Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition: Across the Pacific by Raft

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Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Expedition: Across the Pacific by Raft

The Kon-Tiki Museum was full of adventure and inspiration

When I found out my flight route was going to Oslo, the first thing I thought was “Kon-Tiki!”. My mild obsession that started one year ago burst into flames again. After visiting Easter Island, I experienced the climax of Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition first hand, listening stories from the local people, seeing his photographs, and participating local traditions like he did. His pure curiosity, determination, and gentle nature to the native people should be the inspiration of modern day exploration. After reading Aku-Aku and Easter Island: the Mystery Solved, I moved on to The Kon-Tiki Expedition to understand the beginning of his expedition history.

One year later in Oslo, I stood in front of a small building that said ‘The Kon-Tiki Museum’. Halfway around the world, I found myself in the mothership of Thor Heyerdahl’s life work. You never know which dream will come true the next day.

The Kon-Tiki Museum is rather small, but every corner of the museum contains the history that changed the way we understand our world. If you are not familiar with the Kon-Tiki expedition and Thor Heyerdahl, I recommend starting by watching the 10-min film in the cinema room downstairs. After getting inspired by their adventurous spirit, it’s time to go see the real thing. The Kon-Tiki Museum houses the original Kon-Tiki, the raft made with only the materials and technologies available to those people at the time, such as balsa wood, hemp ropes, and bamboo.

The main exhibition of the museum is the Kon-Tiki raft. It was almost surreal to see the actual raft in front of me after imagining the expedition while reading the book. This fragile-looking wood raft sailed 6,900 kilometers (4,300 miles) over 101 days in the Pacific Ocean. The real life story is even more dramatic than something from movies.

So, what was the Kon-Tiki expedition?

Combining his experience in Fatu Hiva in Polynesia and the legend of Kon-Tiki (a sun god in Peru), Heyerdahl believed that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in the Pre-Columbian period, a contrast to the belief that Polynesia was largely settled from west to east from the Asian mainland. His thesis wasn’t accepted by any universities. But he was determined to prove the theory himself.

He recruited four Norwegian and one Swedish crew and built the raft. His purpose of executing the Kon-Tiki expedition was to show, by using only the materials and technologies available to those people at the time, that there were no technical reasons to prevent them from sailing from South America to Polynesia. With a six-man crew and a parrot, Kon-Tiki began sailing on April 28, 1947. The raft and all men reached the Tuamotu Islands 101 days later on August 7, 1947.

Proving ancient ingenuity

The hemp ropes that won’t break

All the boat experts told Thor Heyerdahl that the raft was going to sink within 2 weeks because the constant movement of wood would break the hemp ropes. Two weeks after embarking, the crew took a close look at the condition of the ropes and nervously waited for something to happen. But the raft was fine. They found out that the rope carved into the soft balsa logs and created a barrier.

The balsa wood that doesn’t sink

Experts also suspected the raft wouldn’t last long because sea water would fill the balsa logs fast. But it also turned out to be incorrect because the crew cut down the balsa woods fresh from a forest (just like what people did back then), the fresh sap from the tree prevented seawater from filling the logs. The sap also had a lower density than seawater.

The Humboldt Current is full of life

Ancient sailors must have known about the Humboldt Current. It’s a cold ocean current flowing north along the west coast of South America. It also follows the direction of the equator. Using the current, the settlers could sail several thousand kilometers without any motor. This current also has extraordinary marine life, providing a fresh food source to the sailors. The crew of Kon-Tiki woke up with dozens of flying fish on the deck. They even encountered a whale shark and the crew of Kon-Tiki were the first people ever to see a live snake mackerel that jumped on board.

What the Kon-Tiki expedition teaches us

To me, the spirit of Kon-Tiki expedition is all about curiosity for the unknown, determination, and proving the ancient wisdom. Especially in times like these, when we are relying on gadgets to solve all our problems and all the answers are only fingertips away, the adventurous spirit of Thor Heyerdahl and the five men on board feels even more crucial.

People were resourceful

Peru’s government wanted the crew of Kon-Tiki to sign an official document that they couldn’t put any blame on others because they doubted the expedition’s success. But they didn’t know how perfect this raft was for this kind of expedition. This expedition was important because it proved how much our ancestors knew more about the world and how to utilize their surroundings. Dozens, and perhaps hundreds of balsa wood rafts, must have sailed from the coast of South America to the Polynesian islands a 1,000 years ago, but now it’s unthinkable to modern generations.They figured out the benefit of using fresh balsa wood and the unbreakable rope due of the softness of the logs. It’s one of those many moments I had while traveling the world and learning about this native wisdom.

Hemp rope carved into the soft balsa wood logs

I had a similar moment when I visited Anchorage Museum in Alaska and saw a gut parka. Native women in Alaska sewed waterproof ‘raincoats’ using the intestines of any large sea mammal. Men always wore this in their kayaks to keep dry. This is possibly the world’s very first high-tech wind and waterproof outdoor gear, that humans ever made. Somehow, they discovered that a large sea mammal intestines were great at keeping out water.

Modern technology didn’t improve all aspects our lives. Of course, I love my little smartphone and Skype, but when it comes to understanding nature, we have to look back and learn from what our ancestors knew. Because the world became so easy, we are forgetting how to deal with challenges and even how to respect nature. Our ancestors didn’t give up when things were hard, they wanted to discover what was beyond the horizon, and they didn’t destroy their surroundings to gain what they wanted. If a wooden raft can safely sail 6,000 kilometers, we can achieve anything.

I explored every corner of the museum learning about other expeditions like Ra, Ra II, Tigris, and so on. Thor Heyerdahl certainly did make a great impact on how we see the world now. Without his research, we couldn’t have known about a lot of remote parts of the world like Easter Island. I walked out the museum full of inspiration, determination, and a promise to myself to be more daring.

At Kon-Tiki Museum

  • The museum screens a 60-min documentary of Kon-Tiki at noon every day. The documentary, filmed and narrated by Thor Heyerdahl, won the 1951 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
  • To get there, take bus no. 30 at the Central Station. It will drop you off right in front of the museum. You can also take a ferry boat from City Hall in Summer.
  • The museum is included in the Oslo Pass.

Learn more about Thor Heyerdahl

As much as thor Heyerdahl was a great expeditioner, he was also a great writer. Kon-Tiki is a great book to start!

Juno Kim
Juno Kim
Juno Kim, a happiness-seeking storyteller. Photographer, writer, and trained mechanical engineer. Life-long nerd. I left the cubic farm to follow my true love: the world. A firm believer of serendipity, astronomy enthusiaster, and living by passion and love in life. Currently, on a quest to discover stories and find the place where I can call 'home'. Follow my journey through @RunawayJuno and Google+ .

2 Comments

  1. Carol says:

    YES! I love this. Reading that book made such a huge impact on me at a young age, and yet I’ve lost so much of my adventurous spirit. Thank you for this post.

    • Juno says:

      Thanks, Carol. He’s my hero! Recently I watched the dramatized movie Kon Tiki but it was funny that the most dramatic part of the movie was real, but other (not related) parts were fiction (like parrot got eaten by a shark). Amazing what determination can do!

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