Sowerby triumphs over warm Ethiopian welcome

I was on cruise control doing a respectable 65 miles per hour when I first noticed it. Speeders approaching in the overtaking lane eased off as they came up behind me. Then they would creep up along side before accelerating back to a cruising speed that would obviously have been of interest to the highway patrol.

At a fuel stop while walking back to the car, I realized why speeders took such an interest in me. From a distance, the silver Chevy Impala had the look of an unmarked police cruiser, the kind seasoned speeders keep an eye out for.

In my youth, a retired highway patrol car had been high on my must-have-vehicle list. Those mid-'60s Chevys, Fords and Dodges had hot police interceptor engines -- or so I thought -- and, with their small hub caps and beefed up brakes and suspensions, the base-model units had "the look" down pat.

My most memorable incident of mistaken identity occurred 24 years ago, in Ethiopia of all places. We were attempting to set a new speed record from the most southern point of Africa to the top of Europe at North Cape, Norway. After a harrowing, bandit-infested run through northern Kenya, we were met at the Ethiopian border town of Moyale by Tim Cat, an employee of the Ethiopian Tourism Commission.

The gateway into southern Ethiopia at the foot of the ominous highlands had once been a thriving village, but when the pro-Soviet-Union-style military government led by Mengistu Haile Miriam toppled Emperor Hallie Salassie 10 years earlier, relations with Kenya deteriorated and the border was closed.

Some diplomatic maneuvering had convinced the Ethiopian government to let us enter the country by road at Moyale if we agreed to participate in a press conference in Addis Ababa, the capital city. Our role was to extol the virtues of vacationing in Ethiopia. As part of the deal, we agreed to hire a tourism official who would travel with us the entire Ethiopian leg of the trip. I liked the idea of a local on board and Tim Cat, who seemed to have friends everywhere, turned out to be a valuable asset as we made our way across the parched country.

The 600-mile drive between the border and Addis Ababa took us through the northern part of the Great Rift Valley. Most towns had gates at their entrances where military people examined our papers while Tim Cat enthusiastically explained what we were up to. He described how the bullet holes ended up in the side of our GMC Suburban truck and showed off its then-techie amenities. Good stuff in the fellowship department, but not conducive to setting a timed distance driving record.

Nearing Debre Zivit, about 140 miles south of the capital, we prepared for the usual drill of producing letters of introduction, passports, insurance papers and the Carnet de Passage, a must-have customs document for the Suburban. A fresh pack of cigarettes was strategically positioned on the dashboard. Interestingly, though, as we approached, the gate swung open, the guards snapped to attention, saluted and waved us through. Beyond the gates the masses lined the streets waving and cheering as we passed. School children, dressed in crisp blue uniforms waved Ethiopian flags.

"This is unbelievable" I told Tim Cat, feeling both proud and humbled by the enthusiastic display of emotion from complete strangers.

"I know of nothing of this," he said, waving to the cheering people as we sped past.

We encountered similar activities at other towns before rolling into Addis Ababa for the press conference. Thinking the ambush story might clash with our objective to promote Ethiopia as a desirable tourist destination, I parked the truck up against a cement wall to keeping the bullet holes out of sight.

After the conference and a security briefing, we departed for Djibouti, 500 miles away at the southern end of the Red Sea. Tim Cat eyed me with a mischievous grin.

"Ya know what was going on in those towns with the big receptions yesterday?" He had talked to one of his colleagues back at the press conference and could hardly wait to get it out.

"What?" I was preoccupied that we couldn't find any tires to replace the three spares that got us mobile after the shootout in the Kenyan desert.

"It was the president, Mr. Mengistu. He was due to pass through those places when we came through. Everyone thought we were the official vehicle and that I was him." Tim Cat enjoyed telling the story and having had a chance to impersonate the ultimate officer, without even trying.

He went on to explain that after we passed, the masses had dispersed, the children returned to school and the gatekeepers went back to scrutinizing travel documents throwing a wrench into Mr. Mengistu's propaganda machine.

I was still reliving those memories when I drove the Impala from Windsor, Canada, to the entrance to the tunnel under the Detroit River and pulled up to the U.S. customs and immigration booth. But no one waved me through before checking my papers.

The masses weren't lining the streets of Motor City either. And there were no school children waving flags as I passed. Not one.

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.