Rafting Across the Pacific and Other Impossible (But True) Voyages of Thor Heyerdahl

The Kon-Tiki raft
The Kon-Tiki raft

I almost overlooked the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo completely because, although it’s a highly-rated attraction, I had never heard of the incredible expeditions of Norwegian researcher Thor Heyerdahl.

Every aspect of the story of his first mission to raft from Peru to Polynesia is more impossible to believe than the last. And yet, it succeeded. And was followed up by more, equally against-all-odds expeditions. And even though some of Heyerdahl’s theories are no longer or only partially supported, his incredible death-defying sense of adventure in the name of science and humanity is beyond inspiring.

Let’s start with the first voyage of the Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl noticed similarities between South American and Polynesian cultures, and theorized that ocean travel in the direction of east to west had occurred in the past. He believed there to be truth in a Peruvian legend about a man who had sailed west on a raft to a faraway land.

To prove that this was possible, Heyerdahl studied materials and traditions in Peru and built a balsa wood raft in 1947 to complete such a voyage.

Yes, you read that correctly. Balsa wood. The same lightweight material used to make dollhouse furniture. The raft was essentially a cork bobbing along with the ocean. Even gathering the light wood proved death-defying, as the only available sources left were deep in the forests. One of the six men involved in the project was bitten by a poisonous spider during this early phase.


But bobbing along sounds a bit exaggerated. At least the crew were experienced sailors who could steer the raft, right? No and no. Thor Heyerdahl himself was completely inexperienced at shipbuilding and sailing, and the raft was specifically built to be at the mercy of the currents, i.e. unsteerable.

More unbelievable still? Heyerdahl was not a strong swimmer and was afraid of water.

The U.S. army proved to be one of the only organizations crazy enough to donate supplies to the expedition, by all accounts considered by most (for obvious reasons!) to be a suicide mission.

But succeed the voyage did, despite a particularly perilous run-in with a whale shark, the largest fish in the sea. It seemed that the raft was doomed to capsize until crew member Erik Hesselberg attacked the monster of the deep with a harpoon.

After 101 days, just one day more than estimated, the raft of foolhardy adventurers washed onto the shores of the Polynesian Islands, proving that it could be done.

While it was the adventure of a lifetime, Heyerdahl didn’t stop there. After turning his research to Easter Island, bringing its culture and history to the attention of the western world, he returned to the sea.

The Ra II
The Ra II

In the late sixties to early seventies, he constructed more vessels to prove seemingly impossible theories. The Ra and Ra II, ships built of papyrus (!), were built to traverse the Atlantic. The second attempt, Ra II, succeeded in completing the voyage from Morocco to Barbados.

Heyerdahl specifically selected an internationally diverse crew for the Atlantic venture to show that people from different cultures could cooperate to successfully complete the project. Along the way, the crew discovered and collected samples of pollution in the ocean, presenting their findings to the United Nations upon completion in an effort to improve environmental sanctions.

Continuing in the spirit of humanitarianism, Heyerdahl chose to burn his last boat, the Tigris, whose passage through the Red Sea was blocked by warring nations in 1978. The reed boat’s mission was to prove the possibility of navigating the sea, as Heyerdahl theorized cultures from Mesopotamia and modern-day Pakistan and western India had done in the past. Burning the boat, as Heyerdahl spoke out to the UN, was intended to protest the inhumanity committed by civilized cultures:

“Our planet is bigger than the reed bundles that have carried us across the seas, and yet small enough to run the same risks unless those of us still alive open our eyes and minds to the desperate need of intelligent collaboration to save ourselves and our common civilization from what we are about to convert into a sinking ship.”

At the center of Heyerdahl’s incredible life and work seemed always to be the pursuit to understand the world’s people and improve our common home. And while newer studies contradict Heyerdahl’s anthropological theories as to the travel patterns and intercultural exchange of the past, I’d like to think he would appreciate the ongoing nature of the research and the continuing quest for seeking knowledge about our world and its peoples. After all, isn’t that what science and discovery is all about?


