were needed in order not to lose the pace, especially during unfortunate situations of which no team remained spared.
From the experienced sailor to the greenhorn in high seas, everything met to the four-day material battle before the start. Targets: prepare the boat to suit competition, get accustomed to the rather unexpectedly wet-cool climate, get used to eachother and make eachother nervous…Visible gimmicks here, hidden cheats there – who was just bluffing, and who was really strong? Things that would only become clear after the start signal which was released by His Majesty The King of Tonga personally. Tensions disappeared immediately with the Formula One - like mass start of all those yellow Camel Trophy boats. Absolutely great!
How would the team Judi and Padi from the small country without a sea handle the RIB boat in the periculous conditions of open seas, the swell and the reefs? And how would they deal with the tricky english in the location directory to find the location markers? For the first time really left alone, we were delivered to inaccurate sea charts, to difficult estimate of the forces of nature and to time pressure. We immediately experienced real adventures, where human and material were spared only with luck: Already on the start day our aluminum propeller suffered isolated reefs during ebb-tide. On the next morning a reef passage revealed itself as none, and after we fortunately managed to cross over the man-high swell, another high wave dropped directly onto the boat of the British team that followed us. We watched how it rolled over like a toy, one time, a second time, and finally got stuck on the sharp coral. With much strength the english blokes still made it to the end of the Trophy, but their chances to win were gone. On the same day I sweated blood, when I climbed a reefbreak with my bike on the shoulder to swim back out to our boat that was waiting for me after a tour round a quarter of the island of Tongatapu. Well, that was our lesson about the difference between theory and practice.
Strengthened from those adventures, we very soon detected our true enemies: the small creeping things. No, I do not mean the uncommonly poisonous water snakes, nor the sunburns (to be frank, the sun did not seem able at all with all that rain…). But I mean the salt, that ate into everything alive or dead. We continuously looked after our cuts and bruises, and protected the equipment from humidity and rust. My clock was hardly audible in the early mornings, and so the short time between sunrise and start to the next leg seemed even shorter…What a stress every morning to break down the camp and get something into the stomach as long as we were still on land! During competition and surrounded by so much water, we often forgot to drink and so we dehydrated. Waves and speed added to rock’n’roll kind of shaking on the boat. Wind and splashing-water freezed us that we started trembling of cold, in addition to all that rocking of the boat. The tape-deck of our super-on-board-stereo never even worked. No way by means of music to convert hectic and stress into positive drive and to raise the moral. I really missed all that Offspring, Red Hot and other hot sound..…
in the evenings, the short time to nightfall had to be used efficiently:
secure and maintain the boats, plan the next day, set up the camp. As the
Trophy went on, all our gear developped stranger and stranger smells -
the tropical humidity made it impossible to dry wet clothes.
My sleeping bag was a nightmare. The cosy nights at the campfire were scarce, we hardly had true romantic moments except maybe during our first attempts to open a coconut in order to bring some alternation to the boring Adventure Food "Boil in the Bags". But that’s what makes us become hard Trophyans. We even missed the penetrating mud from earlier years…
Striving for the first rank is tiring, particularly if there is no further free holidays to win and we know that other teams harmonize more than we do. From a certain moment on, Judy and I gave up the eagerness of gathering points. Other things were more important, like scuba diving at vertical reefs, snorkeling into underwater tunnels, dramatic abseiling manoeuvers, exchange of friendly gestures with the native children,exciting sights of sharks, whales and turtles.
While the photographers and cameramen still got their action-loaded shots, we enjoyed every opportunity to enjoy the fantastic environment. When the weather at last improved in Vava'u, the Sea showed itself from the sunny side. The lagoons were covered with these turquoise colours and we nearly flipped out. We were in paradise: Where piglets and little chicken run around freely in the forests. Where nutritious fruits and roots grow without much effort. Where fish and Octopus just bathe in the grounds of the lagoon to be caught for dinner. Where time seems to stop, because it just simply is of no importance in this corner of the world.
The most difficult task was the two-legged 340 nautical miles long crossing northwards to Samoa. It was not part of the competition. But nevertheless everyone had to fight and suffer - 11 hours of Rodeo on a small boat, each second an impact from a choppy wave, flashing through vertebrals and joints. Water, water, nothing but water all around, the burning sun, swollen lips from the salt, the eager but disappointing look for land. Who did not get crazy on that horror trip? It certainly was a mad experience and will surely never forget it! Our confidence into the navigation equipment, our feeling of safety thanks to the other four boats of our group and to the helicopter that accompanied us now and again, all this could not cover the fact that a towed yellow boat had made itself independent the night before. It got lost in the endless ocean despite a long systematic search with all the boats and the helicopter only a few hours later. What a hanger…
Samoa: Fourth and last competition phase, water temperature 27 degrees, each day tropical rainfalls, two enormous islands with sharp black lava rock coasts and deep green thick vegetation, marvellous waterfalls and friendly inhabitants, who live in coloured huts without walls. Funny, the way everyone can see into those neat but functional " Fale"s. In the Samoan capital called Apia we even found a McDonald’s restaurant. Of course it was only half as cool as the four meter long baby whale-shark we met on our very last scuba safari.
Finally we partied the traditional “You Made It!” Ceremony, and there was a big event in town where important officials had the honour of handing over the awards to the winners of the Camel Trophy. I watched without too much remorse – 10th position was fine, being part of it, having completed the whole race was great!
Fair enough, we managed to exchange some clothing with the winners Wim and Xavier. These South Africans are really cool folks! Sad, they and other teams left the same night to go back to their home countries, to their families and their jobs…Only a few of us had the luck to spend a couple more days in paradise – without camel boats though, but also without the pressure of competition and media.
What remains, are memories to share with lots of new friends from all over the world, and marvellous pictures and action films, in which to be a star had always been a dream. It came true! Unfortunately it was the last Camel Trophy. But surely not the last adventure !!! The paradise still exists, places like the South Seas are not illusion. Only please beware of the unrestrained hunt for clichés - for it can be destructive!
Padi Jeannerat, July 30th 2000 (translated from German on February 2nd 2001)