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.
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.
SANDY’S EPIC JOURNEY
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.