Our World Heroic tale ignites a passion to paddle

Paddling in Bangladesh. Picture: Khandakar Rahman.
Photo of Angie Tomlinson

There are adventurous journeys, and then there's Western Australia's Sandy Robson's adventure: paddling solo in a kayak, 23,000km from Germany to Australia.

"In Australia we get taught stranger danger but there they treat a stranger like a gift from god,” says WA’s very-own superwoman Sandy Robson, who late last year finished an epic solo journey, kayaking from Germany to Australia.

The “there” Sandy is referring to is any number of places — India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea — where the kindness and efforts of strangers embracing her journey made the impossible possible. As crazy as 23,000km in a kayak sounds, the Germany to Australia journey started when Sandy started searching for a “long” expedition. She discovered German Oskar Speck, who in 1932 set out in a folding kayak on the Danube River. 

Originally bound for Cyprus, he just kept going. Seven years and 50,000km later he arrived in Australia.

But for poor Speck, it was the most unfortunate timing. Seven years of ultimate freedom turned into six years of internment. His 1939 arrival on Australian soil — Saibai Island in the Torres Strait Islands — coincided with the outbreak of World War II.

“Even though Oskar Speck is gone, I feel like I really had insight into his story that nobody else has because I have paddled in his paddle strokes,” Sandy says.

Broadly, those paddle strokes led her down the Danube, entering the sea in Greece and past Turkey.

Parts of the Middle East Speck visited are now no-go zones which Sandy skipped, picking up the journey in India, around Sri Lanka (she was the first person to circumnavigate the country in a kayak), Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and like Speck, arriving at the finish line on Saibai Island but to a much kinder welcome.

Just like Speck’s journey all those years ago, locals through the 20 countries Sandy visited took her challenge on as their own, inspired by the journey.

In Kerala, India a motorsport organiser helped her through obtaining government permissions, liaising with the port, navy and police to ensure safe passage. He even created a huge picture of Sandy for the bonnet of his car, rally-event style.

“People do get captivated by the journey so anyone would welcome you into their home. Many of those people are very poor but they still give you anything they can,” she says.

“I didn’t have very much in my kayak but I was always thinking, what have I got that I can give away to this person to make their day better.

“In Indonesia you can turn up anywhere and people will welcome you into their homes, make you coffee and food. It’s the same in PNG and Turkey, too. They really pride themselves on welcoming people and they do it really well.”

Seven West Travel Club with Sandy Robson Duration: 04m56s Seven West Travel Club

This welcome and assistance was repeated again and again throughout Sandy’s journey, and was often her saviour during tricky, and sometimes terrifying, situations.

Sandy battled huge surf on the east coast of India and, at one stage, had to paddle through a secure rocket launching site.

While she had permission to enter the area, a lack of police resources meant local fishermen were used to help watch the area as well.

On Sandy’s first attempt a fisherman forced her on to his boat and took her out to sea where she was surrounded by more boats. Eventually, after a terrifying time and no way to communicate, she was taken to the police where her supporters were able to explain the situation.

The next day she had almost made it through when a boat ran her down. The skipper drove the vessel over her lap, pinning her to the side of the boat. The kayak was damaged and the rocket- launch site crossing looked insurmountable.

It was then her supporters rallied around her, finding a water tank welder to fix her kayak, getting the next state’s governor onside and gaining police protection.

“I think when you look back the hardest times, in some way, translate into the best times because you get that interaction with people helping you — there is a lot of kindness,” she says.

So one has to ask, how does a person arrive at a point where they decide to take on such an incredible challenge? Sandy says her love of the outdoors was fostered as a child, growing up on farms in the Wheatbelt and then in Geraldton, playing at the beach and camping during school holidays.

It wasn’t until her mid-20s she took up kayaking. A hip replacement 13 years ago meant she had to swap bushwalking for a kayak to continue her expeditions.

Just like Speck, Sandy describes her kayak as a “first- class ticket to everywhere”.

“What I believe he meant by that was he could have experiences travelling in a kayak that in those days, even people with first-class tickets in ocean liners would never get to experience,” she says.

One of Sandy’s matchless experiences includes being invited into the presidential palace in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to have tea with the president’s wife.

On her adventure it wasn’t only the human interaction that had Sandy in awe but the natural wonders. She paddled through Bengal tiger territory — most likely the only person barring Speck to have kayaked through the area. Then there was the sea life; she padded alongside whales and in pods of hundreds of dolphins.

In the marine biodiversity hotspot of Raja Ampat, Indonesia, she paddled with manta rays, and in Tufi, PNG, she was dwarfed by the formations of tropical fjords.

In PNG she also had to face her fear of crocodiles, having previously had the back of her kayak bitten in North Queensland.

 She says that was just a matter of changing her mind about crocodiles, and “managing” her fear.

As Sandy adjusts into Western society back in Perth, she is preparing to write a book, one that encompasses her journey, but also the book that Speck did not get to write.

Grassroots kayaking

Sandy Robson’s journey is one none of us is ever likely to replicate. However, we can experience some of her adventures through grassroots kayaking and homestays.

Raja Ampat, Indonesia, Kayaks 4 Conservation: In far-east Indonesia, Raja Ampat is a global marine biodiversity hotspot. It has world-class paddling in warm water and it’s rugged, beautiful and teeming with life, including the majestic manta rays. A Kayak 4 Conservation journey is led by a guide, paddling between homestays, being served local dishes and warm welcomes. kayak4conservation.com

Tufi, Papua New Guinea: A unique region of tropical fjords with tourism centres on Tufi Resort. For those who dare to venture around the coast by sea kayak a rewarding experience awaits. The resort has new sea kayaks to hire where guests can paddle between homestays set up by local villagers. 

Sandy says not many people know about these basic forms of accommodation “with some of the most welcoming and lovely hosts in the world”. 

The homestays are simple thatched huts with beds under a mosquito net. They includes activities where the host will often accompany you by dugout canoe, guiding you to great snorkelling spots and local markets. tufidive.com/resort/guesthouse-accommodation

India, Quest Expeditions: Staunch supporter of Sandy and tour company owner Jehan Driver has rescued orphaned boys from the streets of Mumbai and given them family and a future, training them as adventure guides. 

Sandy has run a kayaking basic skills course for the boys. The company offers a variety of tours, including guided kayak trips throughout the country. quest-asia.com

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