Africa to the Arctic Part 3: Ethiopia to the Red Sea

The lead escort, Francis, handed me his AK-47 machine gun, intent on helping Ken Langley deal with the shot-out tire.

The weapon was heavy, obviously loaded. My fingers trembled on the trigger guard, positioning myself with a broad view of the direction the bandits would be coming from. My reaction was fight, but I was hoping for flight. And they were taking an eternity to finish the tire change.


Minutes after the ambush, the numbness of survival had taken over.

It was April 9, 1984 and Ken and I were in northern Kenya on Day 6 of our quest to set a new land-speed record for the fastest drive from the bottom of Africa to Nordkapp, high above the Arctic Circle in Norway.

Earlier that morning, we had boarded four armed escorts into our then-new GMC Suburban 2500. An hour later, bullets flew, and people screamed as we escaped the barrage of firepower raining down on us from five ambushers.




Despite the danger and our intense fear that the attackers would follow us, we had to stop up the road to change the shot-out tire and assess the damage to the truck.



The attackers never surfaced though, either shot dead from our escorts’ return fire or slipped back into the desolation of Kenya’s Kaisut Desert.

We headed north then spent the night in a police compound. The post commander informed us the notorious bandits usually kill the occupants of the vehicles they attack before taking the spoils of their dirty work. Take No Prisoners was evidently their modus operandi.


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

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

For Part 4 of the Africa to Arctic Challenge, click here.

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


We would need an escort to the Ethiopian border, still 190 kilometres away

After a restless night holed up in the compound, our escort to the Ethiopian border, a small fleet of military trucks, loaded with armed soldiers, arrived.

With a bullet hole through a component of the Suburban’s cooling system and temperatures in the desert in the 90-100-degree F range, I was worried the engine might overheat. Squeezing in between the rugged army trucks, I eyed the engine temperature gauge, realizing it would be getting a lot of attention that morning.

But there were no more ambushers and the 6.2L V8 Detroit Diesel engine in our GMC truck, dubbed Lucy Panzer, ran just fine, even with the damaged expansion tank.

In Moyale, at the Ethiopian border, a guide arranged by the Ethiopian Tourist Association was waiting. His name was Timkat and, even with his help, border formalities took until the next morning.

Understandable, since we were the first foreigners to transit that border in almost 10 years.


The Ethiopian government allowed us, a couple of east coast Canadians, entry through a closed border

The gateway into southern Ethiopia, at the foot of the ominous Ethiopian Highlands, had once been a thriving village. But when a military coup, backed by the Soviet Union and led by Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Miriam, toppled Emperor Haile Selassie, ten years earlier, relations with Kenya had deteriorated and the border was closed.



Diplomatic maneuvering by the Canadian Embassy convinced the Ethiopian government to let us enter the country by road at Moyale. All we had to do was conduct a press conference in the capital, Addis Ababa.

Our role was to extol the virtues of vacationing in Ethiopia. Timkat was part of the deal and he would travel with us through Ethiopia. He turned out to be a valuable asset as we made our way across the drought- and famine-plagued country.


Garry Sowerby, right, and Timkat, Ethiopian Tourism Commission escort through Ethiopia discuss logistics in 1984.


The thousand-kilometre drive between the border and Addis Ababa took us through the northern part of the Great Rift Valley. Most towns had lift gates at their entrance where military people examined our papers while Timkat enthusiastically explained what we were up to.



The drill was always the same. Pull out the letters of introduction, passports, insurance papers and the Carnet de Passage, a must-have customs document for the truck.

A crisp pack of cigarettes would be strategically positioned on the dashboard.

“Want a smoke? Here, take the whole pack, Mr. Customs.”

As we approached Debre Zivit, 80 kilometres south of Addis Ababa, instead of being stopped at the checkpoint, the gate lifted.


Uniformed guards snapped to attention, saluted and waved us through.

Beyond the gates, masses of people lined the streets, cheering as we passed. School children, in crisp blue uniforms waved Ethiopian flags.

“This is unbelievable!” I exclaimed to Timkat, feeling both proud and humbled by the display of emotion from complete strangers.

“I know of nothing of this,” he laughed, waving to the applauding people as we sped by.


Bullet holes do NOT spell tourism destination!

At the press conference in Addis Ababa, thinking the ambush story might clash with our objective to promote Ethiopia as a desirable tourist destination, I parked the truck with the right side against a cement wall, keeping the bullet holes unaccessible and out of sight.

After the media scrum, we were ushered into a briefing room and told the only safe way to get to the city of Djibouti, the port in the Horn of Africa where we would cross the Red Sea, was to drive 800 kilometres to Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. There, a train would be arranged to take us the last 190 kilometres to Djibouti.

Trains on this track, which ran along the Somalia border, had been attacked regularly in the past year.



We weren’t out of the African woods yet!

With this news to digest, we checked into a hotel, and finally got to a telephone to let our families, sponsors and media know what had happened two days earlier in the Kaisut Desert and that we were safe, almost.

The next morning, Timkat, Ken and I departed for the long two-day drive to Dire Dawa. There, the truck would be strapped to a flat car and a train would carry us and Lucy Panzer to Djibouti.

As we rolled out of Addis Ababa, Timkat, grinning mischievously, asked, “Do you know what was going on in those towns with the enthusiastic receptions yesterday?”

He had talked to a colleague at the press conference and couldn’t wait to get it out.

“It was President Mengistu. He was due to pass through those places, but we came through first. Everyone thought we were the official vehicle and I was him!”  Timkat was enjoying the idea of impersonating the ultimate officer, without even trying.

After we had driven through the towns, the masses had dispersed, children had returned to school and the gatekeepers went back to scrutinizing travel documents, throwing a wrench into Mr. Mengistu’s propaganda machine.


