Africa to the Arctic Part 4: Jeddah to Istanbul

April 21, 1984… Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – With the truck finally on Saudi Arabian soil, Day 18 called for a celebration.

Ken Langley and I had made it out of Africa. We had covered 8,408 kilometres through eight countries and we were about a third of the way through our bid to establish a new record for the fastest drive from the southernmost point of Africa to the northernmost point of Europe, Nordkapp, Norway.

 

World Record Attempt by Garry Sowerby and Ken Langley in 1984 would have them drive a 1984 GMC Suburban 2500 from Cape Agulhas, South Africa to Nordkapp, Norway.

 

While our then-new 1984 GMC Suburban, nicknamed Lucy Panzer, was crossing the Red Sea from Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa to the port city of Jazan, Saudi Arabia, we had flown to Jeddah, 700 kilometres north. There, a flurry of diplomatic and corporate communications was underway to determine our route north to Turkey.

One option was to drive to Jordan, then through Syria and into Turkey. This was General Motors’ recommendation but Canadian embassies throughout the region insisted a better choice was across Saudi Arabia to Kuwait, north to Iraq and on to Baghdad.

 

 

To get through Jordan and Syria quickly, we would face challenging bureaucratic potholes. So, despite the raging Iran-Iraq conflict, mounting tension in Kuwait and a route that would bring us very close to the war front, we developed a plan for that option. Time, after all, was still our enemy.

 

 

Our ‘celebration’ for reaching Saudi Arabia was a 700-kilometre all-nighter from Jazan to Jeddah, where we wheeled Lucy Panzer into a General Motors dealership for a pit stop. New brake pads, shock absorbers and fuel filters were installed as well as an expansion tank for the cooling system that had a bullet hole through it from the ambush in Kenya.

For Part 1 of the Africa to Arctic Challenge, click here.

For Part 2 of the Africa to Arctic Challenge, click here.

For Part 3 of the Africa to Arctic Challenge, click here.

For Part 5 of the Africa to Arctic Challenge, click here.

 

One of nine bullet holes from the ambush in Kenya. This one is from the bullet that ripped through the cooling system of the 1984 GMC Suburban.

 

The inside was a cramped pigpen so while the mechanics twisted wrenches, we emptied the truck, cleaned the inside then repacked everything.

 

 

Late that afternoon, we left Jeddah, bound for Kuwait City, 1,500 kilometres away.

It was another all-nighter and I was up for it. Lucy Panzer was clean and serviced. Directional signage was confusing but the roads were wide and smooth with surprisingly little traffic.

A sandstorm slowed us to a crawl for three hours but cleared at dawn. The good time we made and how quickly we got through the Saudi Arabia – Kuwait border had put us in giddy moods.

 

Garry Sowerby’s 1984 passport was a busy place.

 

Aside from a couple of power naps, I had not slept in 64 hours.

 

In 1984, Kuwait was one of the wealthiest countries in the world per capita.

Its port was the most efficient on the Persian Gulf with tankers shipping out oil and freighters bringing goods into the hot Arabian market.

Everyone had a job on this patch of sand but a war between Iran and Iraq, that had been churning since our around-the-world drive in 1980, was a big problem. Iraq borders Kuwait and Iran’s invasion of Iraq was taking place near the Kuwait border, a mere 100 kilometres north of Kuwait City.

In Kuwait City, the American embassy that had been recently bombed by Iranian terrorists was across the street from our hotel that night and, although executions of the Iranian perpetrators had been delayed, there was fear of attacks by groups sympathetic to Iran.

Heading north out of Kuwait City the next morning, ready for the 575-kilometre drive to Baghdad, I scanned the surrounding terrain. Industrial Kuwait was sprawling. Oil rigs on the horizon shimmered in the desert heat like a drug-induced hallucination.

An item Ken had read in the Kuwait Times newspaper at breakfast that morning was running through his mind:

“The Iranian buildup on the Majnoon Island indicates their next move will be to sever road connections between Basrah and Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.”

It was the road we were heading for, a main target of the Iranian offensive to take control of the Majnoon Oilfield, one of the richest oilfields in the world. The attack had been predicted all spring but had not yet taken place.

 

 

Black clouds of war loomed on the horizon.

Traffic fell off as we approached Iraq. For the last 40 kilometres, we had the highway to ourselves. Thick smoke was blowing from the direction of Basrah, the besieged Iraqi city where refineries were being shelled by Iranian artillery dug in only ten miles away.

Clearing out of Kuwait went smoothly. The road through no-man’s-land to the Iraq line was littered with burned-out hulks of transport trucks, pick-ups and cars.

At the frontier, we were greeted by a huge ‘Welcome to Iraq’ billboard, followed by a slightly smaller ‘Danger Ahead’ sign.

