Top Gear: Bolivia Special

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Top Gear: Bolivia Special
Format Motoring
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of episodes 1
Running time 76 minutes
Original channel BBC Two, BBC HD
Picture format 16:9 576i SDTV, 1080i HDTV
Original airing 27 December 2009
Related shows Top Gear
External links

Top Gear: Bolivia Special is a special 76 minute episode of the motoring series Top Gear, originally broadcast on BBC Two in the United Kingdom at 19:45 on 27 December 2009.[1]

It features the presenters James May, Jeremy Clarkson, and Richard Hammond travelling 1,000 miles through South America from the rainforests of Bolivia to the Pacific coast of Chile. The presenters used second hand off-road vehicles, bought locally in Bolivia for less than £3,500 each.[2] Unlike previous Top Gear Specials, a backup vehicle was not featured (usually one which is disliked by the presenters).


The three presenters started at a riverside in the Amazon jungle where a towed river raft left their cars: a 1st generation Range Rover, a Suzuki SJ413, and a Toyota Land Cruiser (the presenters were supposed to have been helicoptered in to the location, but Clarkson said that the helicopter had crashed before filming, necessitating a boat trip up the river). The trio were originally left on the bank with nothing. Hammond remarked on the other two's inappropriate clothing and they all revealed their phobias. Hammond is terrified of insects, James May is scared of heights and Clarkson, manual labour, something May says is just 'bone idleness.' After doing nothing for a long time, a raft finally arrives with their cars. The driver of the raft only parks it vaguely near the bank, so, at that point, they cannot disembark.

While trying to move the raft, Clarkson started to sink into the mudflats within the river and so Hammond had to pull him out with Clarkson's Range Rover. They had trouble getting the cars off the raft, as Hammond's car wouldn't start and the raft was too small for Clarkson to give him a push-start. Hammond also kept running into the back of Clarkson's car because the brakes and the steering hardly worked on the Toyota, which became a problem for him later on. It was not until the next morning that May realised that some of the planks were long enough to make a ramp off the raft. James tried to get off the raft first, but got stuck up a small hill after failing to get up the embankment, the reason being that the Suzuki only had drive to 3 wheels. As May was blocking the path, they had to get a third plank to get Clarkson off the raft. He managed, and also pulled May's Suzuki up the hill, and into a log. Clarkson also had to tow Hammond off the raft, and then give him a pull-start.

For the first section of the journey, they were forced to make a route by slashing undergrowth and went along logging trails, encountering snakes and insects. During their first night trekking through the jungle, Hammond had a very bad night, during which of a number of unpleasant things happened to him. While driving right before they set up camp, his phobia of insects was displayed: Hammond was tormented by an insect in his car that he couldn't see; he then freaked out, stopped and jumped out of the car. And while he was in his tent, a number of insects entered his tent and he spent a lot of the night in distress. He then had a bad morning, when Clarkson stole his lower trouser leg and later wrapped it around his head like a bandana; and then a snake entered Hammond's car. During this segment, several fan blades were broken off Clarkson's engine fan, and the engine overheated, which later led to him cutting holes in the bonnet for additional ventilation. This unfortunately resulted in the roof of Hammond's Toyota catching fire. Clarkson tried to drive across a small gully, but failed. May tried to winch him out, but ended up pulling his own vehicle into the gully, so Hammond had to winch both of their vehicles back to the starting point. A chainsaw and rope were used to make a bridge out of the trunks of four young trees to complete the crossing.

For the next section, the cars underwent minor modifications to cross a river, including non-standard use of certain products: Tampax tampons to waterproof a fuel tank cap, and Vaseline and Durex condoms to waterproof parts of the engine. Hammond got through the river without problems. Clarkson, however, stalled, so May had to drive around him, and he got stuck. As Hammond was winching May out, Clarkson got his car started without any problems, which seriously annoyed May. In the director's cut, they encounter a tree fall in the middle of the road, which Hammond and May work at with machetes for "two hours" Clarkson promptly comes in with the chainsaw which gets stuck. After sawing through the log, he starts to saw at James' car. The chainsaw breaks down, and Hammond and May, thinks the chainsaw breaking down is possibly a message from god, that the ever technically handicapped Jezza, should not play around with it.

