Sandy Rob­son

The grit and de­ter­mi­na­tion that it took to pad­dle from Europe to Aus­tralia, 23,000km across the world, has seen Sandy Rob­son awarded one of the Aus­tralian Ge­o­graphic So­ci­ety’s high­est ac­co­lades.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - JOSEPHINE SAR­GENT

AHIP RE­PLACE­MENT in 2004 ir­re­vo­ca­bly changed the course of Sandy Rob­son’s life.The op­er­a­tion meant Sandy, a life­long out­door en­thu­si­ast, could no longer dis­ap­pear for days on the bush­walk­ing ad­ven­tures she adored. In­stead the West Aus­tralian na­tive, now aged 49, heeded the ocean’s call and em­braced kayak­ing, which of­fered a sim­i­lar so­lace and sense of chal­lenge while be­ing gen­tler on the hips.

Then, at a party, a friend told her the ex­tra­or­di­nary story of Ger­man ca­noeist Oskar Speck. He’d pad­dled an in­cred­i­ble 50,000km across the world dur­ing the 1930s, and after ar­riv­ing in Aus­tralia in 1939, ended up in­terned as an en­emy for­eigner for the du­ra­tion of World War II. “I went home and Googled him,” Sandy re­calls. “In 2007 I pad­dled more than 6000km around the coast of Aus­tralia, but that ex­pe­di­tion halted be­cause I got at­tacked by a crocodile. I was hooked on the idea of a long ad­ven­ture when I came across the idea to re­trace Oskar Speck’s ex­pe­di­tion. I men­tioned to my dad that I was go­ing to do part of it and he said, ‘Why not do the whole thing?’”

After study­ing Speck’s di­ary at the Aus­tralian National Mar­itime Mu­seum in Syd­ney, Sandy launched on the Danube River, in Ger­many, in 2011, and headed for Cyprus. It her­alded the start of a 23,000km trip that would ul­ti­mately span 20 coun­tries and al­most six years.

Speck took just seven years to com­plete his longer jour­ney, but his only breaks from pad­dling were to raise money, un­der­take re­pairs or re­cu­per­ate. To fund her trip, Sandy needed to work back in Aus­tralia be­tween sep­a­rate stages. Ad­di­tion­ally, some re­gions vis­ited by Speck, in­clud­ing parts of the Mid­dle East and Myan­mar, had to be left out of Sandy’s voy­age be­cause they were ei­ther deemed un­safe or kayak­ing wasn’t per­mit­ted by au­thor­i­ties.

Dur­ing her jour­ney’s In­dian leg, which she started in 2012, Sandy was mobbed each time she came ashore. “Hun­dreds of peo­ple sur­rounded me, and when it first started hap­pen­ing, it was hard to get used to,” she says. “In­dia is dif­fer­ent with per­sonal space; ev­ery­one is squashed into you, and it would take at least two hours for peo­ple to stop com­ing to look at you

– I just had to fac­tor in that time.”

She pad­dled In­dia’s west coast in 2012–13.Then, in 2014, Sandy cir­cum­nav­i­gated Sri Lanka and tack­led In­dia’s east coast be­fore head­ing to Bangladesh, break­ing records and cre­at­ing firsts in her wake (see op­po­site).

Among the big­gest chal­lenges Sandy faced were the lo­gis­tics of cross­ing in­ter­na­tional wa­ters. “In Bangladesh they didn’t know what a kayak was and don’t even have a word for kayak,” she ex­plains. “Cul­tur­ally, women don’t go out on the sea and pad­dle on their own, so it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble for ad­min­is­tra­tors to un­der­stand what you are re­quest­ing.” Sandy prob­lem-solved by en­gag­ing lo­cals to rep­re­sent her to au­thor­i­ties, a process that could, frus­trat­ingly, of­ten take months.

A trip this long, un­der­taken solo and with­out support, was not with­out phys­i­cal risk. Sandy was run over by a fish­ing boat in In­dia after be­ing mis­taken for a ter­ror­ist, suf­fered malaria, had to or­gan­ise a support group in Pa­pua New Guinea after be­ing chased by a fish­er­man for 8km and had to nav­i­gate Ben­gal tiger ter­ri­tory in Bangladesh alone.

“I was pad­dling through the Sun­dar­bans Man­grove For­est and knew the tourists had guards with guns,” Sandy says. “I was al­ways look­ing over my shoul­der, think­ing that a tiger was go­ing to jump out

and fol­low me. I didn’t see any but I’m sure they saw me.”

Her jour­ney’s long­est leg was al­most 13,000km and took her from West Ben­gal in In­dia to Aus­tralia.

When she ar­rived in Bali in 2015, Sandy was hit with what she de­scribes as “re­verse cul­ture shock”. “I wasn’t go­ing where tourists go, fol­low­ing along the coast,” she ex­plains. “In Bali there were heaps of tourists, but I had been liv­ing with lo­cal peo­ple and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing their cul­ture.Then I came to the re­sorts where you see lots of [tourists] and no lo­cals, you get re­verse cul­ture shock. My first night on Bali, I went and pad­dled to where the lo­cal peo­ple were and asked if I could camp in their back­yard. I didn’t want to hang out with [tourists]!”

Cross­ing in late 2016 from PNG to ar­rive on the Tor­res Strait is­land of Saibai, her penul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion, was bit­ter­sweet. “I felt like I wanted to keep go­ing,” Sandy says. “Look­ing to my right, there was New Guinea and to my left was the first is­land of Aus­tralia. Even after all those miles, a part of me wanted to keep go­ing and com­plete the cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of New Guinea.”

Sandy now plans to write a book de­tail­ing her in­cred­i­ble ad­ven­ture along­side the story of Speck – who be­came a Light­ning Ridge opal miner, then dealer and set­tled per­ma­nently in Aus­tralia fol­low­ing WWII.

Back home in WA, Sandy has found ad­just­ing to life on dry land dif­fi­cult, a com­mon sce­nario for those who have un­der­taken long ex­pe­di­tions. “I sleep on the floor, not in the bed, and find the western world quite strange,” she says. “Peo­ple are very af­flu­ent, but are hes­i­tant to give money to help oth­ers.”

Sandy agrees she was ex­cited to be told she was be­ing named the AG So­ci­ety’s 2017 Ad­ven­turer of the Year, but says it isn’t re­ally her award. “It be­longs to Oskar Speck,” she says. “He never got any recog­ni­tion, and I pad­dled just a small por­tion of his trip.”

Septem­ber 2011: near the end of the first leg of her ad­ven­ture, Sandy packs up her kayak in An­talya Har­bour, Turkey.


Novem­ber 2016: still smil­ing after 23,000km of pad­dling, Sandy is wel­comed to Saibai Is­land, in the Tor­res Strait, as she com­pletes her epic jour­ney.

The in­spi­ra­tion for Sandy’s epic jour­ney, Oskar Speck, poses with his fold­ing kayak dur­ing the ex­pe­di­tion from Ger­many to Aus­tralia in the 1930s.

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