There were a dozen lanes at the Iraq border post, six going in and six coming out. Off to the side, we parked to head into the customs and immigration offices. Arabic music blasted from loudspeakers.

 

We handed our passports to the immigration officer, then sat down with a dozen truck drivers whose dour looks spelled delay.

But five minutes later, we were through immigration and directed to Customs where a friendly woman with a beehive hairdo and the brightest red lipstick collected $25 ‘war insurance’ for the truck.

 

The entry stamp into Iraq in Garry’s 1984 passport.

 

The post was closing at 4:00, just ten minutes away, when we were ushered into the Office of the Director of Customs. He was wearing pale blue pants and a shiny print shirt, complemented by the dark glasses that, in themselves, were like a uniform in the region.

“It’s too late,” the Director advised. “You’re going to have to stay here for the night.”

I showed him news stories from Kuwait about our Africa-Arctic quest then offered to show him our truck. When I pointed out bullet holes from the ambush in northern Kenya, he told us to get going.

 

Heading north, euphoria was short-lived as we passed a fertilizer factory with missile holes through its storage tanks.

Carcasses of blackened military tanks littered the shoulders of the highway. Columns of smoke rose in the distance, but in the midst of all this, the fields were filled with men, women and children harvesting tomatoes.

They were smiling, as if war was a million miles away.

 

 

Ken drove while I scanned the eastern sky with binoculars, looking for Iranian fighter planes that reportedly strafed the highway in the low light of evening.

“If you are attacked, get out of the truck and run,” the Canadian Ambassador in Kuwait had warned. “The jets will go for the truck.”

There were no attacks as we skirted Basrah, though, and we were soon on the heavily rutted asphalt road to Baghdad, moving away from the active war zone.

Later, a police car led us through a military zone where thousands of soldiers were marshalled. Some, obviously returning from the front, wore torn uniforms with bandages over where limbs had been amputated or blown off. Others wore fresh uniforms and spit-polished boots, preparing to go south into battle.

The sights, sounds and severity of the day might have been expected, considering we were driving through a war zone. But my fleeting glimpse of the rawness and harsh reality of war has stayed with me for decades.

 

We rolled into Baghdad shortly after midnight.

I asked a cab driver for directions to the Mansour Melia Hotel but the route sounded impossibly complicated. Neither of us had been in Baghdad before so Ken got into the taxi and I followed it in Lucy Panzer across the Tigris River to the hotel. Somehow I felt safe following a randomly chosen taxicab through the streets of Baghdad.

In the morning, we were briefed by Canadian embassy staff. We felt we were getting closer, not to the end of the journey, but to western Europe. Get through Turkey and the East Bloc, check those boxes off, and we would be in Germany.

 

It was dark when we reached the Iraq-Turkey frontier and the Turks expressed zero interest in our story.

They didn’t care that we were attempting to set a world speed record for the fastest time from the south tip of Africa to the north tip of Europe. The nine bullet holes in the truck from the ambush in Kenya didn’t impress them either.

Nor did the fact that we had just driven through the Iran-Iraq war.

Obviously, a bribe offer was in order and, after two hours of stonewalling, the Turks offered to ‘expedite’ our paperwork for a donation of $50.

We slid and stumbled down an embankment up the road from the border post. At the bottom, I could barely see the outline of the shack to which we were led where we were introduced to ten or twelve Turks. They were sitting on a dirt floor in dim candlelight, cleaning rifles, drinking mint tea and cracking jokes we couldn’t understand.

The apparent boss, a large man dangling a cigarette in a gap between his teeth, told me the ‘donation’ had gone up to one hundred dollars.

We left the hovel at midnight. A half hour later, three silhouettes of people holding weapons waved us down. If they were bandits and we stopped, it would be trouble.  If they were military or police and we didn’t stop, that was trouble, too.

Ken stopped Lucy Panzer right beside them. They were young soldiers looking for a drive.

“Naw, not tonight,” I choked out, as Ken drove away.

It was quiet in the truck for the rest of the drive across southern Turkey, except for bouts of small talk, dreams of German Autobahns and the safety of Western Europe.

 

 

That night, in Istanbul, we crossed the Bosphorus from Asia to Europe.

The taste of success was on our minds. As were the communist countries of East Europe.

 

The fifth and final part of the Africa-Arctic Challenge, 40 years later, will be posted next Thursday May 2. That’s the day to visit Steele Wheels Motor Museum to meet Garry Sowerby, the record-setting Suburban, Lucy Panzer, and some other wheeled surprises from Garry’s collection… Make sure to add May 2nd to your calendar!

For Part 1 of the Africa to Arctic Challenge, click here.

For Part 2 of the Africa to Arctic Challenge, click here.

For Part 3 of the Africa to Arctic Challenge, click here.

For Part 5 of the Africa to Arctic Challenge, click here.

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