I awoke at 5:20 that April morning on a flat car at the end of a slow moving freight train. My partner Ken Langley and our Ethiopian guide, Tim Cat, were asleep wrapped in grubby horsehair blankets to fend off the chilly desert dawn.
Below the trestle we were clanging over, a woman chased a child as he threw stones at her. At the end of the trestle, I noticed a decomposing camel carcass, another victim of trains making their way to the exotic city state of Djibouti, strategically situated at the mouth of the Red Sea between Ethiopia and Somalia.
Although I was groggy, it didn’t take long to remember it was Day 9 of our attempt to set a new world driving record between Cape Agulas, at the southern tip of Africa, and Nordcap high above the Arctic Circle in Norway. Our specially equipped sixmonth-old 1984 GMC Suburban, sporting nine bullet holes from an ambush in Kenya a few days earlier, was chained to the flat car as it carried us over the last 120 miles of the African sector of the adventure. On the roof of the boxcars up front, 20 well equipped soldiers bent on delivering us safely out of Ethiopian territory diligently eyed the desolate countryside.
At the Djibouti border, Tim Cat bid us a warm farewell, probably happy to see the end of us. Pulling into the dusty, fortified city I felt a deep sense of accomplishment because, no matter what happened from then on, we had made it through Africa.
When one of the sentries at the French Foreign Legion Post saluted us, I snapped one back. Men Who Would be Kings all right, at least until we got off the train in this place.
After cleaning up at a hotel, I called our only contact in Djibouti, the Roman Catholic Bishop who had promised to help with arrangements to get us and the Suburban across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.
He wanted to meet us at 8 p.m. at a downtown saloon and when the time came we headed for the rendezvous. The cavernous bar, packed with soldiers and seamen, felt like the set of a James Bond movie.
The Bishop arrived right on time. After sharing a few beverages the hip-looking, middle-aged cleric fessed up to problems in finding a guaranteed way of getting us across the Red Sea.
“I spoke to the Father last night,” he said with a grin. “And although he did it for Moses a few thousand of years ago, he wouldn’t do it for (you). But I have the next best thing.”
He went on to tell us of a smuggler who would transport the truck across the Red Sea to Jizan, a super-tanker port in southern Saudi Arabia, for US $5,000. He would use a 40-foot wooden Arab sailboat but, because of the threat of piracy, we would not be allowed to travel with the truck. Ken and I would have to fly ahead to Saudi and wait, rendering the truck out of our control on the high seas for five days. Alarm bells were going off in my head, but since it was the only game in town, we had no choice and took the gamble.
The next day we made arrangements for the cash, picked up the Bishop and drove to the port. to meet the contact. He had a large gold earring, a slippery look about him and wore a skirt. His three-man crew looked like 12-year-old boys sporting sparse mustaches.
A crane lowered the fully equipped truck onto the boat’s deck crossways with the bumpers hanging over the siderails. The rickety sailboat sank another three feet into the water affirming the precariousness of the situation.
I pulled the Bishop aside. “Look, he has our truck, all our equipment, our $5,000 and we don’t even have any insurance on that unregistered scow.”
“Yes, but he has a family I know here in Djibouti as well as a reputation as an honest operator. And he charged you a hefty fee. If it had been $500 I’d be worried. He’ll deliver.” The Bishop was persuasive.
Just before they shoved off I remembered the gold Krugerand myfather-in-law had given mebefore leaving home predicting a time when we might need gold to get out of a jam. I fished it out of my wallet and flashed it at Mr. Skirt. It was an ounce of solid gold and he knew it. I asked the Bishop to tell him it would be a tip for safely delivering the truck to Jizan.
I had an ache in the pit of my stomach watching the small, frail boat disappear into the humid haze. I thought we would never see the truck again and return home looking like fools to have invested in the dubious operation.
Five days later, Ken and I met with the head of the port authority in Jizan, Saudi Arabia. A letter from a Saudi Prince that a General Motors executive had obtained for us was working wonders in the expediency and respect departments.
Surprisingly, we were advised the boat had arrived the night before and was tied up at pier 12. We were given a ride over and, sure enough, way down below the pier between two huge super-tankers was the Suburban looking like a toy on a toy boat.
The crew cheered as a crane hoisted the truck and Mr. Skirt up onto the pier.
I pulled the Krugerand out of my pocket and offered it to the man I had obviously judged incorrectly. He smiled and said something in Arabic.
“What did he say?” I asked the translator we had hired for the port meetings.
“He said, keep it. You might need it in Iraq or somewhere else the line.”
Join Garry Sowerby, a four- time Guinness World Record holder for long-distance driving, on his tales of motoring mania.Follow his accounts of 30 years of global road adventures: out-driving the clock on a race around the world; narrowly escaping bandits’bullets in Kenya;and smuggling books behind the Iron Curtain. The master road tripper hasn’t slowed down yet.