Raiders of the lost parts: Bedouin camel owners give adventurers the hump as iron wills are tested in the desert. Jeremy Hart reports from Oman

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The Independent Online
THE contrast, high up in the Jebel Akhdar mountain range in Oman, could not have been greater. As a leathery-faced goatherd scrambled down the precipitous path he takes every day to collect his animals grazing on a ledge just inches from oblivion, passing him by in the other direction were more than 250 people dressed in garish fluorescent Lycra and sporting the ultimate in climbing equipment.

The climbers were taking part in the Raid Gauloises, a French- organised 'adventure pentathlon' which in its four years of existence has rapidly earned legendary status among the multi-discipline athletes who normally compete in three-day competitions such as the Hawaii Iron Man. This year's Raid, which finishes today, took the winning team eight days to complete and lived up to its reputation as an extraordinary test of endurance.

Created four years ago by a French radio journalist, Gerard Fusil, the Raid is made up of five man- or animal-powered disciplines linked together in a gruelling course over a week to 10 days in some of the world's harshest locations.

In spite of the recession 51 teams raised an average of pounds 30,000 each - mostly through sponsorship - to take part. Many other hopefuls had to be turned away and told to reapply in 1993. The event appeals particularly to established triathletes, but attracts entrants from all walks of life; the backgrounds of this year's competitors ranged from modelling to the military.

The first Raid was a week-long race down the length of New Zealand's magnificent South Island by raft, canoe, horse, rope and on foot. In Costa Rica a year on, Fusil added parachuting; on the Pacific island of New Caledonia last year he commissioned the building of 40 traditional pirogue canoes to add some local spice.

This year's event, for teams of five, has been staged in Oman, on the Arabian peninsula. Five stages were planned: two in the mountains, using mountaineering, abseiling and orienteering skills; a 36km run on foot and horseback; a 104km kayak race; and finally, a race on camels.

However, the concept of using local transport backfired. Bloody-minded Bedouin camel owners, who for a pittance had turned out with 250 ships of the desert for the grand finale, held the race to ransom by refusing to give camels to some of the teams. 'The Bedouins feel as if they haven't been told what was going to happen to their camels and are not at all happy,' said an Omani translator working on the race.

As a result the outcome of the race became somewhat academic. For the record a French team called GI Commerce won from last year's winners, a team from New Caledonia.

The importance of the Raid Gauloises and its type has grown at the same rate that traditional French adventures like the Paris-Dakar Rally have declined. 'People want to do something with more emphasis on their own physical and mental strength and something a little more environmentally agreeable,' Fusil said.

With January's Paris-Dakar setting record low numbers of entries, Fusil can but smile as his Paris postbox bursts to overflowing with international queries from potential raiders. 'Fifty- one is about the limit right now but we are already beginning to rethink how the race is run.'

The blight on the Bedouins and the chance for teams to cross one of the Arabian peninsula's most inhospitable corners by camel might have been avoided, but earlier in last week's race Fusil had no chance of controlling a Force 4 wind that cut a swathe through struggling back-markers kayaking 60 miles down the Oman coast. Some competitors came close to perishing as they clung on to upturned boats for more than five hours, others were washed up exhausted on beaches glad to be out of the shark-infested sea.

Drained and almost drowned, teams members slapped themselves around the face and picked themselves up for a final two-day climb over the Ben al Salid mountains before the earlier-than- anticipated finish on the eastern edge of the Arabian desert.

Even teams disqualified early in the Raid Gauloises for losing a member or setting off rescue beacons with which everyone was equipped still plodded on to the end. Sarah Odell, a 25-year-old model originally from Sussex but now living in Paris, wept with frustration when one of her team members let off their rescue beacon when he became scared of dying from dehydration.

'We had prepared for so long it was such a waste but he took it into his head to let off the beacon for assistance,' she said, still in as state of disbelief two days on. 'We have carried on though. I had to. For days before the race I couldn't sleep, I was so excited. And since we've been on it it's been a routine of race, stop, eat and briefly sleep before going on again. It's been great.' Odell is planning an Anglo-French team for the 1993 Raid Gauloises which will probably be held in Vietnam.

(Photograph omitted)

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