He was big, I mean BIG, big as a cement truck! He raised his trunk and tusks into the air, flapped his ears, and bellowed loudly as he charged our Land Rover. It was then we realized that elephants can run fast and Tanzania is not the local zoo!
My being in Africa all started when I mailed in the application to participate in the Camel Trophy ’91, a 1200-mile off-road adventure consisting of competitive 4-wheeling tasks of time / speed / distance, road and bridge building, and physical and mental endurance, to be held in May from Tanzania to Burundi.
I was selected from 2,000 applicants from around the U.S.A., along with nine other men, to be tested at the U.S. trials in Grand Junction in February 1991.
We were tested physically and mentally over an awake period of 28 hours–swimming, psychology testing, leadership, and teamwork tasks, running six miles on snow and mud-covered trails, map and compass orienteering for four miles, and, of course, 4-wheeling and winching ability. There, I was picked along with three other Americans as the finalists to continue on to Chateaux de Jambville, France (near Paris) in March.
At Jambville, I was tested almost beyond my limits of endurance by ex-British SAS people and French National Boy Scout trainers. I was put through a series of tasks which included a 12-mile orienteering run, an obstacle course with tree climbing, cliff climbing, a 90 meter long/30 meter high rope walk, and a measured (by pace in meters) run of 13 miles through the French countryside using maps that only showed turns to take given distance; tested for First-Aid knowledge, including CPR and rescue carry of a 225 pound, 6’2″ man for 50 yards; and teamed up with finalists from Greece and Yugoslavia to build a 30-foot log bridge and drive a Land Rover over it. Yes, it held–my knots and lashings worked! In the middle of the night, all the finalists were awakened to move two large Land Rovers the size of 3/4 ton pick-up trucks by rope and hand through the woods on a twisting path into and out of a pond and across the finish line. The task was testing teamwork under duress. To make it harder, the steering wheel was turned and locked.
Even though it was arduous and exhausting, the energy level was high and the camaraderie was most enjoyable among the finalists from the 17 countries. The French food kept me going and I just had to taste all the different tortes, cakes and other regional delicacies that were laid out in massive quantities–it was a dirty job, but somebody had to do it!
The scores were finally tallied, and Webb Arnold (from Grand Junction, Colorado) and I won the U.S. team spots for the Camel Trophy ’91. All my training and dedication paid off! Each of the 17 countries selected two teammates, and we were all to meet on May 7, 1991 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
The month of April kept me busy training and getting my gear, backpacking food, and special clothing ready for the big adventure. For me, the vaccination shots for yellow fever, typhoid, malaria, etc. were the hardest part! We finally left Denver on May 5th, and after 28 hours in the air, broken by a short but fun stop in Zurich, Switzerland, it felt good to stand on firm ground. Dar es Salaam was hot and humid and smelled like a jungle when I got off the plane, but there was so much air to breathe compared to Denver, Colorado (the mile-high city)!
At the opening ceremony, the president of Tanzania shook all the competitors’ hands and waved the flag to start. Proceeding out of Dar es Salaam, the convoy of 29 vehicles moved along palm-bordered streets with over 500,000 spectators lining the sidewalks. Much like a big parade, the cars filed past with each country flying their flag from the front bumper. As the American team passed, I could hear the crowd distinctly raise its pitch and uproariously applaud and cheer us, yelling “Yea, America, yea, George Bush.” It brought tears to my eyes and goose bumps all over my body. I was proud to be representing the United States.
Once outside of Dar es Salaam, the convoy followed several dirt tracks through a few villages and into the bush. The Trophy had officially started. At 2030 hours, I drove off the start line. Avoiding getting stuck, flat tires, and getting lost in the dark kept me busy; calculating distance and time and giving directions kept Webb busy.
Once the first set of special tasks were finished, the convoy followed the muddy track through a torrential downpour that happened every day and night for several hours, coupled with tse tse flies swarming and biting during the day. Because the massive amount of rain and the 12-foot high elephant grass were making the track hard to find, the American team was delegated to “take point”–that is, find and mark the trail. When night came, Webb rode on top of the roof rack with a spotlight directing me through the tall grass.
Three-hundred kilometers later, we came into the Selous Game Reserve, one of the largest game parks in the world. Since we were in the lead car, we were constantly coming up to herds of elephants, giraffes, wildebeests, kudus, zebras, and baboons. The great Ruaha River was home to hundreds of huge hippos and we saw many close-up as we crossed the deep river. The Acacia trees were 40-50 feet tall, with thorns 5-8 inches long. Then came the swamp–380 kilometers of mud swallowed up the cars–we winched almost the entire length. We made it to Mikumi, where we met Masai warriors, tall and proud people dressed in tribal garb and adorned with lots of necklaces and bracelets of silver. This was Africa–exhilarating, dangerous, and beautiful!