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    Oskar Speck's 50,000 km voyage to kayak

    25 October 2006

    The Australian National Maritime Museum has a collection of artefacts from one of the most remarkable tales of aquatic adventure in the world, with many pieces on display in its exhibition Watermarks: adventure sport play.

    It is the story of a man who travelled 50 000 km from Germany to Australia in a five-and-a-half metre kayak...taking 7 years.

    Oskar Speck grew up in post World War I Germany. As a young man he became an electrical contractor, employing 21 people. In 1932 Weimar Germany was hit hard by the Depression and his factory was forced to close, making Speck one of millions of unemployed.

    "The times in Germany were very catastrophic.... all I wanted was to get out of Germany for a while," he said many years later. "Leaving Germany and seeing the world seemed like a better option."

    So aged 25 Speck took a bus to the Danube River in Ulm, climbed into his converted double, collapsible kayak Sunnschien and paddled down river heading to Cyprus to work in the copper mines.

    He travelled through Austria, Hungary, the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey all the way to the Mediterranean. However by the time he reached Cyprus he had given up on the idea of working in the copper mines. He preferred to keep going and see the world....describing his kayak as a "first class ticket to everywhere".

    And so began the long voyage to Australia in just a small 2-person folding kayak modified to make space for his supplies... a compass, charts, water tanks, condensed milk, tinned meat and sardines, clothes, camera and a pistol.

    For the ocean voyage a small gaff sail and foot-operated rudder were fitted to supplement the traditional paddle power.

    Speck would be hugging the coastline wherever possible and return to the shore at night to sleep.

    He now headed for Syria and from there across to Iran and Pakistan. By 1935, three years after leaving Germany, he had reached India and Sri Lanka.

    After receiving a new kayak from Pionier Faltboot Werft, who supplied four kayaks over the 7 year period and became his main sponsor, Speck paddled for Burma, on to Thailand and Malaysia ...arriving in Indonesia in 1937.

    In Java he acquired a 16mm cine-camera to complement his still camera and document his voyage and the cultural diversity of the people he encountered.

    It was in Lakor, Indonesia, that Oskar Speck ran into serious trouble with local tribesmen. He was woken one night by 20 people armed with spears, swords and machetes who dragged him from his kayak and tied him up while his supplies was looted. Speck was hit and kicked in the head, resulting in a burst ear drum.

    After several hours he was able to loosen his bindings, retrieve some of his property including his clothing, films and camera and slip back into his kayak.

    Speck then progressed on to Dutch New Guinea, filming local communities along the way. It was when he reached Daru (New Guinea) that he learnt Australia was at war with Germany. Speck was allowed to travel into Torres Strait and on to Thursday Island where, in September 1939, he was arrested as an enemy alien.

    His unexpected arrival with a camera during wartime raised questions of his acting as a German agent...and after being interrogated by Police, Speck was sent to an internment camp where he stayed until the end of the war in 1945.

    Speck never returned to Germany. On his release he travelled to Lightning Ridge to learn the opal cutting trade before moving to Sydney. He died in 1995, and three years later when his partner died, the items from his voyage were bequeathed to the Australian National Maritime Museum.

    Items from the Speck Collection are now on permanent display. These include his passport, photographs and film footage he took of the tribesmen and villagers he met along the way. Also on display are his internment papers, newspaper clippings of his voyage, his compass and his personal diary.

    Images available on request.

    Media information, Shirani Aththas (02) 9298 3642; 0401 915 234