Rafts and corruption

IN the depleted, anti climactic year of 1947, Europe was offered a hero who was part of nobody's army and whose adventure was…

IN the depleted, anti climactic year of 1947, Europe was offered a hero who was part of nobody's army and whose adventure was innocent and romantic to the point of myth. Nobody cared that much, perhaps, about the anthropological niceties of what Thor Heyerdahl was trying to prove, but sailing a balsa wood raft from Peru to Polynesia seemed a magnificent way of going about it. Kon Tiki, the named of his craft, was accorded a special niche in every schoolboy's imagination - certainly in mine.

The kind of teenager Thor Heyerdahl was (or now thinks he was emerges in this somewhat diffuse but captivating memoir, written at 83 after a life spent exploring the possible dispersals of early human culture. A solitary youngster, a roamer in the woods around his home on the Oslo fjord, he was uncommonly disillusioned with the contemporary works of man. "I don't like machinery," he blurted out one day after gym.

And then, at the high school graduation ball to a girl he fancied: "What do you think about turning back to nature?" As a chat up line, it turned out to mean just what he said. Immediately after university, with a brio that today's back packers might envy, he coaxed a loan out of his father and bore his young bride away to live on breadfruit and bananas in a palm front hut on the islands beyond Tahiti.

Even in the 1930s, corruption of the Pacific paradise was well under way. Fatu Hiva, in the Marquesas, had waterfalls, gorgeous birds and fruit hanging from the trees, but also mosquitoes, missionaries and the civilised goods of itinerant copra traders. Photographs of Thor and Liv on the island are like stills of Crusoe and Tarzan's Jane, but their idyll could be sustained only up in the hills, at a safe distance from natives nursing elephantiasis in a huddle of huts at the shore.


An eventual escape from FatuHiva, to have tropical ulcers attended to, is just one of the adventures to gain from Heyerdahl's robust style ("With our large sails as wings we flew up on to the wave crests and rode the heaving water masses in a dizzy race . .

In a remote valley on another of the Marquesa islands, Hivaoa, he came upon the stone giants that raised such intriguing questions about the origins of the islanders the postures of the statues were utterly un Polynesian, and mammals carved around their bases were quite foreign to the island fauna.

Among them was a cat like creature, its tail erect, but the nearest feline was the puma in Peru, the country's ancient, sacred symbol. The conventional wisdom was that the mid Pacific islands had been populated from the west, but here was evidence that had arrived from the coastal civilisations of South America, bringing with them cultivated fruits such as papaya and pineapple.

Heyerdahl's excited theorising in the valley of Puamau switched him away from zoology and into archaeology and anthropology. "It set me asail on rafts, led me into the jungles of several continents, and made me excavate the hidden body of Easter Island stone heads that towered is high as four storey buildings ...

IN the balance of his life, however, it is the impact of man on nature that moves him most.

His voyage on the Kon fiki in 1947 had drifted him 8,000 kilometres across the Pacific without his seeing the slightest trace of pollution. Two decades later, attempting to cross the Atlantic on Rae an African type of raft ship built from papyrus reeds, he and his companions woke off the cost of North Africa "and found ourselves sailing in a soup of glittering oil and asphalt lumps".

His narratives are thus interspersed with passionate meditations on pollution, erosion, deforestation, the dead lakes of Norway, global warming. He looks back to the golden moon of nights around the campfire on the wild side of Fatu Hiva. "Only modern man has traded away the night sky ... and puts on a million tights until he sees nothing but his world."

For all his teenage rejection of a tainted civilisation, his rational concern with human birth control, Heyerdahl in old age tempers his science with a stubborn anthropocentrism. "The magic wand of evolution," he writes, in a quasi Biblical coda, "had touched the eggs with selectivity until all species had their right place in the wilderness, waiting for the arrival of man." Still, only an optimist of that sort would bother to try to get homo sapiens to change his ways.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author