A First-Class Ticket to Everywhere

Retracing Oskar Speck’s Epic Kayak Journey From Germany to Australia

Sandy and her kayak draw a crowd in Bangladesh – and everywhere else she travels.
Sandy and her kayak draw a crowd in Bangladesh – and everywhere else she travels. Photo courtesy of Khandaker Rahman.
By Sandy Robson

In 1932, a 25-year-old German named Oskar Speck launched his folding kayak on the river Danube, bound for Cyprus where he thought he might be able to get work. He made it to to the Mediterranean but didn't stop there. He carried on, all the way to Australia in what became the longest kayak expedition ever made. He reached the Torres Strait between New Guinea and Australia in 1939, as World War II erupted. The Aussies let him finish the crossing, then interned him for the duration of the war.

In 2011, Australian expedition kayaker Sandy Robson set off to retrace what she could of Speck’s adventure over five stages. In Stage 1 she paddled from Germany to Cyprus. Stage 2 and 3 were in India and Sri Lanka. Sandy is nearing the completion of Stage 4, paddling from the far east of India, through Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Timor Leste and Indonesia. This is her report from Bangladesh.

For some reason the Coast Guard did not give me coordinates, so here I am in the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, feeling alone in my little kayak. I am pointing at the Coast Guard Emblem on the cap they gave me when they invited me to stay at their base, using sign language to ask local Bangladeshi people for directions.

Sandy in her element. Courtesy Sandy Robson.
Sandy in her element. Photo courtesy Ian Taylor Photography.

The general consensus of the last four fishermen I've queried is that I must turn left and follow this narrow creek for an unknown distance. Tentatively, I probed the narrow pathway through the mangroves and thought of the advice given me by wildlife filmmaker Shekar Datatri: “Sandy, if you land anywhere to camp in your tent in the Sundarbans forest, I can guarantee that you will be eaten by a Bengal Tiger.” I turned around and paddled back out the mouth of the creek, where I clambered up a muddy bank and I sought advice of another local man. This time I was lucky; he spoke a few words of English. I told him that I was scared of the tigers and he replied reassuringly, "Tiger Jungle, River Nae!" He also gave me much clearer directions than his four compatriots had. So that’s it then, I thought. Despite all the warnings that Bengal Tigers can, and do, swim and take men out of fishing boats, this guy is telling me it is safe. Taking a deep breath to muster some bravado, I set out again, paddling hard to be alongside local boats when they emerged from various tributaries and looking nervously over my shoulder whenever I was alone.

Sandy's Route, stages 2-5. Map courtesy of cartoonist Sarah Steenland.
Sandy’s Route, stages 2-5. Map courtesy of cartoonist Sarah Steenland.

This whole thing was originally Oskar Speck's idea. I thought most kayakers would know about Oskar, but I was wrong. Even starting out in his homeland, I found myself telling his story for the first time. I am telling the story now, not with words, but with paddle strokes, as I retrace what I can of his mammoth expedition. For me, it has gone from being a story on paper and a map showing a route through places I couldn’t pronounce, to a story that I am living. It is a journey through 20 countries and not so much of it is in English. Oskar is the only person ever to have paddled right across the Sundarbans by kayak. He carried a pistol—just in case—and reported that the only tiger he saw was in a vivid dream.

Oskar Speck in the Folbot he paddled from Germany to Australia in the 1930s. Courtesy Australian Maritime Museum.
Oskar Speck in the Folbot he paddled from Germany to Australia in the 1930s. Oskar Speck photo courtesy of the Australian Maritime Museum.

Tigers attack from behind. In the Sundarbans, firewood and honey collectors wear a mask on the back of their head with eyes painted on it. Effectively then, they don’t have a behind. I don’t wear such a mask, but what is behind me at this point of the journey, is a wealth of crazy experiences as I became the first woman to paddle the coast of India and the first person to fully circumnavigate Sri Lanka by kayak.

The east coast of India was by far the most challenging paddling I have ever done. It involved huge surf, floods, illness, an attack from fishermen who thought I was a terrorist, and lengthy questioning from police who could not understand my expedition. I dealt daily with the huge press of humanity on India’s shores, many of whom had never seen a foreigner before. When I look back on the extreme challenges of the expedition so far, what shines is the joy of the friendships that I have forged, and the kindness of strangers who went out of their way to help get me through. It is like the craziest dream ever, but it is real.

In India, the surfing yogis of Odisha helped Sandy launch through huge surf.  Photo courtesy Sandy Robson.
In India, the surfing yogis of Odisha helped Sandy launch through huge surf. Photo courtesy of the surfing yogis.

I am still pinching myself that I got invited to take tea in the Presidential Palace in Sri Lanka. I will never forget the Indian coastguard dropping a man from a helicopter to ask why I was paddling next to a Mumbai fort, or cooking on mothballs when my stove was stolen. When I set out to paddle from Sri Lanka to India, officials marked my passport with a stamp made especially for the occasion.

Oskar had five years to perfect his surf-launch technique. Photo courtesy the Australian Maritime Museum.
Oskar had seven years to perfect his surf-launch technique. Photo courtesy of the Australian Maritime Museum.

Oskar Speck called his kayak the ‘First Class Ticket to Everywhere’, describing how the long distance kayaker will experience wonders that those traveling in an ocean liner's finest suite could never imagine. I call my tent the ‘Million Star Hotel’ and I will always like those places the best where nature is big and me and what I have are small in comparison.

Contending with one of nature’s grandest predators, the Bengal Tiger, was not something I could really plan for, except to try my best to take the advice of some of the 4 million people who do live their daily lives in it’s territory. I did make it up that creek to stay the night at the Bangladesh Coastguard Base. It was on an aromatic island full of men drying thousands of fish on screens and racks. I was the only woman for miles around. One cheeky fishermen offered to find me a dried fish-fisherman companion for the night if I desired, I politely declined and thought that perhaps Bengal Tigers are not the apex predator after all.

Sandy and friends in the Sundarbans. Courtesy Sandy Robson.
Sandy and friends in the Sundarbans. Courtesy Sandy Robson.

Over the following days I sighted monkeys on mud flats, wild boar, fishermen that have trained otters to help them push fish into nets, herds of spotted deer and although the Bengal Tiger remained elusive, I like to think that maybe one did see me.

Certainly the Sundarbans has been one of the big wilderness highlights of this journey that Oskar Speck is taking me on. In the past year I have paddled Myanmar’s Myeik Archipelago, Thailand’s West coast, the Straits of Malacca, and now I am almost all the way across Indonesia. In late April I expect to cross into Papua New Guinea. You can follow the final stage of my journey via my website map page and blog at www.sandy-robson.com