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Dust, Sweat and Gears: Zambia’s annual 4×4 Elephant Charge

5 December 2016

Watch a highlights video of the 2016 Elephant Charge here.

As the blood orange African sun rises, I can just make out the peaks of the Zambezi escarpment around me, through the air thick with dust from spinning tyres on loose rocks. I grin at my teammates, hanging off a modified Toyota Land Cruiser, raring to go. The challenge is ours. (Wo)man and machine against the bare elements. Lucky I had learnt to use a winch the night before. We are ready to conquer the jutting gullies and rocky ascents on the course ahead with blood, sweat and gears. It’s 6am in Zmabia and we are at the Elephant Charge 2016.

This year my team is made up of three guys and three girls all from Zambia who have a decent amount of mechanical nous between us, be it bush mechanics. I can run. But this isn’t easy running, through buffalo beans and up dusty peaks to find the best and most direct route for our chariot. Along the way, it becomes clear my role is also to score bottles of brake fluid from other teams when our brake lines bust. It’s all in the spirit of the Charge.


Originally inspired by the Kenyan Rhino Charge, this fun-filled family event takes courage and nerve. Four-by-four enthusiasts are challenged to the brink, racing around a thrilling course in the Zambian wilderness against the clock, the GPS and other adrenalin-fuelled competitors.

The most daring team completes all of the checkpoints in the shortest distance, winching up cliffs and down ravines to claim the much-prized Castle Fleming Trophy. The event demands stamina and navigational skills as well as ultimate team tactics. Luckily my team members were all great mates and brilliant communicators. Especially the women, of course. When one of them shut my finger in the car door I communicated loudly and clearly.


With blackened faces and scratched legs, the communication continues long into the night after the event when friendships are forged, bonding over notorious terrain, calamitous vehicle issues and of course the best stocked and equipped checkpoint.

On 1 October 2016 the Elephant Charge Castle-Fleming Trophy for Shortest Distance was won by Team Sausage Tree and Potato Bush Camp in a modified Toyota Hilux Surf and the Shortest Net Distance by Team Carnivores in a souped up Mitsubishi Pajero, the Properly Shafted Trophy was won by Team Bushtracks who drowned their car in the river attempting a crossing. Turns out waterproofing an engine, isn’t always foolproof.

But it’s not just for the rush that these eager ‘Elephant Chargers’ do it. It’s for the benefit of wildlife too. Organised by a committee of dedicated volunteers, this year the Elephant Charge raised more than US $63 000 (R870 500) for conservation charities in Zambia, promoting mainly environmental education in local communities. Zambia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world and an unrelenting threat of poaching. Zambia’s elephant population has declined significantly from 250 000 in 1960 to approximately 20 000 today.

This event provides much-needed support for vital conservation and community-support work in Zambia. In total, since 2008 the Elephant Charge has raised over $725 million (R1 billion) for wildlife conservation efforts in Zambia. The event is sponsored by many international and local sponsors illustrated on the Elephant Charge website, including K2 and Lendor Burton who were the main sponsors for this year’s charge.


As the dust settles on this year’s charge, the camaraderie and spirit will always be remembered but it’s not long before eyes narrow and thoughts wander to next year, the next modification needed, rise in suspension, bigger tyres, better winch….but wait, let’s remember, it’s not the winning that counts.

It’s the taking apart.

Next year is the Elephant Charge’s 10th anniversary! All the stops are out to make it the best yet.

by Sarah Davies

Find out more about competing, spectating and sponsoring and joining the movement: and on Facebook: