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.
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.
Australia, isolated by vast expanses of ocean, is steeped in maritime tradition—great voyages, great tragedies, horrendous shipwrecks, heroic escapes. The very nature of its modern existence comes from the sea—via the bleak convoys of convicts from England that brought the first of the waves of Europeans who would push aside the continent’s aboriginal inhabitants.
As we approach the postmodern buildings of the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, every evidence of that strikes our senses. The air is fresh with salt. Inside, Captain James Cook grows to an icon rivaling Columbus. Matthew Flinders, who mapped most of Australia’s coast, becomes a lord of the Aussie realm. The grim story of colonization takes on the weight of another nation’s slave trade and civil-rights saga. Amid these Australian history lessons, the maritime museum has carved out a place for the saga of Speck’s 30,000 miles in a rubberized canvas skin stretched over a skeleton of wooden ribs.
Clockwise from below: Speck stops to meet the locals, 1930s; an envelope addressed to him, 1938; flanked by canoes; his route from Germany to Australia.
Oskar Walter Speck died in 1995 at 88, never able to get his full story told. The museum, recipient of a hodgepodge bequeathal of his diaries, documents, letters, passports, and yellowed newspaper clippings, undertook the marathon effort to piece his story back together. Curators searched out old friends and relatives and translated documents from a babble of languages.
“Speck’s voyage simply dumbfounds me,” says Jeffrey Mellefont, now retired from the museum and an international yachtsman who has sailed much of Speck’s route. “Sailing, I could always heave to in storms or stand off a dangerous coast, get some rest and try again at daybreak. Speck had to get it right the first time, every time.”
Germany of the early 20th century was rough on a young boy. Born near Hamburg in 1907, Oskar Walter Speck was seven years old when the kaiser plunged Europe into World War I. By the time he turned 11, in 1918, the war had been lost, the kaiser had fled, and Germany was saddled with a peace treaty so punitive it left the country chaotic, bitter, and broke. His home life with a harsh and unyielding father was not much better. He left school at 14 and remembered his teen years as a misery of “staggering through the streets with giant sacks of wood chips” and running carts of dung to nearby farms. Looking back sourly years later, he told one of his six brothers and sisters he was glad he never had children of his own.
As a young man, Speck’s great love became kayaking. The introduction of a cheap folding kayak, a Faltboot, helped the sport become a major fad in the rivers and lakes of Northern Europe. Hundreds of thousands were built. Speck joined a kayak club, where he met most of his young friends—Hilde and Georg, Elli and Sonja.
In 1929, the Great Depression crushed a country already on its back. By 1932, more than 30 percent of German workers were unemployed. Speck ran a small electrical-contracting company. It went bankrupt, taking the boss and his 21 workers into the streets. For Speck it was the last straw. He was fed up with the limitations of his life and his country.
The same frustration drove many Germans to the guttural siren song of Adolf Hitler. It drove Speck over the horizon. In the strange bubble world he would live in for the next seven and a half years he would brush up against Germany’s new keepers briefly, fly a swastika, and at least once seek out the Nazis’ financial help. As with so many Germans of his era, the full story of his political leanings will probably never be known. But in 1932, Oskar Speck seemed without any politics at all. “All I wanted was to get out of Germany,” he said later.
On May 13, 1932, he packed up his five-year-old kayak, called Sunnschien, boarded a train to the Danube River city of Ulm, dropped the boat into the water, and, “without any fuss or farewell,” paddled east with the current.
It was an unlikely start by an unlikely adventurer. Speck stood five feet ten inches, and weighed a lean 140 pounds. He couldn’t swim—and even traveling halfway around the world by ocean he never bothered to learn. He pushed off with little money, little planning, and only a vague goal of reaching Cyprus to find work in the copper mines.
He took with him an endless strike-it-rich fascination with mining. Before leaving Europe he sent home a load of worthless rocks for assay. A piece of metal in Burma that “looked like pure white gold” turned out to be lead. “Keep all your fingers crossed,” he would write from Malaya. “I have discovered a tin mine.” Assayers scolded him for his foolishness. But he kept looking and dreaming.
No more than an adept amateur as a kayaker, his first year in the Sunnschien became a string of risky choices and mishaps with his boat. Having the relative safety of rivers and the “lake” of the Mediterranean between him and the ocean became a blessing. He needed the practice. “I had luck . . . in the first part of my voyage,” he said later, “and only that luck enabled me to live to gain the skill and experience that brought me through the rest of it.”
In his first days he squandered most of his small nest egg partying in riverside towns. Only 180 miles downstream, still in Germany, he ran flat out of money, forcing him to pawn his binoculars and humbly wait 10 days for a handout by mail from his sister Grete—the beginning of small stipends from his brothers and sisters. Even so, in Hungary he was reduced to street begging.
Bored by the serene Danube, he turned south through the Balkans and succeeded in cutting his kayak to shreds in the rapids on one mountainous 40-mile stretch of the Vardar River. He traded his tuxedo to his younger brother Seppel for money to pay for repairs. Before the boat was ready, the Vardar froze over for the winter, trapping him till spring less than 180 miles from the Aegean Sea. Speck odd-jobbed through the winter. Back home, Adolf Hitler took power.
Then, in the spring of 1933, a lean but unremarkable-looking young man paddled out of the mouth of the Vardar into the Aegean, on his way to the Mediterranean Sea. Oskar Speck had been gone almost a year. He had 28,500 miles to go.
The protected waters of the great inland seas were the birthplace of seamanship, but even the Mediterranean has sent ships to the bottom with hurricane-force winds. From deadly experience, the early seafarers took their time learning. By 3000 B.C. the Egyptians were plying the Mediterranean in ships with oars, but another 2,000 years passed before the Phoenicians, with sophisticated sails, ventured out into the wild, uncharted Atlantic.
Speck, paddling among fairy-tale Greek islands, would learn the tricks in months—or not survive. He removed the Faltboot’s second seat to make room for storage, rigged it with a splash-protection cover, and buttoned himself in with a second splash skirt. In heavy weather, the covers leaked. “Faltboots are not built for the sea,” Speck wrote. Indeed, the term “sea kayaking” would not even enter the vocabulary for decades.
With a small sail the boat could make six or seven knots, twice his paddling speed. Speck rigged a 16-square-foot gaff sail and alternated between sailing and paddling the rest of the way. Tiny and without any keel to speak of, Sunnschien was highly vulnerable to capsizing, so vulnerable that falling asleep at sea would be, as he put it, “curtains.” He did not fall asleep at sea.
The dangers required nonstop alertness and flawless timing. “You must be constantly using the rudder, meeting each wave just right,” he wrote. “I was able to avoid large waves, twist and turn the boat whichever way I wanted. It turned into acrobatic sailing. Bit by bit I learned how to cope with huge seas.”
Speck hugged the coastline no more than a few miles offshore and island-hopped across stretches of open sea. By late summer 1933 he approached his original goal, Cyprus, but already had begun looking beyond to a greater adventure.
The crossing to Cyprus from Turkey required his first long open-sea run—45 miles begun at night to avoid the daytime heat. Two hours offshore an ocean liner almost ran him down, passing like “this massive black wall” so close he could hear passengers on the deck. Currents swept him away from the island, and his traverse stretched through the draining heat of the next day. After 24 hours at sea, he beached on a craggy shore, then collapsed in exhaustion. It was the first extreme test, in a trip that would include many. The next night, a gale blew up, pummeling him with seawater. He shouted obscenities at the storm until he realized that the screaming was drowning him: “It keeps throwing bitter salt water into my face and I stop screaming after swallowing a fair amount of it.”
But Oskar Speck was hooked. He never looked for a job on Cyprus. With Asia at his feet in November 1933, he had become an adventurer.
The crossing from Europe to the Middle East entailed a sleepless 48-hour passage from Cyprus to Syria. Denied permission to paddle through the Suez Canal, Speck took his only substantial overland trek—a 200-mile bus bounce through the roadless desert of northern Syria to the Euphrates River, his pathway to the Persian Gulf and the rest of the world. It brought him to lands so hostile and barren that his goal for much of the next year was simply survival.
His boat was stolen. Recovering it required a bribe to corrupt police. As he floated on the current of the Euphrates one night, he dodged gunshots that rang out from the dark. Even the wildlife appeared hostile: flocks of ravens dived at him at night and kept him from sleeping. He bowed to local customs—“better a dirty meal and the lice and vermin of the men’s houses than a shot in the dark”—and avoided the fate of two westerners traveling just behind him who were murdered after spurning similar hospitality.
On the Euphrates and along the Persian Gulf, the shoreline was so barren that just finding food and water became a serious problem. For 14 days he saw no one and ate only dates filched off riverside trees. Farther southeast, with only four days’ provisions, he again had a brush with death as gale winds forced him away from shore onto a tiny sandpile island and held him there a week. “The only company I had,” he wrote, “was a half-decomposed corpse that had washed up. . .. The smell was terrible.”
At the mouth of the gulf, Speck pulled into the sandy port city of Bandar Abbas, on the Strait of Hormuz, and found it to be “about the most desolate place in the Persian Gulf, hot, dirty, empty.” The desert’s sandpaper winds also left his first kayak in tatters, and he ordered a replacement from Germany. The wait proved disastrous.
Arriving as a malaria outbreak began, Speck soon fell ill. He stayed six months, recuperating and working to pay for his new boat. In Berlin, Hitler elevated himself to dictator—der Führer—and Speck’s countrymen began greeting one another with “Heil Hitler!” and the stiff-armed Nazi salute. In Bandar Abbas, Speck heard none of this.
Malaria would disable him off and on for the rest of his trip. On the back of a loose sheet of paper, he scrawled telltale words about the travail and the self-therapy he used to get through it.
That kind of focus and discipline is the difference between life and death, according to other adventurers. Mark Jenkins—who has kayaked the Niger River to Timbuktu, has climbed Mount Everest, and chronicles his expeditions in National Geographic magazine—says the real challenge is emotional, not physical. “When the head goes home, the body follows,” Jenkins tells us. The “right person” could duplicate Speck’s feat, he says. “The wrong person would die.” (In 2011, the right person came along: a 43-year-old Australian woman named Sandy Robson retraced Speck’s route in stages. Current wars and hostilities forced her to avoid some areas, but in November 2016, she made landfall back home in Australia.)
