Forty years ago this month, Garry Sowerby and Ken Langley were driving across Australia, attempting to break the Guinness around-the-world driving record. Today, Garry Sowerby takes us along, in the 1980 Volvo, dubbed Red Cloud, on that journey.
Having clocked 10,465 of the 42,668 kilometres we needed to make a claim for the around-the-world driving record, we motored out of Mount Isa.
Ahead lay the notoriously desolate and barren heart of the continent, the Australian Outback.
Optimism reigned in the cockpit of Red Cloud, our 1980 Volvo 245DL wagon. The sun, a massive ball of shimmering orange, majestically slid up over the horizon.
Within minutes, the pavement ended, right beside a small, faded sign that read ‘Tennant Creek 650 km’. The road ahead snaked across the baked land like a deep scar.
I suspected it would be another day in a dust bowl but a half hour later, we were back on a one-lane bitumen sealed track to Tennant Creek. It certainly wasn’t a turnpike.
Animal carcasses, kangaroos and nude driving – all in a day’s record-setting work
The road was littered with animal carcasses. Vultures circled overhead just like in the movies. There were horses, cattle and even a camel that had either succumbed to the hostile environment or were hit by one of the few vehicles transiting the area.
It was so hot, for a lark, we stripped down and drove nude, suspecting it had never been done. Just for an hour, we said. We figured the chances of encountering anyone during that time were slim.
Ah, things get silly when trying to drive around the world faster than anyone. Something to write about 40 years later?
In Tennant Creek, we suited up into cotton coveralls and combat boots, which made us feel protected from snakes when stopping for a roadside break. There, we turned south on National Highway 87, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn.
It was a 510-kilometre drive to Alice Springs, in the geographic heart of Australia, situated between the Gibson and Simpson deserts.
Red Cloud was not a fast car. With a 90-horsepower four-cylinder engine, heavy payload and wind restricting roof rack, it would top out at 150 km/h, a bit quicker with a tail wind. I drove flat out when the road was smooth to make up for the slow, rough sections.
Twenty-five kilometres north of Alice Springs, it finally happened. A kangaroo bounded out of nowhere in the dark and we hit it. Although the bumper was slightly bent and two headlights broken, the roo bar had saved the grill and more importantly the radiator.
Stops for press conferences, filming and repairs – necessary but not conducive to setting a world driving record
We spent two nights in Alice Springs, feeling a tad guilty about the kangaroo but more about losing a whole driving day to work with a film crew that had flown in from Toronto.
Delays like this were the same as press conferences, all robbing us of precious time. Stops were the trade-off with sponsors who provided money and support in exchange for product exposure. We walked a fine line between making everyone happy, while not forgetting the mission. Nothing is free.
In Alice Springs, Red Cloud’s broken headlights were replaced. A set of rear air shocks were installed to raise the rear of the car two inches. More clearance for the desolate, rough road down to the coast.
On Day 18, September 23, 1980, we left Alice Springs to continue south 640 kilometres to Coober Pedy. The road was a washboard, gravel track. The temperature hovered above 40 degrees Celsius most of the day.
Six hundred kilometres of washboard gravel road and a repair on a cracked distributor cap make for a long day
I hated the washboard and needed to drive at 90 km/h to find the suspension’s sweet spot.
An hour out of Alice Springs, I detected an engine miss in overdrive. We returned to Alice Springs and found the distributor cap was cracked. We had a spare so were soon on our way, but it made a long day even longer and chipped away at the 16-hour lead on the schedule we’d banked.
After overnighting in Coober Pedy, we continued on the rough section that pounded the suspension. At one point, we missed a turn and wound up down the 40-kilometre driveway of a ramshackle sheep ranch.
There was no one there except a beautiful sun goddess who invited us inside to cool off and relax.
When she told us everyone was away for the day, we did what any hot-blooded adventurer would do. We took her hand, gave her a Canadian flag pin and a tri-pack of Lifesavers and hit the road.
We had a record to set, after all, and sponsors to satisfy, but the encounter fueled our conversation for hours. By the time we turned west onto the Eyre Highway, Ken and I agreed she had obviously fallen in love with both of us.
It was sunny and ridiculously hot as we moved west across the Nullarbor Plain, so an evening shower was appreciated. Then the sky cleared and Red Cloud carried on westward with a stiff tail wind under a clear, full-moon sky. The stars looked like we could touch them.
The Nullarbor Plain is an almost treeless, flat, dry limestone plain that stretches across southern Australia on the northern edge of the Great Australian Bight. We made good time on the paved, straight 720-kilometre road.
Canned goat cheese, beet sandwiches and brothels – what happens in Kalgoorlie stays in Kalgoorlie
The trek across the Outback wasn’t exactly an exercise in fine dining. We lived on canned goat cheese and sandwiches from service stations along the way. Every sandwich had beets in it.
Eventually the beet juice soaked the bottom slice of bread and would break, dropping a pile of beets and shredded chicken onto our laps. We looked more like travelling butchers than big-time adventurers.
In Kalgoorlie, historic gold rush town and mining centre, we met up with advance man, Sandy Huntley, who had flown ahead from Alice Springs and arranged a flurry of radio and TV interviews.
At the time, the state of Western Australia had a slogan on the licence plates that Ken and I found quite funny – State of Excitement. That slogan held true as the night, our last night on the road in Australia, turned into a jovial affair at a local bar.
In Kalgoorlie, prostitution was legal. Of course, a group of local businessmen paid for a two-hour stint for the ‘boys from Canada’ at a local brothel. What happens in Kalgoorlie stays in Kalgoorlie was obviously our mantra.
And, oh yes, the next morning, Sandy, Ken and I were all hungover and feeling like sheepish rock stars.
Last day in Australia brings happiness with success of mission to date but worry about finances and potential war
Because of the one-driver rule, I did all the driving. Ken and Sandy (who drove with us that day) entertained me as best they could but, let’s face it, they napped, missing much of the beautiful scenery on the last day of our drive across Australia.
We were all very happy with our progress. We had safely crossed two continents. Red Cloud had not failed us and Ken and I had not had a single second of conflict. The complex logistical and PR plans had come together with few glitches.
Money was getting tight but we had known that would happen.
In Perth, we prepared Red Cloud for its next flight. This time, a Qantas Boeing 747 flight would transport Red Cloud from Perth to Bombay (now Mumbai), India.
I cringed when the agent charged my American Express card $14,200 for excess baggage.
“We didn’t leave home without it,” I joked.
The light mood Ken and I were feeling was becoming overshadowed with concern about the Indian subcontinent and a potential war festering between Iran and Iraq.
Week 4: Perth, Australia to Bombay (Mumbai) to Nagpur, India, click here.
Week 5: Nagpur, India to Lahore, Pakistan, click here.
Week 6: Lahore, Pakistan to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, click here.