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Rafting Across the Pacific

May. 30, 2013
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Like the first explorer to reach the North Pole or the first man on the moon, Thor Heyerdahl was acclaimed as a hero when he crossed the Pacific on his balsa wood raft, the Kon-Tiki. Aside from setting the fashion for Tiki bars and lamps, Heyerdahl 's 1947 voyage proved a point: the oceans weren't necessarily a barrier in ancient times, but were often a highway moving people and ideas across wide distances. Whether or not the Polynesians originated in Peru, as Heyerdahl insisted, he proved that South Americans could have sailed thousands of years ago to the Pacific islands.

Kon-Tiki dramatizes Heyerdahl 's story, highlighting key passages in bright magic marker and trimming the man and his nearly 5,000-mile ocean trek to the easily managed dimensions of a Hollywood movie. The Norwegian adventurer had to overcome many hurdles before boarding his raft, especially the barriers of scholars and scientists who saw the Pacific as impassable before the coming of Europeans and gave no credence to the Polynesians' own origin stories, which involved sailing across the sea to their islands from the land behind the sunrise. Heyerdahl was, perhaps of necessity, fanatical about his belief in ancient trans-oceanic migrations, and the glint of his zeal shines through the otherwise amicable performance as the adventurer by handsome Norwegian actor Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen.

The balsa raft was large enough to house Heyerdahl and his crew under a deck shack; it had a single sail and a long rudder but no oars or auxiliary engine. Heyerdahl didn't brush off all modern conveniences. He brought along a map, a compass, a radio and U.S. Navy rations, but was determined not to cheat too much by giving himself advantages lacked by the ancient mariners.

Kon-Tiki manages to capture the monotony, the madness and the danger of the voyage. Men fell overboard, tossed by a storm and the surfacing of whales, and were menaced by prowling sharks. Spoiler alert: Heyerdahl 's parrot becomes a snack. Kon-Tiki catches the gist of a colorful true story, capturing the sweaty, thrilling anxiety of Heyerdahl 's quest, bobbing in his creaky raft on the heaving bosom of the sea.


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