It was around September 1934 when the weary young German slipped out of the harbor in Bandar Abbas, turned the corner into the Gulf of Oman, and headed due east toward the Arabian Sea. The next 600 miles of coastline were almost devoid of life, leading one modern guidebook to advise that no one go there. Its greatest claim to fame is the defeat of Alexander the Great’s army. As many as three out of four of his retreating men died as he marched them through the desert along the coast. Neither the army nor Alexander recovered.
Speck entertained himself chasing sharks. “I saw some in groups of eight or twelve, often very close to land in the shallow waters,” he wrote. “Often I paddled through the beasts with no more than 10 feet distance between them and me, to try to get a photo, but they always remained just under the surface.”
If ever the elements would turn Speck back, this would be the time. Speck expressed tellingly contradictory comments about his time in the Middle East. Later in life he told an interviewer that he had found Persia (now Iran) so unpleasant that “never will I so much as fly over that country.” Elsewhere he wrote, “But such exciting times like those in Persia, where virtually every day brought a new adventure, were not to be had again.”
He left Persia, he wrote, “totally weaned from the most basic ideas of civilization and culture.” But he pushed on into his first real taste of a ferocious ocean and the romance of Britain’s fading colonial empire in India. Just across the border, Speck beached his kayak on a deserted strip of sand below the stark, gray cliffs of the Makran Coastal Range.
A British immigration agent noted in his passport, “Mr. Speck, Oskar Walter arrived today by sea in a rubber skiff, Nov. 19, 1934.” He had arrived in Baluchistan, the far-western frontier of British India and today a barren border province of Pakistan. Speck was downcast. It looked as bleak as Persia.
Then he did a double take. Framed against the cliffs stood a magnificent tent with a triumphal gateway of colored flags at the entrance. Two maharajas in regal silken splendor stood outside, attended by a large and equally splendid retinue, Speck wrote later. He learned they were the Khan of Kalat, a powerful city-state, and the hereditary lord of Las Bela, another principality near Karachi. They had arranged a shooting party that day for Sir Norman Carter, the top British official in Baluchistan.
Carter soon appeared, striding briskly toward the assemblage. He bowed stiffly to his hosts, then spotted Speck on the beach. He had heard of the young German in the collapsible rubber boat coming down the Persian coast, and he hurried toward him and warmly shook his hand.
Carter delayed the shoot, keeping the royals cooling their heels outside the tent as he made cocktails and listened, enthralled, to Speck’s story.
Such heady occasions transformed Speck’s journey from a lonely endurance contest into an exotic quest. British India was born of adventure, and Speck’s endeavor embodied all the glory of that. For Speck, the Middle East had held little romance—only opportunities to be threatened and plundered. Back home, his Teutonic relatives and friends grew exasperated with his frivolous pursuit. But the British colonial rulers of India found him Kiplingesque and drew him into a gentrified life from which he had seemed forever excluded. Suddenly, new friends surrounded him in a realm where one Indian prince still kept a 184-carat diamond as a paperweight and British officers with strings of unintelligible initials after their names pursued colonial life in the Raj as if the fraying empire would go on forever.
His fame built from city to city. As Speck paddled out of one port, an Air France pilot tipped his wings in tribute. Local newspapers spread his renown in the purple prose of the Sunday supplement, lacing their stories with escapes from “man-eating sharks” and “Persian pirates.” Usually laconic, Speck even started to sound like a celebrity.
“Is solitude difficult?” asked a reporter in Madras, as Speck dried off after a bath. His towel displayed a Union Jack, a gift from His Highness the Aga Khan’s Boy Scout troop.
“I don’t mind solitude,” he replied. “I can endure it for months. But afterwards, I like excitement. I love to enjoy the life of the city, the life with a capital L. Colombo, in this respect, was rather tame. They haven’t—how would you say it in English?”
He could sometimes speak in clichés. “There are mad dogs and mad Englishmen, according to your late Mr. Kipling,” he replied to the age-old question: Why do you do it? “But I think a mad German is madder than any of them.”
Thrilled to make an adventurer’s acquaintance, the entranced wife of a director of the Imperial Bank of India, Maude Stocker, wrote him long letters recounting her own glittering adventures—tours of the Himalayas, the coronation of King George VI—and eagerly awaited his replies. Others became courtly confidants:
“Mrs. Leal is at present away on a bison shooting trip. When and if she gets a bison, she intends to extend her trip and do a bit of crocodile spearing.”
“Great expectations are going on for the Viceroy’s visit. Terrible expense for the state, but unavoidable.”
His money problems eased. Collection plates were passed, and some supporters pledged regular donations simply to be part of his adventure. A. K. Rani, of the British Clothing Co. in Karachi, pledged to send 25 rupees, about $9.25 (worth about $160 in today’s dollars) a month. Speck joked to his sister that he was afraid of becoming vain. He began wearing a pith helmet and the de rigueur khaki shorts known as Bombay bloomers. He toyed with the idea of continuing as far as Australia. Why end this?
To his journal he marveled at how quickly the British had forgotten the unemployed woodworker’s son and saw a young lion instead. His Faltboot, he concluded, was his passport to the world. At sea “you are dressed like a tramp, you are stung by flying spray, you are in real peril,” he wrote years later. Then, suddenly you are in port, “clad in clean, dry shore clothes . . . sitting in one of the windows of a magnificent club. There are music and girls, and the wines of the world to choose from.”
