A Rumble in the Jungle.
A Camel Trophy style expedition in deepest Guatemala. Part 1
When my pal, Jason Paterniti, emailled me from the States back in August 2013 asking if I fancied a Camel Trophy style drive through the jungles of Guatemala early in 2014, I waited a full 10 seconds before answering the affirmative. To reassure me that I had made the correct decision, Jason then sent the small group of us who had agreed to his wild plan, links to the 1995 ‘Mundo Maya’ Camel Trophy event that used some of the tracks we were actually going to drive. Our plan was to cover about 1000 miles over 12 days, visiting several difficult to reach Mayan Archaeological sites and, to give the project some vague justification we were to meet with a group of Archaeologists from San Diago University to try and confirm that potential new Mayan sites identified by remote sensing (staring long and hard at Google Earth) could indeed be outlying tombs on the already excavated El Zotz site.
The Mayan Civilisation existed in Central America from roughly 2000 BC until as recently as the 13th Century and their descendants live and farm the area to this day, but have largely integrated with other races to become a generic group of Central Americans. In their heyday they built some remarkable structures such as tombs and palaces, some of which have been excavated and preserved as tourist attractions, but many others are still buried under 1000 years of jungle. With excavation costs and the logistics of even getting to them being very expensive, it is likely that they will remain buried for many years.
To add a little spice to an already exciting expedition, three teams representing America, U.K and France would be competing for the Mundo Maya Challenge cup - a rather tacky trophy made of solid gold plastic! Points would be awarded along the same lines of those in the real Camel Trophy event and in true French style their sole entrant Jerome pulled out before the event even started to be quickly replaced by honorary Frenchmen Doug ‘Frenchie’ Inglis, snatched from his job as a Marine Archaeologist in Hawaii.
We all met at an hotel in Flores, Guatemala and over a few beers discussed plans with our logistics partners 'No Limits Expeditions' who had two very smart Land Rovers parked outside, not dissimilar to the legendary Camel Trophy 100’s - A 200 Tdi Defender Station Wagon and a 4.2 V8 110 Pick-up, both heavily loaded with equipment and supplies. James Brown and Graham Jackson were to be our drivers, mechanics, cooks and bottle washers for the next 12 days and James’s career as a chef hinted that we would at least be eating well, whilst Graham's extensive experience in overland expeditions assured our safety and, hopefully, an ability to negotiate whatever lay ahead. The word was that recent unseasonable rain had rendered many tracks un-negotiable by anything other than a boat, but James was still reasonably optimistic about being able to drive to Nakum, an important Mayan site just 17 miles away and accessible by a track he had driven the previous year.
Excited and keen to start our Expedition we assembled at 6.00 am the following morning and drove west in convoy out of Flores soon leaving tarmac behind and using a graded track. It all seemed rather easy as locals waved at us from their simple homes constructed of wood and corrugated sheets of steel. Dogs barked, children played and pigs scavenged for food in back yards. This was real Guatemala and had a raw excitement about it that made the long inter-continental journeys to get there worthwhile. Our false sense of security was short-lived however as the track soon became mud with both trucks bouncing along, in and out of ruts. What had been lush green fields sown with crops became more overgrown as we reached the edge of the jungle. We had covered just 8 miles before our first stick. The V8 was leading and had the nearside two wheels buried in a rut hopelessly spinning, the diffs both bottomed out on the muddy central area of track. Our rusty winch skills were soon sharpened as we formed a team directed by Graham. Gardening gloves on, one person grabbed the tree strop and U Bolt to find a suitable anchor point - not difficult when surrounded by trees! The second person flicked the winch into free spool and hauled the line out to attach to the strop. With all the practise we had over the following few days we would become the fastest winch teams outside The Camel Trophy!
With the V8 winched clear it was the turn of the Tdi. I will never know whether it was because the character of the ruts had been altered by the V8, or whether the Tdi was just a more suitable engine, but on this and many other sections the Tdi pulled itself through, the low down torque and lack of drama was astounding compared with the higher revving V8 - an engine taken from a P38 Range Rover and possibly more at home on the highway. From this first stick onwards our going became slower and slower. It seemed that every 100 yards or so we were deploying the winch, or both winches and whilst all this was great macho Camel style fun, we were not getting close to Natrun as various GPS units told us with sickening accuracy. We grabbed a snack lunch and talked about our options - should we turn back now, or carry on in the hope that the track dried out a little as we climbed higher towards our goal? Fuelled by wild enthusiasm we obviously opted to continue. It was a unanimous decision, as to turn back on Day One would have been a colossal admission of failure, but it was tough going - exactly as we had wanted it!
