Setting sail on the World’s largest body of water on a fixed sail balsa wood raft might seem crazy, but that is exactly what Thor Heyerdahl and crew did in 1947 in search of proof that pre-Colombian settlers could have done in the past
In 1936 Norwegian scientist Thor Heyerdahl found himself on a mission to the Marquesas Islands to study the local flora and fauna. He married Liv Coucheron Torp the day before they departed. The young couple finally settled in a remote location on Fatu Hiva to begin their work.
Although Heyerdahl had studied zoology he had developed a keen interest in anthropology and alongside a keen interest in Polynesian culture. Whilst living on Fatu Hiva Heyerdahl had become very familiar with the Trade Winds and started to develop a theory around the origins of the first settlers on the Pacific Islands. Many people believed that the original people of the Pacific Islands had arrived from the West and North, but Heyerdahl began to believe that perhaps these settlers could have arrived from South America. His view was further reinforced when he compared the ruins and cultural influences he found in the Pacific to those he discovered in his research of pre-Colombian South America nations – such as the Incans.
Heyerdahl’s time in the South Pacific was short and he returned to Europe where he eventually served with the Free Norweigan Army during World War II in Finland. After the War Heyerdahl returned to his passion for the South Pacific and its cultures. He sought funding for an expedition to prove his theory that ancient travellers from South America made the first visits to the Pacific Islands. This would involve a 5,000-mile (8,000 km) journey on a basic raft across the Pacific Ocean. Finally, he found some willing (and most likely mad) investors and recruited four brave souls, a couple of which he served alongside during the War, to join him.
The first task was to build the vessel to carry them on the journey. Heyerdahl and the team wanted to replicate as closely as possible the balsa wood rafts that the pre-Colombians used to travel on the Oceans. Back in the day, there were groves of balsa wood trees along the Pacific coastlines of Ecuador and Peru, but these had been heavily harvested so the only place that Heyerdahl could find the size of logs he needed was high-up in the Andes. He and members of the team set-off to negotiate directly with the folks who ran the timber forests there. Suitable logs were found. The next problem was transportation to the coast. No truck transport was available at that time, so the logs had to be floated down the river system.
Eventually, the logs reached their destination and the construction of the raft, which was named Kon-Tiki, supposedly named after an Incan god, began.
On April 28, 1947, the crew set-off from Lima in Peru. There were numerous adventures along the way as might be expected on a raft in open seas, including surviving some monstrous seas. 101 days after setting out the Kon-Tiki smashed into a reef at Raroia in the Tuamotus on August 7, 1947.
I found this book fascinating. As a person who actively avoids technical and dangerous activities, it never ceases to amaze me that people leap into the unknown as Heyerdahl and his crew did on this adventure on the Ocean. They did take a radio with them, which was largely useless on the open sea, but apart from that, they had no technical aids to assist them. Brave or crazy or both? Anyway, spoiler alert here – they made it to the end safely!
To Heyerdahl’s credit, he wrote this book himself. It was originally published in Norweigan in 1950 and then subsequently published in English in 1950. The style of writing makes it feel like Thor is sitting right next to you recanting his tales in English, not his native language – which I loved. It did not feel someone had edited the book into ‘proper’ English. The book goes into a lot of detail and fixates quite a lot around food. For a vegan like me, I was not enthralled with long descriptive stories of catching sharks etc and slaughtering and eating them – but for them, it was a matter of survival. Anyway, this book is a good old adventure story about a small group of intrepid and brave explorers and well worth the read!