Speck’s passage around India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), however, was more than garlands and hero worship. Not long after leaving Sir Norman, he was swept atop a 35-foot tidal swell and survived. The Indian Ocean’s thunderous surf made nightmares of his landings. Eight of his capsizes occurred on the coast of India.
Malaria continued to torment him. Exhausted and weakened, his boat turned over in heavy surf as he came ashore at Porbandar. True to the social form of his passage through India, Speck was taken in by the Maharaja of Porbandar, an avid sportsman who doubled on his royal duties as captain of the national cricket team.
In another capsize, he lost all his supplies. The worst dumping came as he rounded Cape Comorin, at the subcontinent’s southern tip, where the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean converge in a roil of churning water. A huge wave flipped him, snapping his mast like a twig.
Speck briefly tried to travel the calmer inland waterways, but his growing celebrity prevented it. “I was always kept back by the boiling masses of people who wished to see the great German who lived on pills and paddled a boat that could, as had been reported, both dive and fly,” he said. “So it always drove me out into the pure, if dangerous, sea.”
These remarkable capabilities had been conjured up in an incident that would have been comical had he not been German as another world war loomed. As he started down the coast, local Indian authorities jailed him as a spy on the fanciful theory that his kayak could operate as a submarine as well as a plane. He was released in two days. But questions about spying and politics would never quite go away.
On May 13, 1935—three years to the day after his departure from Hamburg—Speck arrived in Colombo, in Ceylon, which lived up to its reputation as a tropical paradise. He lingered there three months, waiting out India’s powerful southwest monsoon and planning his route to Australia. Little did he realize it would extend his trip by four and a half years.
Colombo had another attraction, a young and enticing British journalist named Christina Rasmuson. Speck, now 28, his brown hair bleached in the sun, was too self-consumed to be a lady-killer. But Rasmuson was clearly captivated. The relationship progressed enough for others to notice. Maude Stocker’s brother, Harold, noted later, when Speck had returned to mainland India, “You must be disappointed at missing your Christina in Calcutta.”
Christina coached him to improve his bland writing to help him make money selling articles. “More action,” she urged. He, in turn, offered worldly advice that she soon missed after his departure. Though their Calcutta rendezvous fizzled, she hoped to meet him in Australia.
She sent birthday greetings the following March. Sometimes her letters took on a more plaintive tone. “I wish you were here. . . . Write to me, Oskar, soon, please. Sometimes I think Life is a fraud.” By then Speck was paddling relentlessly on. Rasmuson’s letters eventually tailed off and stopped.
Meanwhile, the world was changing fast. If his British friends could ignore it a while longer, Speck, even in his splendid isolation, could not. Hitler’s drastic measures and re-armament had turned the economy around. People had gone back to work. The changes undermined Speck’s excuse for leaving. “There was no reason why I shouldn’t return to Germany,” he confided to his journal. None but the rest of Asia, the untamed islands of the Dutch East Indies, New Guinea, and Australia.
His family implored him and shamed him: “We don’t really understand why you can’t or don’t want to earn your money by working like everybody else,” a family letter said. “It remains a fact that we all have to get by on what we are earning, even if the times are such that we are not earning a fortune from our work.”
“For whom am I risking my life . . . with my spectacular sporting achievement? It’s the new Germany,” Speck wrote.
Grete, Speck’s favorite sister, weighed in with a guilt trip. “On 18 January Dad turned 70. We were all there, only you were missing.”
The German overseas community in India was equally unimpressed. John Hagenbeck, a German naturalist who lived in Ceylon, noted with “great regret the negative reception” Germans gave Speck. It irritated Speck. When his kayaking friend Sonja suggested that he was getting the cool treatment “because you continue to paddle on, although life [in Germany] has become well-organized,” he finally blew.
“Well, now listen to me!” he replied. “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.”
Speck moved on. He reached Calcutta on January 13, 1936, and made southern Burma by April 1936, in time for the return of the deadly southwest monsoon. “It’s an act of sheer madness to be traveling in a collapsible boat at this time of year,” he wrote. “But what am I to do?”
Working south through the exotic limestone islands in the Andaman Sea, sudden squalls and torrential rain played terrible tricks, sometimes driving him far off course, sometimes holding him in place. “Next morning would find me still ceaselessly paddling, still almost exactly where I was when the previous dusk fell. When at last I reached shore I would feel like a drunk. My hands would not open without excruciating pain after having been cramped around the paddle for 30 or 40 hours.”
As he neared the end of his time with the British, his local fame crested. The Straits Echo recorded his departure from the British Straits Settlements port of Penang on August 22, 1936, with a headline stretched across the top of the sports page: FAMOUS CANOEIST TO RESUME JOURNEY TO AUSTRALIA TOMORROW.
Speck entered Singapore’s teeming harbor three months later, landing near Raffles, the legendary hotel Somerset Maugham once called the host “for all the fables of the exotic East.”
A steamy trading post at the foot of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore represented a major turning point. Speck’s last sight of British territory in Asia, it stood at the threshold of an even older and more fragile handhold of European colonialism. The Dutch East Indies of the 1930s reeked with the intrigues of nationalists, Communists, Japanese expansionists, Nazis, and tribal warlords.
