I was fascinated reading Oskar Speck’s epic seven-year journey from Germany to Australia, starting in 1932, only to be interned in a prisoner camp when he arrived.
There is an article in Vanity Fair that wonderfully details his adventure and some associated stories along the route. Speck set out in a Faltboot or folding kayak, which was not designed for rough seas. In fact, Speck could not even swim, but his kayaking spirit was raw and he had a very deep sense of adventure. Speck was a reasonably skilled in-land paddler. He also had a huge measure of luck on his journey, which allowed him the time to gain a greater understanding of sea state and surf. He called his kayak a “first class” ticket to adventure.
The COVID-19 pandemic gives us some sense of the state of economic affairs in the thirties. Worldwide gross domestic product (GDP) fell 15% from 1929 to 1932. The Great Depression affected everyone including Speck, who was part of the 30% of German workers unemployed in 1932. While he had some minor relationships with Nazis, Speck loved kayaking and was an adventurer at heart. Disenchanted with his life in Germany he set off on one of the world’s greatest kayaking trips, a feat replicated by Sandy Robson approximately 84 years later, who followed his route from Germany to her home country, Australia.
At 140 pounds and 5’ 10”, Speck pushed off with little funds and route knowledge, launching on the Danube River in the direction of the Mediterranean Sea with the goal of reaching Cyprus where he hoped to gain work in a copper mine. He paddled an 18-foot long double kayak with a 33-inch beam. His boat called the Sunnschien could carry a load of 650 pounds. Wow! Loaded the boat averaged 3 knots an hour, but with his sailing rig he increased his speed to 6 ½ nautical miles an hour.
From the Danube River, he traveled overland a short distance with his Sunnschien to a more challenging river – the Vardar. Speck plunged through steep mountain gorges and rapids to reach Veles in Macedonia, shredding his boat’s skin and breaking several boat ribs on route. By the time he had managed to get a new skin and repairs the river was frozen. He stayed in Veles for five months before moving on.
At Salonika he faced the sea. His travels along the Greek coast was a dream. In Andros, he was greeted by little Greek girls bearing an Easter Day gift of bread and coloured eggs. Speck comments throughout his journals about the contrast between sometimes rough conditions—eating salt spray and living day-to-day on the water—to suddenly being in the midst of riches and splendour. The island of Andros was no different as he drank in his time there, celebrating at places like the Ship Owner’s Club.
In 1933 Speck reached Cyrus, his original destination, but now he wanted to continue on. He crossed from Cyprus to Turkey, a long open water crossing. His trip almost ended abruptly when a passenger ship sailed so close he could hear voices. From Lanarca, Cyprus Speck paddled to the Syrian Coast, where he took his only significant wreck-of-a-bus ride through the deserts to the Euphrates River, his pathway to the Persian Gulf. Eating dates and occasionally accepting invitations of a flat-bread and mutton meal, he ate cautiously, aware he was in sometimes untenable circumstances. Best to always accept an invitation. At one point on the Euphrates someone started shooting at him on a moonlit night, but he snuck past with barely a paddle in the water and sticking to the dark shadows of the river. Apparently, two friends later paddled his course, apparently not accepting a local invitation because they did not like fleas and lice. They were shot dead in their tent.
At the mouth of the Euphrates River, Speck landed at Bandar Abbas, which is now Iran. Here, winds sandblasted Sunnschien’s skin and once again he ordered a new one from Germany. During the wait he fell ill from malaria and spent six months recuperating and working to pay for his boat. He pressed on to Gwattar, landing on a beach and desperately looking for food only to have his gear, kayak, wallet and money stolen. After checking in with a corrupt policeman captain and making a deal, his boat was recovered from a dhow. Nothing was touched. He handed over half his funds which amounted to 40 pounds.
On November 19, 1934, the intrepid kayaker reached Baluchistan. A little demoralized from his travels past the Persian coastline, he wasn’t expecting much only to see a beautiful tent on the cliffs. The day apparently had been arranged for Sir Norman Carter, the top British official in the area. His host was the Khan of Kalat. Spying Speck on the beach, Carter diverted from the cliff assemblage to greet him. Speck was becoming known; Sir Carter knew about his travels. He was soon drawn into a gentrified life, meeting new and wealthy friends. His fame rose as the newspaper wrote amazing stories about his escapades.
In Ceylon, I believe, Speck was caught by a 35-foot tidal swell. I can’t find any specific details about this moment, but few paddlers get caught out like this and come out unscathed. He survived. He capsized ten times in surf throughout his entire journey; most of his capsizes were on the coast of India. May 13, 1935 marked three years of adventure. He was now in Colombo, a tropical paradise. By April 1936 he had reached southern Burma just in time for the deadly monsoons. Often, he was cast far off course in the Andaman Sea, paddling for up to 40 hours. His hands literally had to be painfully peeled from the shaft of his paddle.
In Singapore, a new kayak waited. After transferring his luggage or gear, he paddled onward to Batavia, which I believe is modern-day Jakarta. From there he followed the coast to Java and then Sourabaya. In north Bali, he had another serious bout of malaria. Considering the disease drained his strength, it’s amazing he could endure long paddles.
It must have been an amazing but painful journey through Indonesia: malaria, long open crossings and high winds. When Speck finally reached Lakor, a very easterly island in the Lei Islands, and part of the Maluku Islands, he was confronted by angry natives, who bound him up. He escaped with his hands still bound and basically hobbled back to his kayak, which had been thoroughly looted, managing to use his teeth to untie the tough buffalo hide. His largest tank, which the natives thought contained water, held his camera, film and a lot of his clothing.
During the scuffle with the native people, Speck’s eardrum was punctured. Over the next week, he paddled back from island to island looking for a hospital. Eventually, he made it to Sourabaya, 1600 miles back, where surgeons operated on his ear. This trip alone is worthy of an article or a book. Speck’s adventures appear to be seriously underreported.
“Exactly a year after the attack, [Speck] left Saumlaki in a new boat, crossed to the Kei islands, and then faced the longest lap of island-hopping to New Guinea. When I [Speck] arrived at the first Dutch administration village, I caused a headache to the official in charge. He did not know whether to arrest me or let me carry on” (Oskar Speck, retold by Duncan Thompson). With a permit in hand Speck sailed via Hollandia to Port Moresby and Saibai, Australia’s northernmost island.
On Saibai Island Speck came ashore on a high tide. The island is only 9 feet above sea level. His boat flew Germany’s new flag—the swastika. Forty or fifty Melanesians greeted him as well as three Australian policemen. While they greeted him with a handshake they also arrested him, transporting the adventurer to Thursday Island the next day. Eventually, the police concluded he was not a Nazi or a German spy, but he was still interned for the next six years, his story disappearing into oblivion with the onset of the Great War.