Have you felt you were living in small crowded area over the last year? Consider living on a 30’ X 15’ balsa raft with five other tall men for 101 days!
I checked our bookshelves for another travel book brought from our parents’ homes to widen my horizon during lockdown. I found Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl’s book, Kon-Tiki: Six Men Cross the Pacific on a Raft, published in 1950. It recounts the adventure of sailing 4,300 nautical miles from Peru to an island in the South Pacific.
Heyerdahl was doing research on beetles in French Polynesia. He discovered that he was more interested in theories about people than bugs. He wanted to prove that people from Peru had sailed across the expanse of the Pacific and settled in Polynesia. So he built a raft using nine great logs of balsa wood from deep within the Peruvian jungle.
He gathered men, money, equipment and food to start the adventure. If you were to choose a group to travel in a small and dangerous space, what personalities and skills would you want?
“No two of these men had met before, and they were all of entirely different types.
That being so, we should have been on the raft for some weeks before we got tired
of one another’s stories.” (page 81)
How much food and water did they take?
“We took provisions for six men for four months, in the form of solid little cardboard cartons containing military rations. . . At a crystal-clear spring high up in the mountains we filled fifty-six small water cans with 275 gallons of drinking water . . . On the bamboo deck we lashed fast the rest of the equipment including large wicker baskets full of fruit, roots, and coconuts.” (89)
Many thought the experiment would fail.
“All in all, there was little encouragement to be had from the experts who looked at the raft. Gales and perhaps hurricanes would wash us overboard and destroy the low, open craft, which would simply lie helpless and drift in circles about the ocean before wind and sea. Even in an ordinary choppy sea we should be continually drenched with salt water which would take the skin off our legs and ruin everything on board. If we added up all that the different experts, each in turn, had pointed out as the vital flaw in the construction itself, there was not a length of rope, not a knot, not a measurement, not a piece of wood in the whole raft which would not cause us to founder at sea. High wagers were made as to how many days the raft would last. . . ." (87)
“On April 27, 1947, the Norwegian flag was hoisted. Along a yard at the mast head waved the flags of the foreign countries which had given the expedition practical support.” (90) They were given a green parrot as a “farewell present from a friendly soul in Lima.” (95)
They took care of the boat daily.
"The ropes took the whole pressure. All night we could hear them creaking and groaning, chafing and squeaking. It was like one single complaining chorus round us in the dark, each rope having its own note according to its thickness and tautness. Every morning we made a thorough inspection of the ropes. We were even let down with our heads in the water over the edge of the raft, while two men held us tight by the ankles to see if the ropes on the bottom of the raft were all right. But the ropes held. A fortnight the seamen had said.“ (112)
As a marine biologist wannabe, I especially enjoyed the descriptions of all the animals they encountered including tunnies (tuna), bonitos (the best eating), dolphinfish (mahi-mahi) and sharks. Flying fish jumped onto the deck, sometimes landing on someone sleeping in the dark!
“But the unprovoked attack was quickly forgiven by the injured party, for, with all its drawbacks, we were in a maritime land of enchantment where delicious fish dishes came hurling through the air. . . The cook’s first duty, when he got up in the morning, was to go out on deck and collect all the flying fish that had landed on board in the course of the night. There were usually half a dozen or more . . .” (114)
The encounter with a whale shark who swam close to inspect them was more frightening.
“A whale shark has an average length of fifty feet, and according to zoologists it weighs fifteen tons. . . Our monster was so large, when it began to swim in circles round us and under the raft, its head was visible on one side while the whole of its tail stuck out on the other. . . . In reality, the whale shark went on encircling us for barely an hour, but to us the visit seemed to last a whole day." (121-122)
The documentary, Kon-Tiki, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1952. The raft is in the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, Norway whose website is: https://www.kon-tiki.no/expeditions/kon-tiki-expedition/
In 1972 Heyerdahl and a crew of 6 sailed from Morocco to the island of Barbados in the Caribbean on a ship, Ra II, based on ancient Egyptian boats made of papyrus. A 57-minute video on YouTube tells of the preparation and the trip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJDYiTYoaLE.
What stories of grief, gladness, and growth have you shared this year with those on your raft, be it small or large? My husband and I have expanded our horizons by reading aloud during meals newspaper articles about international news, the wonder and beauty of science and animals, obituaries of creative people, and travel and adventures, such as the Nepalese group’s ascent of K2.