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Oskar Speck's journey to Australia - Covered 200km in 34 hours in a collapsable boat, part 2

Date: 18 April 1989
Medium: Ink on paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Nancy Jean Steele Bequest
Object Name: Newspaper
Object No: ANMS0542[037]

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    • Die Woche, 18 April 1989, page 12 Oskar Speck’s journey to Australia Covered 200km in 34 Hours in a Collapsible Boat Part 2 The German Oskar Speck achieved an almost unbelievable feat. Celebrating his 80th birthday today, he arrived in Australia in a 5.50 metre long and just under one metre wide collapsible boat in September 1939. The journey, which began at Ulm on the Danube in May 1932, took seven years. “I survived only due to luck and great skill,” reports Oskar Speck about his journey, which holds the world record and cannot be repeated in that way. But his trip ended in disappointment: When Speck reached the fifth continent, after covering more than 30 000 nautical miles, Germany had been at war for a few days. Upon his arrival at Saibai in September 1939, Oskar Speck was arrested and interned for seven years. “In Colombo I had to make a momentous decision. In May 1935 the news from Germany was positive, no unemployment, things were looking up. So there was no reason for me not to return,” explained Speck about his important deliberations. He wrote a letter to the collapsible boat manufacturer asking them to sponsor his round-the-world trip to Australia. Oskar Speck said: “The manufacturer agreed and sent another boat.” During his stay at Colombo, the German introduced himself to John Hagenbeck, at the time the oldest son of the family of animal lovers from Hamburg. At first Hagenbeck was furious that Speck hadn’t found his way to him immediately. But then he invited Speck to stay for lunch and the two men formed a friendship which was accompanied by an active correspondence for the duration of the journey. Speck stayed with Hagenbeck for three months before he set out for Cocanada in India, around Ceylon via Galle and Trinkomalee and all the way to Port Pedro, where he arrived on 14 September 1935 at 9.30 in the morning. From Port Pedro he had the longest ocean crossing before him: 40 miles. Speck had spent 3 days covering 65 miles once before, in Syria. The paddler: “ 72 hours without sleep is just about as much as the human body can stand. Because of the incredible heat I only paddled at night.” In Cocander Oskar Speck was forced to wait two weeks for his fourth new boat. That one, a two-seater capable of carrying 360kg, cost just under 1000 Mark. The trip to Singapore took one year. Speck crossed the ocean to Sumatra, from there on to Java, Semarang and Surabaya. Then he passed the islands of Bali, Lombok, Komodo and Flores, then arrived on the island of Lakor via Pantar, Alor and Timor. “I was attacked during the night by natives and quite severely wounded,” Speck said as he relived the dramatic events of back then. “The natives were suspicious because I was spending the night outside the village. I did that because I wanted to continue paddling the next morning. At other times it was common in the villages to light a fire to the right and to the left of my boat and each of my steps to be watched curiously.” Speck managed to free himself from his ties and to escape that same night. With the greatest effort he reached the island of Sermata. But he was able to report the attack to the police only from the island of Barbar. The injury to his ear cost him his hearing in the left ear. From Saumlaki he was transferred to the military hospital on Ambon. The doctors sent him to Surabaya from there, where he was operated on by the best specialists and received continuing treatment for a few months. While still in hospital, Speck wrote to ask for another boat. It wasn’t until one year later that he was able to continue his trip from Saumlaki. “The attack caused a stir,” says the man from Hamburg, ”not just in Germany. Due to the political tensions, the Dutch officials would have like to see me abandon my collapsible boat trip. They refused to allow me to land anywhere along the coast of New Guinea, from Kamran Bay to Merauke. I had to put up with taking a route that was eight months longer to get around New Guinea. [Photo of Speck in his boat with the caption:] Oskar Speck in his collapsible boat upon his departure from Calcutta This section also contained the longest ocean crossing of 200km. This time the man in the collapsible boat was lucky: Helped along by the wind, Speck covered the distance in 34 hours, reaching the limits of his strength. Speck rounded the bird head to Manokwari via the Government outpost of Fakfak. From there to Hollandia, Vanimo, Madang, Salamaua, Port Moresby and Daru. Speck arrived on the island of Daru, the last one before Australia, at around nine in the morning of September 5, 1939. It was especially the little German flag which caused much more excitement than usual amongst the white fishermen on the beach. “One of the fishermen came up to me, congratulating me on my collapsible boat trip. But then he became serious: “I have bad news for you. Germany has declared war.” You better come to the Magistrate with me.” The friendly official sent a telegram to the headquarters at Port Moresby asking if I was allowed to continue my journey. The strongly desired answer arrived around thirty minutes later: “Proceed Thursday Island.”. Oskar Speck: “I had made it: My next port would be on Australian soil! ‘Leave your revolver here and keep going straight away. Another telegram could arrive any moment’, the official told me. I felt quite sick from all the excitement. Despite the stormy weather I went from the harbour into the nearby Mangrove swamps. I stayed there for around two days to collect my thoughts. A number of different ports went through my mind. Eventually I decided to go to Saibai and to be interned in Australia. Upon my arrival, around one week after 5 September – I didn’t get a stamp in my passport then – I was arrested by three policemen waiting for me at the beach at Saibai. I had reached my goal - but my humble success, to have reached Australia in a collapsible boat, disappeared in the flood of reports about the incipient worldwide catastrophe.” Oskar Speck, who had achieved a never to be repeated record by travelling half way around the world in a collapsible boat, was put in prison on the spot. To be continued… [Photo of Oskar Speck with the caption:] Oskar Speck with a model of his collapsible boat This story is from the Journal “200 Years of History of the German Community in Australia”. It is available for the special price of 2 for $8 plus postage from internews, 1-3 Seddon Street, Bankstown, NSW, 2200.
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