Incredible Journey [51]

Part 2 of Oskar Speck’s Epic Journey From Germany to Australia

By Oskar Speck (As told to Duncan Thompson)
Reprinted With Kind Permission of Australasian Post Magazine

Back to part 1

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 that I did danced with me. There you have the contrast which the kayak can offer to her master. At one hour you can be fighting against a head sea. 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, 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 pick 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 that 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. A

fter 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.

Wife Couldn’t Win

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.

Kayak Had Vanished

On from Bandar Abbas I pressed to Gwattar, on the Baluchistan border — never was 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 they 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.

Continue with part 3 (conclusion)