As day turned to night we were still deep in the same routine - drive, get stuck, push, dig, winch, repeat. By 7pm it was dark and despite having excellent LED driving lights we decided to call it a day and find somewhere to camp. James had spotted a clearing just a few hundred yards back - probably hacked out of the jungle by smugglers a few years before. It would be a good spot to rig up hammocks and a kitchen. Hammock sleeping was a new experience for a few of us and I ended up with one called a Warbonnet Blackbird. It weighed virtually nothing, was easy to sling between two trees, secure from wildlife and remarkably comfortable. Amidst a light show of head torches seven of us slashed away undergrowth, erected tables and chairs while James prepared supper and to the sounds of Howler Monkeys in the tree tops we ate a splendid meal and turned in for the night…exhausted! Lying secure in my high tech hammock it was an evocative delight to listen to the sounds of the jungle. Monkeys squabbling with each other, twigs snapping as all manner of nocturnal life crawled and slithered around us and the steady drip, drip, drip of refined humidity falling from leaf to jungle floor. I slept well.
Over breakfast Jason did some calculations to assess our position. We were due to meet the Archaeologists back in Flores in four days time and to risk carrying on to Natrun - a days winching away, then two days back would be cutting it fine, so we all agreed to turn back and use the saved time to look at some more accessible sites. It was a shame to sling in the towel so early in our adventure, but having only covered 8 miles in 10 hours it was, perhaps, the sensible option. We headed back in much the same manner as the day before, but as we emerged from the undergrowth there was an alarming smell of hot rubber. The rear off side tyre of the V8 was rubbing on a spring. With everything covered in thick mud it was rather difficult to establish exactly what had happened, but once jacked up with the offending wheel removed, it seemed that we had a broken rear spring and the top coil was just rubbing against the tyre causing the smell.
A well ordered field repair procedure went into action. The axle was lowered onto the removed wheel, freeing up the jack to lift the body and extend the spring. With the body lifted as high as possible it was easy to remove the broken spring, discard the top coil and put the remaining good bit back in. Within an hour we were ready to roll, albeit a couple of inches lower on the left.
We reached Yaxha by late afternoon without further drama and on good tracks. Yaxha was clearly a big complex a couple of thousand years ago and would have supported a large population. Situated on the banks of a lake it would have had a small port to aid trade with other cities and still has the remains of large pyramids and palaces giving an insight into how this civilisation lived and cultivated the land. In their time the land was arable and the jungle had not yet taken over, so trade would have been brisk with small boats carrying cargo up and down the lake and overland routes taking goods further afield. We grabbed a few cool beers and climbed right up to the top of the biggest pyramid to watch the sun go down over the lake, satisfied that we had done our best over the last two days to relive the Camel Trophy experience and elated that were gazing out across a jungle landscape on a pyramid erected in memory of a long forgotten King. In order of each country we were representing we raised a toast to whoever it may have been all those hundreds of years ago - ‘Tres Bon’ saluted Team France, ‘Awsome’ from Team U.S.A. and an very English ‘Jolly good show’ from Team U.K.
The following day we took a boat across the lake to visit Topoxte, another similar site on a peninsular opposite, all of us slow with our cameras and missing the five foot long crocodile that swam quietly past us! The remains of palaces and pyramids were similar, but less excavated and hinted at what we hoped to find when we joined the Archaeologists for our exploration of new sites. There were recognisable man made structures but all were covered in 1000 years of nature. Tree roots were dislodging ancient stone work, but the outline was still distinct and small areas of stone wall were just visible. This was to be a valuable lesson in what to look out for when we headed deeper into the jungle on our next mission with a knowledgable team of experts as excited by the prospects of a new site as we were in getting to it. Would we find a new palace hidden in the undergrowth, or would it be a false lead as is often the case? The blurred dots on Google Earth being just a natural pile of stones? We would have to be patient as there was a long haul by Land Rover and then on foot to get there, but we were looking forward to meeting the rest of the team the next day.
No Limits Expeditions.
Toby and team were well looked after by NLX who run bespoke adventure tours in Central America and Africausing Land Rovers exclusively for their dependability and strength . The two in use in Guatemala had uprated suspension and full roll cages in the interests of passenger safety and carried enough gear to cope with every eventuality. Two way radios assured good communications between trucks and meals were a delight thanks to team principal James’s previous career as a Gourmet Chef. See their web site for details of forthcoming adventures to suit all those who really want to ‘go beyond’. www.nolimitx.com.
Toby Savage February 2014
Toby Savage Photography
Reproduced by kind permission of 4x4 Magazine.