Incredible Journey [52]

Part 3 (Conclusion) 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 2

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 to Java to Sourabaya. 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.