The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt lake in the world and covers an area of 10 500 sq km. The last stage of the 2006 G4 began on the Salar. The Range Rover Sports and Discoveries could only reach a maximum speed of 125 km/h on the Salar, due to the lack of oxygen.
The Land Rover G4 Challenge is a global adventure competition much in the mould of the Camel
Trophy, with 4×4 driving at the core – while taking in other extreme sports such as mountain biking, kayaking, climbing, orienteering and abseiling.
It is well known by now that South Africa’s Martin Dreyer emerged the eventual winner of the competition – and of a brand new Range Rover.
The fourth and final stage placed a huge strain on the 18 competitors from all over the world. It involved strenuous tasks in freezing temperatures on long days that tested them to the limit.
The G4 Challenge takes place over four weeks and is run in some of the most diverse and remote locations in the world. This year it kicked off outside the magnificent Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand. The convoy then moved north for the second leg, over the mighty Mekong River into neighbouring Laos. From there, the whole crew was flown to the opposite side of the world, Brazil, for the third leg. Then it was off to Bolivia, where our group of South African journalists gathered for the final stage.
Bolivia is a landlocked state in central Latin America. It has a contrasting landscape – semi-arid in the west and tropical rain forests in the east. It was in Bolivia that Che Guevara, leader of the Cuban Revolution, was fighting a guerrilla war when he was captured and executed by the CIA in 1967.
The famous western outlaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the movie) fled to Bolivia, only to meet their end in a shoot-out in San Vicente, a small mining town in the south.
The 2006 G4 shoot-out was a less violent but perhaps more competitive affair, with the 18 contenders going head-to-head for the grand prize of a Range Rover. The 37-year-old Dreyer, a professional sportsman, was selected to represent South Africa after gruelling national and international selections last year.
Although the participants were in competition with one another, each had to choose a partner to form teams of two. Those in the bottom half of the log did the choosing, with their partners coming from the top half. Martin, lying second before the start of the last leg, was chosen by 11th-placed Pablo Burattini of Argentina for the Bolivian contest. As competitors had to find their own way to the remote locations where the various tasks were held, the South African was quite pleased to have a Spanish-speaking partner who could ask for directions – or even order take-aways!
Each team had to complete six optional tasks and one compulsory assignment a day. These were designed to combine strategic thinking with physical skills such as running, kayaking, orienteering and mountain biking. It wasn’t always possible to do all six optional tasks in the allotted time, so careful planning and strategy were essential to achieve maximum points.
With the sun slowly warming the day, the final leg kicked off in Sucre, Bolivia’s constitutional capital. While competitors were discussing strategy next to their vehicles, Land Rover Discoveries and Range Rover Sports – all painted in the characteristic G4 orange – a large crowd gathered, dressed in colourful ponchos and black hats.
As the convoy left Sucre, the bells at government house rang eight times. Let the adventure begin!
The tarred road wound its way south-west into the mountains to Potosi, at 4070m above sea level the highest city in the world. Many competitors were affected by the altitude, and just getting out of the Land Rover left the journos breathless.
Over time most of the contestants managed to acclimatise, but the Dutch and German competitors suffered so much from the lack of oxygen that they had to be driven to a lower altitude to recover. They subsequently missed the start at the salt lake, Salar de Uyuni.
The first night was a baptism of ice. The onboard computer in the Discovery showed the temperature at minus 10 degrees! The tent provided little protection against the cold. In fact, the next morning the wet-wipes, the fresh water in a 20-litre jerrycan, and even the toothpaste tubes were frozen solid. The conditions gave a new meaning to the phrase: “met eish, ja”…
The following morning, the G4 set off for the town of Uyuni, 100km away, for the start of the first stage on the nearby Salar de Uyuni – the largest salt lake in the world covering an area of 10 500 sq km. On the lake stands a salt hotel – the only one of its kind. The whole structure, except the roof, is made from compacted salt. All the furniture comprises sodium chloride – and that includes the tables and chairs.
This is one place where you don’t have to say, “pass the salt” – you just scrape some off your chair! The mayor welcomed the competitors, after which there was a show of drumming, dancing and singing.
The festivities over, competitors tackled the first task. It required one team member to cycle a brutal 3,7km route – 4000m above sea level – to fetch the keys of the car, while the other had to climb the steep side of one of the many islands dotted over the Salar to fetch the dibber key. This is a small device that electronically records start and finish times and verifies that competition markers were visited.
Keys in hand, the teams jumped into their cars and went looking for clues over an 18km route that criss-crossed the Salar. Martin and Pablo came in second, behind the all-female team of Alina McMaster (Australia) and Eleonora Audra (Brazil).
Russia’s Dmitry Timokhin, overall leader before the start of the Bolivian leg, lost his car keys while cycling back to base. This error would cost him dearly…
Camp was made near Mount Tunupa, a dormant volcano on the northern side of the Salar. As night fell, the wind swept across the salt flats and the journalists braved the cold to watch the “strategy pit” – an exercise to determine the starting order for the daily tasks ahead.