Originally, it wasn’t my intention to write the story of my voyage. I only wanted to tell Australians about Faltboots (folding boats), which are the modern version of the ancient Eskimo kayak. But would Australians recognise my authority to speak about it?
In Germany, I was a recognised kayakist before 1932. As my voyage progressed and reports of it went home from Cyprus, from Greece, from India, I became acknowledged as the most experienced sea-going kayak expert in the world.
My old paddle was a trophy to the winner of the Marathon Canoe Race, Carl Toovey, who rowed 100 miles on the Hawkesbury River, NSW, in 18 hours, 32 minutes. Sailing men in Australia know me — I have been elected an honorary member of the NSW Canoe Club, and the kayak in which I arrived here has been presented to a member of the River Canoe Club. But the mass of Australians did not know me at all—except, perhaps, as a name appearing from time to time in local newspapers which briefly recorded the progress of the earlier parts of my voyage.
Only a fuller account of the voyage will introduce me. I hope that it will convince you that I am a skilled kayakist—if I weren’t, there were many perilous occasions on the voyage when I should have perished. But I am lucky, also. Only with luck was I allowed to survive to acquire the skill which brought me through hostile seas in the later parts of the voyage.
The original, primitively shaped kayak was used by the Eskimos for many centuries. More modern, streamlined kayaks, made of solid timber, have featured in the sport and recreation of Europe for many years. But these were no use to city dwellers. They could not cart a great boat home with them and park it in their town flats. And in Europe to hire a small boatshed or even to store a boat is too expensive for the ordinary man.
What was needed was a boat that would not only be safe for shooting rapids, and light for porterage, but which would collapse into a small bundle, easily carried by train or bus to the scene of the weekend’s sport. The inventor of the faltboot kayak fulfilled all these requirements. It consists of a framework of very light, pliable timber stays, over which the fabric of laminated rubber and canvas fits like a skin.
So ingenious is its design that, once put together, it becomes as rigid as its all-timber prototype. Taken apart and packed, it can be stored in any odd corner in house or flat. There are single and two-seaters, weighing 40 and 65 pounds, respectively.
Continental railways cut freights for faltboots, to bring this recreation within the means of the masses. During summer, faltboots in the tens of thousands swarm over the rivers and lakes of Europe. Dimensions? My double-seater kayak (I took the second seat out) weighed 65 pounds, was 18 feet long with a 33 inch beam and a freeboard of 9 3/4 inches. It carried a load of 650 pounds. With a good wind and a quiet sea it can do up to 6 1/2 knots. Loaded, and propelled by a lone paddler, it can do three knots. Currents, of course, affect these speeds. Its sail measures 16 square feet, but a strong wind makes sailing risky. The rudder is worked by the feet, wire lines linking rudder to the foot control.
For my voyage I carried a spare paddle, a prismatic compass, sea charts, and ‘coastal pilots’ which show every landmark, every depth, every tiny inlet and cliff. I had two large waterproof brass containers for my films, cameras, and clothing. Fresh water went into small tanks shaped to the sides of the kayak—they held five gallons.
Fresh water, did I say? In many tropical places on my route the ‘fresh’ water was lurid green. So I also carried young coconuts, dependable for a germ-free drink; and condensed milk. I have given the specifications of the faltboot. But my kayak proved to have qualities which even the maker never claimed for it. It won me friendships right across the world. It was a first-class ticket to everywhere. A little restricted while one was actually travelling, more than a little perilous, but it brought me privileges which your passenger in an ocean liner’s de luxe suite can never know.
I will always remember meeting the Governor of British Baluchistan, Sir Norman Carter. A shooting party had been arranged for him by the two local maharajahs, and a magnificent camp, complete even to triumphal gateways, had been erected near the beach. It was just chance that I had landed on that beach a little earlier. Sir Norman and his aides came walking down towards the beach. There to greet him, with colourful retinues and in all their regal splendor, were the Maharajahs of Kalat and of Las Bella. In turn, their names were announced to the Governor. He half-turned to his right, and bowed stiffly to the Maharajah of Kalat; then to the left, bowing just as stiffly to His Highness the Maharajah of Las Bella. Then he saw me, dressed in informal shirt and pants taken from my watertight tank. Sir Norman hurried forward and shook my hand warmly. “Let me congratulate you, Mr Speck,” he said. “A splendid performance.” He insisted on taking me to his marquee, and with his own hands served me with a drink while he listened to my story. Two jealous maharajahs waited outside for the shoot to begin.
Such welcomes are not guaranteed by the Pionier Faltboot Company, makers of my kayak, but they could be depended upon none the less. But let me get started on my journey…
In Hamburg I had been an electrical contractor, employing 21 hands. Then came the depression. In 1932 my factory had no work, and I had to liquidate.
