Fright, Friendship and Frustration

Imagine you are a young woman who is physically fit and an experienced sea kayak instructor. Imagine further that you are paddling solo in a sea kayak near the northern coast of Australia can you donate plasma if you smoke weed.

You decide to make camp for the night but when you reach the shore you suddenly realise you are not quite alone! Your companion is a large sea crocodile swimming silently near the water’s edge; night is quickly falling…

Now imagine you are in beautiful calm water nearing the shore when the calm is suddenly shattered by a sharp cracking sound and a shuddering of your boat! In spite of your fear, you look over your shoulder only to see a large gaping mouth, filled with teeth, sliding back into the water.

Imagine yet another day, one you have planned for months, you are feeling frustrated by border crossing guards, bureaucrats and ferry operators who cannot imagine why a woman would want to paddle a sea kayak all by herself from the Danube to Australia!

Finally, in spite of these misfortunes and fears, imagine you can cheerfully plan for your next solo sea kayaking adventure with a laugh and a light-hearted shrug.

All in a day’s “work” for Sandy Robson, sea kayak paddler extraordinaire.

For information about how to have your own “non-croc”
, please contact Bougainville Travel.

Sandy needs sponsors to help her with this arduous journey. Please try to help her out with whatever you can or if you know of corporations who are willing to sponsor her, .

Sandy was in Kaş in October 2011 after her return from Cyprus, where she had completed the first leg in her odyssey to follow the trail of Oskar Speck who paddled from Germany to Australia between 1932-1939.

We met her for a cup of coffee in Kaş during a very uncharacteristic rainy afternoon where she unfolded her story. Sandy Robson is an accomplished kayaking guide and instructor, physically fit and educated, yet she yearns for more. She likes meeting people and yet travels solo. We asked Sandy why she attempts these incredible journeys.

“Normal life bores me” she says, she doesn’t “want to do what everyone else is doing.” On a walk or a paddle she sometimes thinks “I’d just like to keep going” seemingly hooked on the need for the challenge.

She continues that it is all about “realising my dream, a lot of people do not follow their dream. Possessions cease to become a problem. The simplicity-everything is there, I don’t need a lot of stuff.”

We asked her if she thought the logistics of a multi-national kayaking trip could be overwhelming. She said “you can’t plan for everything, sometimes you just have to go and trust that your experience and instincts will get you through a tough situation.”

Sandy Robson was born in the UK but her family migrated to Australia when she was three years old. She has a younger sister who is the only member of her family born in Australia. Her father was a farmer and he started out taking care of sheep and wheat harvesting. He later became the manager of a farm. When Sandy was 12 years old her family moved to Geraldton in Western Australia. Her father started a small business building farm sheds and has lived there ever since. This was Sandy’s first move to a town since the family had always lived on farms previously.

At the university in Perth, Sandy studied maths and science and graduated as a teacher in 1988. After teaching for two years, she decided she wanted outdoor work and took a one year outdoor education course in Victoria. She loves the work and has been outdoors professionally ever since.

At first she started river kayaking but did not like it that much so she moved back to the coast and bought her first sea kayak in 1999. At that time she did not use it often because she was busy teaching outdoor education and leading many bush walking expeditions.

In 2002, she joined the Sea Kayak Club of Western Australia. This allowed her to learn from experienced paddlers, advance her skills and push herself outside her comfort zone. Through paddling in the club, she met Les Allen of Les Allen Kayaks.

Les Allen was her “guru” and taught her many new skills and gave her tips along the way about how to improve them. He was an expert at “negative learning” where he would tell Sandy all the reasons she probably could not do or accomplish something and then she would go out and prove to him that she could. Through this “negative mentoring” he helped her develop the skills to become a professional sea kayak instructor.

In 2004 she had to have her hip replaced because of an inherited family trait. After a year of rehabilitation, she decided that she could no longer do the expeditions she loved by bush walking and set her sights more directly on sea kayaking expeditions. Sandy traded in her hiking boots for a paddle.

She started to set her sights on a much more arduous undertaking; the circumnavigation of Australia by sea kayak, a distance of 9,420 miles or 15,000 kilometres.

The first person to paddle around the Australian mainland was Paul Caffyn. An international sea kayaking legend, Caffyn took 360 days to complete his 1982–83 expedition, which was recorded in his book The Dreamtime Voyage. Sandy had been inspired by Caffyn’s book and started slowly working toward a skill level where she thought she could attempt the voyage.

On 22 December, 2006, Sandy departed Queenscliff, Victoria to circumnavigate Australia. She was the first woman and second lone paddler to attempt the voyage. She made it from Melbourne almost to Torres Strait when a crocodile attack broke the trip in half.

Crocodile Adventure:

Excerpts from Sandy’s long australian paddle in her own words about her two chilling crocodile encounters.

