Thor Heyerdahl came to the attention of the world at large when he sailed a small balsa wood raft from Peru to Polynesia, but to have him tagged as a mere explorer or adventurer is like saying Neil Armstrong liked to travel or Einstein was pretty good with numbers. The Kon-Tiki expedition was just the tip of the iceberg that makes up this fascinating Norwegian and this book is a good overall introduction to the other marvellous facets in his life, facets that to most have remained under the water. The main thing that strikes me about this book is the way it is laid out, in that it doesn’t adhere strictly to a rigid chronology but rather spends some of its time in the present day as the author muses on his past and other times retelling those stories from their proper time setting. This allows us some insights as to how the experiences have shaped the man throughout his life and how modern events are linked to and trigger thoughts of his earlier years. That said, it is not as random and disjointed as I may have painted it, just wonderfully mobile in its contexts and delivery.
The book opens with the author planning his third wedding in a small town in Western Sahara, an event that gives cause to reflect on the previous two marriages and the women who shaped his life as much as his work and travel has. It also allows him to introduce a theme that reoccurs in the book on a regular basis and that is one of mans bizarre inhumanity towards each other, on the excuse of race, religion, politics or whatever, Western Sahara at that time being a place of religious divides and hostile undercurrents. In fact throughout his life, cultural harmony has always a major consideration, this is reflected in the many organisations that have heaped praise on his work. But before long the book slips into a more chronological ordered style. We learn of Heyerdahls childhood, university studies as a biologist and his first adventure where he and his first wife lived in a “back to nature” style on the remote pacific island of Fatu- Hiva. The war saw him recalled to work in special resistance units in Finland and Norway and had a dramatic affect on his view of mankind. Witnessing the deaths of many comrades more often to booby traps in the wake of the retreating German forces rather than actual combat, Heyerdahls faith in god actually became stronger and his belief in the need for mans harmonious co-existence increased.
The post war peace saw him return to his studies and develop an interest in Anthropology, specifically the movement and colonisation of the pacific islands. Scientific understanding of the time suggested that the south Pacific had been populated from South East Asia; Heyerdahl argued that it is possible that it had been populated from the other direction that is from South America. When his ideas were treated by the academic elite with a wall of ridicule there was only one thing to do. He built a balsa wood raft, collected a crew of ex-army friends and sailed from Peru to Tahiti, a journey of nearly 4000 miles, proving that if a modern day Norwegian with only limited knowledge of ancient boat building could make the journey then early man in the Pacific, who would have generations of knowledge behind him, would have no trouble doing the same. It still took many years for Heyerdahl’s ideas to be accepted and for the man himself to be regarded as an equal by his peers, not merely an adventurer but a scientist who happened to conduct very large anthropological experiments. It is after this fashion that he set to prove other theories relating to the movements of ancient people, firsts by sailing “Ra” a reed boat from North Africa to South America and then a second called “Tigris” from Iraq to India and then to Madagascar to prove that ancient contacts between far flung civilizations was possibly more widespread than is commonly believed.
But its not just a book about facts and events, it has a much deeper side. Heyerdahl was truly a citizen of the world, rather than any one specific country. His work not only furthered history and anthropology but also broke down cultural divides, especially in the later years when he was a friend with ministers and nobility and world leaders such as Castro and Gorbachev. It is also a book that highlights how complex the world has got as it pitches simple journeys against a world of complex borders and red tape. What the book conveys more than anything is the authors overwhelming sense of wonder at the world both past and present. It also shows a respect and appreciation for so called primitive cultures on the one hand and a suspicion of western culture on the other. On many of his expeditions he has always sought a fully international team to reflect his goals of cultural tolerance and striven to show that people can work with nature rather than against it. It is wonderful story and is a compelling read, even for those who have know interest in the historical and scientific aspects of his work. A mixture of adventure, history and cultural ideology and all woven together with a healthy dash of common sense philosophy and a good starting point for anyone wishing to know more about the man and his massive contribution to our understanding of the world we live in.