July 18, 2008

The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas
Thor Heyerdahl (George Allen & Unwin, 1950)
235 p.  First reading.

This book relates the true story of how, in the late 1940s, six Norwegians sailed a balsa-wood raft across the South Pacific, from Peru to the Polynesian Islands.  It is a terrific tale.  Their craft was constructed from nine large balsa trunks lashed together with rope, with a small cabin and a sail above.  This sail was their sole means of motion; they set to sea dependent entirely to “the wind that blows where it will” — in more ways than one, one is tempted to say.  The journey lasted nearly three months before they successfully came aground on the Raroia reef of French Polynesia, having covered a distance of nearly 7000 km.

Their encounters with marine life are my favourite parts of the story.  There are no major shipping lanes through the South Pacific, so you can imagine that their presence was something of a novelty for the creatures around them.  They reported nearly daily encounters with dolphins and sharks (and they were not above using the former as bait to snare the latter), and, very conveniently, would awake each morning to find flying fish lying on deck, ready for breakfast.  They encountered the rarely seen whale shark, and were the first to document seeing a live specimen of Gempylus, a nasty piece of work that came aboard at night and tried to snack on their feet.  Speaking of night, my skin crawled to read that each crew member carried a machete to bed to defend themselves against attacks from giant, deep-water octopi.  Mercifully, they didn’t need them.

The sense of isolation out on the water was intense.  They saw no ships, no birds.  They did carry a short-wave radio on board in order to broadcast weather conditions, and occasionally they were able to make contact with a radio enthusiast in the Americas.  (When their interlocutors asked where they were, they were usually disbelieved.)  Heyerdahl writes of how the night sky became as familiar as an old friend, the stars their vivid but silent companions.

They were endangered only a few times during the voyage.  The raft held together suprisingly well, and because it was just a platform comprised of logs, entirely without a hull, they had no need to bail water — waves simply washed through the boat like water through a fork.  In the later part of their journey they did encounter a number of storms, but the Kon-Tiki rode through them bravely.  The height of danger came as they completed their journey, for the wind and the currents brought them to an island surrounded, at some distance, by a coral reef.  The ocean waves heaved against the reef, with powerful currents sucking downward as each wave receded, only to be thrust against the coral once again.  Were the sailors to fall into the water, they would be drowned or ground to a pulp against the abrasive coral. Heyerdahl’s description of their preparations and ordeal is gripping. The raft somehow managed, after tense minutes, to land atop the coral, though it was destroyed in the process. All survived without serious injury.

The motive for this expedition was anthropological.  Thor Heyerdahl believed, on the basis of technological, linguistic, and mythological similarities, that the Polynesian Islands had been populated, in around 500 AD, by tribes from Peru.  The theory faced a serious objection in the form of the doubtful possibility of the journey being completed successfully with the characteristic Peruvian boats.  The Kon-Tiki expedition was launched to demonstrate its possibility.  Apparently, however, despite the success of the expedition, this theory is still not favoured among anthropologists, who prefer an eastward migration from Asia.  Their journey makes for a great story nonetheless.

In 1951 a film was made about the Kon-Tiki expedition.  It won the Academy Award for documentary feature that year.  I would like to see it someday.

5 Responses to “Kon-Tiki”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    Craig, I read this last summer and also enjoyed it a lot. I recently watched Shackleton, a miniseries which recounts Shackleton’s failed attempt to cross the antarctic. It piqued my taste again for exploration literature. It also just occurred to me that those Scandinavians seem to have a knack for getting these expeditions right where everyone else fails . . .

  2. Matthew Says:

    I haven’t read Kon-Tiki but I have read the Ra Expedition. It was Thor’s attempt to cross the Atlantic from Africa to the Carribbean in a reed boat to prove that the pyramid builders of Central America could have come from Egypt. If I remember correctly, he did the trip twice because the first time he needed to be rescued 50 miles short of Barbados. He succeeded the second time.

    Far from being “still not favoured” by anthropologists, both theories were definitively proven incorrect. DNA surveys in the years since the expeditions show that Central and South America were populated via the Bering land bridge and all of Polynesia, including Easter Island, was populated from the west in progressive waves of migration.

  3. Christina A. Says:

    Kathy B., who occasionally posts comments on this blog, used to extol the virtues of balsa wood to me frequently during our university years together. Today, Craig, you have perhaps proven her correct in highlighting the almost heroic properties of balsa wood in that this type of wood was able to withstand such a journey! I am starting to think that she was on to something!

  4. cburrell Says:

    Adam, it was your Book Note that got me interested in reading about the Kon-Tiki expedition in the first place. I am also planning to read about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition; I believe I have a book lying about somewhere.

    Thank you, Matthew, for bringing the DNA evidence to my attention. So the Peruvians didn’t cross the ocean after all — or at least they didn’t cross and then populate the islands.

    Christina, I have never heard KathyB extol the virtues of balsa wood (but perhaps now I will?).

  5. KathyB Says:

    I used to have to make architectural models out of balsa wood during my studies. It has many virtues indeed, the best of which, when it comes to model making, are that it is soft, smooth, smells nice and is easy to cut with an X-acto knife.

    My parents had a picture book of the Kon Tiki in our house while I was growing up. Typically, my brother the geography buff became very interested in it.

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