Day 165 June 4 Fife Island to Night Island, Queensland (54km):
Dave Winkworth taught Sandy what he thought she should know about crocodiles. While on her trip she made regular satellite calls
to Les Allen informing him she made it to her next camp site. On this day she was in Far North Queensland and headed for a place called Night Island. When she landed she walked along the shore and saw a fresh croc slide, where the creatures slide into the water.

She set up camp inland and after dark walked to the water’s edge where her torch reflected off the eyes of a croc watching her! Moving back toward her tent she noticed that as she moved the croc moved with her, she could see its eyes moving in the water. She started a fire and the creature moved off toward the mangroves, but as the fire died down it moved closer. Sandy and the crocodile performed this “ballet of nature” all night long. When first light arrived, she was concerned because she had to carry her kayak to the edge of the water empty as she could not move it fully loaded with her equipment. She would then have to make several sorties to and from her camp site to load the kayak. She built up as big a fire as she could to keep the croc away, hurriedly organised and packed her gear on the kayak, and left with all the speed she could muster.

Day 166 June 5 Night Island to Villis Point (near Cape Direction), Queensland (approx 40km):
Her next encounter came all too soon. Later that day she paddled into a bay that made her remember Dave Winkworth saying “crocs like calm water.” She was getting a strange foreboding feeling… Sandy recounts her encounter in this Australian Women Sport “article: …SLAM! That sound changed everything. A sound like someone had just slammed two bricks together as hard as possible on the stern of my kayak. My heart rate accelerated. Adrenaline poured into my system. My voice in my head knew that it could only be one thing. I forced myself to turn my head to look. I saw a large croc with its head fully out of the water, jaws open and right on the back of my kayak. I think at this point I may have sworn. I certainly never thought to say ‘Crikey!’”

The croc did minimal damage to the boat because the back is reinforced with fibre glass. She quickly paddled to the beach and hurried inland but the crocodile continued to lay in the water close and threatening. Sandy was concerned that it might attempt to attack her kayak again. She decided to portage (carry) overland her kayak and gear to a safer point farther away from the creature. Now she felt trapped, going back out into the water any time soon was out of the question. She used a satellite phone to talk to her support crew and finally contacted Dave Glasheen at Restoration Island who lived as a hermit on a nearby island. Sandy knew him and he had one of her food drops. He came to the small bay in which she was trapped and took her back to the island in his motor launch. She was later taken by supply-ship down the coast.

For more photos see Sandy’s Long Australian Paddle June 2007.

Sandy decided at that point she had enough of crocodile infested waters. She moved on to Broome in Western Australia, a place on the coast where one is less likely to meet a crocodile, and continued her journey from there.

On the way to Broome she returned briefly to Perth and the comfort of friends. Shortly after she arrived, a friend took her to a video arcade where young kids were playing noisy video games. Her friend insisted they go in although this was not a place where Sandy nor her friends normally frequent and took her to the back of the arcade. It was then that Sandy discovered her friend had “lured” her to a Croc Bashing game whereby to play the game you have to solidly hit one of several continuously rising croc “heads” in order to win the game. A nice welcome back.

She eventually paddled over 6000 km of the Australian coastline alone in this incredible journey.

Oskar Speck Adventure:

Sandy needs sponsors to help her with this arduous journey. Please try to help her out with whatever you can or if you know of corporations who are willing to sponsor her, please let her know.

Afterwards she returned to teaching outdoor activities at the school, but after six months took of a new job as a sea kayak guide with Capricorn Seakayaking she started to think again about the journey of Oskar Speck and decided she wanted to retrace his route. Oskar Speck paddled 50,000 km from Germany to Australia and it took him seven years from 1932 to 1939 as told in Incredible Journey By Oskar Speck as told to Duncan Thompson.

Sandy began working on the idea of retracing this epic journey and started to prepare herself both physically and mentally. Eventually she felt she was ready to tackle such an adventure. In 2011, she decided to take six months off work to complete Stage 1 of the Retracing of Oskar Speck’s journey: Germany to Cyprus.

Germany and the Danube:

She started at Ulm, Germany but before she arrived she had gotten in touch with “Danube (Donau) Max” Scharnböck at Tour International Danubien (TID) who shared all his contacts with her. Through these contacts she contacted Serbian kayakers and found a source who arranged for paddlers to meet her and help and guide her through the Balkans.

On the Danube the locks were her biggest challenge. She would have to paddle into the lock, get out, usually go up a ladder and then open the gates, let the water down, go through the lock, and repeat. In one day she might average seven locks, in total she went through over 40.

In Germany and Austria there are many kayak clubs and the members were very hospitable. When she arrived in Linz, Austria, she met a couple who had a very old folding kayak who were on their way to Budapest. She decided to paddle with them for the distance. They by-passed Vienna and she continued with the couple. They became close friends and continue to stay in touch.

While passing through Vienna a man named Nicholas joined their small group for a short distance. He said he had read about Sandy in the local newspaper and just had to meet her. They also became friends and stayed in contact via text messaging and he later was her “Greek connection” helping her on that part of her journey.

