Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
On a promontory in Oslofjord, a short ferry ride away from Oslo’s city hall, two parallel edifices encase two famous boats and commemorate their respective creators.
On one side is the Fram, the world’s first polar exploration ship, custom-ordered by Fridtjof Nansen specifically to withstand the pressure of ice that would crush any other ship at the time. On the other is the Kon-Tiki, the balsa raft that Thor Heyerdahl built in 1947 according to traditional Native American methods for him to attempt to sail from Peru to Polynesia.
The contrast as well as the parallels between the two men are presumably why the Norwegians have chosen to commemorate them side by side.
Each man set out to prove a controversial, even widely ridiculed, theory.
Nansen believed that an ocean current flowed from east to west across the arctic sea, so that a strong enough ship deliberately left trapped in the ice could drift with the current even to the North Pole. Explorers senior to him dismissed his idea as hogwash.
Heyerdahl believed that Polynesians traced their roots to seafarers from South America and wrote a paper presenting his theory. The world’s leading authorities refused even to read it on the grounds that pre-Columbian Native Americans were not known to have had seaworthy vessels.
Each succeeded in showing up his critics, at least up to a point. Nansen spent three years slowly drifting with the Fram through polar ice and made a dash on skis for the North Pole when it became apparent that the flow of the current would not quite take them there. Although Nansen failed to reach the Pole, he had gotten closer than anyone before him. Heyerdahl reached Polynesia after 101 days at sea, defying the widely held opinion and he and his companions were sure to die and demonstrating that it was at least possible for Polynesia to have been populated by Native Americans.
Each, interestingly, was also a great champion of non-white, non-European peoples. Heyerdahl’s enthusiasm for Polynesian and pre-Columbian American cultures was self-evident. Nansen lived on Greenland for a time and adopted native ways, later writing a book about his experience to counter widely-held European views that these were “savages” who needed “civilizing.”
But on balance, it seems to me that Nansen was the greater man. He paired his daring with circumspection. He learned everything he could from native Greenlanders and adapted their techniques for his polar explorations. The custom-designed Fram itself was testament to how he advanced the science of exploration. Even 17 years after he originally set out for the North Pole, his protege Roald Amundsen came to borrow the Fram for his ultimately successful bid to reach the South Pole, because even then the Fram was still the best suited ship in the world for this purpose.
Heyerdahl, on the other hand, threw caution to the wind. Incredibly, before he set sail on the Kon-Tiki, not only had Heyerdahl almost no experience as a sailor, but he could barely swim. Worse, a near-drowning in childhood left him with a case of hydrophobia. It was as much a matter of luck as skill that he managed to prove the naysayers wrong.
And the two men led very different lives after achieving fame. Nansen entered politics and became a statesman in his own country and, following WWI, for the League of Nations. Working to resettle refugees, Nansen came up with the idea of creating legal papers for stateless persons — the so-called “Nansen passports” — which have since then benefited millions of displaced. In 1922 he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Heyerdahl, on the other hand, attempted several other expeditions in the mold of the Kon-Tiki voyage. But a cynic might easily consider these to be media stunts. He was incautious with his research as well, advancing highly questionable theories with nary any factual support, for example the notion that ancient Scandinavians came from Azerbaijan.
But maybe — so I wonder — the differences between the two men might also be attributable to their respective times. Nansen belonged in the heroic age of exploration, when much of the world still remained to be discovered. And it was before the Great War, when adventurous young men sought to prove themselves on expeditions to extreme environments. Having proven himself, Nansen went on to public service. After the Great War, and the one following it, adventurous young men already had their mettle tested quite enough. They now traveled not to prove themselves but for a measure of peace. Heyerdahl’s voyage might have been as much therapy as science. One of his companions, Knut Haugland, had served heroically in WWII and sabotaged Hitler’s atomic research facility. He later credited the voyage with Heyerdahl with keeping him from going insane from PTSD.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."