They then climbed into the Andes to La Paz along the Yungas Road, a road also known as the 'Death Road' due to its narrowness and sheer drops. Due to May's fear of heights, he semi-seriously, (An interesting thing, since it's a non-scripted part, and an actual angry May) threatened to cut anyone's head off if they bumped into him, holding a machete near Clarkson's face when he bumped him by accident (Hammond had repeatedly rammed May several times before the warning). May's Suzuki was also starting to show strain, when dirt got into the engine's fuel system from the car's problems in the river and the car stopped, and one of the shock absorbers had become disconnected. Later, Hammond, who struggled most of the way through with a minimum of steering and braking on his car, drove into a ditch to avoid a passing bus, and found out that May's car's winch was broken. Hammond was pulled out by a local truck driver. Elsewhere, Clarkson was placed in extreme danger when he met a car coming the other way on a particularly narrow section of the road, and the edge of the road ledge started to crumble under his wheels. Night fell, and since the alternator on May's Suzuki was not working and he was using his car's front lights, the battery died and May was without visibility on the narrow cliff-side road with no lighting anywhere. Luckily, since the Toyota's alternator was one of the few things working on that car, Hammond swapped his live battery for James's dead one. Near the end of the section, Clarkson held a brief memorial service for Hammond and May, jokingly suggesting that they must be dead. He put two makeshift crosses up, labelling one 'Ted Nugent' and the other 'Ray Mears'.

They modified their cars in La Paz: Clarkson and Hammond fitted much bigger wheels and tyres on their cars, which had a negative effect on their performance, because it geared up the cars too much for their gearboxes. Hammond also got rid of the roof, and replaced it with a lighter rollbar. May simply 'mended' his car. Afterwards, they crossed the Altiplano while using a portable GPS with an altitude readout. They tried to take a straight route into Chile over the Guallatiri active volcano (the green parts on this volcano landscape are volcanic deposit, not vegetation). This attempt was defeated by weakness and a drunken-type feeling after about 16,000 feet caused by severe hypoxia, the result of being at such a high altitude. They had each taken a Viagra tablet to try to prevent high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) from altitude hypoxia. Altitude hypoxia also much reduced the cars' effective power, which meant May's car could produce no more than 20 bhp. On the way, they passed at least two active volcanic steam vents. At 16,500 feet, the Toyota's drivetrain was in a very bad way, and the car broke down a third time in one day, and after stopping, the Range Rover and Suzuki's engines wouldn't start because of the air being so thin. The three then pushed the 3-ton Range Rover (which was most likely of the three to start) to bump-start it, which worked, and Clarkson pushed the other two cars so Hammond and May could get going.

At 17,200 feet altitude (3.26 miles, 5,243 metres, where the air pressure was about half an atmosphere), they stopped and appraised their current medical state. All three were displaying clear signs of altitude sickness and as the road was continuing to climb, the trio decided to turn back and take a lower route. During the climb, they used a pulse oximeter to read their blood oxygen saturation, which sometimes was down to 84%, a value which in normal life would recommend admission to hospital.

After they made it down the mountain, they discovered that they were in the Atacama desert, the driest place on Earth. They then came across the Pan-American highway, where it became evident that the fast dash down the volcano had been too much for Hammond's Toyota, which was already in very bad shape, and was in no condition to be modified. The modifications put too much stress on the battered Toyota's drivetrain, and most of the components had been seriously damaged. After persistent clutch, driveshaft and transfer case problems, the Toyota's driveshaft had fallen off the car and landed on the road, and then the rear differential exploded and a huge crack had formed in the differential's casing, with oil leaking out. Now that it was impossible to send drive to the rear wheels, Hammond and May reconfigured the 4-wheel drive setting to front-wheel drive only; and Hammond was able to drive away.

