“It was hilarious, it was frustrating, it was fun, it was a pain in the ass — it was all that stuff, all in this big ball. It was great,” says Mike Hussey somewhat wistfully as he recalls competing in and winning the 1993 Camel Trophy in Sabah, Malaysia. “It was some seriously good adventure with some great guys.”
One thing people get wrong about the Camel Trophy is assuming it was a race. It was competitive, sure, but more accurately stated it was the Olympics of 4×4: 32 men, comprising 16 teams from 16 different countries — including France, the Canary Islands, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands, among others — embarked on a 1,000-mile expedition, competing in a variety of events and challenges along the way. The event ran for 20 years between 1980 and 2000 in remote regions the world over.
Around 1,000 individuals applied to be a part of Team USA for the ‘93 event. Hussey was working as a geologist in Middlebury, Vermont, and only had a passing familiarity of the Camel Trophy before he filled out the application that a friend had faxed to him. Hussey went for it, but didn’t have the wallet-sized photo that coordinators requested — the friend said he would take care of it. A committee then narrowed down all the applications to just 10 individuals who would go to the US Trials in Grand Junction, Colorado. Ironically, Hussey was picked to be a part of those 10 while his friend wasn’t.
“Not having much four-wheel-driving experience, I was surprised to get selected to go,” said Hussey. It wasn’t until a year after Hussey had competed in the Camel Trophy that he found out why, when he returned to serve on the same committee that had selected him to advance to trials. “I asked the other people on the selection committee why they had chosen me. In unison they said, ‘Your Photo!'” As it turned out, Hussey’s friend had sent in a photo of him holding a beer and an axe from a night of drinking at his fishing cabin. “They thought I was either an axe murderer or I was going to win.”
Competitors weren’t professional racers — in fact, you were not eligible to compete if you held a racing license. But most had considerable off-roading and mechanical experience, and owned and modified Jeeps and Land Cruisers. This wasn’t the case for Hussey, who was a true amateur, despite cutting his teeth behind the wheel of a ’67 Land Rover Series II when he was eight. He was humbled when he met the other nine finalists, one of whom was his future teammate Tim Hensley. “Tim and I were put in the same room at the US Trials,” recalls Hussey. “I introduced myself, as did he, and he then looked at me and said, “we’re going, you and I!” I was thinking this guy was full of himself, but what that proved to be was confidence.”
“As a team, our mandate to ourselves was that everything we needed for three weeks was going to fit in these two Pelican cases — and that was it.”
“We got into Malaysia and we started at this gorgeous resort, and all the cars are all fanned out in front,” said Hussey. “Your name is on the side and the keys are on the front seat and it’s your car with the US flag on it.” The cars used that year were Land Rover Discoveries, all fitted with a four-cylinder diesel engine. As was Camel Trophy tradition, they were mostly stock, with only overlanding essentials — a brush guard, winch, roof rack, spotlights — in addition to Hussey and Hensley’s gear. “In overlanding you carry everything you need,” said Hussey. “As a team our mandate to ourselves was that everything we needed for three weeks was going to fit in these two Pelican cases — and that was it.”
That dedication and self-reliance was what helped team USA excel. There were three different awards given out at the end of the event: the Technical Challenge Award, for the team that most competently finished the tasks and challenges along the way; the Team Spirit Award, for the team that was the most compliant and helpful; and the Camel Trophy itself, for the team that excelled in both areas. Judges took note of participants’ achievements in both areas and kept score accordingly. Team USA excelled in both the competitive and cooperative aspects of the challenge.
Patience, knowledge and teamwork were crucial. The ’93 Camel Trophy sent its 16 teams and 14 support vehicles towards the Maliau Basin, often referred to as Sabah’s “lost world,” to build an environmental research station — a task that was completed by the entire group in 23 hours and culminated in a two-storey facility that is still in use to this day. And though parts of the journey were traveled on hard-packed logging roads, a considerable amount of the trip saw unexplored areas made difficult to access by thick jungle foliage and river crossings.
This took a toll on the competitors’ machines. The Dutch team in particular was unlucky enough to suffer a rollover and had a bridge collapse on the car, forcing them to finish the competition sans windscreen. And through it all, Hussey and Hensley, as well as other teams, were there to build bridges and mend Land Rovers together. “Competing and winning is rewarding in and of itself, but the Trophy is so much more than that,” said Hussey. “Working together with people from so many countries and cultures to accomplish our task was by far the most rewarding.”
“Thinking back on it today, now that it’s not happening — thinking about it in context, it was just a classic event…just a classic event.”
The Camel Trophy ran six more times after Hussey and Hensley won in 1993, during a time when extreme sports like mountain biking were increasing in popularity. Hussey suspects that as the event became more dedicated to extreme sports, the event lost its edge and fizzled out as Land Rover dropped out of the event. “They definitely got away from the hardcore jungle expeditions and winching,” he said. “My guess is that that wasn’t the kind of recognition Land Rover was looking for.”
23 years on, Hussey works as the Director of a Nordic skiing area in Vermont, and aside from having to do some basic off-roading as a part of his job, he still isn’t as into overlanding as other past competitors. To him that life is a distant yet wonderful memory. “The Camel Trophy was great — great memories and it’s fun to have the recognition, but to me it’s just something I did — a part of my life,” he said. “But thinking back on it today, now that it’s not happening, thinking about it in context, it was just a classic event…just a classic event.”