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Campfire Epiphany

When Thor Heyerdahl was 23 he and his new wife Liv went native on Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas. It was 1937 and one night before a smoldering campfire he asked the island’s elder Tei Tetua where his ancestors had come from. “It was Tiki who brought my ancestors to these islands where we live now. Before that we lived in a big country beyond the sea,” Heyerdahl writes in his best seller, “Kon-Tiki.”

Heyerdahl had trouble sleeping that night and for the next 65 years led a restless, exploratory life challenging ethnographic and anthropological gospel.  Arrogant, stubborn and completely driven to get his contrarian theories accepted, Heyerdahl made close friends with those who accompanied him on his suicide maritime missions.  He made many more enemies among the specialists whose theories he confronted.

Heyerdahl’s expeditions made him an international superstar in a black/white era, but also led to three divorces and estranged relationships with several of his five children. When he died in 2002 at age 88, he was still pursuing his theories and his tombstone should have read: ‘never gave up or gave in to institutional dogma.’  He never gained respect from the armchair academics but succeeded in the court of public opinion who embraced many of his 14 books and films.

Heyerdahl’s seminal challenge was his conviction that Polynesia was settled by Peruvians who worshipped the sun god Tiki and who sailed from East to West with the tides and current.  The experts said Polynesia could only have been settled by Asians sailing west into the current. It made no sense to Heyerdahl and his challenge earned him lasting fame and scorn.

Aboard Kon-Tiki

In 1947 millions of men were settling into their Post WW II security blankets. They were becoming fathers, building careers, moving into suburban homes trying to forget the war years.  Not Thor Heyerdahl.  He served as a parachutist in the Norwegian resistance, but once the Nazis were beaten he resumed his quest to prove his Tiki theory.  Making the rounds of important institutions including the National Geographic Society with his well researched manuscript based on his pre-war years living in Polynesia, Heyerdahl was ignored.  In the Fatu Hiva jungle he found stone carvings of Tiki heads, but few read his research paper and scoffed at the concept. They couldn’t fathom how Peruvians could navigate 4,300 nautical miles between Peru and Polynesia on a balsa raft in the fifth century.

Heyerdahl nearly drowned twice as a kid and had no experience on the sea. He loved collecting snakes as a boy and was influenced by his mother’s devotion to Charles Darwin. His only shot to prove himself and get his manuscript read was to retrace Tiki’s voyage drifting across the pacific on a balsa raft.  Many thought it a suicidal idea, but Heyerdahl was desperate. His money had dried up, but his passion convinced newspapers looking for a good story to finance his voyage.  Heyerdahl was a master story teller and understood how filming the journey would play in the post war era. Several of his WW II Norwegian army buddies joined the gambit.

After arriving in Peru, there was no balsa wood readily available to build Kon-Tiki.  To get fresh, long balsa logs Heyerdahl  had to go over the Peruvian Andes and down into the Ecuadorian Amazon. It was Amazon rainy season and Thor was told he would have to delay the Kon-Tiki expedition.  With Pacific cyclone season approaching in four months that was not an option. He jeeped over the Andes down into the jungle on a mud road and found a Balsa farmer in Quevado. He and his men braved scorpions as large as lobsters, biting ants as large as scorpions, as well as poisonous snakes as they worked in the forest cutting down the trees. They floated the logs down the Palenque River to the ocean then built a raft using fifth century technology (ropes) to hold it together.

The journey to Polynesia was fraught with high seas. A rare snake mackerel, a three foot long razor toothed creature ended up in his sleeping bag. A balky radio, daily shark swarms (including the whale shark) and a five man/one parrot crew that often questioned Heyerdahl’s sanity were other challenges.  Life on the claustrophobic sized raft was always on the edge. Heyerdahl kept his cool, never showed doubt or fear and used a sense of humor to defuse debates. He knew once they hit the Humboldt Current it would push them west away from the Galapagos Islands, and they would make it to Polynesia.

After 103 days at sea they hit the Raroia Reef near Puka Puka and got towed to Tahiti. Rand McNally published, “Kon-Tiki Across the Pacific by Raft” in 1950 and it has since been translated into 70 languages and so far has sold 20 million copies. Heyerdahl’s documentary on the voyage received an Oscar in 1951.

Horn of Africa Aflame

Most men would have enjoyed their royalties, gone home played with the kids and enjoyed celebrity status. Heyerdahl was only stirred to recreate more ancient craft to test his theories. He reinvested his Tiki fame in new outlandish expeditions which never were as successful as Kon-Tiki, but were important never the less.

Heyerdahl’s spent the 50’s and 60’s sailing in reed and papyrus boats crossing the Atlantic. His Ra expedition sought to prove that Africans sailed to the Caribbean long before the slave traders took them there. Ra 1 ended after 4,000 miles at sea when it sunk, but was saved by a passing yacht in 1969. He redid the trip in 1970 and successfully made it from Morocco to Barbados.

By 1978 Heyerdahl wanted to prove that a reed boat trip could link Iraq to Africa. It turned out to be his most controversial trip and least successful.  He let his politics get in the way of his love of adventure. After five months at sea in his 60 foot reed boat, the Tigris, he entered the Red Sea but couldn’t find a place to land. War erupted in Yemen and in the horn of Africa. The Eritrean War in Ethiopia and Somalia’s civil war didn’t allow Heyerdahl and crew safe passage. Djibouti allowed the ship to land but Heyerdahl, frustrated by violence and the mounting pollution he saw at sea decided to make a political statement. He burned the Tigris in a symbolic bonfire for peace.

His impassioned letter to UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim imploring world economic powers to stop selling arms to Africa and Yemen did not resonate.  The public showed little interest in the cause and Heyerdahl’s Tigris book and movie did poorly, restricting his future expeditions. The Horn of Africa is still aflame today and the world’s oceans have become more polluted. Heyerdahl was a visionary foreseeing the darkest recesses of the future.

The Mighty Thor

At 82, Heyerdahl was still in the game. He married for the fourth time and moved to the Canary Islands. His passion was to prove that the mythology of the Norse god Odin had its roots in reality that traced back to Azerbaijan and the Black Sea of Russia. His four excavations in Azerbaijan and Russia were met with scorn by Norwegian archeologists and linguists who accused the octogenarian of pseudo-science.

The brouhaha in his native land was just a microcosm of his near life-long pissing match with the academic realm. Despite the rejections, Heyerdahl’s work made anthropology exciting for millions of readers some of whom were inspired to pursue careers in experimental archeology.

At 87 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and instead of reaching out to doctors to keep him alive, stopped eating and taking meds. He was buried with a full state funeral and his life and research is regarded in Norway now as legendary.  Heyerdahl’s intent was always to show the possibility that existed for ancient mariners to migrate across the vast oceans. The ocean was a link to primitive cultures – not a barrier, and he spent his 20th century life living in their heroic shadows.