Figure of Thor Heyerdahl in the Kon-Tiki Museum
Figure of Thor Heyerdahl in the Kon-Tiki Museum

How to Make the Most of a Trip to Norway

When I arrived in the Bergen airport and saw photos of beautiful scenery next to words like Honest and Pure, I thought, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it.” But being in the middle of sheer untouched nature is more beautiful than words or pictures can convey. For me, this was truly the trip of a lifetime and has become my favorite place in the world so far.

So without further ado, here are some of my tips for making the most of a trip to Norway:


Fjord cruiseNorway in a Nutshell

Norway in a Nutshell is a popular customizable package of transportation tickets (trains, buses, and a fjord cruise) that takes travelers through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Norway. You can book hotels through Norway in a Nutshell or on your own, as well as choose your starting and ending points.

We did the standard trip and customized it to do the travel in 3 days from Bergen to Oslo. I highly recommend breaking it up this way if possible because I know I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate all of the beautiful scenery during one marathon day of travel.

Our white water rafting trip - Picture by Voss Active

This way we were also able to add an afternoon of white water rafting in Voss with Voss Active plus some walks in the fjord valley of Gudvangen surrounded by waterfalls. I highly recommend the rafting if you like adventure sports and don’t mind getting drenched in cold water! The wet suit really helped to control the temperature and this was tons of fun.

I also definitely suggest spending at least two days each in Bergen and Oslo. There’s so much to see in both of these very different cities!

BergenVisiting Bergen

Bergen is a charming fishing town full of colorful houses set into the mountainside.

Bergen Card

If you plan to use public transportation and visit at least three tourist attractions in 24 hours, the Bergen Card is a good deal (also available for longer time periods). The card covers public transportation costs and admission to most of the museums, as well as discounts on several restaurants, shops, and activities.

View after riding the Fløibahnen

  • The Fløibahnen funicular (50% discount with the Bergen Card) is open late into the day and provides fantastic mountaintop views of the city. There are also nice areas for hiking at the top of the mountain and a restaurant/gift shop.Norwegian Fisheries Museum

    Fishing game

  • Appropriately located in Bergen is the Norwegian Fisheries Museum (free admission with the Bergen Card), a super-interactive museum that gives an overview of the history of the fishing industry in Norway (yes, this is actually very interesting!). It begins with a quote from the late 1800s with something to the effect of there always being more fish in the sea as it was thought to be a limitless resource, continues through effects of war on the fishing industry, changes in technology and international regulations, information on various fish, and an explanation of modern fish farming. The use of hands-on activities and creative games (real and computer-based) makes the content extremely engaging for children and adults alike.

Fantoft Stave Church

Church interior

  • Fantoft Stave Church is a little under a 20-minute light rail ride from downtown Bergen (free admission and transportation with the Bergen Card) and is a stunning recreation of a traditional wooden church. Few medieval stave churches remain in Norway – imagine how long a wooden building would exist when the only source of light was from candles – and this is a beautiful example with a few pieces of the original church remaining included in its design.

Magic Ice

  • Magic Ice (15% discount with the Bergen Card) is a pricy but unique experience. It’s new to Bergen (we were actually there on its opening day) and can also be found in Oslo. This is a bar constructed of ice with striking ice sculptures carved into the decor. When we visited, some of the ice sculptures celebrated the work of Edvard Munch, the Norwegian artist who painted “The Scream”. Admission includes warm gear to wear in the bar and a drink served in a glass made of ice. This is very cool (literally and figuratively) to say you’ve done once but could easily be skipped, especially as you probably won’t actually stay in a room at -5°C (23 °F) for such a long time.

Other must-do’s in Bergen?