Serbia and the Vardar in Macedonia:

She had been warned about many dangers during the Serbian part of her journey but her experiences proved otherwise. She thought it was the best part of the river to paddle because of the few locks which led to lakes and gorges that were spectacular to traverse. The people she met along the way were very poor but equally giving of whatever they could share. Through her TID contacts, she was able to meet paddlers who helped her plan the rest of her trip from Serbia to Macedonia. The Serbians she met who paddled with her eventually drove her from the Bulgarian border on the Danube to the Vardar river in Veles, Macedonia. Several local paddlers from Veles accompanied her on this leg where they acted as support for the sections of white water.

Greece, the Vardar and the sea:
The Vardar River in Greece was a very difficult part of the journey and there were many locks and dams. She often had to portage her kayak over land to pass these obstacles. She literally walked cornfields along the way. No one met her on this part of the journey but she trusted herself that she would make it to the sea unaided. Upon reaching the sea she started island hopping. The going started to get tougher due to the high winds and many kilometres of open water. It seems that no one kayaks in these parts and especially no single women. Fortunately, she met many curious people along the way who were also friendly and very helpful.

When she arrived at the island of Naxos, she messaged her friend Nicholas who came back at her with “Welcome to Paros” which was a joke he used as a child to confuse and confound tourists. After her initial shock, she realised she was the butt of his joke. He gave her many Greek contacts along the way.

Between Karystos and Andros she had to wait three days for the sea to calm down. Her longest paddle was 75 km because she could not find a suitable landing place. When she arrived on Rhodes, the Greek authorities told her she could not kayak to Turkey and would have to take the ferry. A friend in Marmaris later told her he might have helped her clear the immigration authorities.

Turkey and on to Cyprus:

In Marmaris, a Dutchman named Hans took her under tow and introduced her to the district governor (Kaymakam) and to many other officials and persons interested in her journey. This was where she met up with Sally Campbell, an expat from the UK and long-time Turkish resident. Sally accompanied her from there on to Phaselis. As they paddled from Marmaris they stopped at Paradise Beach where they met a boy who had read an article about Sandy in the paper from when she was interviewed in Marmaris. Sally and Sandy were invited to eat with his family.

They stopped in Kaş for a couple of days to visit with friends and met the mayor in an official greeting managed by Dr. Munise Ozan and Gökhan Türe of Dragoman Travel.

Her final disappointment was when she was forbidden to paddle from Turkey to Cyprus. Motorised boats can get a permit for the trip but when she was asked the size of her “motor” she told them she was it. They could not believe this woman, by herself, would successfully attempt the journey, some 70 km.

She eventually conceded and took the ferry to Cyprus. Even there she was to be disappointed as the officials would not allow her to paddle from the north to the south of the island. Using a hire car, she did get to see where Oskar Speck arrived and landed in Cyprus. She writes in her journal “I went to Cape Kormatikis to get a feeling for the place where Oskar landed in Cyprus. When I got there, the universe sent me a sign that I no longer needed to feel uneasy. The universe told me – YES – this is THE END of the paddling for this year and this is the concluding point of Stage 1 – I had completed what I set out to do this year. It was written THE END at Cape Kormatikis. I had made a kayak trip from Germany to Cyprus and now I could take a break for a while.”

Sandy left Turkey in October and travelled to the UK to visit with relatives and finally back to Australia and her family. “When I go back I have to get back to doing the trip. I know I won’t be happy” until I return. Next year she has to figure out how to do the next leg of the trip.

Many dangerous places await her: Syria, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan; all are either difficult, unfriendly or war zones. She plans to do more research but she will probably go with someone else on the next leg of this fantastic journey.

Sandy needs sponsors to help her with this arduous journey. Please try to help her out with whatever you can or if you know of corporations who are willing to sponsor her, please let her know.

For further information contact:
Sandy Robson, Sea Kayaker from Western Australia.
c/- 7 Piping Lane
Woorree 6530
Western Australia
Skype: sandy.h.robson
Facebook Photo Album:


La Trobe University Bulletin – Posted on December 21, 2011

Sandy aims to become a speck in the ocean by Raelee Tuckerman
Bendingo Advertiser

Article in Adventurer in Town Geraldton, Australia newspaper

Interview with Sandy – Victorian Sea Kayak Club – edition 70 page 16 & 17

Dr. Munise Photos of Sandy’s 1st arrival in Kaş

Dead Man Walking
– A story of Sandy’s croc’ mentor Dave Winkworth

All about Sea Kayaking and some notable accomplishments:

AWRA Advocate – September 2010 – Profile: “Have you heard of Sandy Robson?
“Sandy is (one of) Australia’s top female sea kayakers. She has gone where others fear to tread and further than others have tried… Sandy aborted her circumnavigation attempt in the Top End, after being attacked by a giant salt water crocodile.”

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