“A photograph of my then four-month-old daughter Lucy flashed. She would never know her father, shot by bandits and left to rot in the desert while out trying to set a world driving record.”
We tailed the Canadian High Commissioner’s car through the deserted streets of Nairobi, Kenya, in the pre-dawn twilight of that April morning in 1984.
My partner Ken Langley and I stayed at his home the night before and were keen to get an early start for our push north to the Ethiopian border.
At dinner the night before, High Commissioner David Miller advised we would pick up escorts in Laisamis, an isolated outpost 150 miles north of the equator on the southern edge of the barren Kasuit Desert. He figured it was as much a formality as a security measure since Kenyan authorities had assured him we would have no problems in their country.
The escort party expected us at noon and since it would take at least six hours to cross the desolate stretch of rock and sand between Laisamis and the Ethiopian border, promptness was encouraged.
Eight hours later, at precisely 11:45 a.m., I pulled our six-month-old GMC Suburban truck up to a shabby guard shack. There were no tour busses parked out front. Gangs of camera-wielding foreigners were nowhere to be seen. The pavement ended there and a dusty track north was blocked by three wide boards with dozens of rusty steel spikes sticking out of them.
“Why escorts?” I asked the officer in charge while checking out four heavily armed police standing along side the spike boards.
“No problem,” he replied.
“If there’s no problem why all this firepower?” I eyed the AK-47 assault weapons the escorts were sporting.
“No problem,” we were assured. Then the four ‘Special Constables’ loaded their gear and four 110-pound sacks of rice aboard our already-overloaded truck.
It all seemed a little pointless since there was no problem.
It was Ken’s turn to drive so I invited two of the constables, who were dressed more like infantry soldiers than police, up top with me where we could sit on the roof-mounted spare tires.
Locals nodded. The spike boards were pulled. But there were no smiles, no laughter. Just serious nods and penetrating stares as Ken maneuvered onto the dusty track that would take us to Ethiopia.
A half-hour later, Francis, the escort commander, asked Ken to stop. He wanted everyone inside the vehicle . . . now.
“Why?” I wasn’t looking forward. Instead, I was cramming into the cab of the overloaded Suburban.
“No problem. But come inside.” Francis insisted.
Exhausted, I stretched out on the floor in the back between the bunks that had been retrofitted for our assault on the speed record for the fastest drive from the bottom of Africa to the top of Europe in the Norwegian Arctic.
Meanwhile, the escorts enjoyed the amenities of our techie new truck. Ken had an Eddy Grant tape cranked up. But this was no “Electric Avenue.” The truck was taking a pounding but Francis insisted Ken pick up the pace. Gravel flew as we bottomed out in the ruts. Drifting in and out of a sleep-deprived stupor, I dreamed of smashed skid plates and torn suspension parts.
When I heard the first pop, I didn’t realize it was gunfire.
“Go, go, go, go!” Francis yelled.
Kenslouchedintothedriver’sseatandexecuted a spirited getaway while the constables sprayed machine guns out the window at six bandits firing on us. There was plenty of gunfire and yelling, mostly at Ken to go faster.
I imagined a bullet hitting him, the truck spinning out of control and rolling over and over again on the floor of the unforgiving Kasuit Desert. A photograph of my then four-month-old daughter Lucy flashed. She would never know her father, shot by bandits and left to rot in the desert while out trying to set a world driving record.
I wanted to go home.
The gunfire subsided. Seconds dragged. The truck was swaying dangerously as we tore across the parched moonscape. Ken realized we had a flat tire but was bent on getting some distance between us and the attackers.
“We better stop or we’ll break an axle.” I warned, visualizing us stranded out there with our welcoming committee.
Ken stopped. The right rear tire had been hit as well as the roof-mounted spare tire I had been sitting on an hour earlier. A bullet had ripped through a headlight, rupturing the cooling system’s expansion tank. Coolant dripped into the sand.
The constables took up defensive positions while Ken changed the blown tire. Of course I had to find the jack, a task that involved unloading most of the truck. The idea of changing a tire during an ambush simply had not been addressed in pre-trip planning sessions.
At one point, Francis handed me his machine gun and helped Ken with the tire. It was heavy, loaded. My fingers trembled on the trigger guard as I positioned myself with a broad view of the direction the bandits would be coming from. The numbness of survival had taken over. It was fight or flight and It seemed they were taking an eternity with the tire change.
But the attackers never surfaced, obviously slipping back into the crevices of the desolation that is Kenya’s Kasuit Desert.
Garry Sowerby, author of Sowerby’s Road, Adventures of a Driven Mind, is a four-time Guinness World Record holder for long-distance driving. His exploits, good, bad and just plain harrowing, are the subject of World Odyssey, produced in conjunction with Wheelbase Communications. Wheelbase is a worldwide provider of automotive news and features stories.
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