By 5 a.m., I hear the buzz of flies outside my tent. I know the minute I slip into the morning air, they'll begin to bite. My first decision of the day will be whether to wear my head net or bathe in bug dope and palm the swirling masses aside as I fire up a camp stove to boil water for breakfast, which consists of instant oatmeal and a cup of freeze-dried java.
The second decision will be about my choice of clothing for the day. I decide to layer, starting with a bathing suit, in the event that the opportunity to swim presents itself, ending with long pants that convert into shorts by unzipping at the knee. And always, hiking boots for running and climbing over rough terrain as well as to protect from venomous, ankle-biting snakes.
Holed up in Australia's hottest town for a night, I am covering the Land Rover G4 Challenge. By 7 a.m., the thermometer will read 85, and by noon, it'll spike near 95. The good news? This is the cool season--and my outback chariot is a 2003 Range Rover. This Tangiers Orange luxo-mobile, kitted with a few add-ons for the bush, offers the best of both worlds. It has a comfortable ride (on tarmac), with oodles of room for food and goods, including bikes, kayaks, and the array of helmets, wetsuits, and other high-tech gear that G4 requires--and great air-conditioning. It also has stout 4x4 capabilities.
I'm riding along with Nancy Olson from Arlington, Virginia, a public information officer with the U.S. Marine Corps, and Paul McCarthy, a stonemason from Ireland. They are two of 16 multisport athletes chosen from a pool of thousands of applicants hailing from around the globe. They were then selected as two of the finalists from 16 nations culled from a cadre of hundreds that competed in national selections, with running, swimming, kayaking, and winching Land Rover vehicles out of deep mud as part of the competition. The next stop was international selections, held at Eastnor Castle in England, where the field was narrowed to a single competitor and a backup.
The old-style castle, complete with turrets and a moat, is home to Land Rover's Driving Experience and boasts 5000 acres and 27 miles of off-road trails. It was an ideal locale for the demanding week-long assessment sessions, which included GPS and navigation, mountain biking, climbing, kayaking, and off-road driving evaluations.
The 16 winners were given the right to participate in G4, a month-long, all-expense-paid event that pitted them against each other and the elements of three continents during a four-week adventure, which also threw in cliff diving, bungee jumping, rock climbing, and other assorted tasks in urban and rural locations. The goal? To achieve the greatest number of points by the end of the event in Moab, Utah, and drive off in a new Range Rover.
However, the challenge to become the top finisher involved far more than achieving one's personal best. The contestants were put in bi-national teams that changed each week and had to decide at each day's "Strategy Pit" (an intense decision-making session with one's partner-of-the-week) which "Hunters" (activities that combined different athletics and driving tasks, with different point scores and at different distances from a different campsite each evening) they would attempt to complete. Other factors included the order in which to "visit" the Hunters and the decision of how much energy to save for the grueling Maximizer, a nonstop event that included back-to-back athletics during each stage. The Maximizer also involved a wide variety of tasks, and took us to the unforgiving Australian outback, a region that had no shortage of snakes and insects. In Australia, competitors also battled on the world's only 4WD course on a floating barge, during an event in the Sydney harbor.
Sound a bit like "Survivor?" "Eco Challenge?" "Mission: Impossible?" In fact, it had elements of all three--but with wheels as a primary ingredient of this all-new, vehicle-based reality show, of sorts. It might be a case of what goes around, comes around, because there are those who contend that Land Rover's legendary 4x4 Camel Trophy (which spanned the early 1980s to the late 1990s and was held in remote jungle locations, like Borneo and the Amazon Basin) actually spawned the whole reality-show craze.
But for Nancy, Paul, and me, in the outback, there's another reality beyond decisions at the Strategy Pit and which Hunters to try for. Among the offerings for our day are six possible locations between Marble Bar and the edge of the Great Sandy desert to the east (from here, the nearest town to the east is Alice Springs, some 2000 miles away) and the white-sand beaches of the Indian Ocean to the west. A variety of tasks will have to be performed at each location before we call it a day and set up our tents in the darkness, on Eighty Mile Beach.
