Forty years ago this month, Garry Sowerby and Ken Langley were attempting to break the Guinness around-the-world driving record. Today, Garry takes us along as they set off on the Indian leg of the journey.
The turbulence ended. The Qantas Boeing 747 had finally broken through the overcast cloud layer on its descent into Bombay International Airport.
It was 02:45 local time. Gazing out the window over the starboard wing, I figured we were at about 5,000 feet. From that altitude, all I could see were clusters of dull flickering lights, more like an army camp than the outskirts of a major world trading centre.
Ken Langley, my partner on an attempt to break the existing around-the-world driving record, was pulling out of a restless sleep. It was Day 22, September 27, 1980, of our goal to complete our ambitious mission in 77 days or less.
Everything would be different now that the drive team and car were in India
“That’s India down there,” I said. “Everything is different – the language, food, dress and life itself.”
Red Cloud, our then-new 1980 Volvo 245DL, was below, strapped to metal pallets and checked as excess baggage in the cargo hold of the massive jetliner.
We’d been warned about the reputation of the airport in Bombay (called Mumbai since 1995). Besides the car itself, our tools, cameras, medical kit and spare parts were easy prey for fast hands.
Ken’s stomach was still messed up from the night of debauchery in Kalgoorlie, Australia, two days earlier. I was nervous. I realized that, after driving across North America and Australia, the real test of stamina and luck was waiting down there.
After landing, we were met on the tarmac by cargo handlers who spent the next half hour trying to get the car out of the cargo hold.
The heat and humidity were stifling.
The Captain, anxious to get his 400 London-bound passengers on the way, warned: “If the car is not off in ten minutes, I’m talking it to London.
Ten minutes. Our quest for fame and glory would skid into the ditch of reality like pieces of flying gravel in the Australian Outback. Ken and I joined the workers and managed to get the car off-loaded.
Our advance man, Sandy Huntley, was waiting in the passenger terminal. At 6 feet 3 inches, he looked like a tower of familiarity in the chaos of the crowded terminal.
Customs paperwork and the Indian bureaucracy put the team behind schedule
We were told the car would need to clear customs. Since it was Sunday, the office we needed to deal with was closed until Monday.
The wasted day would put us behind schedule.
Outside the terminal, we were offered snakeskin purses, hashish, even opium, before piling into one of the beat-off taxis to take us to our hotel, the Taj Mahal Intercontinental.
The drive downtown was a blast of sensory overload. Unfamiliar smells, the discordant rattle of the early morning traffic. Long lines of people waited for water and kerosene. People slept on sidewalks and even in the ditch. Not a square inch was wasted.
The hotel had offered complimentary rooms in exchange for us holding our press conference there before beginning the drive through India. We slept most of the day because we had been on the move for 30 hours.
Without the car, there was nothing we could do.
Outside the air-conditioned hotel, the heat and humidity were like nothing I had ever experienced, but it wasn’t long before I realized something more than sweat was making me uncomfortable. I was covered with body lice and had a pretty good idea where it came from.
What happens in Kalgoorlie doesn’t necessarily stay in Kalgoorlie.
For the next two days, Ken and Sandy met with people from the Indian Automobile Association and the Canadian Consulate.
Meanwhile, I became an expert on Bombay taxis while jockeying between the airport and a series of government offices to get the paperwork in order to clear the car into the country.
Everyone was so polite and curious about our trip, but the red tape of India was a slow-moving affair, especially in the pre-computer days of 1980.
There was added incentive to release the car as I scratched my way around Bombay. The medicine required to handle the pesky critters homesteading on my body was in the car.
The team would have have to replan the route to skirt the Iran-Iraq war that had broken out
There was a much bigger issue to deal with, too.
War had broken out between Iran and Iraq. Our plan took us right through Iran, via Pakistan and Afghanistan. The route would have to be changed to avoid the war.
Ken and Sandy were working on a solution with Al McPhail in our Canadian office.
After finally breaking through the red tape of getting Red Cloud on the road in India, we left Bombay at 03:00, on the morning of Day 26.
We were a full day behind schedule.
Driving in India was a chaotic mess of congestion, diesel smoke, horn-blowing and hordes of humanity
It was my turn to be sick. My insides were on fire and the idea of leaving the white on white bathroom of the Taj Mahal hotel made me cringe. We made our way out of the sprawling city before sunrise.
The plan was to make Nagpur in central India that night, where we would stay at the home of Mr. Cyrusi, the owner of a large textile mill.
It would be our oasis in the chaotic congestion, diesel smoke and hordes of humanity that was driving in India.
At a debriefing with the Indian Automobile Association, we had been warned about scams where someone intentionally gets hit by a foreign vehicle. Worse, deceased children were sometimes used in a gruesome ploy to get money from foreigners. We were told not to stop if we ‘hit’ someone because we may be mobbed.
True or not, it was constantly on my mind, even during the many roadside stops we made that day to tend to our high-performance digestive systems.
The traffic moved slowly so I was constantly passing trucks and on the horn. It took almost 15 hours to drive the 963 kilometres from Bombay to Nagpur.
We were exhausted, filthy and dehydrated but happy to have finally immersed ourselves in the art of driving in India.
In a reckless way, it was fun to be in a state of hyper alertness, dodging rickshaws and transport trucks, living on the horn and dealing with all those corn fields where our screaming intestines found some relief.
In Nagpur, we hired a rickshaw driver to lead us to Mr. Cyrusi’s house, which was more like a small village.
A polite guard showed us to the guest house where an assortment of cool juices and fruits awaited. We showered. A group of men cleaned Red Cloud.
Roadblocks by striking government workers meant further delays and route changes
At dinner in Mr. Cyrusi’s massive mansion, we were briefed on what lay ahead.
Striking government workers blocked the road we needed to drive the next day. We might have to hold in Nagpur for a few days.
This wasn’t what we wanted to hear but there was a faint hope. The head of the militia in the area was a good friend of Mr. Cyrusi. He would send out a patrol during the night to assess the situation.
All we could do was hope for the best and try to get some sleep.
With a war raging between Iran and Iraq and government strikes throughout India, we realized our drive across Australia and North America had been the kindergarten of adventure driving.
But at least my stomach felt better.
Week 5: Nagpur, India to Lahore, Pakistan, click here.
Week 6: Lahore, Pakistan to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, click here.
Week 7: Belgrade, Yugoslavia to Oulu, Finland, click here.