by Thor Heyerdahl
translated by F.H. Lyon
Wow, this was a great book. It's been a while since I read something so enthralling, that caused continual verbal outbursts of amazement from my usual reading silence. Kon-Tiki is the story of an adventure Heyerdahl set upon to prove a point. In the 1940's this young Norwegian scholar came up with a theory that the South Sea Islands had been settled by peoples from Peru, who crossed the Pacific Ocean on balsawood rafts, traveling on the Humbolt Current. Heyerdahl could not get any scholars to read the papers he wrote summing up his theory, they thought it was so ridiculous. So to prove that it could have been possible, he decided to cross the ocean himself on a raft built in the same manner the indigenous people had used in pre-Columbian times. With five other men, he set out on a 4,300 mile journey across the empty ocean. While the raft itself had no modern fittings, being constructed entirely of natural materials like balsa wood, bamboo, palm leaves, and hemp rope, the crew carried lots of technical instruments in order to keep records, conduct experiments, and keep in touch with the mainland via radio. They were supplied with recently-developed equipment and provisions by the US Army (to test on the voyage) and each member of the crew had a particular speciality- one worked the radio, another was in charge of navigation, etc. They even experimented with two different diets- some of the men ate Army rations, others food the indigenous people would have carried- coconuts, sweet potatoes, etc- and they all supplemented this with fish caught at sea.
It was thrilling to read of their sea journey. The descriptions of their surroundings- the limitless horizon, the huge swells, the impressive weather- is vividly written. It was fascinating to read about the different things they learned by experience- like how to navigate by the stars, or how to steer the raft effectively (it had no motor power, and could not be halted en route). I was astonished to read about them drinking seawater, eating plankton, making ice, and creating a dangerous game of catching sharks (with bare hands) by the tail! And of course, I loved reading about the ocean life they encountered. In addition to whales and many kinds of fish, they saw large squid, giant whale shark, snake mackerel (never before seen live), octopus, flying fish and sea turtles. Many mysterious creatures came up to the surface at night, drawn by the lights on board. I was continually confused by references to dolphins, which here meant mahi-mahi, not the porpise-like mammal I kept picturing. They also had a parrot on board for some time, and his antics were amusing.
Lots of Polynesian culture and history is discussed in this book, and I was fascinated by the explanations of how those huge statues on Easter Island were raised. When the Kon-Tiki finally reached the South Sea Islands, the natives there went crazy with excitement seeing a craft just like those their ancestors had used. I felt a thrill at this recognition, just like the thrill I felt in reading Roots, when the author set foot in the village his great-great-whatever-grandfather had originally come from, and the villagers, upon hearing how his ancestry matched up with their own oral lineage, welcomed him as a long-lost family member, with joy. The tone and themes of this book also brought to my mind two others- Paddle to the Amazon by Don Starkell and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne.
I read Kon-Tiki for the 9 for '09 Challenge. I did have to replace my first copy. Even after being sealed up with some deodorizing agents for over a week, the book still smelled offensive and I had to put it in the recycling bin. I don't think I've ever actually thrown away a book before, and felt shamed doing it! But worse would be to pass that copy on to someone else, and inflict the same discomfort on them, when reading it should be pure enjoyment.
Rating: 5/5 ........ 240 pages, 1950
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