There seemed no hope for me in Germany. But I heard there might be work that I could do in the copper mines in Cyprus. I did not dream of going on to Australia then. I had a little money - enough to equip my boat. So, one morning I took my folded kayak and the supplies to Ulm by train. There, beside the Danube, I put the ash frame together, and pulled the rubber-and-canvas skin over it. I loaded up, and, without any fuss or farewell from anyone, I set off to paddle down the river in the direction of the Mediterranean Sea.
By all sane standards I was mad! Faltboots are not built for the sea. If you must compare them with a land vehicle, there are most nearly related to the bicycle. On a bicycle you must keep pedalling and steering or you fall over. In a faltboot you may sail while the weather is kind, but you must be constantly active, constantly steering to bring the boat’s bow to the right position to meet every single wave.
Take just one wave wrong and your boat will spin sideways, you will turn over and be swamped. Your first capsize on the open ocean will be your last. When the wind becomes strong you must take in your tiny sail and paddle. Sometimes I have had to paddle for 16 hours on end without a moment’s cessation.
Life becomes a dreary, endless monotony of paddling, arms and shoulders aching, and your whole body longing inexpressibly for one thing—sleep. But you must not even doze for one moment. You must be constantly using the rudder, meeting each wave just right. In larger boats, sailors pray when they get into difficulties. In bad weather in a kayak one also prays, but with both hands cramped around the paddle, both feet tense on the rudder bar. There are no long prayers, either—just one cry for survival, and how often this is repeated only God knows.
Praying for survival and working up an emotional fury against the elements—that is how one fights a storm. I had luck with the weather in the first part of my voyage, and only that luck enabled me to live to gain the skill and experience that brought me through the rest of it.
On my voyage I had 10 capsizes, but they always happened riding in through the surf, never at sea. The kayakist learns that he has little to fear from oncoming waves taken at a right angle. But following waves must never come under the boat at a right angle. If one does, the tiny rudder will lift clear out of the water, control of the boat is lost, and it swings sideways and turns over. It is curtains!
My voyage was to last seven years. I rowed and sailed across the German-Austrian border, past Vienna, into Hungary. I reached the famous Iron Gate on the Danube! All the canoe guides are full of stories about it; all advise utmost caution. Here the Danube drives through grim, steep banks, and there are tremendous whirlpools to suck down any incautious rower. I kept a sharp lookout. The larger whirlpools I avoided. My kayak skimmed swiftly across the smaller ones. Luck got me through.
At the Bulgaria-Yugoslavia border I decided that the Danube was too tame. I wanted a new river to conquer, and just a short distance across country lay the Vardar River, which had never been navigated. Those upper reaches of the Vardar proved savage. The river plunges through steep mountains, with a succession of fierce rapids waiting to hurl the canoeist onwards and downwards through the gorges.
I reached Veles, in Macedonia, with half the kayak’s ribs broken. It was hopeless to go on. I sent the skin of the kayak back to Germany for repairs, and they made such a good job of it that when it came back to me, Macedonian Customs insisted that it was a new craft, and wanted to charge it as such. Then the Vardar froze over solid. Altogether, I was delayed five months in Veles.
It was spring when I finally got away. I crossed the Macedonian-Greek border, and landed on the opposite bank of the river from the Transcontinental Railway. On the railway side the river ran close beside steep banks. As I erected my tent (I carried a small tent until it rotted and had to be discarded) a train passed across the river— what I didn’t know was that the train crew at the next station reported me as a suspicious character. Around midnight I was awakened by shouting, and I pulled back the flap of my tent to find myself looking into two carbines, held by two frontier guards. Their two horses were just behind them. We shared no language, so I showed them my passport. After muttering over it for a while, one guard signed to me to mount the second guard’s horse. Leaving the second guard behind, the two of us rode for two hours across the wild hills, when we came to a fortress, and I was presented to the commandant. He was a charming young officer. Directly he saw the Greek visa on my passport, he offered profuse apologies, and followed this by insisting that I should come into his room and drink coffee and wine.
At Salonika I faced the sea at last. With few incidents, my voyage down the coast of Greece was a kayakist’s dream, and at last I was beaching my kayak at Andros.I was scarcely ashore when two little Greek girls in white Sunday dresses came across the sand towards me, carrying a round loaf of bread with three coloured eggs sticking out of it. So it was Easter Day, and this was Andros’ welcome! Andros is a wealthy island, and I was taken to a dance at the Ship Owners’ Club, where lovely girls who spoke English better than I did dance with them. There you have the contrast which the kayak can offer to her master. At one hour you can be fighting against a headsea. You are dressed like a tramp, you are stung my flying spray, you are in real peril.