In his single-mindedness, however, Speck saw only thousands of miles of jungle islands pointed like an arrow straight at his target: Australia.
The East Indies, nonetheless, presented new problems—languages Speck didn’t speak, a further threat to his precarious finances, increasing political challenges, and a weaker tie to civilization as he pushed farther east into islands known best to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead and erratic European missionaries. He also faced a sea change.
In the islands the monsoons run westerly and wet off the South China Sea, then turn easterly and dry out of the dust basins of Australia. The sea’s treachery, however, lies in the islands’ narrow straits. The volcanic islands of the East Indies are planted like a seawall damming up the Java and Banda Seas before the waters can open up into the vast southern reaches of the Indian Ocean. The sea currents run like rivers, and the narrow openings are funnels for powerful tidal flows. They are pure trouble.
By then, Speck had been gone almost five years. He began telling friends he would reach Australia by October of 1937, Sydney by Christmas. Singapore’s commercial nobility showed him off at one last round of grand parties. “You know Mr. Speck,” traders in tropical whites would say as they introduced him. “You saw his photo in the London News, a famous man.” Most of the time, Speck had no more than a few shillings in his pocket.
Still smarting over the family criticism, he wrote Grete about a story in Sketch: “We take our hats off to Herr Oskar Speck for his colossal enterprise in his little craft.” Then he added sourly, “In Germany, however, they see things differently.”
Germany was preoccupied. The classic tri-color national flag of Speck’s youth had been replaced by a swastika. By the end of 1936, Adolf Hitler had flouted the world by rebuilding a standing army of more than half a million. He had reacquired some lost territories and stood poised to take more. He had told the German people to prepare for war by 1940 and had already opened concentration camps to facilitate the “social” policies to go with it. By declaring the inferiority of some, an opposite had to be true: The superiority of others. The new German. The pure Aryan man. A hero of the Reich.
Leaving Singapore, Speck headed south and crossed the equator, navigated past Sumatra’s mangroves, then cut across the Java Sea to the Dutch colonial city of Batavia, soon to regain its ancient Indonesian name, Jakarta.
A rousing welcome surprised him. He “caused a sensation,” Speck wrote. And the acclaim was finally coming from Germans. The German consul general, Dr. Vallette, took him on a two-day drive through the nearby mountains. Speck drew healthy fees for speeches to the German Club, along with loans and aid from the German Aid Society. He found himself flush enough to buy a new Leica as well as a 16-mm. movie camera.
“There are a lot of Germans in the Dutch Indies and all receive me most obligingly,” he wrote his friend Elli, adding, “Without my organizing it, people throw in together, providing me with some money.”
It wasn’t quite that simple. Speck had also met another powerful man in Batavia, a character named F. F. K. Trautmann, the Ortsgruppenleiter, or district group leader, of the Nazi Party. The two embarked on a brief flirtation, Trautmann clearly looking for his “pure Aryan man.” He set up the fees and the speeches and, at one of them, presented Speck with a Nazi pennant to fly from his kayak. Later, he sent Speck a note signed with typical Nazi froth: “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 is impossible to tell just how attractive Speck found his first exposure to his country’s new overlords and a feel for the trappings of power. Desperate for both attention and money, he seemed more the obsessed opportunist than budding party man. But, after Batavia, suspicions and rumors cropped up periodically that, given the perfect espionage tools of cameras and a small boat paddling into strategic ports, Berlin had given Speck a special agenda. Almost all the later evidence points away from the notion that Speck was a spy, and he parted ways with Trautmann spectacularly a few months later in a bitter argument.
One of the frustrations of trying to define Speck is that he was, by his own admission, a terrible diarist. He was not a keen observer. He seemed constitutionally incapable of serious self-examination, and wrote almost nothing about his inner thoughts. There are signs of wry humor, anger, sadness, depression, elation, pure nerve, and obvious fearlessness in his writings. There are virtually none of intellectual curiosity. He seemed to have no take on himself and none on the world either. His letters home were rigidly egocentric.
Separated from homeland, bound by the sea, listening to the lawn-party burble of tiger-hunting gentry, and possessed of his escape turned compulsion, Speck passed through the 30s without any written observation of the turmoil around him. He traveled through a world about to re-create itself—twice. But he seemed oblivious to crumbling colonialism, rising nationalism, even Nazism. In five years in India and Indonesia the great names of Gandhi, Nehru, and Sukarno are not mentioned once in his journals or his letters. Communism is mentioned twice, nationalism never, National Socialism not at all.
The fate of the Jews came up only twice in letters to him—once in an eerily frameless 1938 reference from a kayaking friend, Wilhelm, whose last name was lost long ago.
“Our chief engineer, Mr. Samuel Meyer, died about a month ago,” Wilhelm wrote. “It was a ‘fortunate’ solution to the problem, since it would not have been able to continue much longer like that with M&H. A Jewish chief engineer with signatory authority for the business has become impossible in Nazi Germany. God rest his soul.”
One of his sisters wrote, warning him not to believe the newspapers. It is all lies, she said. “The German people would never treat the Jews that way.”