Train Kept A Rollin’

In Dire Dawa, the truck was loaded onto the flat car. The boxcars carried freight and the armed military guards assured they would take care of us during the 14-hour trip to Djibouti.



I awoke at 5:20 the next morning at the end of the slow-moving freight train. Ken and Timkat were still asleep, wrapped in grubby horsehair blankets to fend off the chilly desert dawn.

Below the trestle we were crossing, a woman chased a child as he threw stones at her. At the end of the trestle, I noticed a decomposing carcass of a camel, another victim of the trains that make their way to Djibouti, strategically situated between Ethiopia and Somalia, the entry port to the Red Sea.

It didn’t take long for me to remember it was Day 9.


The safest way to get Garry Sowerby, Ken Langley and the 1984 GMC Suburban, aka Lucy Panzer, from Dire Dawa, Ethiopia to the port at the Red Sea in Djibouti was by train.


On the roof of the boxcar up front, twenty armed soldiers, intent on delivering us safely out of Ethiopian territory, eyed the bleak countryside.

At the Djibouti border, Timkat bid us a warm farewell. One more person caught up in our madness who we would probably never see again.


Pulling into the dusty, fortified city, we felt a deep sense of accomplishment. No matter what happened from then on, we had made it through Africa.

When a sentry at the French Foreign Legion post saluted us, I snapped one back. Men Who Would be Kings, all right, at least until we got off the train in this place I couldn’t even pronounce.

After off-loading, the truck was secured in the Customs compound. Exhausted, we checked into a hotel on the shore of the Red Sea. The air conditioner sounded like the radial engines on a DC-3 Dakota airplane.

After cleaning up, I called our only contact in Djibouti, the Roman Catholic Bishop, the Most Reverend Michel Gagnon, who had promised to help with arrangements to get Lucy Panzer across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.


An Evening with the Bishop

Bishop Gagnon wanted to meet us that evening at a downtown saloon so we took a nap, woke up freezing in that pit of a room, then headed for the rendezvous.

The cavernous bar, packed with soldiers and seamen, looked like the set of a James Bond movie.

The Bishop arrived right on time. After a few beers, the Quebec-born cleric ‘fessed up: there were problems finding a guaranteed way of getting us and the truck across the Red Sea.



“I spoke to the Father last night,” he smirked. “And, although he did it for Moses a while back, he won’t do it for a couple of Nova Scotians.”

Before we could speak, he continued, “I have the next best thing, though.”

The Bishop told us of a man, Mubarek, who had arranged transport for the truck across the Red Sea to Jizan (Jazan), a super-tanker port in southern Saudi Arabia, for $5,000. Lucy Panzer would be chained to the deck of a 40-foot Arab dhow sailboat laden with 30 tons of sugar.

The real threat of piracy on the Red Sea, one of the planet’s most important shipping channels, meant we wouldn’t be allowed to travel on the boat with the truck to Saudi Arabia. Ken and I would have to fly ahead and wait, rendering the truck out of our control on the high seas for five days.



The plan to let the truck go solo across the Red Sea sounded edgy but it was the only option.

The next day we made arrangements for the $5,000 cash, picked up the Bishop and Mubarek, and drove to the port.

The heat was ridiculous as we were introduced to the captain of the rickety ship. He had a single large gold earring, wore a skirt and, in my estimation, had a slippery look about him. His three-man crew resembled 12-year-old boys, sporting sparse moustaches.

A crane lowered our filthy, bullet-riddled truck onto the boat’s deck, crossways, bumpers hanging over the side rails. The boat sank deeper into the water, affirming the precariousness of the situation.



I pulled the Bishop aside. “Look, he has our truck, our equipment, our $5,000. The insurance on the truck is not valid on that scow.”

“Yes,” he acknowledged. “But he has a family I know, here in Djibouti, and a reputation as an honest operator. He charged you a hefty fee. He’ll deliver.” The Bishop was persuasive.

Before they shoved off, I remembered the Krugerrand my father-in-law had given me before leaving home, predicting a situation where we might need gold to get out of a jam. I fished the coin out of my wallet and flashed it at the captain.

It was an ounce of solid gold and the captain knew it.

I asked Mubarek to tell him it would be a tip for safely delivering the truck to Saudi Arabia.


There was a stabbing ache in the pit of my stomach watching the small, frail boat disappear into the humid haze. We might never see Lucy Panzer again.

Ken and I would return to Canada empty handed, the Suburban stolen, looking like fools to have invested in the dubious Red Sea crossing.

Five days later, Ken and I met with the head of Saudi Customs at the port in Jizan, Saudi Arabia. He was a cranky guy but his mood changed in a nano-second when he read the letter written in Arabic from a Saudi Prince that a General Motors executive had obtained for us.

Surprisingly, we were advised the boat had arrived the night before and was tied up at Pier 12! Sure enough, far below the massive pier between two super-tankers, was Lucy Panzer, looking like a toy on a toy boat.

The crew cheered as a crane hoisted the truck and the captain up onto the pier.

I pulled the gold Krugerrand out of my pocket and offered it to the man I had obviously misjudged. He smiled and said something in Arabic.

“What did he say?” I asked the translator we had hired for the port meetings.

“He said, ‘Keep it. You might need it in Iraq, or somewhere else up the line’.”


Stay tuned for Part 4 of the Africa-Arctic Challenge as Garry relives the trip 40 years later. Also, get ready to visit Steele Wheels Motor Museum for an exciting new exhibit featuring the record-setting Suburban plus some other surprises… Coming May 2nd!

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

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

For Part 4 of the Africa to Arctic Challenge, click here.

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



Farewell, Africa

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