A few miles from the end of their journey, the route took them down a very steep sand dune to reach the Pacific coast, on Caleta Los Verdes, some 20 kilometres south of Iquique, Chile. They initially decided to practice on a less steep dune. Just prior to starting their practice run, Hammond got out to talk to Clarkson, 'forgetting' that his handbrake was broken and that he had left the Toyota in neutral (A hand can be seen through the Toyota window letting go of the car at the rear, causing it to begin moving forward). The Toyota began rolling down the dune driverless and rolled over, losing a wheel in the process. The broken wheel hub meant the end for the Toyota, but Clarkson and May completed the dangerous descent to the coastline.

Although Hammond was forced to admit the defeat of the Toyota Land Cruiser that he lovingly referred to as "The Donkey", he still argued that he had chosen wisely. Clarkson observed that May's Suzuki may have completed the journey, but it had been a very rough ride; May agreed, saying, "The ride is rotten". Due to the Toyota's failure and the Suzuki's hard ride, Clarkson declared that although the Range Rover was the most unreliable car in the world, it had proven itself to be the most reliable car in the world. The Range Rover, legendary for its unreliability, had turned out to be the car that had worked the best of the three.

Although it was not mentioned on the show, some of the images show them passing along Lago Chungara (approx 4600 m in elevation) and the Parinacota volcano near this lake in the Lauca National Park. These came into view just before the three began their drive up the Guallatiri volcano. This episode is regarded by the presenters as the best in show history.


Each of the three presenters was allowed a £3,500 budget which they could use to buy second-hand cars online via the Internet, without being able to inspect the cars before purchase.

Richard Hammond bought a tan Toyota Land Cruiser which had been converted into a soft top convertible by a previous owner. However, part of the soft top was set alight when Clarkson used an angle grinder to cut air vents in the bonnet of his Range Rover to cool the engine. Despite the Toyota's reputation for durability, it turned out to be the most unreliable car, suffering multiple drivetrain and suspension breakdowns right from the start. The car underwent modifications towards the end of the trip, but none of the modifications made the car more reliable. It was eventually converted to front-wheel drive after the rear prop shaft broke off, damaging part of the rear drivetrain. It was damaged beyond repair on the sand-dune descent. His car was nicknamed the "Donkey."

Jeremy Clarkson bought a red Range Rover which he believed had a 3.9 litre fuel injected engine. However, when he showed his co-presenters under the bonnet, May noted it had carburettors, making it the 3.5 litre model. It became notorious for overheating and stopped working on some occasions, but it was very capable of dealing with the rough terrain. However, during the trip, none of the Range Rover's features were shown to be working, "apart from the de-mist!" Like Hammond's Toyota, it underwent modifications to handle the high-altitude part of the trip. Unlike the Toyota, however, it survived the trip, and was declared the winner, much to the amusement of the presenters, who had previously deemed it the most unreliable car, hence Clarkson's conclusion that "the most unreliable car in the world is the most reliable car in the world."

James May bought a Suzuki Samurai which "...was blue in the picture," but red when delivered. The Suzuki Samurai had a 1.3 litre engine, was the smallest of the three vehicles. Despite this, it did not undergo modifications, and broke down the least (the main reason for it breaking down was when water entered the fuel tank while fording the jungle river). One disadvantage of this vehicle was its broken 4-wheel drive system, which made it a "3-wheel drive system;" May had not engaged one of the free-wheeling hubs to the lock position. Another major problem was that the alternator was broken, requiring his car battery to be swapped with Hammond's. It was still a very capable off-roader, especially when its small engine and size are considered, though Clarkson's Range Rover was still declared to be the ultimate winner.