Speck left Batavia January 11, 1937, with both the loud crowd of well-wishers—Consul General Vallette and his wife showed up—and the adventurer himself certain he was headed out on the long trip’s last leg. He had timed the departure to catch the tail end of the westerly monsoon, and with the wind at his back, he made rapid progress along the coast of Java.
He found a warm welcome in Javanese villages. On his first overnight stop a local policeman offered him a Javanese girl for two cents. He turned down the offer. In the next village, he wavered. The chief’s daughter, a “particularly good-looking” young woman with naked breasts, enticed him with “unambiguous gestures.” Speck played the aloof German, although later he wrote, “I stayed up half the night hoping she would show up. I would not have rejected her.”
Suddenly he was immersed in a far different world from the ancient corruption of Persia and the clash of opulence and poverty in India. On one island he tried to buy a stock of bananas from a native woman at a village market.
It was only then that he saw market day as a social as well as economic event. He bought 30 for 10 cents, satisfying everyone.
With good winds Speck became so optimistic about making his target by the end of the year that he announced Australia’s Thursday Island as his next mail drop. Friends began addressing their letters and packages there. Then the delays began again. The farther Speck stretched his lifeline across the remote islands, the slower things happened. Every day became a banana sale.
In Surabaya, the second-largest city on Java, he waited five weeks for the arrival of his new camera. He stayed an extra two weeks in Bali—not the first or last traveler to fall captive to its charms. As he left, malaria flared again. Sick, he needed three attempts to make the crossing to the next island.
Even when he was healthy, the crossings between islands proved far more difficult than Speck had imagined. At one of the toughest, called “the devil’s passage” by the Dutch, he decided to zigzag, making his first run at a tiny midpoint island. The distance was only 16 miles, but the current could reach 12 miles an hour. Three straight days it forced him back. He reached shore on the fourth, but only after battling through a violent thunderstorm.
By the time he reached Timor, in July 1937, Speck was two months behind schedule, and monsoon winds had turned strongly against him. He was blown 40 miles off course on a 25-mile crossing. Speck had no choice but to shut down for almost three months. He still hoped to reach Australia by December. But the clock was ticking, and he had no idea how much the delay would cost him.
As the crow flies, Speck now stood only 300 miles from northern Australia. But that required an impossibly dangerous open-sea crossing. The route he planned had fewer risks—traveling east through the isolated islands of the Banda Sea, then making a safer, 85-mile crossing to Dutch New Guinea, where he would skirt that inhospitable island’s wild southern coast to the Torres Strait.
Stalled on Timor, he toured nearby islands, filmed strange native dances and spearfishing for whales, marched deep into the jungle with the Raja of Alor, and played centerpiece at parties given by small-time sultans. He noted without comment that Japanese influence had begun to replace the jungle rot of 400 years of European colonialism.
For the first time Speck indicated an awareness of impending war. In a letter to Sonja, he wrote, “They’re talking quite a lot again about a war in Europe.” His Hamburg kayaking friend, now probably 30 years old, was just married, and Speck had not quite forgiven her for her earlier scolding. Speck couldn’t restrain himself from replying with friendly sarcasm. “Why, I could have a small machine gun fastened to my collapsible boat and could start conquering colonies,” he wrote.
The weather stayed bad. Impatient, Speck left the Timorese town of Dili on September 26, with headwinds still so strong he could make only 10 miles a day. As he island-hopped east to Leti, he ran into his first unfriendly natives. On Moa, natives threw stones at him and threatened him with knives. The hostilities puzzled him. Uniformly, he had been greeted at each stop as an honored guest, with feasting and dancing well into the night.
Speck often consulted natives about currents and local sea conditions, speaking in a mix of missionary English, broken Indonesian, and the pidgin language that island peoples used with traders. On Lakor, the natives told him his best chance for a crossing would come at five A.M., and Speck bedded down inside his boat on the beach.
Around midnight, the islanders returned. One of them suggested he embark now. Grumpily, he told the natives that if they wanted to watch his departure they should return in the morning. Normally, that would have ended the matter. But Speck misjudged. He saw that the locals had brought knives, spears, and machetes. Speck pulled out his unloaded pistol. They all stepped back, except one. “The moment I put down my pistol he put his hands around my neck with a savage shriek,” Speck wrote later. Quickly they had him down and hog-tied with strings of dried buffalo hide.
Dragging him along by the hair, his captors kicked him and plundered his boat. Brandishing the pistol, the leader donned Speck’s pith helmet, held his knife to Speck’s throat, and gestured in a wide slitting motion. The others, holding large machetes, threatened to cut off his head. Speck tried to reason with them, but everything he said made matters worse. His attackers beat him for an hour, then left him semiconscious, battered, and bound while they returned briefly to their village. “One chill after the other went over my body,” but Speck knew this moment provided his only chance to live.
Desperately, he chewed at his bindings, then tried cutting them on a rock. Finally able to slip free, he staggered to his boat and paddled painfully 30 to 40 yards before looking back at the shore, where the hostile group had re-assembled. But they had no boats. For one of the few times in five years, Speck slumped forward in his kayak and rested.
He was badly injured, his left eardrum punctured. Methodically, he paddled from island to island over the next week, looking for a hospital. A missionary clinic 200 miles away lacked the equipment to treat him properly. So began an odyssey of more than 1,600 miles back toward Surabaya and various medical treatments. A year would pass before he could resume his travels.
