"I'm astounded and overjoyed," a jubilant Sheila Sawers said, while her husband Dave fought back his tears and was temporarily at a complete loss for words after trouncing a field of highly rated younger contestants.
"Just taking part in the initial rounds of the 4x4 Eco-Challenge was a special prize with the bonus being the chance to compete in the finals in the hauntingly beautiful and remote wilderness areas of the Namib Desert and Skeleton Coast Park in Namibia," he said.
"And, to cap it all, I had the opportunity to indulge my passion for fishing with involvement in a scientific tag-and-release survey of the bronze whaler, or copper shark, which is rated internationally by recreational anglers because of the incredible fight it puts up."
And Dave, a 58-year-old jeweller from Sheffield Beach on Natal's North Coast, stamped his authority on the fishing element of the competition by landing the largest shark at 2.1 metres long, but not before being dragged more than 2km along the shore in a battle of wits that left him exhausted but exhilarated.
"I've always loved fishing and the outdoors and have owned and driven 4x4s since I was 24," he said, with Sheila's passion for outdoor adventure dating back to early family holidays in the bush in Zambia and Botswana.
More recently they have fished and 4x4ed extensively along the KwaZulu-Natal and Mozambique coasts.
A few years ago the fun-loving KZN duo decided to enter Camel Trophy, but were politely told they were "not the right profile", Sheila recalled with wry amusement.
Spirit of adventure
"Then we were watching TV recently and saw something about the 4x4 Eco-Challenge, which was not about youth and beauty, but a spirit of adventure and Eco-friendly approach that immediately struck a chord with us.
The best part," she said, "was being thrown into a new situation with new people and developing a tremendous bond with them all. The challenge pushed us all to new heights."
While their victory took them totally by surprise, their rivals were unanimous in their praise for the popular and energetic couple, who always displayed a sensitive and responsible approach to 4x4 driving and its possible impact on sensitive environments.
In the first runner-up position was the Somerset West team of Wynand Badenhorst and Hugh Roe, with Lionel Lewis and Hennie Vermaak of Gauteng claimed the second runner-up position.
Winners of special tasks were Andre Botha and Wehan Vosloo from the Free State, who caught the most bronze whaler sharks and scored highest in the nature quizzes.
The competition, which is sponsored by the Mitsubishi Motors division of DaimlerChrysler South Africa, featured eight two-member teams competing in identical Mitsubishi Colt Rodeo vehicles.
David Marshall, divisional manager for Mitsubishi Motors, said: "The success of the 2002 event exceeded all our hopes, with every likelihood that it will grow into an even bigger annual event, attracting international participation next year.
"We had a number of inquiries from other countries for a competition that is perceived as unique in the world, in that it has combined active participation in a conservation project along with nature knowledge, earth-friendly driving skills and traditional 4x4 disciplines."
After a series of regional selection events, the semi-finals were staged in the Northern Cape's Kalahari Desert, with the finals featuring a gruelling 14-day expedition that included Namibia's Naukluft National Park and Skeleton Coast Park, with extensive dune and beach driving under the supervision of conservation authorities.
During the epic 5 400km expedition, teams were assessed on Eco-awareness skills, mechanical and environmental sympathy, nature knowledge, attitude, team spirit and camping and outdoor living skills.
A highlight for many was the tag-and-release programme conducted under the supervision of scientists of the Linefish and Shark Research division of Namibia's Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources.
The shark is prized not only by recreational anglers who return it to the sea, but also by a sometimes unscrupulous fishing industry that harvests it primarily for the Eastern delicacy of shark fin soup.
Recently fears have been expressed about the creature?s long-term survival, prompting the first scientific survey with sponsorship from Mitsubishi Motors, Goodyear and the 4x4 Eco-Challenge.
Gerhard Groenewald, founder and organiser of the 4x4 Eco-Challenge, promises that the format for the 2003 event will be no less exciting and challenging, with planning already well under way.