Thor Heyerdahl – From Callao to Kon Tiki

    Thor's expedition across the Pacific.

    How the passion of a Norwegian adventurer led to amazing discoveries

    By Jim Plunkett

    There is something about Peru that attracts the adventurous, be they conquerors, explorers, or tourists. Thor Heyerdahl was an adventurer who was conquered by the mysteries harbored along the Peruvian coast that were never documented by the Pre-Columbian and Incan cultures that never left a written word.

    Heyerdahl’s raft.

    Having seen drawings of ocean-going rafts supposedly used historically to connect distant cultures, Heyerdahl decided to challenge the theories and imitate the early Pacific navigators. On April 28th, 1947, he set sail from Lima´s port of Callao on a raft made from Ecuadorian balsa logs and a crew of six, arriving on the Polynesian island of Tahiti 93 days later. He was able to prove that a voyage of more than 4,500 miles across the Pacific was feasible and that the pre-Colombians, amongst others, had been able to cross cultures.

    Thor Heyerdahl tried again in 1969 after building a 45 ft. papyrus raft called the Ra I employing natives from the Burundi tribe in Chad, Central Africa, and launched from the shores of Morocco with the idea of reaching Bermuda. 3,000 miles later, the stern started breaking up, and it had to be abandoned. A later model, more resistant called the Ra II was built and sailed 4,000 miles successfully to Bermuda in only 57 days, proving that earlier contacts between civilizations could easily have been made.

    With a continued lust for adventure, he built a larger raft in 1978 to prove human ties that must have been established amongst Mesopotamian cultures. With the assistance of the same Bolivian indigenous craftsmen that had successfully been contracted to build the Ra II, he set off with a crew of 11 and sailed the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean during five months. Upon arrival at the entrance to the Red Sea, he was forbidden to part from the port of Djibouti due to a series of wars in the area, and in protest, he put fire to his great raft, the Tigris, and headed home. He passed away in 2002, in Italy.

    On the same date, April 28th, 2006  almost 60 years after Thor Heyerdahl’s successful voyage  his grandson, Olav Heyerdahl, set out to pay tribute to his grandfather, following his ripples and waves with the same island of Raroia as their destination, travelling some 4,500 nautical miles from Callao. Olav Heyerdahl’s expedition was led by Norwegian Torgeir Higraff, and included Bjarne Krekvik (captain), Øyvin Lauten (executive officer), Swedish Anders Berg (photographer) and Peruvian naval officer Roberto Sala. The trip was sponsored by the Oslo Museum.

    The raft was baptized the Tangaroa, after one of the sons of the Maori god, Rangi (the heavens), and Papa (mother Earth). The hand crafted balsa raft had three times the area of the Kon Tiki, and weighted 2,000 kilos (2 tons, approx.). It was decided to install two wooden keel plates in the stern, similar to those used by pre-Columbian mariners, and which enabled them to maintain a truer course across the Pacific along what is called the “maximum circle” from Peru to the Polynesia. Considerably more prepared than Thor Heyerdahl’s raft, the Tangaroa counted with satellite communications which enabled the men to transmit a log of their daily progress and adventures to an international audience that followed their every step.

    Between the aid of the double keels, the vast sailing experience of the young crew, and with the gods of good weather hovering above, the Tangaroa reached its destination on July 7, which was 30 days faster than Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, that had taken 101 days for the voyage. The most dangerous part of the entire trip was as they approached the Tuamotu Archipelago near Tahiti, where the Kon Tiki ended up shipwrecked in 1947. Thanks to the keels, they were able to maneuver the Tangaroa in these rough waters with waves up to six meters high and make it on schedule to Tahiti without repeating history.

    Aboard, they carried 71 barrels of drinking water, modern navigational equipment, a sack of dehydrated potatoes prepared in Inca fashion that was a gift of the Peruvian Navy, and food rations supplied by the U.S. Army. Flying fish jumped over the deck at moments, and a meal of fresh fish became quite commonplace.

    Part of the responsibility of the crew was to measure the contamination levels of the Pacific, and various depth samples were taken along route including the dissection of fish bellies and analyses to determine contaminants and anomalies amongst the fauna.

    I became vaguely familiar with this new adventure towards the end of April of that year. By chance, I was visiting the port of Callao with U.S. visitors who wanted to do some sightseeing. When I called a retired admiral friend of the Peruvian Navy and told him of our coordinates, he said we had ten minutes to get down to the dock at La Punta and join him and the Peruvian cadets and public that were to bid good luck to the adventurers. It was truly a historic occasion and we were thrilled to be within inches of the Tangaroa in the bay, talking to the crew as the Coast Guard hauled them out to the currents.

    Upon arrival at Raroia, a similar group of anxious islanders, several of whom who had welcomed Thor Heyerdahl 60 years earlier, greeted the crew and celebrated in true Polynesian fashion, as they proved that the sea has been uniting cultures much before the silver jets and Internet ever appeared.