With Germany in tatters, his small business bankrupt, Oskar Speck got into his kayak in 1932 for what would become an epic, seven-and-a-half-year paddle—30,000 miles, packed with hero’s welcomes and near-death escapes, all the way to Australia. But as Speck battled sharks, hostile locals, and malaria, Hitler rose to power and W.W. II began. This is the story of Speck’s voyage, an adventure nearly lost to history.
By William Prochnau and Laura Parker
Sheets of monsoon rains, pushed by southeasterlies running to 25 knots, forced Oskar Speck and his 18-foot folding kayak off the open water into the protection of the mangrove forests of New Guinea.
It was the second piece of bad news for Speck on this day in September 1939. Earlier, in the primitive village of Daru, where the natives dried crocodile hides to eke out a living, a fisherman had given him a report from the far side of the world: war had been declared in Europe.
Steering alone into the sheltered waters of the coastal swamps, Speck had kayaked 30,000 miles on a trip that began seven and a half years earlier on the Danube River in Germany. It was the longest kayak trip in history.
When Oskar Speck set out from his ruined country in 1932, Germany had only a small army and Adolf Hitler had not come to power. Now Hitler’s Panzer divisions had stormed into Poland in a lightning strike that began the Second World War. The invasion had finally provoked Great Britain into declaring war and Australia had immediately followed suit.
So Speck’s grand triumph would not end the way he had dreamed—in Australia, “garlanded and carried in procession.” No longer an adventurer ending one of the most daring exploits of his time, Speck had become an enemy approaching hostile shores.
Mangrove swamps were not Speck’s favorite way stations. In the gray gloom of an equatorial storm they became spectral and haunting, gnarled tree roots kneeing out of tidal water that made an eddying home for a reptilian civilization with no comfortable place for man—a “breeding place of mosquitoes and playground for thousands of ugly looking salamanders,” he wrote in his journal.
Along his route the mangroves, not idyllic South Seas beaches, often stretched on for hundreds of miles. He entered them to sleep after a long day. Or “to escape the wind and the current, to put the paddle down . . . and drink the stinking yellowing or even greenish water.” The salamanders were timid and harmless, but he couldn’t shake his dread of them. “There at the tip of the boat appears a huge male. His round bulging eyes stare at the boat with malevolence. His high back fin moves up and down in the direct sunlight. . .. I’ve never seen an animal resemble the horrible shapes of the dragons of primeval times more closely. Neither monitor lizards nor crocodiles can look so terrifying.”
Perhaps. But in the swamp where he waited out the next two days the crocodiles were more terrifying. They grew to lengths of 20 feet. The nearby islanders have a photo of a 26-footer—eight feet longer than Speck’s frail boat. They were among the most fearless man-eating creatures in the world.
Finally, the weather broke and Speck paddled back out into the Torres Strait, the narrow waterway between New Guinea and Australia. He followed the low green coastline most of the morning, then turned toward a small, undistinguished lump of land two miles off New Guinea.
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Incredibly in 2011 Australian adventurer and sea kayaker Sandy Robson set out from Germany to retrace Speck’s 23,000km journey to Australia, arriving in 2016.