The attack might have ended Speck’s journey had it occurred earlier in his trip. But he was hardened, experienced, and so single-minded now about reaching Australia that he didn’t even tell friends to change his mail-pickup address. Letters for Oskar Speck began to pile up at Thursday Island.
Stalled, Speck ran into serious money problems again—and, inexplicably, trouble with the Dutch. The Dutch government began treating him more like a pariah than a heroic adventurer. Having accepted him as a humanitarian case and paid his passage to the hospital, the Dutch now refused to pay his way back to his kayak. Worse, they refused to allow Speck to continue his trip along the south coast of Dutch New Guinea, claiming they could not guarantee his safety.
Instead, they suggested Speck make the 350-mile open-sea crossing to Darwin, in northern Australia, a route so treacherous it virtually invited suicide. Speck bullied the Dutch into compromise. The German could make the shorter crossing where he planned. But he would have to travel around the north side of New Guinea, a detour that meant he would all but circumnavigate the second-largest and least-explored island in the world. The decision would add almost 2,500 miles and take him along a coastline pounded in some places by huge surf rolling out of the open Pacific, mired in others in thick, tangled mangroves, and doused with eight or nine inches of rain every day.
In October of 1938, exactly a year after the attack, he set out again. Even with strong winds at his back, the crossing to New Guinea took 34 hours. At the end Speck again had to pry his hands off the paddle before collapsing on a deserted beach in fatigue. He awoke, disoriented, not sure how long he had been asleep or where precisely he was.
New Guinea remained a very raw place in 1938, inhabited by warring tribes who embraced magic and sorcery and to whom head-hunting and cannibalism were not quite lost arts. The coastal tribes had abandoned most of their old ways except sorcery. But cannibalism was known in the interior at least until the 1970s, and only a few years before Speck’s arrival, anthropologist Margaret Mead found active head-hunting in the interior and studied one tribe near the sea that had practiced cannibalism so recently that 11-year-old children remembered the feasts.
Speck would never know why the Dutch refused him. On the other side of the world, Neville Chamberlain had announced “peace for our time” after appeasing Hitler at Munich. Holland’s neighbor had responded by annexing Austria and taking the Sudetenland. Speck was more isolated, more desperate for money, and more detached from his lifelines than ever before. The mail at the Thursday Island post office, with its small sums of get-along money, had stacked up to the point that the Australians had begun returning it to senders, most of whom presumed Speck was dead.
By Christmas Eve, he reached Manokwari, the first small town on the north Dutch New Guinea coast. Primitive and equatorial, Manokwari was hardly a rest spa. But the mailboat stopped there, and Speck did, too—for almost six weeks. He churned out a torrent of woeful letters to almost everyone he knew, lamenting that he was so broke he was about to sell his treasured cameras. Then he waited.
The postal system was remarkable in those days. With fast mailboats and, most important, persistent bureaucrats, mail chased travelers from port to isolated port with uncanny success. Speck even received German pastries by mail. Just as remarkable was Speck’s ability to talk almost anyone out of a couple of bucks, a couple of rupees, a couple of pounds, or, as the Germans called their Reichsmark, a couple of “emmies.”
In mid-January 1939, a boat arrived with the first cash, the next with a healthy loan and more money. Even Maude Stocker and her banker husband replied from a tour of Hollywood. The only people who didn’t come through were his faded friends in Batavia’s German bureaucracy. The Nazi Ortsgruppenleiter, F. F. K. Trautmann, angry about a small, unpaid loan, stiffed him. “He obviously prefers to call me a swindler than to help me,” Speck wrote bitterly.
In February he moved on. So did the world. In March, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Speck was running against an invisible clock. A little more than a week later Richard Halliburton, the legendary American adventurer, disappeared in a typhoon as he sailed across the Pacific in a Chinese junk. A few months later Speck stopped in the small town of Lae, where Amelia Earhart had taken off on her last flight, also to disappear in the Pacific. An era of storybook adventurism was moving on, too, about to give way to far more serious endeavors.
The mail had saved Speck’s cameras from the pawnshop, and now they produced one of his trip’s great legacies—the 16-mm. films he took of Papuan tribal dances and naked boys spearfishing. Many of the scenes are from New Britain, an island just east of New Guinea, where the strange traveler was hailed as a white god with a sorcerer’s magic.
In July he finally rounded the far-eastern corner of New Guinea into the Solomon Sea and headed back toward Australia at an island called Samarai. Bill O’Donnell, retired in Sydney, told us he remembered it like yesterday. Nine years old, he watched bug-eyed as a strange boat and a man in a pith helmet paddled by his schoolroom window. Racing home, he found Oskar Speck in his living room. Bill’s father, a government radioman, toyed with a shortwave set to find a German station for his guest. Suddenly, the guttural haranguing of Adolf Hitler filled the room. Speck, who had been regaling them with adventure stories, turned silent and undemonstrative during the Führer’s speech. He slept on the screened porch and was gone before Bill woke up.
Broker than usual, Speck passed through Port Moresby on August 9, then proceeded into the muddy waters and crocodile-infested islands of the Gulf of Papua. Here, the Papuan people were mask-makers and deep believers in sorcery. He spent most of his nights with missionaries.
