East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Companions on the road: Thor Heyerdahl and Kon-Tiki (1)

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41c0B1WjHhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This is the first part of a two-part special.
catching up on my movies, I finally got around to watch the 2012 Kon-Tiki, about the 1947 Heyerdahl expedition across the Pacific Ocean, from Peru tu Polinesia.
The movie had been high on my to-view list, but had somehow slipped my memory.
What had not slipped my memory, though, was the 1950 documentary, written and produced by Heyerdahl himself, and that had caught my imagination when I was a kid .
And so I thought – why not watch the two back-to back?
And then blog about it.
It would be personal, but fun.

So, here’s the first post – tonight movie is Kon-Tiki, the 1950 documentary written, produced and filmend by Thor Heyerdahl.
The film won an Oscar for best documentary presentation in 1951.

But before that…
In 1965, the Italian State Television, RAI, launched a show for the kid’s TV hour – it was called Avventura and it was produced on a shoestring budget by a team of four – Bruno Modugno, Sergio Dionisi, William Azzella and Mino Damato.
It started like this…

A show about adventure, exploration and discovery, it ran for ten years, featuring contents about archaelogy and anthropology, exploration, space and ocean depths, ancient mysteries.
The format was extremely serious – no dumbing down, no talking down to the audience, no mockumentary or infotainment.
Just great footage and discussion by, with and about the likes of Jacques Cousteau, Folco Quilici, Enzo Majorca and yes, Thor Heyerdahl.
It was watching this show that I was captured by the Kon-Tiki and later by Ra expeditions.

Kon_Tiki_1265923433_1950So, what was the Kon-Tiki expedition?
Basically it was an attempt, on the part of Heyerdahl and his team at proving that the Polinesian islands had not been colonized from the west, from Asia, but actually from the East, from South America, by pre-Colombian explorers sailing on balsa-wood rafts.
And so Heyerdahl and his companions did just that – built a balsa-wood raft following descriptlons found in Spanish texts, and sailed 5000 miles from Peru to Polinesia.

The short movie – it’s 77 minutes – was shot using a single 16mm camera, and it shows the preparation for the expedition, and then the daily life of the six members of the crew as they drift across the ocean for three months, learning their trade as they travel – how to steer, how to handle fishes jumping on board, how to pass the days.
There is a strange mix of primitivism and military-style discipline in this small community – and if they do look like pre-modern explorers as they rig a diving cage to avoid sharks or as they check the status of the ropes keeping their ship together, on the other hand the guys are supremely relaxed.
There is some footage that today might cause some to squirm – like the fishing sessions indispensable to provide food – but all in all the general feeling is one of true adventure, of an even confrontation between man and nature.


The attitude of the Kon-Tiki crew members is strangely unassuming – no heroics, no posturing.
This is not a reality show we are seeing – this is reality.
After 101 days and two missed islands, Kon-Tiki finally crashed in the reef surrounding a deserted coconut island, where the explorers lived as castaways until rescued.


The Kon-Tiki expedition proved Heyerdahl speculation – that did not hold up, on the other hand, after further testing.
Today the Kon-Tiki hypothesis is if not completely discredited, at least often dismissed.
But what remains is the testimony of a great adventure, and the general vibe of that strange age, between the end of the war and the birth of disco, when everybody seemed to long to be on that lone raft in the middle of the ocean.


And yes, in case you wondered, it was good being a kid when there was a TV show like Avventura, and you could catch Thor Heyerdahl on the telly after school.

Oh, and in case you wondered – having opened with Joe Cocker, Avventura used a Procol Harum classic as its end-titles track.

It was good being kids back then.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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