Africa to the Arctic Part 2: Danger Ahead!

Forty years ago this week, Ken Langley and I had driven 7,770 kilometres through six countries of the southern part of the African continent in our then-new 1984 GMC Suburban 2500. On April 11, 1984, the first seven days of an attempt to set a new speed record between the southernmost tip of Africa and Nordkapp, Norway, were behind us.

It had been a busy week. We had departed Cape Agulhas, the barren southern tip of Africa, at 3:00 a.m. on April 4, 1984. Click here for Part 1 of this journey.

The  20,000-kilometre driving junket, dubbed the Africa-Arctic Challenge, had begun with a quick transit of South Africa into Botswana’s sprawling Kalahari Desert.

 

Morning run across the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, Africa.
Photo: Garry Sowerby

 

Ken and I were already exhausted when we left Cape Agulhas. We had thought the first few days on the road would be relaxing compared to the months of preparations, financing, diplomacy and talking the talk about our pending land-transit of Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Europe then into the Norwegian Arctic and on to Nordkapp.

 

Civil war in Sudan and security issues in Ethiopia

To add to the stress, in the final 10 days leading up to our departure from South Africa, we received word that the civil war had intensified along the Blue Nile in southern Sudan, so there was a scramble to change our routing between Kenya and Saudi Arabia to get around the war and other security problems in the area.

We would now have to cross from Kenya into Ethiopia, across a border that had been closed for many years because of the country’s close ties with the then-Soviet Union.

No wonder we were tired!

 

Ken Langley (left) and Garry Sowerby with their 1984 GMC Suburban 2500.

 

As expected, the drive through South Africa was a quick 1,700-kilometre affair where, at times, we were running four tons of diesel-powered Suburban pretty well flat out, at speeds up to 150 km/h.

With very little traffic and surprisingly smooth tarmac, there was not much to worry about other than the double document deception necessary for us and our truck, nicknamed Lucy Panzer, to get through some of the African and Middle Eastern countries on our route.

Here we were, trying to set a record for the fastest transit from the bottom of South Africa to the top of Europe and we weren’t ‘officially’ supposed to have been in South Africa!

Clearing into Botswana was a breeze. In the capital, Gaborone, we were met by two officers from the Canadian High Commission that had come from Harare, Zimbabwe. They briefed us on what was ahead. They treated us to a hot meal and let us use the showers in their hotel rooms.

Only 14 hours into the trek and we were already filthy.

 

 

Of course, I forgot my suitcase at the hotel, not realizing until the following day, so I took on the Kalahari Desert and points north with no toothbrush, no deodorant, no underwear or clothing other than the combat boots, shorts and T-shirt I was wearing. A nice record-setting look to go with my brain fog!

That night, when I checked the oil, it was down a half-litre. In the blackness of the moonless desert night, I topped it up. The road through the Kalahari was much better than expected so we wound Lucy Panzer up and made fantastic time through the night.

In the morning, at a fuel stop near the Zimbabwe border, I spotted a pool of oil under the truck. It was dripping from between the back of the engine and the transfer case.

 

 

A dull, sick feeling came over me because I knew we’d been running the truck hard through the night.

Would that puddle of oil spell the end of our attempt to secure a new record for the Africa-Arctic Challenge?

I opened the hood. There, on top of the radiator, sat the oil filler cap. Mistake #2! First my suitcase and now this. I had forgotten to put the cap on after adding oil the night before. This seemed too much of a coincidence. How could the engine have developed an oil leak at exactly the same time the filler cap was left off?

There was no internet to Google that question because it had not yet been invented. Forget calling a help line on a phone – that didn’t exist. And checking with the mechanic in the support vehicle we didn’t have was not an option either.

The only thing we could do was put the cap back on, push on to Victoria Falls, keep an eye on the leak and hope the gnawing, suffocating worry working me over went away.

 

 

By day’s end, the leak had dried up and the oil level had stayed full. Our moods skyrocketed. Even though my only ‘outfit’ was getting ripe, I felt we were into the rhythm of the trek.

 

Besides hoping a mistake #3 didn’t surface – because we all know bad stuff happens in threes – what could go wrong now?

Border formalities exiting one country and entering the next always fuel excitement. Things had gone well between South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia, but Tanzania was different.

There were people lying around everywhere at the grubby border post. The forms we had to fill out were so filthy we couldn’t read them, there was no ink to stamp the passports, the carbon paper had been used so much it was translucent.

A border guard wanted the curried shrimp Ken was whipping up for lunch, using our on-board stove. It smelled like a high-end Indian restaurant in there.

There was a look of NO plastered on everyone’s faces.

 

Eventually we got in but it was a long, rough drive through Tanzania.

We used the time to train ourselves on the three tape recorders, three still and two film cameras we had on board to record what was going on.

 

 

What we didn’t record was a description of an option built into our bunks in the back, quite by accident I expect.

