Portugal by Land Rover Discovery

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the last ‘proper’ Camel Trophy event, AutoClassics tackles Portugal in a very special Land Rover Discovery

In association with

The mere mention of the Camel Trophy leaves seasoned Land Rover enthusiasts a chattering mess, overloaded with discussion points and admiration for what was once known as ‘the driving Olympics’.

Dumping teams in the wilderness with the task of navigating through relentless environments, squalid heat and impossible terrain no other vehicle has travelled, the Camel Trophy originally started off small – a group of Americans traversing the Trans-Amazonian Highway in Jeep CJ5s. Except that all the Jeeps broke down, no one finished the route and everyone caught diseases.

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And so, the organisers turned to Land Rover, which was happy to supply vehicles; first the Range Rover, then the Series III 88in, Ninety, One-Ten, Discovery and Freelander models as each year’s event grew in size.

The challenge became so popular that thousands of people applied for each position, with countries represented by two drivers sharing one vehicle. Competition was fierce, but comradeship was key to surviving. Teams supported one another, and special awards were given out at the finish line.

The Camel Trophy covered the deepest, most unreachable parts of Africa, Asia, Australia and South America, with the 1998 event taking place in Tierra del Fuego. Teams were now forced into outdoor exercises, alongside precision driving of the all-new Freelander.

However, Land Rover’s parent company at the time – BMW – felt that attention was being drawn away from the vehicles, and decided to sever ties with the competition. This spelled the end of the Camel Trophy as the world knew it, and while attempts were made to revive the brand, they were to no avail – the short-lived G4 Challenge was a damp squib in comparison.

The adventure begins….

My prior attempts at venturing off-road for big adventures have resulted in broken axles, stranded vehicles and even evading attack in Northern Ireland. I seem to be as experienced at keeping it together as Fat Joe is at eating salad.

So quite how I ended up at the foot of a mountain in a Portuguese national park is still beyond me, although I did have a bit of help. Besides having my long-suffering father, Colin Brown, by my side as navigator, our sturdy chariot was a Camel Trophy special-edition, first-generation Land Rover Discovery 300Tdi. Only 200 were made for the foreign market, to celebrate the vehicle’s participation in the 1997 event, and the whereabouts of the survivors are largely unknown.

It all started when I met the owner of the Camel Trophy Discovery during an off-road event in Peterborough. He’d travelled 1500 cross-country miles from Lisbon (using a ferry at one point, obviously) to attend, and showed off his Sandglow beauty that put my scruffy Range Rover P38 firmly in the shade.

Called José Almelda, he explained to me that he organised adventure holidays around regions of Portugal unseen by most tourists. He promptly invited me to partake of the experience. Having already nearly been kidnapped in Ireland, I viewed this offer with a little suspicion. However, José assured me Portugal was safe, welcoming and packed with culture.

I wouldn’t be taking my own vehicle – although you have that option for a smaller fee – as at present my two Land Rovers aren't quite trustworthy enough. Instead, José offered me use of his own vehicle, the Camel Trophy-edition Discovery. You would have to be mad to turn that down. As part of the service, José plans your route and selects your accommodation to your specification and budget, making it as cost effective or luxurious as you see fit.

Keen to improve my off-road skills, and offered a price I couldn’t refuse, I shrugged off my initial misgivings and set about packing my bags. After all, 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the Mongolian event, the last ‘proper’ Camel Trophy, which featured the Discovery 300tdi. What a way to mark the occasion.

Several months and a flight to Lisbon later, myself and my father were greeted by a warm smile from José. No doubt masking the fear that his pride and joy was being entrusted to Rab C Nesbitt and Co, the brave man walked us to where the 300tdi beast was waiting.

Day One

Getting to grips with driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, repeatedly opening the driver’s door when going for a gearchange, wincing at screams from my passenger as I wandered line to line trying to figure out the lane system of Lisbon’s busiest spaghetti junctions… My introduction to driving the Camel Trophy Discovery was not without its stresses. It was a relief to turn off into the sun-baked B-roads – except we discovered most of them were flooded.