On September 4–5, 1939, he traveled through the night, arriving at nine A.M. at the island of Daru, where the native fisherman gave him the news from Europe and suggested that he go see the local magistrate.
“I don’t want to lock you up here after that long journey,” the magistrate said. “I will send a telegram to Moresby and ask if you are allowed to travel on.”
“Leave it here and travel on immediately,” the magistrate said. “Any minute another telegram might come and then I will have to arrest you.”
Speck handed over his Mauser and left quickly. The thought flashed through his mind: “Should I try to escape to Dutch New Guinea?” But he wanted nothing to do with the Dutch.
Then he headed through the wind gusts and rain into the mangrove swamps, where he had a lot of time to think.
We are standing on the beach at Saibai Island with Sageri Elu, a handsome Melanesian who thinks he is about 75 now, not sure, but that’s got to be close. Saibai Island is not much to look at—its highest point reaches not even nine feet above sea level. But it is the northernmost piece of land in Australia. At eight A.M. it already is hot enough for the sun to create air rivulets that cause the green mangroves on the other side to dance like a mirage. “Three clicks,” Sageri says—three kilometers across the Torres Strait from his home on Saibai Island to the mangrove forests of Papua New Guinea.
The tide is at slack low as we talk, encircling Sageri’s lifelong home in a 100-yard stretch of gooey, black mud. The old man is the only one left who still remembers the German’s arrival. “In those days we communicated by the coconut wireless, one man shouting to the next man, ‘Tell that bloke . . . ,’ who shouted to the next man, ‘Tell that bloke . . . ,’ and the word would get around the island in minutes. So a crowd was here.”
Speck came ashore at high tide. One of his many sailing pennants flew from the bow—his country’s new national flag, a swastika, the gift of Herr Trautmann. Only a boy, Sageri was frightened. He had never seen a white man come across the water. It didn’t make him feel more secure that the white man didn’t appear frightened at all. Forty or 50 silent Melanesian natives watched him approach. So did three more conspicuous men—Australian policemen in long, red-striped pants pressed to a razor edge, starched shirts, and bush hats pinned up on one side. They strode forward to shake his hand. “Congratulations on an incredible achievement, Herr Speck,” one said. “I regret to inform you that you are under arrest.”
The next day he was taken by launch to Thursday Island, where his mail had stacked up in 1937 and 1938. After more than seven years and the longest kayak journey before or since, Speck had less than $5 worth of Australian currency in his pocket. Back on Saibai the islanders quickly forgot him, as did everyone else. Sageri Elu did not think of him again until we arrived asking questions.
Australian military authorities examined Speck’s papers, photos, and belongings. They found an occasional “Heil Hitler” salutation on a letter and discovered the missive from F. F. K. Trautmann. They concluded he was neither a Nazi nor a spy. “Speck is always a loyal German,” they wrote, “but no signs have been found of definite political activity.”
For the next six years, Oskar Speck disappeared into the oblivion of Australian internment camps, a woeful end to one of the most remarkable adventures ever undertaken. His story disappeared with him, submerged in a long, brutal war and the new and far different world that emerged from it.
But, like the detached man on his strange journey through the 30s, Speck would be an enigma while interned. He escaped twice, the ultimate exercise in futility for a German prisoner in Australia. He seemed bent on making trouble, pestering his captors with countless petty complaints. One was not so small. The Australians segregated their prisoners into camps for nonpolitical German nationals and facilities for military prisoners of war and Nazi operatives. Speck was boarded with the first group. “This camp is not suited for the internment of Germans who are loyal to the Reich,” he complained to the neutral Swiss consul. “I therefore urgently request you approach the proper authority in order to have me transferred into a German National Socialist (Nazi) camp.”
A month before the end of the war, in 1945, the beleaguered commandant at Speck’s last camp wrote a report that muddied the water further. Upon Speck’s transfer to his camp, in 1943, he wrote, he had been told that the prisoner “had supposedly charted the coastlines for the information of the German government, who had supplied him with a succession of rubber boats for the trip.” No report documenting these hearsay charges has turned up.
Speck was released in January 1946, eight months after the war with Germany ended and just before he turned 39.
Four days later he arrived in Australia’s Lightning Ridge opal fields. Oskar Speck finally found his mine. Within years he became a successful opal dealer, an Australian citizen, and built a home on a spectacular cliff overlooking the Tasman Sea north of Sydney.
He didn’t like the newest of the new Germanys, but so many Germanys had passed since he left. “There are a lot of Americans stationed around here,” he wrote. “Helicopters are all the time flying overhead. If you switch the radio on, you get three versions of political situations. There is the U.S.A. station for the armed forces, then the West German stations, and contradicting everything, equally loud and clear, the East German stations.”
At various times he tried to have his story told with, at best, limited success. The frustration of being the unknown adventurer of the 30s was immense. Then he came to peace with it all.
In his last letter to Grete—he was 77, she 84—he wrote, “I am satisfied, recognition or no recognition. We have a strange situation—one of the most difficult world records to this day and it will still be in a hundred years—and wholly unknown. But I am satisfied. The war interfered much more with millions of fates. Why shouldn’t I be satisfied?”
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