The next hour, clad in clean, dry shore clothes taken from your water-tight tank, you are sitting in one of the windows of a magnificent club. There is music and girls, and the wines of the world to choose from.
On to Kastelorozo where the girls pay the men a dowry according to the status of the families. It is often substantial. A boy has to contribute to his sister’s dowry—it follows that a boy with a number of sisters will have his nose to the grindstone for many a year. But he must uphold his family’s status. It is the custom that, on the engagement night (which is very close to the wedding date) the engaged couple shall sleep in the same room for the night. But the young man must not so much as touch his future bride, to show that their union is an affair of the spirit, not of the flesh. Petting and necking are unknown terms on Kastelerozo, where a girl who was not a virgin would indeed be better dead.
By now I had decided that I did not want that Cyprus job (the cause of my starting the voyage). I wanted much more to make a kayak voyage that would go down in history. It was about now that I first said to myself: “Why not Australia?” I wasn’t so rash as to breathe that ambition to anyone else—yet. I sailed round Cyprus on the westward coast via Limassol to Larnaka. Since the kayak would have to be freighted either way, I decided that Suez offered a too well-beaten path — why not land on the Syrian coast and take the bus to Meskene, on the Upper Euphrates? That WOULD be something! There was no proper road to Meskene. That wreck of a bus just picked its own way across the desert, but it got me to my destination. The Euphrates is lined with date plantations. I saw many Arab men, but no women except the very old. At villages I would be invited into the men’s houses. There I would sit on the mud floor among a lot of Arabs. A great copper plate would be brought in and laid before us; on it the hard flat bread of the country, gravy, and meat of the goat or sheep. There are no utensils. You eat with your hand, but only with one hand, or you offend your hosts. In strange lands I bow to the local customs.
I made it a rule never to refuse hospitality — better a dirty meal and the lice and vermin of the men’s houses than a shot in the dark. And that is how the Arab expresses his resentment of hospitality scorned. One night I was drifting down the Euphrates with the current. The current carried me first to this side of the river, in bright moonlight, then to the other, in black shadow. It was only necessary to paddle occasionally. I must had dozed. Suddenly two shots rang out from the moonlit bank.
I came to with a click, and started to paddle - fast! In my haste I was paddling the wrong way, upstream, but it was not time to argue, and I made for the shadowy side. There were several more shots, then all was silence. But I had to paddle back past those riflemen. I sneaked back on the dark side of the river, using the current, and touching the water with my paddle only once or twice. I heard men talking on the bank there, but there were no more shots. I never learned who they were, or why they had shot at me!
My trip down the Lower Euphrates from Felludgah to Basra did not reveal its lurking perils to me. Yet a few weeks later two Germans, May and Fischer, hearing of my trip, decided to follow my course. They were well-equipped, far better than I. But, on the way down they made the mistake of refusing Arab hospitality — they just didn’t like fleas and lice. They were both shot dead in their tents on the river bank, and everything they had was stolen.
I could write a whole book about the next relatively short leg of my trip along the Persian coast to British Baluchistan— some day I will.
I vowed then that never shall I visit Persia again. I say now that never will I so much as fly over that country lost in basest corruption. Arriving eventually at the first tiny Persian settlement, consisting of a dozen mud huts, but no shops, no bazaar— I had to present my starving self to the authorities, represented by two barefooted policemen. They were quite friendly, and obviously very poor. After inspecting my passport, which they held upside down, a fowl was killed, and with rice it was my first proper meal for weeks. How poor these people were was underlined when the bones that I threw away were snatched up by the village barber and carefully gone over again, the smaller bones being chewed up completely.
During the next 500 miles along the Persian coast to Bandar Abbas, I saw much of the life lived by the people of the Gulf. From the age of 12, all women wear masks made of black material. Only once did I see a Persian woman without this mask, and she was the wife—the very temporary wife—of a Persian Customs official. This westernised Customs officer already had a wife in Teheran. For the term of his contract to work in the Gulf, he married this local girl. She was 15, very pretty, but no match for her shrewd husband. To secure her, he had to pay her father 160 tomans (about £30). Half of this was paid cash down. But the balance was due when the official returned to Teheran. If she refused to follow him there, not only would the final payment of 80 tomans be revoked, but the original money would have to be refunded.It was a double-headed penny. She couldn’t go to Teheran. In Persia, apart from her husband, a wife only meets her own relatives. Others may not set eyes on her. When he returned to Teheran, no one except himself would see her again. Whether she lived or died only he would know.
