On April 28, 1947, an expedition was led by Norwegian biologist Thor Heyerdahl. The journey by raft spanned 4,300 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean and was hailed as one of the most fantastic feats of daring and courage of its time. Heyerdahl and his crew duplicated the legendary voyage of Kon-Tiki, the mythical hero who led the settlement of the South Sea Islands by sailing on a balsawood raft from Peru to the Polynesian islands.
Contrary to what many reviewers claim, the book is not 'a ripping adventure story', a claim which would perhaps better fit the films based on the book. The largest part of the book is devoted to describing Heyerdahl's hypothesis and the practical preparation for the journey.
Although Heyerdahl may be wrong about the spread of humans to Polynesia, his work and the adventurous demonstration that ancient people's could have travelled across the Pacific in a vessel or raft of their own crafting, has inspired not only many readers, but also other archaeologists and explorers to reconstruct ancient technology and prove the feasibility of, for example, literary records of travel or warfare.
Thor Heyerdahl is an excellent writer, and regardless of its scientific merit, Kon-Tiki. Across the Pacific in a Raft should be read as a classic travelogue.
The building of the raft is briefly told, but is a story in itself. The determination of these men to meet their timeline for launch was awesome, especially in 1947 with limited transportation and communications compared to today. We're talking no cell phones, no internet, no GPS. Long after I would have shrugged and said "maybe next year", they kept finding workarounds.
I was especially impressed with how much thought and care went towards accommodating the psychological effects six men would face while living alone on a small raft for several months. My appreciation for this preparedness increased when the image was fully revealed of just how quiet, endless and - well - boring this trip would have been for me as a passenger. Speaking as someone who doesn't even swim, it was hard to imagine living for so many days with nothing but water surrounding and washing over you, the same unchanging scenery with no landmarks on the horizon. Aside from being riddled with casually mentioned feats of endurance and near-death-experiences, much of the story is taken up with describing the only thing worth observing besides measurements: the wide array of aquatic sea-life which might have lain hidden to noisy engines, but that became companionable with the noiseless raft. The ocean provided fresh food, and the men's primary source of entertainment. As the author put it, "with such company in the water, time never passed slowly." Only once did he remark on someone's wishing for dry land, and that well towards the end of the voyage.
The voyage reached its destination, as related, but failed to provide convincing evidence for the author's theory that Polynesia was settled from South America. His opinion remains rather isolated to this day in scientific circles, despite his seemingly viable arguments. This paints him as a bit of a maverick, but does nothing to detract from this book's enduring quality as a good true-life adventure story.
The author went on to conduct a number of other rafting adventures around the world. Thor Heyerdahl was seen on worldwide television in 1994 as a host at Norway's Olympic Games ceremonies, and later died following a brain tumour diagnosis in 2002 at age 87. The original Kon-Tiki raft is housed in a museum in Oslo.
This was a great book that was engrossing and to the point. It is also a creature of its time, where the author does not seem to think twice about regaling the reader with tales of killing many more sharks than the crew of six could eat and then just throwing them over the side of the raft when they were done with the sharks. But in that sense, the author is probably more honest about the what happened than people are today, as he was not constrained by political correctness.
The lead up to the expedition itself is mercifully short, with the author laying out how he went from New York to South America to being out on the open ocean with the five other crew members on a balsa wood raft within 70 pages, where I think many other authors would have been bogged down by the various details and road blocks encountered. Crossing the Pacific was the best part, and the lion's share of the book, and I wish that Heyerdahl had spent more time talking about what happened and how the crew got along and the anthropology behind the expedition. But maybe that's to be found in other books or other papers, and maybe further details would have slowed the story too much. Overall I loved this book and wish it hadn't ended so soon!
The photography, while in 1940s black and white, is a helpful addition to the story. Imagining the size and heft of the raft would be difficult without it.