Seafood platter at the Fish Market

Fish Market

  • Have lunch or dinner at the Fish Market. This is admittedly touristy, but seafood is the main thing here and the eating area atmosphere is like being in a cozy crab shack. The wooden tables under the tarp awnings proved a comfortable and convenient place for us to escape the intermittent rain.Bryggen

    Bryggen buildings

  • Nearby is Bryggen, Bergen’s old wharf area where long wooden buildings are currently being reconstructed according to their original design.
  • If you love sushi, visit Sumo. We had the freshest fish I’ve ever tasted at the one on Vestre Torggate, though there are several locations in Bergen and one in Oslo.
    Beers at Enhjørning
    Beers at Enhjørning
    Decor at Apollon Platebar
    Decor at Apollon Platebar

    Apollon Platebar
    Apollon Platebar
  • There is also no shortage of fun, funky bars to visit here. Enjøningen, located in the Bryggen wharf area under a large wooden unicorn (the translation of the bar’s name), has a nautical feel, live music, and a shuffleboard table in the back. Apollon Platebar is both bar and record store, ensuring a crowd of hipsters and a good beer selection.Skillingsbolle

    Fire hose symbol
    Skillingsbolle oddly resembles the fire hose symbol
  • Don’t leave Bergen without trying a Skillingsbolle, a tasty cinnamon bun named for its original one-schilling price that can be found in most Bergen bakeries and cafés.

    Oslo, view from the Opera HouseVisiting Oslo

    Oslo, Norway’s capital, has a much more modern feel and is filled with culture.

Several exceptional sights are free and well worth a visit.

Vigeland Park

Sculptures at the park

  • You could easily spend a whole day in Vigeland Park, one of Norway’s most popular tourist attractions and clearly well-loved by residents as well. In addition to beautiful garden areas, an outdoor pool, and sprawling lawns, the main attraction of the park is its intricate sculptures by Gustav Vigeland. The sculptures alone could be studied endlessly, as they individually depict a spectrum of human emotions and work together to tell the story of life in all its joy and tragedy.Opera House
  • The Opera House is also fascinating to visit for its unique architecture. Visitors can walk straight up the roof from the water.
  • Acker Byrgge is a popular area on the water for strolling, shopping, and eating. It has an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants, with plenty of outdoor waterside seating in summer.Rådhus

    Nobel Peace Center

  • On our way to Acker Byrgge we passed the Rådhus (town hall) and Nobel Peace Center. We didn’t go inside either, but they can both be toured – the Rådhus for free in summer, the Nobel Peace Center for free with the Oslo Pass (see more on this below).Akershus Fortress
  • The Akershus Fortress is also not far away and can be visited for free throughout the day.

Oslo Pass

Similar to the Bergen Card, if you plan to use public transportation and visit at least three tourist attractions in 24 hours, the Oslo Pass is worth purchasing (again, also available for longer periods).

The museums we visited (described below) were all interesting and all located on the peninsula of Bygdøy, a little further out from the main downtown area but easily accessible by public transportation, including a delightful ferry (rides and admissions all covered by the Oslo Pass).

Kon-Tiki raft

  • All I can say about the Kon-Tiki Museum is wow! The stories told here deserve their own separate post – click here to read more. This museum focuses on Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his incredible against-all-odds missions embarked on in the name of scientific research. One of the main features is the balsa wood raft he built to successfully cross the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Polynesia. The museum is filled with original artifacts, incredible and inspirational stories, interesting cultural information about various parts of the world, videos, and more.Viking Ship Museum
  • The Viking Ship Museum is fascinating for the well-preserved state of two of its excavated ancient ships and many of the items they carried on board (even some designed cloth). These particular vessels had served as burial ships and had been laden with all the goods the dead were thought to need in the afterlife. The museum is relatively small but the ships and artifacts are thoughtfully displayed and convey a wealth of information on Viking culture."School in session" at the Norwegian Folk Museum

    Traditional buildings

  • You could dedicate a lot of time to visiting the Norwegian Folk Museum, as it has an extensive collection of indoor and outdoor exhibits. The majority of the museum consists of buildings representing various areas of Norway, where guides dressed in traditional clothing and performing tasks like whittling, sewing, and potato peeling answer questions and give explanations about what is presented. We didn’t have time to visit the entire expansive museum, but did get to see a one-room school house called to order, a stave church, houses and barns, traditional dress from all over Norway, and exhibits on Sami culture (for more information on this ethnic minority group, see Sami: Indigenous People in Sweden and Beyond).
  • I wish we had had time to visit the Fram Museum as well, whose main attraction is a ship built for research expeditions to the North Pole.

