In April 1947, six men crossed the Pacific Ocean on a balsa log raft, covering 4,300 miles (the distance from Chicago to Moscow) in 101 days. They battled storms, sharks, killer reefs, and other disasters as they were carried along by the trade wind and the Humboldt Current from Peru to Polynesia.
Why would anyone do such a thing? As a graduate student in zoology and anthropology at the University of Oslo, Thor Heyerdahl lived for a time on the Polynesian island of Fatu Hiva, collecting animal specimens. He became fascinated by the island’s gigantic stone statues, which are similar to ones found in Peru, and by the ancient stories told of Kon-Tiki, the ancestral chief of the Polynesians who came over the ocean “from a mountainous land in the east.” The deeper he delved, the more convinced he became that Polynesia had indeed been settled from the east rather than from the Melanesian and Asian islands to the west, as most scholars contended.
When he wrote up his findings and his theory, no one would publish it. The seemingly insurmountable obstacle was that the ancient Peruvians had no boats. However, as Heyerdahl knew, they did have rafts made of giant balsa logs, because many drawings of such rafts had been made by early European explorers.
“Well, you can try a trip from Peru to the Pacific islands on a balsa-wood raft,” was the sarcastic response of one scholar to Heyerdahl’s manuscript, and this stubborn, modern-day Viking decided to take up the challenge. He traveled into the jungles to fell the logs, floated them down river to the sea, lashed them together using only the technology available to the ancient people, and sailed forth from the coast with five dauntless fellow Scandinavians.
Heyerdahl’s understated style, which recalls that of the early Norse sagas, is perfect for this gripping tale, and the humor with which he describes the discomforts and dangers of the voyage illustrates how the six bore the journey psychologically as well as physically. Their encounters with the incredible sea life in the unexplored waters around them is part of the adventure, as well as how they fared once they reached the islands.
The original raft is in the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, and the recent film of the story has won numerous awards in the author’s native Norway. The English version is now out in the theatres, and you can read about it here. Don’t miss the book, but be prepared—you’ll be up late till you finish it, and through Heyerdahl’s amazing descriptions you might start to feel the mighty heave of the waves and taste the warm, salty breeze!