The entire purpose of the voyage was "to support a theory that the South Sea Islands were populated from Peru." Heyerdahl did have some compelling points for his theory. Given his expeditions sailing in craft of ancient design, Heyerdahl has good reason to claim that the ocean is "a conveyer, not an isolator." (Although in that case one must ask why Old and New Worlds lost contact for centuries.) Right in the front matter is a map showing the Humboldt currents and trade winds--going west, not east, making it seem plausible the islands were peopled from the Americas rather than Asia. And the sweet potato, which comes from South America, is a Polynesian staple. Nevertheless, Heyerdahl couldn't even get a legitimate scholar to look at his manuscript, because the Incas didn't have boats--only rafts which were believed unseaworthy. So Heyerdahl decided to have constructed a craft made of the same design and materials as pre-Columbian Peruvians and sail it from Peru across the Pacific to one of the South Sea Islands to prove it could be done, so his theory could be taken seriously. From what I can gather, despite the success of his voyage, this is considered by anthropologists today to be at best a fringe theory, if not downright crackpot. Worse is Heyerdahl's fixation that every "high" aspect of pre-Columbian New World came from "legendary white people" who voyaged to the New World, presumably from Europe, and created Aztec, Inca and Polynesian civilization and then were displaced by later Amerindian settlers. So as anthropology, although there's not much discussion of it, for me the book fails pretty resoundingly. Especially when you consider his craft had to be towed out of harbor, didn't land so much as wreck itself on a South Sea Island reef, and that, as Heyerdahl admits, it was sheer luck they used just cut balsa wood which still had enough sap to keep the craft afloat. Had they used dried logs as planned, they would have floundered.
And then there's the memoir/adventure tale aspect, which I consider a qualified success. Qualified because note the above part about luck--and admittedly guts. But I'm somewhat a fan of tales of exploration and I couldn't help compare Heyerdahl to his compatriot Roald Amundsen, the polar explorer. Amundsen famously said that "adventure is just bad planning." He won that race to the South Pole because of rational and efficient planning, preparedness, experience and skill--little of which seemed evident in Heyerdahl. Reading of how Heyerdahl prepared and planned for the Kon-Tiki expedition on the other hand, it's hard for me to understand how he didn't wind up with a Darwin Award. Several maritime experts told him the Kon Tiki was unseaworthy, just as anthropologists had told him his migration theories were unsound--he launched anyway. And as memoir, if you're expecting to find much psychological insight into what he and his five companions went through on a raft for nearly four months, you're going to be disappointed.
Ah, but there are some redeeming qualities to reading this--namely as a tale of the sea. It was often (although perhaps not often enough) fascinating to read about the marine life they came across, the storms and dangers they faced. An encounter with a whale shark was particularly memorable--as was just the abundance of food available to them living off the sea in that raft. They had enough flying fish jumping into the raft to make fishing superfluous the way Heyerdahl told it. Crab, squid, even plankton around them could make a tasty meal, although their favorite was the Bonito fish. So it's as an account of nature and the sea that this tale makes up points for me, even if I look at the theories that inspired this voyage with a jaundiced eye.
A true scientist, Heyerdahl isn't satisfied with deciding "yes" - he must test the theory! In the hands of a lesser man this would have produced a musty old thesis collecting dust on the back shelf of an anthropology library. Instead, Heyerdahl marshals five friends of heroic spirit, acquires 9 giant balsa wood logs and some other supplies, and within a few months he sets sail from Peru to cross the Pacific. Drinking fresh water stored in hollowed-out bamboo shafts and eating fish that leap aboard the raft, they make their way across the ocean, well knowing that despite the advanced radio technology of 1936, their chance of rescue in the event of mishap is nil.
The only sea book I can think of to rival this for sheer interest and adventure is Verne's "20,000 Leagues under the Sea," - a fantasy. Heyerdahl's work is true, and his heroic heart shines through in every word. His love and reverence for the ocean and the primitive culture he sought to imitate, combined with his scientific clarity of exposition, make it a joy to read and will instill the sea-lust into even the most devoted landlubber.
I think everyone ought to read this book, for sheer pleasure, and as an example of what can be done with stout heart, clear head, and good will. I recommend it to you without any reservation.
And all that said - I think I'm getting rid of this book. I don't feel particularly that I'll want to reread it, and if I do I'm pretty sure I can find it at the library.
In 1947, with his 13.7 meter (45 ft) balsa raft Kon Tiki, Thor showed that in an El Nino year, the Humboldt Current and the trade winds are primarily westerly. Kon Tiki drifted with 6 Norse scientists aboard for 4,300 nautical miles for 3 months and reached the Polynesian island of Raroia (Puka Puka) in the Tuamotus.
Heyerdahl also notes the unique Pre-Inca Peruvian quality of the stone walls at Ahu Vinapu. In addition, the tradition of a short-ear race annihilating a long-ear race is unique to Easter Island.
Kon-Tiki, speaking of linguistic connections, is said to be an "old name" for the Inca sun god, Viracocha. The word Tiki is not in Rapanui, although it appears in Maori (the name of the first man), Tuamotuan, and as ti'i in Tahitian, and ki'i in Hawaiian. "Tiki" culture is now native to nowhere, but has evolved into a tropical theme decor.