This other reality is simply taking in the beauty of the ancient mountains, breathtaking gorges, vast plains, and tranquil oases of the Pilbara region of western Australia. During our time here we'll be engulfed by a 2.5-billion-year-old landscape with three world-class national parks, where we'll see spectacular waterfalls, sheer cliffs, and pristine beaches. We'll travel where others go and where few have been. There'll be many moments when we will forget the flies, forget the heat, forget the competition, and remember only our good fortune to be here.
About the Vehicles
by Sue Mead
Land Rover's G4 Challenge featured the four Land Rover models: East coast U.S.: Freelander; South Africa: Defender; Australia: Range Rover; and west coast U.S.: Discovery. All vehicles were built to standard specifications, without added structural or mechanical refinements; however, the following equipment was added: Goodyear MT/R tires, roof racks, lamps, winches, GPS modules, first-aid kits, and other assorted expedition gear. All vehicles were painted Tangiers Orange.
Land Rover G4 Challenge
by Sue Mead
What is it?
Designed to be a test of initiative, strategic thinking, and team spirit, competitions require the multisport athletes to excel in driving, physical fitness, and sports. Events include 4x4 driving, running, kayaking, swimming, snowboarding, skiing, bungee jumping, rock climbing, abseiling, and navigating.
Why is it called G4?
The event is made up of four consecutive global stages, each in different time zones, consisting of approximately one week.
How many competitors were there and how were they selected?
For the 2003 competition, national selections for the U.S. and Canada were held in Lake Las Vegas, Nevada, in December 2002. Two competitors were selected to attend further testing and training at Land Rover's Driving School at Eastnore Castle in England. There, 16 men and women from around the world were selected to compete in the 2003 G4 event. Second-place finishers are backups throughout the event.
When was it?
The 2003 edition kicked off in New York City in March, 2003, and after traveling to South Africa, Australia, and the U.S. West Coast, it ended in April, near Moab, Utah.
Land Rover plans to sponsor another G4 Challenge in 2005, with applications accepted in 2004. Go to the Web site (www.landroverg4challenge.com) for more information.
And the Winners Are...
by Sue Mead
Belgian fighter pilot Rudi Thelen was crowned as winner in the inaugural Land Rover G4 Challenge. The Team Spirit Award, voted for by all the competitors, was awarded to the U.K.'s Tim Pickering. American Chris Perry, a waterpark manager in Dubai who represented Arabia, came in a close second. The U.S. entrant, 29-year-old Nancy Olson of Arlington, Virginia, one of only two females in the event, finished 15th. Canada's Kitt Stringer, 26, placed 13th in his substitute role after primary competitor Jim Kuhn was injured in South Africa and had to withdraw.
Land Rover Special Editions: G4 Freelander and Discovery
by Sue Mead
While the G4 driving competition finished last April, those who couldn't participate can still get a piece of the action, with Land Rover's limited-edition 2004 G4 Freelander and 2004 G4 Discovery models. The new versions have special trim and extra features that emphasize rugged capabilities inspired by off-road and adventure travel.
Based on the uplevel SE version of the British baby 'ute, the G4 Freelander features the same 174-horsepower V-6, five-speed automatic transmission, and permanent four-wheel drive as its sibling. Available in Tangiers Orange or Java Black, the G4 edition will include full-length roofrails with an expedition roof rack, an A-frame brush bar, siderails, and taillight guards. Other special trim additions include waterproof seat covers, 17-inch wheels, and a sunroof. Land Rover G4 Challenge badging appears on the front fenders and rear tailgate, and the logo is embroidered on the seat covers. Only 200 of the special-edition models will be available, priced at $29,995, which includes destination and delivery.
The G4 Discovery has the same powertrain as the regular Discovery, with a 4.6-liter, 217-horsepower V-8, five-speed automatic, self-leveling suspension, and dual sunroofs. Painted in Tangiers Orange, the roofrail is an all-new, large-diameter design dubbed the Aero.
An A-frame brush bar and rear lampguards protect the exterior, while Black Mogul technical fabric covers the inside. Adventure-worthy accessories include a Class III tow hitch, a selectable locking center differential, rear access ladder, driving lamp kit, and lockable roofrail crossbars, while the interior is made more civilized with an in-dash CD player, black leather-wrapped steering wheel, and eight-way power driver and passenger seats. A G4 graphics kit brings G4 badging on the exterior and on the tire cover. Only 200 of the limited-edition Discoverys will be available, at a price of $39,995, which includes destination and delivery.