HOW PADDLING 50,000km SAVED A GERMAN FROM WAR SERVICE, LANDING HIM IN TATURA INTERNMENT CAMP

By Peter Russell

Imagine a "Boys' Own Adventure" dreamt up by a young German to kayak from Germany to Cyprus which then turned into a massive world-first record trip to Australia. In a kayak!

I'll start this story near the end for brevity. Young Oskar Speck had decided to tackle this incredible journey because back home in Germany there had been no work. He had been volunteering for the national socialists (Nazis) as a physical trainer of Hitler Youth but needed something to do and decided on a kayaking adventure to end all adventures.

In 1932, Oskar Speck, an unemployed Hamburg electrician, gathered up his collapsible kayak, caught a bus to the Danube and set off for Cyprus, where he’d heard there was work in the copper mines.

On the 13th February, he launched at Ulm on the Danube.  He was paddling a 5.5-metre two-man kayak built by Pioneer.  He followed the course of The Danube before entering the Aegean Sea.  Paddling via some Greek islands he reached the Turkish coast before crossing to Cyprus, but by now he had given up thoughts of working on the Mediterranean isle. While in Cyprus he cooked up the idea of paddling to Australia.

When he arrived – via Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey – there was no work, so Speck, obtaining sponsorship from the Pioneer Faltboot (‘collapsible boat’) company, set off for Australia (the company replaced his kayak four times). He paddled to what’s now Lebanon, went overland to Syria, and paddled down the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf. Hugging the coasts of Pakistan, India, Burma, Thailand and Malaya, he arrived in the Dutch East Indies in 1937. He then skirted around the north coast of New Guinea and, in September 1939, reached Thursday Island with a Nazi pennant still flying at the prow. He was warmly congratulated on his achievement by the local Australian constabulary and promptly arrested as an enemy alien. It was a lucky break because if he’d made it back to Germany, he was the sort of bloke who’d probably have died at Stalingrad.

On 20 Sep 1939, after 50,000km young Speck landed on Thursday Island to find himself arrested. The two police officers were a matter of fact. "Well done, mate," a policeman said. "You've made it all the way from Germany to Australia - in that! - Well done. But we've got some bad news: Australia and Germany are at war, and you're considered an illegal alien."

Speck was detained, eventually finding his "home" at the Tatura Internment Camp. He would later attempt to escape the Tat camp with a mate, trying to bicycle to Sydney. That journey failed, and he was sent back to Tatura.

Tatura Museum says those who remembered him said Oskar had "really big muscles on his arms." No wonder.

In his spare time, he developed a special stone polishing machine that would later make him his fortune in the opal mines of NSW, Queensland and South Australia.

Speck wasn’t released until 1945. He spent his long years in internment developing a new machine to cut and polish opals. After the war, he became an opal miner at Lightning Ridge and later, a successful opal merchant. He settled, eventually, at Kilcare Heights near Gosford, and was active in the early conservation and kayaking movements. He never returned to Germany.

In retirement, he lived in comfort in a posh part of Pittwater, Sydney. His adventure probably saved him from the torment of war and likely death.

As an Aussie, he made his mark and contributed to society and the community. A great story of happenstance, luck and fortune.

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