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Friday, October 07, 2011

Kon-Tiki



I received this book from my father, when I was thirteen or fourteen. Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft, written by Thor Heyerdahl. It was a Romanian translation made after a Soviet edition. That was the situation in my country those years (mainly the fifties): many books were published in Romania in translations made after Soviet editions. I had also the Fairy Tales of Andersen and Il Milione of Marco Polo in Romanian renderings of Russian translations.

The preface to Kon-Tiki was exactly the one for the Soviet edition and it was a very serious essay about the theories of Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl. He had been fascinated since childhood by the Polynesian culture and as a young had traveled there. Heyerdahl started to believe that their origin was the to be found in Pre-Columbian America, not in Asia, as it was generally accepted by scholars.

This was a daring hypothesis and there was against it a common sense argument, above all: how could have traveled these tribes several thousands of miles across the Pacific on balsa rafts? Because that was the only naval technology they knew, these inhabitants of Pre-Columbian South America.

The Second World War came over Norway and over the whole Europe and put a halt on the researches of Heyerdahl. After the war he returned to his work and decided to make himself the journey between America and the Polynesian archipelago, using a balsa raft built exactly the way the old guys had been building their rafts. Heyerdahl gathered a small crew of enthusiasts, found the balsa trees in the mountains of Ecuador, came with them to Callao, Peru, built the raft in the shipyard there, keeping to the technology used by Pre-Columbian Americans: a vessel without a single nail, only ropes were used to keep the balsa logs joined. Once the raft was ready, they made the journey towards Polynesia. It was 1947 and it took 101 days. The common sense argument against his theory was now invalid.

However Heyerdahl's theory remained highly controversial, and much later, when DNA tests came into picture, the conclusions were in favor of Asian origin. I have read after many years a book of Bryan Sykes (The Seven Daughters of Eve) mentioning, among other things, the DNA results relative to the origin of Polynesians (though I must say that the conclusions of Sykes are also controversial, but that's the way it is in the history of science).

Anyway, the journey on the balsa raft across Pacific remained a splendid adventure and the book of Heyerdahl inflamed my imagination. I wanted to know what happened afterward with these brave men, the team of Heyerdahl. Their lives have been extraordinary. Heyerdahl went on building other rafts and boats using ancient technologies and made other sea journeys to prove his theories. Bengt Danielsson, the Swedish scholar interested in human migration theories, moved to Polynesia and continued to study the local cultures there, authoring many books and screenplays on these topics, and being an outspoken critic of the destruction of indigenous universe by colonialism. Knut Haugland returned to the military and later in life became the director of Norway's Resistance Museum and of the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo. He and Torstein Raaby had been heroes of the Norwegian Resistance against German Nazism. Raaby (who was together with Haugland in charge of radio communications on Kon-Tiki, and made possible the connection with amateur radio enthusiasts in Chile, the USA, and even Norway, on a tiny 6-watt transmitter) returned after the expedition in northern Norway and worked as a radio operator on remote islands far north of the Arctic Circle. He died in Greenland of a heart condition while en route on an expedition to reach the North Pole on skis.

The Kon-Tiki story fascinated me, as I was a young boy impressed by all stories of sea adventures and of journeys on uncharted lands. Well, the Kon-Tiki expedition has continued to fascinate me across my life, and I can give you two rather funny details. First of all, every time I go to New York I wonder where the Norwegian sailors' shelter should be: Thor Heyerdahl mentioned in his book that he was always being hosted there when coming for several days in the big North-American city. Nobody was able to tell me. It's true that New York City is large, no question about. But I was able to find the 1st Street in Manhattan, which very few know where it's hidden. So maybe one day I'll find also the Norwegian sailors' shelter. And, another fancy detail, as I love eating sweet potatoes (especially in a smoked fish salad, mixed with red onion, paprika and other beauties), well, every time I have such a salad I remember that sweet potatoes were in high esteem on board of the balsa raft.


A 77 minute documentary was made in 1950 using the black&white 16 mm footage filmed by the crew of Kon-Tiki during the trip. It is a wonderful movie, as it keeps strictly to the facts. It is just that, what was filmed by the crew, using of course a very limited equipment (how else on a balsa raft?). A voice from off accompanies the images, without any emphasis: the footage speaks by itself, it's no need to embellish. This is a great movie in its stunning simplicity, a gem of Minimalist art. Watching it is a superb treat.

No wonder Kon-Tiki received in 1951 the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.




(Kon-Tiki): Part 1/6
(video by ouroboros3712)




(Kon-Tiki): Part 2/6
(video by ouroboros3712)




(Kon-Tiki): Part 3/6
(video by ouroboros3712)




(Kon-Tiki): Part 4/6
(video by ouroboros3712)




(Kon-Tiki): Part 5/6
(video by ouroboros3712)




(Kon-Tiki): Part 6/6
(video by ouroboros3712)



In addition to the black & white film, the expedition was also equipped with color film. Most of the color reels were stolen prior to their departure. Some of the remaining material was damaged by water during the journey. The following sequences are therefore the only color footage available from the expedition.



Kon-Tiki: the color footage that remained unspoiled
(video by seyng523)



(Filmofilia)

(A Life in Books)

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