Few people have excited the world with discoveries from past civilizations as Dr. Thor Heyerdahl of Norway. In 1947 he was thrust into international fame by his “Kon-Tiki” voyage. Heyerdahl wanted to test his theory that Polynesia “lay within the range of pre-European mariners from South America.”
A thorough-going scientist, Heyerdahl was convinced that the people of the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific were related to the people of pre-Inca Peru. Rejecting popularly held theories that the islands could only have been reached from Asia, he built a balsa raft based on descriptions of former voyages. The wood was cut from the jungles of Ecuador. At the time, the experts said that it would never work. Balsa wood, they claimed, would become waterlogged.
The Kon-Tiki sailed from Callao, Peru, on April 28, 1947. It ran aground 101 days later on the coral atoll of Raroia in Polynesia, 4,300 miles from where it had begun. Heyerdahl never claimed that this proved history had happened in exactly that way, but that it “could have happened.”
There were days when the weather was too calm and when it was difficult to keep the raft in one piece. Swimming and fishing occupied a good deal of the crew’s time. At one point, a 30-foot whale shark followed directly underneath the raft. That was almost as long as the craft itself. At any time it could have upset the raft and plunged the crew of six to their deaths. This interfered with the daily swim and bathing for the sailors.
Fortunately for us, the Kon-Tiki has been preserved in a museum at Bygdøy Park in Oslo. I still remember my excitement when visiting it for the first time. I had read Heyerdahl’s book, “Kon Tiki,” in 1951. To see the preserved raft in near perfect condition was worth the trip overseas for me.
On a later trip to Norway, I visited with Knut Haugland, a member of the crew who later became Director of the Kon-Tiki Museum. Haugland had first achieved fame as a member of the commando team as the radio operator that blew up the heavy water plant at Rjukan in February 1943. He was not at all the burly and tough looking person I might have imagined, but rather a quiet mannered gentleman in a business suit who looked like any other Norwegian.
I asked Haugland about the Rjukan raid where they destroyed Hitler’s potential for building the atom bomb. He answered: “I have put that out of my mind and now prefer to remember the peacefulness of Polynesia.” Later, however, he did discuss the raid with me. Among the things he mentioned was that in 1947 the oceans were clean. Then he showed me some chunks of crude oil found floating on the oceans in recent times. He commented that there is hardly any place where the ocean water is unpolluted today.
Heyerdahl planned several more expeditions. These included the Galapagos Expedition of 1953, the Easter Island Expedition in 1955-1956, the Ra Expeditions of 1969-1970 from Morocco to Barbados and the Tigris Expedition from Iraq to Djibouti in East Africa in 1977-1978. The last one covered 4,200 miles while greatly handicapped by the troubled political situation of the time.
At the conclusion of the Tigris Expedition, the reed boat was ceremonially burned and an appeal was sent to the United Nations on behalf of peace. Heyerdahl is much more than a scientist. He is also a man with a political and social conscience, a trademark of Norwegian foreign policy today.
The Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo contains many other items besides the raft from that first famous expedition. The pottery collection includes 131 jars of pre-Inca types. There is a model of the Easter Island stone giants and under the raft is a replica of the 30-foot whale shark that bedeviled their journey. It’s possible to walk underneath the raft in a life-like setting to see this fearful sight through a window.
Heyerdahl is a master of many languages, including English and Polynesian. You would think that English was his native tongue when you read his books or speak with him. His book, “The Tigris Expedition,” shows him at his best.
Aboard was an international crew of 11. They ranged in age from 20 to 63. From the United States came a contractor and a National Geographic cameraman. From the Soviet Union there was a carpenter and a physician who had attended astronauts. There was also a crew from Germany, Mexico, Italy Denmark, Japan, Norway and Iraq.
For several years, Heyerdahl lived on an island off the west coast of Africa, later returning to his home in Italy where he died April 18, 2002. His book, The Maldive Mystery, was published in 1986. I had learned of it through a visit with Haugland, but had no idea of the surprise awaiting me.
I had the privilege of meeting Heyerdahl a few years ago when he was in America. While presenting him with a couple of my books in which I had written about him, a photographer snapped a picture that I now display in my study. He was a very cordial and gracious person. Long may his kind live.
Next time: “The Stave Churches of Norway”