Food recommendations?

Shrimp on toast from Kafè Celsius

  • We really enjoyed shrimp on toast and seafood pasta at Kafè Celsius. The outdoor seating in the cobblestone courtyard areas was filled with people pleasantly enjoying wine and food here into the still-sunny evening.Kvikk Lunsj
  • Also be sure to pick up a bar of Kvikk Lunsj (“quick lunch”) anywhere in Norway. This popular candy consists of wafers dipped in milk chocolate, similar to a Kit Kat bar. You just might need that extra boost of energy for an exciting trip like this.

(For the fictionalized version of my visit to Norway, see Norway in a Fish Tale.)

Norway in a Fish Tale

Norway in a Fish Tale

(This trip was so unreal that it only made sense to explain as a fairy tale. It’s pretty close to what happened.)


Once upon a time there were two travelers who set off one day shortly after Midsummer for the Viking kingdom of Norway, the Land of the Midnight Sun. They vowed to traverse the land from west to east, one day to lay eyes on its fabled capital from whence they could return home.

They had sailed many seas and conquered many monsters of the deep before arriving in the small fishing village of Bergen on the southwestern shores.


Whale steak

Bergen's Bryggen Wharf Buildings

Hungry and tired from their voyage, they ventured to the fish market to sample the local wares. Being newly arrived and foreign to this land, they had only enough coin of the realm to buy the littlest fish. No sooner had they begun to bring it back to their inn than the fish began to whisper to them, pleading to be set free.

“Please let me go. If you do, I’ll grant you three wishes.”

The travelers thought long and hard. “But what shall we eat here in Bergen? We only have one more schilling.”

“Don’t fret. That’s just enough for one of the famous Skillingsbolle. People come from far and wide for a taste of the Bergen cinammon bun.”


“Then it’s a bargain, Magic Fish. And for our first wish, as we are travelers, we wish for good weather on our voyage. May the sun shine and the rain only fall when we’re safely inside.”

“So it shall be,” announced the fish and with that, they threw him back into the sea.

No sooner had he spoken than the sun shone through the clouds, the rain cleared, and a beautiful rainbow arched across the village. And so it came to pass that the sun shone during their travels and the rain came only as they were settling safely inside.

Rainbow over Bergen

Scaling a mountain to get a lay of the land and their journey ahead, they passed a herd of grazing goats that pointed them on toward a bridge further into the forest.

Goats at the top of Mount Fløyen

Bridge atop Mount Fløyen

But shortly after crossing, they found themselves surrounded by a band of trolls. They fought the trolls off through the short summer night and only narrowly escaped as the sun rose in the early morn and turned the trolls to stone.

Trolls in the forest of Mount Fløyen

Close call!

Continuing on, they traversed many mountains and valleys, being careful to stay clear of treacherous waterfalls and of the alluring Huldra, the Norse forest nymphs that lure travelers from their paths deep into the wood.

Kjosfossen waterfall with a Hulder dressed in red

By and by, they saw mountain tops that were still peaked with snow and, crossing a frozen lake before them, they entered a cave of ice and found themselves in the palace of the Snow Queen. She offered them warm clothes and drinks, but meant for them to stay forever where it was always winter. Here they found other travelers who had fallen under her spell and longed to escape.

Snow-topped mountains and frozen lake

Magic Ice in Bergen

“O Magic Fish, please melt the Snow Queen’s heart and magic palace, that we might leave this place and continue on our journey.”

At that, all that was frozen melted away into a rushing river. They had to make haste with the others to escape through the rapids.

White water rafting - photo by Voss Active

As they parted ways with their companions, the two travelers sailed on along the fjords. At long last they reached the fabled city of Oslo and were welcomed by the Viking King, who granted them safe passage home after their long adventures.



Viking ship

“O Magic Fish, we have but one more wish: That we may one day find our way back to this enchanting kingdom.”

And with that hope in mind, they lived happily ever after.

(For details on planning a similarly amazing trip, see How to Make the Most of a Trip to Norway.)