The Longest Paddle

In 1932, an unemployed German citizen named Oskar Speck set out on a paddling trip in his folding kayak that would take him 30,000 miles and bring him to the shore of Australia over seven years later.

oskarspeckmap

Oskar Speck’s route

In 1932, Germany was a shattered country. The bloody trenches of the First World War had destroyed an entire generation of its people, and the Great Depression had reduced most of its survivors to poverty and desperation.

One of those who found himself unemployed and hopeless was a 25 year old electrician named Oskar Speck. In this place of bleak despair, most of his neighbors would soon turn to the call of Hitler and the Nazis, who were vowing to make Germany great again. But Speck turned in a different direction. For several years, he had been an avid kayaker, a popular pastime on the country’s many rivers and lakes. Now, seeing no other opportunity for a better life, Speck packed his folding kayak  (which he had named “Sunshine”) into a bag, took the train to the Danube River, and on May 13, 1932, he began paddling. Although he had a vague sort of idea that he would travel to Cyprus and get a job in one of the copper mines there, all he really wanted to do, he recalled decades later, was get out of Germany. It was the beginning of one of the most remarkable journeys ever made.

It did not begin well. After less than 200 miles, he was broke, having spent all his little money in port towns. He pawned his binoculars to continue. He paddled down the Vardar River in the Balkans until it froze, spending the winter doing odd jobs and begging money by mail from his brothers and sister back in Germany. When the river thawed in spring, Speck island-hopped his way along the Greek shoreline, stopping in fishing villages to stock up on supplies of cheese, canned meat and condensed milk.

In the summer of 1933, over a year after setting out, he reached his goal—Cyprus. But now things had changed for him. Hitler had taken power in Berlin, and the letters from his siblings were telling him to come home, that things were getting better in “The New Germany”. On the other hand, Speck had been bitten by the “adventure” bug, and replied to his sister Grete with a vague plan to travel as far from Europe as he possibly could—halfway around the world to Australia. Rigging a makeshift sail to his kayak, he made his decision, and left Cyprus for Turkey. Crossing the Aegean in 48 sleepless hours, he paddled down the Asian coast to Syria. Here he was beaten up by a gang of thieves who stole his boat, and, after paying several bribes to corrupt police and government officials, managed to get it back. Denied permission to paddle through the Suez Canal (on the grounds that his kayak was “not seaworthy”), he had to take a bus across Syria to the Euphrates River. It was the only substantial land portion of his entire journey.

By the time he reached the port city of Bandar Abbas, “Sunshine” was torn and leaking. Speck ordered another kayak from Germany, and while waiting for it to arrive he caught malaria, which would plague him for the rest of his trip.

In September 1934, he was finally able to leave Abbas, and set out along the Arabian and Persian coast towards India. Much of this area was empty, and several times he lived solely on date-palm  trees.

When Speck reached the coast of India at Baluchistan in November 1934, he received a shocking surprise: camped on the shore to greet him was Sir Norman Carter, the local British administrator, and two members of the Maharaja’s royal family. As Carter approached, he extended his hand and boomed, “Let me congratulate you, Mr. Speck. A splendid performance.” Unknown to Speck, his travels had caught the attention of the European press, and he had become something of a celebrity.

Now, as he paddled around the Indian coastline, he was greeted by reporters and feted at every stop by the local society elite, who pressed money and gifts onto him. He noted in his journal that rather than being a poor unemployed boy from Germany, he was now “sitting in one of the windows of a magnificent club. There are music and girls, and the wines of the world to choose from.”

But one group of people treated him with coolness—his fellow Germans. Nazi officials were suspicious of Speck, who seemed to be giving the impression that he was fleeing Germany, perhaps even for political reasons. In letter after letter, his family, especially his sister Grete, implored him to come home. Speck responded, “Do you really think it’s a crime not to physically take part in the reconstruction of Germany? For whom am I risking my life, what am I promoting with my spectacular sporting achievement? It’s the New Germany.”

In May 1935—three years after his departure—Speck arrived on the island of Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). Here he waited three months for the monsoon season to end before continuing. He reached Burma by April 1936 and Singapore by November.

When Speck left Singapore, however, he was also leaving the domain of the British Empire, and things would change for him. In Germany, Hitler was already re-arming and preparing for war. Upon reaching Batavia in the Dutch East Indies, Speck was greeted by the local Nazi Party leader, a man named Trautmann, who, apparently deciding that he wasn’t a political danger, took up where the British had left off, bringing Speck to parties with the local Germans and showering him with money.  Speck was soon provided with the very best portable movie cameras and 35mm Leicas, and now became something of an anthropologist, filming native dances and feasts, many held in his own honor. He was also equipped with a Nazi swastika banner to fly from his kayak. In one note, Trautmann cheered Speck with, “Remain what you are: an agent of the New Germany with all its ideals, tough will and keen Viking spirit. With German Greeting and Heil Hitler!” It’s not clear just how much political sympathy the traveler did or didn’t have with the Nazis, but it was readily apparent that they now considered him to be good propaganda.

The Dutch authorities, however, were less cordial. In September 1937, having reached Timor, Speck was attacked and beaten by a band of natives. As a humanitarian gesture, the local Dutch government transported him almost 1600 miles to a hospital in Surabaya. It took Speck almost a year to recover. But when he was ready to set out again, the Dutch, now suspicious of the German citizen who was carrying cameras (that he got from a Nazi official) into their ports, refused to transport him back to Timor, and also refused him permission to continue along the Indonesian coastline, declaring that they could not guarantee his safety. When Speck resumed his paddling in October 1938, he was forced to go around New Guinea, which added some 2500 miles to his trip. By April 1939, he had reached the New Guinea town of Lae. Here, Amelia Earhart had taken off on one of the final legs on her around-the-world trip, and disappeared.

Meanwhile, the world continued to careen towards war. That March, Hitler had occupied Czechoslovakia. By the time Speck had rounded the coast, passed Port Moresby and reached the island of Daru, it was September 4, 1939. German armies had poured into Poland, and both France and England declared war. Oskar Speck was now no longer a heroic traveler—he was an enemy national and, perhaps, a spy. When he finally reached Saibai Island, on the northern shore of Australia, on September 20, 1939, he was met on the beach by three Australian policemen. “Congratulations on an incredible achievement, Herr Speck,” one of the officers told him, then added, “I regret to inform you that you are under arrest.”

Speck spent the rest of the war in an Australian internment camp, and after his release in 1946 he settled in Sydney and ran an opal-jewelry business. He died in 1995.

 

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4 thoughts on “The Longest Paddle”

  1. I remember reading about him some months ago. Or a year or two? Can’t remember now. He probably actually had no clear idea of what was going on in Germany; this was before the internet and Twitter. But spending the war in an internment camp made him one of the lucky few. The fact that being interned counted as a stroke of luck tells us something about how grim things became in Europe…

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