On the third day into the trip, Ken crawled to the front passenger seat after a nap on his bunk and said with a grin, “Do you notice anything about the bunks on these rough roads?”

I smiled because I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Hey, sleep on your stomach back there and the vibration from the suspension’s dance over African roads made sure you woke up with some company, and in a good mood.

From then on, the bunks became known as the ‘rebonifiers’ and there were lots of smiles waking up back there while your partner blasted through the wilds of Africa.

Those two bunks, with the failsafe ‘rebonification option’, were the only place we slept for the first five days on the road.

 

Approaching Mount Kilimanjaro, I climbed onto the roof of the truck and rode there for a couple of hours.

To the east, the moon was sliding up into a spectacular magenta sky as the sun sank into the Serengeti to the west. I was sitting on one of the spare tires, holding onto the T-bar that held it in place, listening to the drone of the engine while the hopelessly hot dry air blew through my hair.

In a way, those couple of hours made everything it had taken to get us to that point on the adventure worth it.

Driving through small villages, Ken would sound the air horn and wave. Locals would wave and cheer at us from the front of their huts. Life certainly was good.

 

 

We pulled over near the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain and the highest free-standing mountain on Earth, and got stuck in a powdery bulldust. After winching our way out, we shut down for the night.

The next morning a spear-toting, oh-so-tall Maasai warrior looking for a drive woke us early. Sadly for him, we were going in the other direction. Mount Kilimanjaro at dawn demanded a photo session then we headed north toward the Kenyan border.

 

Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest free-standing mountain on Earth, in all its morning glory.
Photo: Garry Sowerby

 

By noon, we had reached Nairobi. The truck was serviced while the Canadian High Commissioner David Miller briefed us about a diversion through Ethiopia to avoid the civil war in Sudan.

“You’ll have to transit the Kaisut Desert in northern Kenya” David advised.

That frontier had been closed since the communists took over Ethiopia a decade earlier, but he had gotten permission for us to enter the country by road.

 

Who knew what lay in store on the road from Nairobi to Ethiopia?

Ken and I slept in real beds for the first time since departing Cape Agulhas. We even had our own rooms at the High Commissioner’s home. In the morning, we hit the road early for a rendezvous with four armed guards to accompany us on the last 200 kilometres through the Kaisut, to the highlands of Ethiopia.

 

The logbook of the journey was stamped by officials along the way.

 

I drove to Mount Kenya on the equator. We changed drivers there and Ken celebrated by throwing up beside the equator sign. Could it be an omen?

 

An hour north, we reached Marsabit, an outpost on the fringe of the desert. The pavement ended there. Spike boards blocked the dirt trail north.

We loaded four soldiers, their gear and weapons, plus 300 pounds of rice into the already overloaded Lucy Panzer.

 

 

Everyone assured us there would be ‘No Problem’ on the road to Ethiopia, although that assertion lead to the question: if there’s ‘no problem’, why do we need four armed soldiers with us? Ken drove north on the rutted track through the desert. With four extra souls on board, it certainly was claustrophobic in there.

 

 

An hour later, as I dozed on the floor in the back between the bunks, out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the soldiers flick the safety off on his machine gun.

A few minutes later, the shooting started.

Four or five attackers started blasting away at us. Thankfully the ambushers were all on the right side of the road, trying to hit the driver, thinking the truck was right-hand drive, like all Kenyan vehicles. That probably saved our lives.

As a hail of bullets ripped through the Suburban, I thought: “How many more attackers are there?”

Ken was slouched into the driver’s seat, ducking what might come his way, pedal to the floor. I imagined a bullet hitting him, the truck spinning out of control and rolling over and over, spilling our lives along with our plans for fame and fortune onto the unforgiving floor of the Kaisut Desert.

The face of my four-month-old daughter, Lucy, flashed repeatedly through my mind.

 

Garry Sowerby with his daughter Lucy, months after returning home from the record-breaking Africa-Arctic Challenge.
Photo: Moncton Times-Transcript
She would never know her father, shot by bandits and left to rot in a far-off desert while trying to set a world driving record.

I wanted to go home!

Looking behind us, I could see chunks of a disintegrating rear tire flying high into the air. Over the chaos in the truck, I yelled: “Ken! If we don’t stop to change that tire, we’ll break an axle and be out here with these bandits all night!!”

We stopped.

Our four guards set up a defence perimeter around the truck, AK-47 assault rifles at the ready. Sweat ran off my face like a faucet.

Ken and I went to work changing the heavy right rear tire. One of the spares on the roof had been hit and there was a bullet hole through the Thomas Cook Travellers Cheques logo on the front fender.

 

 

Coolant dripped from the bottom of the radiator onto the parched floor of one of the driest places on the planet.

And there, with our lives and livelihood at stake, we unloaded the entire truck to find the tire jack. Mistake #3 had finally surfaced.

In case of ambush, make sure the tire jack is easily accessible.

 

CLICK HERE for Part 3 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 1 of the epic expedition!

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

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

 

 

 

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