One day I passed three Arab sailing vessels anchored at the entrance of a creek. They waved to me to stop— they wanted me to come aboard and drink with them. But I had a good breeze, and I sailed on. A shot rang out, and a bullet hit the water only a few inches away. Looking back, I saw the Arabs had launched a fully-manned rowing boat, which was chasing me. With that wind, I had no trouble out-distancing it. At that time the Customs was run by Belgian staff, under contract to the Persian Government. These sailing boats had been discharging a cargo of smuggled sugar.
On from Bandar Abbas I pressed to Gwattar, on the Baluchistan border — never was a sailor more anxious to shake the spray of these vile Persian waters from his kayak. Here, on a beach surrounded by high cliffs, I landed as darkness was falling, and pulled my kayak well up on to the beach. I badly needed food, and had noticed as I sailed inshore two Arab sailing boats beached further along. I walked to them now, but found them untenanted—indeed, they proved to be dismantled wrecks. I walked back to my boat to find it - GONE!
Panic took me then. Here was I on an unfriendly beach, cast among a lawless race of cut-throats, thieves, and smugglers. My boat was gone, and in it my money, my passport, my every possession in the world except only the shorts and shirt I was wearing. Dawn showed me high cliffs enclosing the beach, and perched on top of them a few miserable huts. I climbed up the cliff, and found the huts occupied by some fishermen and two Persian police armed with carbines. They were not helpful when I told of the disappearance of my kayak, but I insisted that they should send a boat out. I said that I should go to the Shah in Teheran, and that I was his guest — and that moved them to requisition an outrigger boat, and in it the police took me to the border village.
There the captain of police was intelligent, and, of course, corrupt. When I told him that there was money in my boat and that I would give half of it to the finder, he said confidently: “You will get your boat back.” There was great doings and discussion at the barracks during the night, and next morning the captain, his assistant, and I set out in another boat. Without great trouble we came upon a dhow, and there across its bow lay my kayak. Not a thing in it had been touched. The sailors aboard explained they had found the kayak drifting, and had taken it aboard — actually, of course, they had stolen it, having watched my landing at dark. In my wallet, in various currencies, was about £80. I gave half to the police captain, but that was nothing, so happy was I to have my kayak back.
Each night now, when I camped, I was far from lonely. Crowds thronged around my craft. The story of my voyage and my kayak, much distorted as it passed from mouth to mouth, sailed down the Indian coast faster than I could. I reached Colombo on May 13, 1935, exactly three years after I had left my home town Ulm, in Germany. At Rangoon, despite the approaching monsoon season, I resolved to go on Mergui. Before reaching Mergui, the monsoon was in full swing. Sudden squalls, with torrential rain, would sometimes blow the kayak miles off its course. There were times when, far out at sea, the wind would turn against me. 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. I felt no hunger, only profound exhaustion. I only wanted to fling myself down and let my eyes fall shut. It was wise, then, to forget any timetable and recuperate for a few days, for I could never know what lay ahead on the next stretch.
A new kayak was waiting for me at Singapore. I transferred my luggage, and set out for Sumatra. From Batavia I followed the coast of Java to Surabaya. When in North Bali I again had a severe bout of malaria, and before I was more than halfway better I foolishly decided to try to reach Lombok. There was a strong current against me for most of that leg of the trip, and before I reached land malaria had the upper hand again and I was a miserable, shivering victim in its clutch.
Some natives came down to the beach and half-carried me up to the village, where the Kepala Kampong (village chief) received me.
At Kissar there was an unpleasant change in the behaviour of the natives toward me. Many were arrogant, they tried to cheat me, some threw stones at me. I didn’t relish staying anywhere long. I crossed to Lakor, and landed on a small sandy beach with a coral reef protecting it. After my recent experiences I didn’t feel tempted to go to the nearby village. An hour later a number of natives approached. From them I tried to get information about prevailing currents between there and Sumatra. They said the best time for me to leave was about 5 am next day.
Some of them were keen to get a few of my empty water bottles, but these were essential to me on my voyage and I had to refuse. Some hours later I was awakened by a voice saying, very softly, “Tuan! Tuan!” I opened a flap in the canvas and looked out. About 20 natives were gathered there. The moonlight was so strong that, among them, I could spot some of my earlier visitors. I asked what they wanted, but could get no real reply. I asked them to let me get some sleep because I was very tired. I pulled the canvas back again as a sign that the interview was over. A few minutes later a native, kneeling beside the boat, started to talk to me in a soft voice, and at the same time his fingers tried to open the cover. I was angry. I sat up.
