In the blink of an eye, I went from sitting in the leather-lined Land Rover LR3 to dangling from a rope and harness over a river in Bolivia. Below me was a muddy sandbar surrounded on all sides by swift-moving milk-chocolate water. Sitting in a kayak on the water was one of Land Rover's talented logistics scouts who moonlights as a competitive river kayaker. I asked the gentleman holding my safety rope how I was supposed to get back to the LR3 on top of the bridge. Jump into the raging water, he said, grab hold of the rear of the kayak, and paddle-kick hard, navigating the current to reach the shore. So much for keeping the mud out of my bathing suit.
This was day three of a four-day reconnaissance trip deep into the South American country of Bolivia where Land Rover will hold the third leg of its 2006 G4 Challenge. The G4 event is a global adventure race open to entrants from 18 countries (one from each), designed to challenge a competitor's physical abilities with mountain biking, climbing, orienteering (finding your way to a specific spot with a primitive map and a compass), and the aforementioned river kayaking and abseiling, but also to test their off-road driving skills, wits, character, and cross-cultural social skills. Would-be competitors have been participating in national and international competitions for the last year to make the cut.
The 2006 event will travel to two continents and four countries. In addition to Bolivia and neighboring Brazil, competitors will drive Land Rovers and Range Rovers in the Southeast Asian countries of Laos and Thailand.
To prove just how intricate this race is (and the preparation that takes place behind the scenes), Land Rover invited us to join its already-in-progress "recce" team as it planned one of the four legs of the Challenge. The team spends months at each location scouting routes, developing on-site competitions, working with local governments for permits, and learning local cultures so they can find a way to integrate them into the event.
I met up with the recce team in the tropical climate town of Santa Cruz where I was briefed on what the next few days in backcountry Bolivia would be like. Our plan was to drive one LR3 and four Defender 110s on a 700-mile round trip from Santa Cruz high into the Andes Mountains, and then back via an alternate route.
For the next four days, we crested mountain passes, forged muddy rivers, pointed our Land Rovers up impossibly steep slopes, and clicked off hundreds of miles on washboard-surfaced dirt roads. Very little of the trip was on paved roads, and much of the time we were far from civilization. We traveled through four different eco zones, ranging from damp and lush to dry and dusty. We mountain-biked across vast, scenic ridges, popping a few tires along the way. We camped next to the Rio Grande and watched the perfectly clear night sky light up with shooting stars.
As it turns out, I was something of a guinea pig for the physical challenges and the four-wheel-drive routes used for the race. Though the Land Rover team had scouted all these locations prior to our arrival, this was the first time an "outsider" forged through the routes and participated in the physical activities. This allowed the team to gauge the difficulty of each scenario and make changes if necessary.
By the end of the third day, we reached the high-mountain town of Sucre, checked our weary selves into a hotel, and headed straight for a hot shower. I was told to get a good night's rest.
The next morning, as we traveled through lush jungle, it became apparent how much time and effort the guys from Land Rover (many of them former Camel Trophy competitors) put into learning the ins and outs of each foreign country included in the Challenge. They arrive blind, navigate routes with bad maps, and have to learn the proper idiom and behaviors of a new culture. By the time we arrived, they knew the secrets of the countless toll stations (Yankees frequently get overcharged), had established a relationship with the ministry of tourism, and learned enough of the language to transact in a tourist-friendly big city or a small village barely on the map.
All the groundwork and effort will pay off this spring when G4 Challenge athletes start the competition and hit the ground in Bolivia. The transition from one event to another will be seamless, and the competitors won't put a tire, kayak, or climbing rope in a place the Land Rover team hasn't checked, rechecked, and checked again. We can't wait to see them hanging off a bridge, ready to freefall into the river rapids.