Africa to the Arctic: To the finish line! Istanbul to Nordkapp, Norway

May 2, 2024 – Forty years to the day that we arrived at Nordkapp, Norway, the top of Europe, and broke the world record for the fastest drive from the southernmost tip of Africa to the northernmost tip of Europe, we are excited to be opening our exhibit at Steele Wheels Motor Museum! Come check out our trio of global adventure vehicles.

 

May 1984 – Istanbul, Turkey

Twenty-three days on the road, through twelve countries in Africa and the Middle East, border crossings, driving day and night, meals on the fly and sleeping when you can while your partner drives, all spell confusion when waking up.

“Are we moving? Am I in the truck? Is it day or night? Am I hungry, or is that churning in my stomach a bout of dysentery brewing? Where are we? Is it still 1984?”

And what’s that chanting, getting louder and louder? Oh, it’s sunrise and I’m in a hotel bed. In Istanbul, Turkey. And the eerie chanting drifting in the window is the muezzin, calling the people to early prayer at the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque).

Finally, we were in Europe, sort of.

 

Europe 40 years ago looked different than it does today.

 

All we had to do was get through the communist East Bloc to Austria, take a right in West Germany then north to the Norwegian Arctic.

Only another 5,000 kilometres and the clock, which had been ticking inside my head since we left the southern tip of the African continent over three weeks earlier, would stop. Ken Langley and I would have our second world driving record.

 

The 5,000-kilometre homestretch to the finish line. After Africa, the Middle East, and the Eastern Bloc countries, Western Europe felt like home to the globe-trotting Atlantic Canadians.

 

But first, on that day 40 years ago, I had to snap to life and strap into Lucy Panzer, our six-month old 1984 GMC Suburban, for the 27-hour drive to Munich, Germany.

We took most of our breaks with slow moving, rubber stamping border folks at the frontiers of Turkey-Bulgaria, then Bulgaria-Yugoslavia and then Yugoslavia-Hungary before finally crossing into Austria.

Western Europe at last. It was like getting home. The hard part was behind us.

In Munich, we sacrificed time for a press conference. The bullet holes in Lucy Panzer from the ambush in Kenya caused quite a stir among the journalists.

 

At a Munich press conference, Garry fields journalists’ questions about the adventure and the GMC Suburban.

 

Ken and I got the feeling that, because of that global buzz, our sponsors would promote the adventure more, thus helping us solve one of the underlying reasons we took on the Africa-Arctic Challenge in the first place, that advertising royalties would sort out the financial debt we had incurred during that first trip around the world.

Who doesn’t want to see real bullet holes in a truck, especially when they’re the result of a nasty encounter where everyone escaped unscathed?

 

A fast run through Germany and into Scandinavia – Time to contemplate true friendship and a solid partnership

After a night in Munich, Lucy Panzer spent Day 26 with the throttle on the floor as we beat it up the no-speed-limit German autobahns to Hamburg, then on to Copenhagen, Denmark.

 

 

It was a fast, smooth run. I had time to appreciate not only what I’d been through, but who had gone through it with me. Ken and I did not have one argument on the whole trip while focusing on the gargantuan task at hand. His loyalty to the project and our friendship, along with his smarts about all things necessary to pull it off, made him the perfect partner for the trek.

Our sense of humour, optimism, tenacity, fairness and the way our styles of diplomacy complemented each other had been the octane of our friendship. A bond which is still intact forty years later.

 

Garry, left, and Ken (and Lucy Panzer) in Copenhagen about to do a press conference.

 

In Copenhagen, a Storno Nordic mobile telephone was installed in the truck. What looked like an electric bingo game bolted to the dashboard quickly connected to the first public cellular phone system in the world.

 

 

The planet was at our fingertips for the final 2,300 kilometres to the finish line at Nordkapp, Norway.

The phone rang incessantly as we headed to Sweden then into Norway. It seemed everyone on the planet wanted to know how we were. Family, friends, sponsors and media fed on the details of our adventure as we motored into the Arctic toward the finish line.

Indeed, life was good until we got onto Magerøya, the island on which the northernmost point of Europe, Nordkapp, is found. A mere ten kilometres from our finish line, giant snow drifts blocked the road. The cranky foreman of the snow clearing operation said it would take a week, perhaps two, to open the road.

With the end of their 28-day ordeal just 10,000 meters away, the two Nova Scotians with the burned-out eyeballs would not take that news without a fight.

 

 

Four hours later, following a massive snowblower, we arrived at the finish line; 28 days, 13 hours and 10 minutes after leaving Cape Agulhas, South Africa, having driven 20,166 kilometres.

 

 

I tripped and fell climbing the stairs at the Nordkapp monument, but, like our lead escort in Kenya said after the ambush, that was ‘no problem’.

Ken and I did media interviews on the phone overlooking the shimmering Barents Sea, where the Atlantic and the Arctic Oceans meet. As usual during interviews, I was thinking not so much of ourselves but about the companies and organizations that had put their cash, faith and products on the line for our quest.

 

 

They had joined the auto clubs, embassies, border guards, friends, relatives and countless people along the way who lifted our spirits, or saved us even a few minutes.

We had done what we said we would do by establishing a new driving record between the southern tip of Africa to the northern tip of Europe. That was, and still is, a mouthful.

After the interviews and a few minutes of reflection, we pointed Lucy Panzer south and drove 1,750 kilometres non-stop to a press conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

No sweat. No problem.

 

EPILOGUE

After the press conference in Stockholm, we drove to Gothenburg, Sweden, shipped Lucy Panzer to Halifax, Nova Scotia and flew home to our families and friends. When the truck arrived 12 days later, we drove it 2,600 kilometres to Indianapolis, Indiana. Non-stop of course.

There, the truck was featured in a Detroit Diesel display and Ken and I gave the keynote speech at the prestigious Indy 500. It was the first of many appearances with our bullet-riddled GMC.

Our speech, and many subsequent talks, revolved around a mantra Ken and I clearly understood and one that I have lived by to this day in business.

Do what you say you will do. Nothing is free. Not much is easy.

Besides the slam-bam stuff of the actual drives, Ken hit the nail on the head the other day as we talked on the phone: “Sorb, the real adventure for us was pulling these programs together!”

My thoughts turn to the late John Rock, General Manager of GMC Trucks, who believed in us enough to support the adventure. Many times in the past four decades, I’ve recalled what he said to me when I pitched him the idea of the world record at that meeting so long ago and promised that, if he gave us a new GMC Suburban, I would keep it forever.

“Sowerby!” he had guffawed, “I like the way you think when you’re broke!”

A few months after the Africa-Arctic trek, an advertising royalty check arrived from Firestone Tires with enough clout to wipe out that stubborn around-the-world debt.

Our plan had worked in so many ways!

 

 

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 4 of the Africa to Arctic Challenge, click here.

 

We hope to see you at our exhibit at Steele Wheels Motor Museum this summer! Come check out our trio of world record road warriors.

 

One of the Firestone advertisements, from which the royalties helped Garry and Ken pay off the debt from their first world record drive four years earlier.

 

One of the Firestone advertisements, from which the royalties helped Garry and Ken pay off the debt from their first world record drive four years earlier.

 

*All video clips in this post are taken from the 30-minute documentary about the Africa-Arctic Challenge produced by Odyssey International Ltd., Getting There, now playing at Steele Wheels Motor Museum.

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