“Am going to cross Pacific on a wooden raft to support a theory that the South Sea islands were peopled from Peru. Will you come?”

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and five Scandinavian associates climbed aboard a balsa-wood raft in the Peruvian harbour of Callao and set sail for the Polynesian Islands, more than 4000 miles away. They had never built or sailed a raft before and had little or no sea-going experience at all.

Most expert mariners believed that the journey was not only impossible, but quite probably fatal. However, Heyerdahl had an unshakeable belief that ancient Peruvians had made the same hazardous, three month-long journey themselves many hundreds of years ago, so it HAD to be possible, didn’t it?

If Heyerdahl, who died in 2002, was NOT one of the worlds first experimental archaeologists, he certainly helped to popularise the field. And he did so in a particularly spectacular manner winning popular acclaim for this, and several subsequent exploits (some would say “stunts”). However, his theories – and the way in which he “proved” them – seem to have attracted some criticism from more scholarly corners. Nevertheless, one cannot argue with his enthusiasm, his style or his sense of adventure.

His written account of the voyage could easily have suffered over the intervening 70 years but it does remain immensely readable. It’s an exciting, compelling account, peppered with storms, sea-monsters, sharks and ship-wrecks and one is filled with admiration for the man’s sheer human achievement. It is well written, easily read and has survived the translation into English most successfully. Perhaps there is little sense of the immensity of what they achieved; the spaces and distances they covered and the passage of time as they did it. Six men wedged into a space little larger than a big tent in the middle of the world’s largest open ocean and with no other human contact for three months… that much does seem to have been lost in the telling. In fact I felt that some potentially fascinating details had been omitted (describing the design and construction of the raft, for instance) in order to keep things moving.

The book comes with a nice complement of black and white photos, many of which were snapped (and developed!) during the voyage and these add considerably to the story. Again, I would have liked a better feel for the design and layout of the raft itself but, on the other hand there’s a nice sequence of pictures instructing one how to catch a full-sized shark with just one’s bare hands – a valuable life skill, I’ll be bound.

For a timeless, unputdownable, Boy’s Own adventure story, you can’t do much better.

 

Reviewed reproduced with kind permission of:

Campbell McAulay

Added 8th March 2015

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Campbell McAulay

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