The 300tdi might not be the most refined diesel engine, or the most frugal, but it packs a punch when required. As we approached the first of several wash-outs only a couple of hours into our journey, the driving position and torque left me with enough confidence to advance into the flood and create the bow wave required, water swirling around the door handles. The Landie pulled itself out the other side with aplomb – but our smug celebrations were cut short as we approached flooded woodland.

As we gingerly traversed the rutted tracks and steep inclines, accompanied by water burbling around the exhaust and the smell of hot mud, the mood in the cabin had changed from joyful adventurers into Laurel and Hardy. We were completely out of our depth, in the middle of nowhere.

We could feel each wheel losing traction as the mud thickened. Every time the ground moved, our stomachs dropped with apprehension. The revs chugged away to keep us going forward, while the ruts dictated our direction. The large circular thing in front of me was rendered largely useless, until the 4x4’s back end started to crab outwards, straight towards the steep drop into a ravine. My father was silent. I swear my heart stopped twice.

As the Discovery slowly pulled its rear into line, I could feel it bogging down into the marsh, the steering feather-light and useless. All I could do was keep the throttle wide open and the force as consistent as possible. As we left deep tyre tracks in our wake, we could see the road up ahead.

The engine revs sat near the red line, the noise from beyond the bulkhead almost unbearable. To our huge relief the front end finally lifted onto the track, the wheels scrabbling around until the tyres found grip. The Land Rover hauled itself out of the bog, and for the first time in almost 30 minutes we felt relaxed enough to speak.

Leaving the 300Tdi on tickover, we took a break to catch our breath. At this point, we couldn’t help but notice we were on the wrong side of the fence; studying our map as it rested on the mud-splattered bonnet, it dawned on us we’d taken a logging track that ended some time before the peat bog, meaning we’d been driving through unknown territory. With the realisation that we were lucky to escape, we plugged on. Thankfully the road to our hotel was tarmac – and the beer that afternoon was very well deserved.

Day Two

Winding through local villages in the hot sun, the route took us over the kind of rocky trails you really couldn’t tackle at more than 5mph without being thrown around like a dog toy. The Land Rover took everything in its stride, although the rubber took a bashing; it wasn’t long before that dreaded, churning, run-flat noise made itself known in the cabin. We had picked up one hell of a nail.

Unfortunately, while we had a healthy spare wheel, the jack was missing. Instead, we had to stop every three miles and top up the tyre pressure with a foot pump. In the 34-degree heat, this left us more than exhausted.

However, our glee was undeterred. The sun was shining, the sky was bright blue and the views remained jaw dropping… but then the tyre collapsed entirely. In a move Indiana Jones would be proud of, we eventually found large boulders with which to straddle the Discovery high enough to change the wheel, even if the manoeuvre felt ridiculously dangerous. Should something have gone wrong, the only eventual evidence would have been a skeleton lying under a bright yellow Land Rover.

With the wheel finally changed, we found ourselves ascending steeply though a series of sharp hairpin bends on a loose gravel track. Low range was required over the dips and troughs, but the views afforded by our climb were spectacular.

Up this high even the vultures had to wear thermals, yet the feast for the eyes was enough to leave us speechless. After an hour of taking in the view, it was time to head down the mountain – a task easier said than done. God bless the low-range gearbox...

Despite scenery that would have left Sir David Attenborough weeping on his knees, the Discovery was the real star of the show. Over two solid days, the Land Rover tackled sand, mud, rivers, peat bogs, floods and dank ruts with nary an squeak of protest. The only issue was a puncture, caused by driver error – yes, mine.

Unlike any other 4x4 out there, the Discovery strikes that perfect balance of utilitarianism and class – akin to running cross country with Princess Anne. Gutsy, practical, dependable and virtually unstoppable when presented with an obstacle that would leave lesser off-roaders heading straight for the tarmac, it was never doubted by clan McDiscovery. Yet it left the drivers looking competent, which is a big ask of any 4x4 in a tricky situation.

I was both impressed and smitten. Don’t be surprised to find me grinning next to a fresh purchase as 2018 rolls in.

Photography courtesy of Colin Brown

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