To read about the Age of Exploration is to read about humans being maybe a tad too quick to name places they’d never been before. Such was the case with the Pacific Ocean. First sighted (at least by a European) in 1513 by Spain’s Vasco Núñez de Balboa (from the shores of Panama), the ocean was first named by a European in 1521 by the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan. Having just directed his ships through the Strait in Patagonia that bears his name, Magellan was impressed by how calm the open sea seemed as his ships traversed on, and he thus called it El Mar Pacífico (the Peaceful Sea). Four centuries later, the Norwegian crew of a very different expedition would have plenty of reasons to dispute Magellan’s choice of words.
At least Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) and his team had ambitions less grandiose than those of Magellan: the Portuguese leader of the Spanish voyage was charged by the Spanish Crown with finding a westward trade route with the Far East, since their rivals in the Kingdom of Portugal had monopolised the eastward routes, as per the conditions of the controversial 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. Heyerdahl, a writer, archaeologist and navigator, was merely satisfying his personal historical curiosity (a man after my own heart…). He was trying to test out his theory that the peoples of Polynesia in the central Pacific had anthropologically originated from Peru in South America. He considered that the balsa-wood-made rafts of the Incas (as depicted in Spanish pictures from the time of the Conquest) would have been quite sufficient for the task of crossing the Pacific. So, using these pictures as a guide, he and his crew of five designed such a raft, named it the Kon-Tiki (after an alternative name for Incas’ sun god), and the team set sail from Callao near Lima, Peru, on 28 April 1947.
The 101-day voyage proved to be anything but uneventful: at times the crew had to contend with enormous waves in rough conditions, and on one occasion they had to use a harpoon to defend themselves from a whale shark. Other problems included an attack from a swarm of ants, and a near-disastrous stove fire on board the raft. The Kon-Tiki‘s trip came to a dramatic end on 7 August 1947, when yet more turbulent waves ended up wrecking it on the shores of the Raroia atoll in the middle of French Polynesia. Luckily, all six men were rescued and given a warm welcome by local islanders. What’s more, as with Shackleton’s Antarctic trip of 1914-16, everyone involved in the expedition came back alive!
Heyerdahl’s account of their experience, The Kon-Tiki Expedition, proved a sensation when it was published the following year, and around 60 million copies of it were sold worldwide. It was something of a timely publication, helping to entertain and impress an austerity-hit population. As for the eponymous raft, it was eventually repaired, and now occupies pride of place in Oslo’s Kon-Tiki Museum.
Not a man to rest on his laurels, Heyerdahl continued his work in exploring, studying and writing: another voyage that he led in 1953 led to some impressive archaeological finds in the Galapagos Islands. Then, starting in 1955 he led the first of two expeditions to the Pacific island of Rapa Nui (a.k.a. Easter Island). He even crossed the Atlantic in a boat made of papyrus (the Ra 2) in 1970, sailing from Morocco to Barbados in just over eight weeks. His career took a more controversial turn eight years later, when, in an attempt to sail his reed-made craft, the Tigris, from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea was prevented from going any further than the latter Sea’s entrance by ongoing regional conflicts. In protest, he and the crew set the Tigris on fire in the harbour of Djibouti City in April 1978, gaining considerable news coverage in the process. Concern for the ongoing fractious state of the world, and the environment in particular, continued to be a major theme in Heyerdahl’s life, as he himself explained:
We seem to believe the ocean is endless, but we use it like a sewer
Heyerdahl’s original Kon-Tiki voyage, however, remains what he is best remembered for. Unfortunately for the man himself, at the time of his death in April 2002 his theory that the Polynesians must have originated in Peru appeared not to have stood the test of time: the consensus opinion among anthropologists and archaeologists then was that these people’s ancestors are likelier to have travelled there from South East Asia instead. In the years since his passing, however, more evidence has emerged suggesting that Heyerdahl was partly right, and that the ancestors of some of the Polynesians can only have come from South America. Whatever, his expedition is by any standards an impressive feat of navigating and a fascinating adventure story, and is arguably a testament to what can be achieved through personal vision and application and brilliant teamwork. In the words of one journalist, it was ‘probably the most epic journey ever undertaken just to prove a point.’
One final word (and apologies for the levity herein): rumours that Heyerdahl and his team were also planning a raft-borne expedition to find reserves of fast food in the Pacific – the Kon-Tiki Fried Chicken Expedition – continue to be completely unfounded…