Now I noticed that all the natives had spears, swords, or machetes. In stern tones I ordered them to leave me in peace. “Pistol ada” (“I have a pistol”), I said, and let the moon glint on it. It was not loaded. It was meant to be so, and was only intended as a final threat to natives who would not let me alone. At the sight of the pistol, the natives around the boat retreated, but only a few steps. The native kneeling beside the boat did not stand up, but went on speaking to me in a soft, calm voice. As I laid the pistol down his hands closed round my neck and he uttered a wild cry. The other natives closed in. Five or six of them held me down, half in and half out of the kayak.
They all clung to me like leeches. Strong hands clutched my hair. With the strength of despair I tore one hand free from them and strove to pull the hands from my throat. My clothing — I wore only a sarong in those tropic nights—was torn off in the struggle. With strips of dried buffalo hide some of them tied my legs and hands, while others looted the kayak. By the hair, they dragged my trussed body some yards across the sand.
They constantly kicked me. They picked me up, carried me a short distance, then dropped me a few yards from the water. To understand the terror of my position, naked and bound as I was, you must understand the ecstatic frenzy of those natives. They were used to the white man as master. Here was a white man in their power—and they were drunk with that power. Sometimes a gibbering, ecstatic native would hold his gleaming machete only a few millimetres from my throat. It was clear what he wanted to do.
Black hands explored my naked body. It was a most revolting experience. I tried to bring them back to sanity, but white man’s words had no effect now. They only seemed to intensify their frenzy, so I decided that absolute silence would be the best course. After a discussion among themselves, the leader walked away with some others, leaving ten guards to watch me. For an hour I lay like that, with the guards softly talking among themselves. Suddenly, for no reason on earth, one came over to me. He swung at me with the flat of his hand, striking my left ear. Despite the shackles, I struggled up a bit. He sprang a couple of steps back, then kicked the back of my head a couple of times when he saw I was really helpless. He went back and resumed his talk with the others.
During that respite I discovered that my left ear was deaf. The drum of it was burst. After perhaps another hour the guards came back and placed me under a rock near the boat, and then they went off, following the same direction which the gang leader and his party had taken. When they last dropped me on the sand I had noticed that the hide gripping one leg seemed loose. After hard writhing and struggling, I slipped it down off my calf, and so eventually pulled one foot free. I was able to stand! I tottered to the kayak, hoping to find my knife there, but it had been thoroughly looted. Then I tried to cut my fetters against the edge of a rock. No good. There was one hope left. With my teeth I tried to unknot the thong around my wrists. At first the knot would not budge. But buffalo hide is stiff and harsh, and one end of the knot projected a little way towards me.
With my chin I pushed this loose end through the knot, forming a loop on the far side of my bound wrists. I twisted my wrists around, and with my teeth caught on the loop and tugged. Had their fetters been more pliable I would not have been able to do this. In ten minutes I had the first knot untied. The second knot was easier, and in 20 minutes my hands were free. But I was not safe yet. I dragged the kayak down to the water — it was a struggle after all I had been through. Now I could breathe!
There was time to spend a few moments looking around for my luggage. The natives had evidently thought that my largest tank contained only water—actually it held my camera, films, and much of my clothing. I got it back into the boat, and then paddled 30 or 40 yards out into the lagoon.
Not five minutes later I saw the torches of the natives returning to the beach. But I was safe here, and I sat looking on. They were excited, and then they found I had gone a new wave of frenzy seemed to go through them. I reached Sermata with my bruises as proof of a story, which, otherwise, no one might have credited. Then the Resident of the Moluccas arrived on his annual inspection of the islands. I had to repeat my whole story to him. With a boatload of officials, he promptly set off for Lakor to deal with the gangsters. He arrested six, including the leader. At the subsequent trial the leader was awarded six years’ hard labour, as were two others of his gang. Two got two years, and one got a year. As for me, I went first to the military hospital at Ambon, and then back to Sourabaya, where surgeons operated on my ear. I spent four months under treatment before the ear cleared up.
Exactly a year after the attack, I left Saumlaki in a new boat, crossed to the Kei Islands, and then faced the
longest lap of island-hopping to New Guinea. When I arrived at the first Dutch administration village, I caused a headache to the official in charge.
He did not know whether to arrest me or let me carry on. This permit came at last, and I sailed via Hollandia to
Madang, Port Moresby, and eventually to Saibai, Australia’s northernmost island, which is also
officially a part of Australia proper.
I had reached my goal, after seven years, and (as I mentioned earlier) I walked straight into internment, for Australia and Germany were at war.
Australia has proved a good goal. I have many friends here, and I have built my home here, on the Pittwater, near Sydney. I hope to visit Germany again,
but Australia is where I belong now.