Africa to the Arctic Part 1: A record-breaking drive 40 years later

Exactly forty years ago this morning, I had a lot on my mind.

At 2:00 a.m., a sharp knock on the window had rattled me out of a fitful stupor. Three hours earlier, bent on getting some sleep, Ken Langley and I had slipped into the bunks in the back of our then-new 1984 GMC Suburban 2500.

 

The 1984 GMC Suburban 2500 that set a world record for fastest drive from the bottom of Africa to the top of Europe 40 years ago.
Photo: Odyssey International Ltd.

 

As the knocking pulled me out of dreamland, the reality of what was about to happen came into focus.

The men tapping at the driver’s side window of our truck, perched on top of a cliff at Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of the African continent, were from the Automobile Association of South Africa.

They were there to officiate our departure and flag us off on our attempt to set a new world record for driving from the bottom of Africa to the top of the Afro-Eurasia land mass at 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.

 

On that chilly moonless morning at the bottom of the world, to the south far below the cliff on which we perched, two great oceans collided. To the north, a variety of problems awaited.

Like 20,000 kilometres of driving in dicey conditions. How about civil conflict in Sudan or the on-going Iran-Iraq war? How could we not think about the dysentery waiting to torture our bowels or the lingering winter in the Arctic. Not to mention the thousand other gremlins intent on sabotaging our plans to secure another world driving record.

If we succeeded, advertising royalties from sponsors would kick in, and we would finally be free of the debt that had plagued us since driving a Volvo around the world in record time four years earlier.

In 1984, communicating on the fly was almost impossible. There was no internet, no mobile phones, fax machines had yet to be invented and Google Maps was something out of a science fiction film.

In fact, despite a forest of antennae on the roof of the Suburban, old-school paper road maps were our only means of navigation.

 

Lucky! The odometer of the Suburban reading 7,711 at the start line of the world record attempt seemed a good omen.
Photo: Garry Sowerby

 

Since our around-the-world drive in 1980, Guinness superlatives had changed the one-driver rule. Now, we both could drive.

The Suburban had been modified to meet our needs. The interior was gutted. We installed two bunks, a fridge, a propane stove, several storage compartments, Recaro performance seats in the front, auxiliary lights, a winch and a nifty porta-pottie.

A roof rack was fabricated to carry three spare tires on rims, five five-gallon fuel cans, five gallons of oil and five gallons of coolant.

Mechanically, the 155-horsepower 6.2-litre Detroit Diesel, a spanking new engine for GM light trucks, remained stock with no modifications. We swapped out the four-speed automatic transmission for a four-speed, deep low manual transmission.

Along with Bilstein double shocks, we installed a slew of skid plates. The rear suspension was replaced with the springs, axle and drive shaft from a 1¼-ton military version of GM trucks.

We would be safe when we were moving. With two drivers, onboard sleeping and eating amenities and that clever porta-pottie, we could roll day and night, stopping as little as possible.

The expedition had taken two years to plan. Ken and I had lived and breathed every aspect of the trek, including three reconnaissance trips to make friends in the right places – Canadian ambassadors, high commissioners, automobile clubs and our sponsors’ connections – that would help expedite our passage through some of the more dangerous sections of the route.

In reality, the trip was a result of the $120,000 debt we were carrying, a leftover from the around-the-world driving record we had set in 1980 with a Volvo 245 DL named Red Cloud. The 74-day circumnavigation had taken a month off the existing record. The car and me ended up as the centre piece of the front cover of the Guinness Book of Records.

 

Garry Sowerby and the record-setting 1980 Volvo, Red Cloud, on the cover of the Guinness Book of Records.

 

The trip had been a success in every way, except financially. The entire project had cost $400k. With a $120k shortfall, we figured we were at least in the ballpark and, for the most part, knew what we were doing.

That debt left us with three options. Go bankrupt? Not for us. Get a ‘real’ job and pay our global shortfall off at 20% interest rates? Not an attractive alternative either.

Option #3: Get another world record.

So we flew to London, England to meet with Norris McWhiter, founding editor of the Guinness Book of World Records. Norris suggested the Africa-Arctic World Record. In the 1950s, the record for this drive had been set by Richard Pape. It had taken him almost 6 months.

We all agreed that if we could do it, we could beat Mr. Pape’s record.

Back in Canada, the bankers’ clock was ticking. With a stroke of luck, I scored a 15-minute meeting with John Rock, the General Manager of General Motors’ Truck and Bus Division in Pontiac, Michigan.

The meeting went on for two hours resulting in Mr. Rock giving us a new GMC Suburban, providing us with the modifications required, a sponsorship fund of $50,000 USD, service support along the route and a big slap on the back.

Aside from double documents for everything making it appear we had started the trip in Botswana and not South Africa, due to travel restrictions throughout the continent, we were armed with a file folder full of visas and letters of introduction, a service manual for the truck and enough food and water to get us to the Middle East.

 

Garry’s passport in those years looked like a diplomat’s.
Photo: Garry Sowerby

 

Hovering above it all was the anxiety I felt for taking on such a risky, daunting task with my four-month-old daughter Lucy back home in Canada.

Before leaving, my father-in-law presented me with an ounce of gold, in the form of a Krugerrand coin, saying: “You never know when you might need gold to get you out of a jam.”

 

The ‘just-in-case’ gold coin that Garry carried through the dangerous trek through Africa.

 

On that dark April morning 40 years ago, I tossed the coin in front of the officials from the Automobile Association of South Africa to see who would drive first.

Ken Langley won and as he tapped the air horn and slipped the GMC Suburban into first gear, I muttered: “Let’s go. We’re wasting time.”

 

CLICK HERE for Part 2 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!

CLICK HERE for Part 3 of the Africa-Arctic Challenge.

CLICK HERE for Part 4 of the Africa-Arctic Challenge.

CLICK HERE for the 5th and final part of the Africa-Arctic Challenge.

 

 

 

An artist’s rendition of the 1984 GMC Suburban 2500

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