Editor’s note: 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.
It was the summer of 1990. With the recent fall of the Berlin Wall, our upcoming road trip would provide a glimpse of the East Bloc countries letting down their guard and allowing anyone with a decent set of wheels to experience an extraordinary twist of history.
Myself, along with Los Angeles-based photographer Rik Paul and Tennessee journalist Ron King, would get in some unique back-road cruising. We would also have a chance to mix with people shedding the yoke of Communism for a Western way of life.
Stockpiled with an assortment of visas, maps and giveaways, we came up with a clever name for our seven-day East Bloc-capitals trek: Around the Bloc in a Week.
Starting at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, our plan was to follow a counterclockwise route through the former East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland and get back to our starting point exactly one week later. The 17 sets of border formalities would be an adventure in themselves, considering 1990 was the first summer the Bloc had been open for unrestricted travel in about 40 years.
The junket got off to a wobbly beginning, though. After a hectic week of juggling travel schedules, insurance papers and shipping deadlines, I arrived in Europe bushed. When I called the shipping agent in the port of Rotterdam, he announced the container ship carrying my GMC Jimmy was five days late.
What to do for five days in Holland? I rented a car, then went looking for a low-key small town to hole up in. Thirty-six hours after arriving on the continent, I secured the last room in the last hotel within striking distance of Rotterdam. The Badhotel Rockanje had four stars, a fax machine and a swimming pool below my balcony. The towels in the bathroom had “Badhotel” embroidered across them.
Five days later, the Jimmy arrived and I drove across Holland and Germany to a rendezvous with Rik and Ron in Berlin. The streets of the former German capital were rife with wide-eyed East Germans piloting rickety two-cylinder Trabant cars through its maze of neon and trendy shops.
Near Checkpoint Charlie, where numerous Cold War spy swaps had taken place, we rented a hammer and chisel and hacked away a few pieces of the Berlin Wall, then drove through what had been one of the most guarded borders in history into the former East Berlin. Ahead of us was 3,000 miles of East European roads, at least five different languages and not one hotel reservation.
The next seven days were like driving through a gigantic 1950s Cold War movie set. Few of the expected stern-faced officials slinging ominous hardware materialized, although abandoned observation towers and roadside checkpoints littered the landscape.
Through hand signals and body language, we joked with young Russian soldiers during breakfast in a dingy Czech village. We learned seven translations for the “unleaded fuel” that proved almost as scarce as English-speaking locals.
With a different language to deal with every day, the evening meal amounted to a guessing game where we simply pointed to something that looked like it might be fit. A lot of times, we pushed away from a meal without ever knowing what we had eaten.
Crossing the frontier between Hungary and Romania was the most arduous of the border crossings. After a two-hour wait to reach the front of the line, we were held for another two hours until it sunk in that the Romanian immigration officer was waiting for a financial “donation.”
The trip had plenty of contradictions. In Krakow, after a $10 feast of caviar, roasted duck and chateaubriand, we dazzled local taxi drivers by demonstrating the wonders of Windex on the Jimmy’s grimy windshield. Fifty-car lineups at gas stations and people camped outside stores in hopes of buying food the next morning were common sights.
Throughout the week, my head spun as an extraordinary lesson in history, geography and the resilience of the human spirit unfolded before us.
We returned to Berlin within the seven-day time limit. The hammer and chisel rental kiosk was still thriving beside the Wall and wide-eyed East Germans were still roaming through the opulence of the western quarter of the city.
Later, I drove back to Holland and made arrangements to ship the Jimmy back to North America. The truck was on the boat within a couple of hours and I checked back into the Badhotel to wait for my flight the next morning. I wandered down the lane through a copse of trees onto a beach that stretched to the horizon. Fresh-faced children laughed and batted beach balls while their parents lounged in the afternoon sun. Windsurfers skimmed the sandy shoreline.
In front of a sprawling 1940s American-style beach house, young women were hanging out listening to American music. I sauntered inside where a group of senior citizens were gearing up for what looked like Holland’s equivalent to a bridge party.
Later, I sat on the front balcony sipping a beer and feeling contented about our around-the-Bloc project. The waitress brought me a menu with English translations. Hamburgers, fish and chips, a club sandwich. I noticed the name of the beach house at the top of the page … Bad Lust Pavilion.
And I suspected that in Dutch, bad must mean good.
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.