Following in the wake of early-20th-century German adventurer Oskar Speck has led Sandy Robson on a five-year odyssey – one that may yet go uncompleted.

In 1932, Speck embarked on a journey that began in the Danube River and would end in Australia seven years later. In 2011, Robson set out to achieve the same task in five years.

Now in Jakarta, Robson has overcome hardships and challenges with funding, and has found that progress has been slow and circuitous at times.

“I’m currently being hosted by Bahtera Jaya Sailing Club, having spent the past 53 days paddling down from Singapore,” she said. “I am relieved to have finally reached Java.”

Having initially planned to complete the entire journey in five clearly defined trips, Robson has had to regularly readjust as a result of various setbacks often relating to weather or social turmoil in the regions on her itinerary.

Sandy Robson in Odisha, India.

The surfing Yogis in Odisha, India assist in launching Robson’s kayak in rough weather.

“During the first leg of the journey in 2011, I wasn’t able to retrace Speck’s route into Syria due to the war. I was also forced to avoid the rivers in Iraq in order to avoid the landmines left there by Saddam Hussein’s regime.”

Along with other setbacks, Robson was not able to paddle in Iran and Pakistan because of security concerns. More recently, she has been forced to wait for weeks and sometimes months in South East Asia for calmer seas.

Funding much of the journey herself, Robson has had to take breaks to earn more money as well as seek further sponsorship. From March 2013, Robson spent an entire year back home in Australia working while her journey was put on hold.

Challenges aside, Robson is passionate about completing this journey in the hope that it draws further attention to the plight of the environment, while also encouraging others to get out and experience nature.

“My journey is also helping to promote water sports and kayaking in nations where these activities are just developing, and I am encouraging more women to participate. It feels great to be a positive role model for kayaking.”

For all her effort, Robson has garnered some positive attention that has culminated in her becoming this year’s recipient of the Australian Geographic Society’s Nancy Bird Walton Award, which has helped fund her journey from Singapore to Papua New Guinea. She also now holds the title of the only person to have circumnavigated Sri Lanka by kayak.

Robson regularly sends trip updates out to her followers online via a blog, and she also hopes to write a book about her travels upon her return. Until then, she hopes that the last leg of her tour – via Indonesia and Papua New Guinea back to Australia – goes ahead without incident.

“I faced the hardest challenges I have ever encountered on India’s east coast, but I had by then developed a good attitude to facing challenge, knowing that I would endure the tough times and get through the lows to find the next high.”

Kayaking from Germany to Australia: An Itinerary

  • Stage 1 – Germany to Cyprus, covering 4,224 kilometres from May to September, 2011. Being prevented from paddling through Iran and Pakistan, Robson then made plans to take up the journey from India.
  • Stage 2 – India, Gujarat to Tamil Nadu, covering 2,260 kilometres along the west coast of India from December of 2012 to March in 2013.
  • Stage 3 – Sri Lanka and  India’s east coast, covering 3,196 kilometres from March to August in 2014. Here, Robson had to wait for two months for calmer seas for the crossing to the Sunderbans and Bangladesh.
  • Stage 4 – West Bengal to Papua New Guinea, with 3,974 kilometres completed from November last year until now, Robson is yet to complete this stage of her journey.
  • Stage 5 – The final leg of the journey will see Robson return home to Australia.

“I faced the hardest challenges I have ever encountered on India’s east coast, but I had by then developed a good attitude to facing challenge, knowing that I would endure the tough times and get through the lows to find the next high,” Robson said.

During this stage of the journey, she was repeatedly thrown from her vessel by rough seas and was even attacked by fisherman who assumed she was some kind of terrorist.

These incidents, along with other trials Robson has faced along the way, tell a story about the state of the world we live in: whether as a narrative of changing weather patterns, social unrest or ongoing gender inequality. Yet overall, we also witness the determination of one person to overcome these barriers and succeed despite them.

Sandy Robson

Sandy Robson – the only person to have circumnavigated Sri Lanka. Photo: Nick Hart/Negombo News.