One person's torrid hell is another person's heaven. I'm deep in the deepest jungle of Borneo, with a full box of Davidoff's finest rolled tobacco aboard Team USA's ever trusty Land Rover Discovery for the 17th running of the Camel Trophy.
This is the adventure of a lifetime: 23 hellacious days in the worst jungle terrain on the face of Mother Earth. It's the first east-to-west vehicle crossing of the world's third largest island, this planet's largest remaining rain forest, on roads that could only be called nonexistent, in rutted track and mud. Tent-swallowing, vehicle-swallowing, waist-deep mud. Carnivorous plants. Venomous snakes. Ten-inch black scorpions. Daily monsoonal downpours. We would spend more time out of our Land Rovers than in them. Thirty-six hours to move 10 Land Rovers a scant 300 feet! One week of 18- to 20-hour days to push, winch, bridge, raft and snatch swamp-swallowed Land Rovers a mere 32 miles! But--ah! This is my heaven!
My Davidoff 1000s became as critical to my comfort and survival as my other companion from Switzerland--my ever-present Victorinox Champion Swiss Army knife. My attitudes towards the enjoyment of tobacco have been labeled snobbish at best, for I consider the cigar the purest and only form of tobacco pleasure. My cigar--my friend. When all else fails, it is this most simple yet extravagant pleasure that provides me with the satisfaction and consolation that centers me. Many times my cigar eased survival, not with its pleasurable delights, but with its practical applications.
Never in the 23 days that I accompanied Team USA's Ken Cameron and Fred Hoess as a backseat journalist would we see a hotel room, and we would rarely see the interior of our tents. We soon fell hopelessly behind schedule on logging trails abandoned 17 years ago. Ours became a quest to drive 20 international teams 1,200 miles, from the seacoast oil town of Balikpapan, through the Indonesian provinces of East, Central and West Kalimantan, to the equatorial city of Pontianak on Borneo's west coast.
In civilian use, our Land Rover Discovery is a voluminous cavern. Any Land Rover is an incredible four-wheel-drive vehicle built to meet the heaviest jungle and military demands. It is used in every country in the world but two. The vehicles are so dependable that two thirds of the Land Rovers built since 1948 are still on the road. But Camel Trophy vehicles are outfitted for survival in the extremes. A full internal roll cage and roof rack incorporated into the chassis, combined with the four team members' gear and food--we were allowed only 55 pounds of provisions per person, including tent, sleeping bag and 23 days of food--made us feel like prepared salted sardines canned inside the normally spacious interior of the vehicle.
Relentless in our pursuit of progress, we used our nights very little for sleep. It would be well after midnight when we would attempt some semblance of camp. Although the designers at North Face had intended my tent for maximum air flow in the torrid tropical 105-degree heat and extremes of humidity, the measures I took against the jungle's nightly monsoonal downpours countermanded these effects, as my shelter was ever shrouded with its rain fly. Each night as I lay exhausted in the stifling 100 percent humidity, I supposed that this is what it must be like to attempt sleep within the confines of a body bag.
It was in the tent that I first discovered that my Davidoff served a vital function in the fight against malaria. Soon after exiting our Land Rover for the evening, my cigar was lit. With sleep a luxury, the time spent in setting up shelter became an execution of swift precision. Although we dutifully swallowed our weekly Lariam, our airborne malaria-bearing friends constantly found their way into my tent. It was here where a few soul-satisfying puffs on my cigar sent any wayward mosquitoes out from whence they had come.
Our route would take us through the deepest, darkest parts of the Indonesian Kalimantan provinces stretched across Borneo. River crossings were a daily trial. In Borneo, this meant that more often than not we were required to make our own bridges, repair what remained of those abandoned or washed out 17 years ago--when a brief effort to open up Borneo's interior was given up as hopeless--or assemble rafts. Here it was that my cigar would again prove its practicality. Along the riverbanks and below the jungle canopy, blood-gulping leeches fell like some F-117A Stealth fighter, attaching themselves to us as we worked waist and chest deep in the muddied waters. My mind flashed to that famous African Queen leech scene with Bogart and Hepburn. I soon learned to kick back and light up not only for personal pleasure, but for the relief that only the end of a hot instrument could bring against those freeloading bloodsuckers.
Delicacies were difficult to come by. Meals were military type MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) heated under the diesel engine's valve cover insulator. Our required liquid consumption was one liter of water per hour, usually drunk in the 105-plus degree heat in the back of the vehicle. In remote villages where they could be found, the local beer and soda were served at ambient temperature. We could not possibly carry all the water needed for such a long trip. This meant that almost daily we were required to purify between five and 10 gallons of water through a sophisticated NATO-issue Katadyn ceramic filter--a unit capable of removing atomic particles. In the muddied, sewage-infested streams, this involved a laborious and time-consuming process. For each quart of water filtered, silt clogged the ceramic sieve, which necessitated a five-minute disassembly and cleaning by hand.
All the money in the world could not buy a cold drink. "Cool" was anything under 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But when the relief helicopter pilot, obviously a cigar aficionado, spotted me with my Davidoff, he approached, kindly inquiring if we might barter for an iced bottle of the native pilsner, Bintang, or a cold can of Coke. Knowing that I would need 23 cigars for the 23-day ordeal, I countered with a one-for-one barter; but if he wanted another cigar, he would have to bring me a cold drink on all his flights. Although we were so remote that the helicopter could not reach us for several days at a time, on those days that it did, I was blessed with an exclusive supply of cold refreshment.
But heaven likewise came in the intoxicating fragrance of the native Dayak's hardwood cook fires as I enjoyed the gentle swing of a jungle hammock hung between the Rovers. On the late nights and early mornings that relieved our never-ending days, heaven became a quiet moment under a sky devoid of electric lights; where the stars hung with such dimensional quality against the pitchest black universe that even the Milky Way became vividly visible and seemed only an arm's length away.
If you think you have the "right stuff" to compete for the Camel Trophy, you can contact Tom Collins, Camel Trophy, P.O. Box 587, Snowmass, CO 81657. But realize that the grueling event, which is scheduled this year from May 13 to 31 over 1,440 miles of rugged terrain in Mongolia, attracts more than a million applicants annually. If you make the grade, bring your wits, your cunning, your strength and your patience--but most of all, be sure to bring a supply of your favorite cigars.
Louis A. Sapienza is a freelance adventure photographer based in Red Bank, New Jersey.