The Camel Trophy began in 1980 with a transit of the Trans-Amazonian highway, subsequent events have been called "the Olympics of 4×4". They were all about adventure and exploration. Over the next eight years, the expeditions crossed Sumatra, Papua New Guinea, Zaire, Brazil, Borneo, Australia, Madagascar (the first north-south crossing) and Sulawesi before returning to the Amazon. These grueling tests of human endurance brought together teams from around the world in the hope of triumphing in some of the most treacherous off-road conditions imaginable. Team work and camaraderie were crucial. The competitive element came in a series of "Special Tasks," such as winching and timed driving routes, in which the national teams competed against each other.
In the 1990s, the Camel Trophy headed to Siberia and the USSR, followed by Tanzania, Burundi, Guyana, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile (the "Road to Hell" event), Belize, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras (controversially serving 500 out-of-season lobster at a dinner), Kalimantan (a thousand miles and 18 rollovers to celebrate the first crossing of the island 100 years previously) and Mongolia. The Camel Trophy however, did not simply change venue; over the years, the event evolved from a mud-plugging expedition to involve elements of adventure sport, such as kayaking, mountain biking and winter sports. Teams were selected by each competing nation in competitions held nationally, designed to test the athletic, engineering and driving prowess of potential candidates.
Although the events had an impact on the environment through which they traveled, there were ways in which the Camel Trophy benefited the local society or environment. In 1993, for example, the teams worked through the night to build an environmental monitoring station in the jungle so biologists could accurately study the flora and fauna of an area which had barely been explored previously. In all the events, the convoy's progress reopened roads and tracks which had fallen into disuse and frequently rebuilt bridges and repaired sections of damaged tracks.
In 1998 the Camel Trophy returned to Argentina and Chile for the penultimate Tierra del Fuego event. The Land Rover Freelander made its debut and was used to speed the competitors six thousand miles across the remote and snowy environment. Outdoor pursuits dominated the event. Shortly afterwards, Land Rover, a major sponsor, felt that the Camel Trophy was moving away from adventure and exploration and a news release indicated they would not sponsor future events. This ultimately lead to the cancellation of the 1999 event which was planned for Peru.
"We have enjoyed a unique relationship with the Camel Trophy event over almost two decades and it has played a major role in sustaining the image of Land Rover as the manufacturer of the best 4x4's in the world. However, with the changing character of the event it will no longer provide us with an active demonstration of Land Rover's brand essence - limitless capability. We wish Camel Trophy every success with their new format. As for Land Rover, future activities will concentrate on our customer base with the emphasis very much on rugged off-road adventure." Martin Runnacles, Rover Group Marketing Director
In 2000 the Camel Trophy returned with a new style of event. It developed the spirit of the Tierra del Fuego event and the Camel brand but with the 32 competitors exploring Tonga and Samoa in RIB powerboats. This event was the single most successful Camel Trophy event as both a sporting activity and a Camel PR and marketing exercise. At this time the international brands of RJ Reynolds (which included Worldwide Brand Inc, the owners of the CT brand) were in the process of being sold to Japan Tobacco Inc. JTI subsequently chose to change direction and instead concentrate on the Camel Active fashion brand. It was to be the last Camel Trophy event.