In the spring of 1984, things in Ethiopia, Africa could have been better. So when crisply dressed Canadian High Commissioner, Wilfred Agness, briefed us on the next leg of our journey through the famine stricken country, we listened.
The plan had been to drive from the capital, Addis Ababa to Aseb, Ethiopia’s port on the Red Sea, 800 kilometres to the northeast. From there, partner Ken Langley and I would ship our 1984 GMC Suburban 2500 to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
High Commissioner Agness reported the road we needed to drive went through Afar territory in Eritrea province, and the Afars were picking off truck drivers like flies.
A convoy of fourteen trucks had been stopped on the highway the week before, and drivers told to get out of their rigs. The rebels blew up the trucks but let the drivers go.
So the Ethiopian government decided it didn’t want two Canadians, out to set a speed record from the south tip of Africa to North Cape, Norway, to use the road to Aseb.
Instead, we needed to drive east 640 kilometres to Dire Dawa, Ethiopia’s second largest city, known as ‘Queen of the Desert.’
From there, the government had arranged an armed freight train to take us 400 kilometres to Djibouti, a small country on the Horn of Africa at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Djibouti, a Canadian, was working on arrangements to get us and the Suburban across the Red Sea to either North Yemen or Saudi Arabia.
First we had to get to Dire Dawa though.
It was Day Eight of our quest and thanks to an ambush and shoot out in Kenya’s Kaisut Desert two days earlier, we were a day behind schedule. Now we had two days to get to Dire Dawa because the train wouldn’t be ready to move us until then.
It would be the filet of the Africa-Arctic Challenge. The ambush and the wilds of northern Kenya were behind us, but a train with armed solders was waiting to usher us through the dangerous area along the Somalian border to Djibouti. If we managed to get across the Red Sea, no one could predict what the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East would present with the 1984 version of the Iran Iraq war raging.
So for 48 hours things looked relatively cool, as long as we didn’t get a flat tire after the Kaisut Desert shootout took out all three spares.
Kenny’s stomach had been sandblasted by Ethiopian curry the night before and he stretched out on his bunk as we rolled out of Addis Ababa along the flatland toward Awash.
We motored past incredibly blue lakes and trees with flat tops into dry desert country. There was nothing on the poker-straight road and for a while, with the throttle pegged, the Suburban’s 6.2L V8 diesel propelled the overloaded, four-ton behemoth along at 140 and 150 km/h.
We pulled into the Awash National Park at dusk. It was on the edge of a four-hundred-foot gorge and accommodations were a line of camper trailer ‘motel’ units, each with a noisy air conditioner and a thin foam mattress covered with a worn, but clean cotton sheet.
I did the trip log. Day Nine had brought us 281 kilometres closer to North Cape, Norway, with more than 8.000 kilometres of Africa behind us. We were still a day behind schedule, and didn’t know how we would get the Suburban across the Red Sea.
How could we have in those days before computers, cell phones, fax machines or GPS units in communist Ethiopia, a country being ravished by internal conflict, strive and famine?
We woke early as usual ready to go at six, but a curfew meant we couldn’t hit the road before seven. Dire Dawa was 360 kilometres further east.
The road had been in good shape to Awash, but as soon as we crossed the Hadj Bridge over the deep gorge, we knew Day 10 would be different.
Soon we were in mountains on a twisty washboard road. Kenny drove slowly. Since it was too rough to sleep, I climbed onto the roof to soak in the dazzling scenery: 6,000-foot mountains, rural villages with roaming sheep, goats and donkeys and waving, friendly-looking people.
A sensual bouquet of smells and sounds washed over me. The rattle of the diesel engine, tires slapping the washboard, the dust and the burning sunshine created a feeling of absolute isolation that was euphoric.
To this day, I still consider that time on the roof of a bullet-riddled truck coming off the Ethiopian plateau, as the pinnacle of ‘remote’ in all my travels. Raw delight of the first order.
I didn’t know many truck drivers had been killed by snipers in those mountains, usually at night, but not always. We were later told the stretch from Awash to Miesa was one of the most dangerous in the country, partly because you weren’t a man in these parts until you had an ostrich feather in your hair.
And to wear an ostrich feather, you had to kill someone.
After checking into the Ras Hotel in Dire Dawa that evening, Kenny took a nap while I had a snack in the hotel restaurant. The lobby looked like a dated 1940’s Canadian post office. It had a high ceiling, a sterile ambiance and one black and white television set that didn’t work to add a final dollop of alienation.
People had waved at us coming into the ‘Queen of the Desert.’ We had been on Ethiopian television the night before, and our travel plans, to our dismay, had been broadcast on radio and television.
I wondered how many people were thinking of us in terms of ostrich feathers.
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