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Norwegian explorers

By Linn Ryne, Nytt fra Norge

Norway's coast is long and jagged. Deep, still fjords cut far into the land, bringing a large number of its people within sight and sound of the sea. From early history the Norwegians made only a meagre living from the soil. Small wonder that when tilling their small fields they lifted their eyes to the horizon; to the sea that could not only provide them with more food but could also bear them to richer lands and more benevolent climates.

In prehistoric times Norway may well have had its daring explorers. But their stories cannot be told. Not until written history is there any account of early discoveries, and even after man started to record his travels, there is scant mention of his first ventures into the unknown.

During the Middle Ages, the Church -- the only real unifying power in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire -- did little to stimulate a spirit of adventure and inquiry. The geographical world concept was based strictly on the Bible. The Church frowned upon discoveries that might disprove accepted beliefs, or inspire man to question age-old tenets. But in non-Christian Norway the people were hungry for land. There was little to cultivate among the precipitous mountains and myriad lakes and fjords. Although coastal traffic was common amongst this seafaring people, they were unable to seek out new lands until they had vessels suited to the open seas. This problem was solved with the development of the longships. These high-prowed, swift and graceful vessels could be both rowed and sailed. Furthermore, their broad, flat-bottomed construction enabled the crews to draw them ashore on both coast and river bank, making it possible to penetrate far inland. Thus, around 800 AD, the Vikings struck out from their fjords, in search of land and booty, and no doubt adventure and renown too. They were among the few peoples of the mediaeval world to venture out of their own territory

The Viking raids

Only a few vessels took part in the initial Viking raids, but gradually their numbers swelled, and the fleets that sailed westwards to England, Scotland, France and Ireland numbered many hundred ships. They came as raiders and pillagers, striking terror along the coasts they frequented; but they were traders and administrators too. They founded cities such as Dublin, and colonies such as Normandy, in France. From 879 to 920 they colonized Iceland, which in turn became a base for the colonization of Greenland.

In 986 Norwegian-born Eirik Thorvaldsson, known as Eirik the Red, explored and colonized the southwestern part of Greenland. It was his son, Leiv Eiriksson, who became the first European to set foot on the shores of North America, and the first explorer of Norwegian extraction now accorded worldwide recognition.

The date and place of Leiv Eiriksson's birth has not been definitely established, but it is believed that he grew up on Greenland. The Saga of Eric the Red relates that he set sail for Norway in 999, served King Olav Trygvasson for a term, and was sent back to Greenland one year later to bring Christianity to its people.

There are two schools of thought as to the subsequent course of events. One of these is that Eiriksson, en route for Greenland, came off course, and quite by chance came to the shores of northwestern America in the year 1000, thus preceding Columbus by nearly 500 years. However, according to the Greenland Saga, generally believed to be trustworthy, Eiriksson's discovery was no mere chance. The saga tells that he fitted out an expedition and sailed west, in an attempt to gather proof of the claims made by the Icelandic trader Bjarni Herjulfsson. In 986 Herjulfsson, driven far off course by a fierce storm between Iceland and Greenland, had reported sighting hilly, heavily forested land far to the west. Herjulfsson, though believably the first European to see the continent of North America, never set foot on its shores. Leiv Eiriksson, encouraged by the current talk of potential discoveries, and the constant need of land to farm, bought Bjarni's ship and set off on his quest of discovery.

He appears to have followed Bjarni's route in reverse, making three landfalls. The first of these he named Helluland, or Flat-Stone Land, now generally regarded as having been Labrador. The second was Markland, or Wood Land, possibly Newfoundland. The exact location of the third, which was named Vinland, is a matter of scholastic controversy, but it could have been as far north as northern Newfoundland or as far south as Cape Cod or even beyond this.

Eiriksson and his men spent the winter in Vinland, at a place they named Leifsbud-ir, returning to Greenland the following year, 1001.

It was left to Eiriksson's brother, Thorvald to make the next voyage to the new-found territory, for strange as it may seem, Leiv Eiriksson never returned there. Subsequent attempts at settlement of Vinland were unsuccessful, due to strong friction between the Viking settlers and the native North Americans.

Though many still regard Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of the New World, Eiriksson's right to this title received the stamp of official approval in the USA when in 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson, backed by a unanimous Congress, proclaimed October 9th "Leif Ericson Day" in commemoration of the first arrival of a European on North American soil.

After Eiriksson's discovery of the New World, other nations took the lead in exploratory achievement. Many centuries were to pass before a major Norwegian explorer helped to push back the frontiers of knowledge.

Fridtjof Nansen

When Fridtjof Nansen was born in 1861, there were no new shores to discover. The outlines of the world map had been virtually completed; Nansen helped to fill in the details.

Such was the scope of Fridtjof Nansen's life's work, that his considerable exploratory and scientific achievements formed only a part of it. He was scientist, statesman and laureate of the Nobel Prize. His devotion to humanitarian causes saved the lives of countless thousands after WWI. But he regarded himself first and foremost as an explorer and scientist. It was in this role that he was happiest.

Nansen was born into a family with a distinguished record of service to the nation. A paternal ancestor, Hans Nansen -- one-time mayor of Copenhagen -- had explored the White Sea. Fired with this same urge to probe the unknown, the young Nansen, only 26 years of age, decided to mount an expedition to cross the Greenland icecap. He had caught tantalizing glimpses of Greenland's wild and almost untrodden eastern seaboard during a voyage aboard a sealing vessel in the Arctic Ocean in 1882, and determined to cross its inland snowfields, where no European had penetrated far.

His six-man strong expedition set forth in 1888. It faced a totally hostile environment. Twelve days passed before the team was even able to set foot on the mainland, after leaving the safety of the expedition's main vessel. The men completed the trek across the icecap, reaching the west coast of Greenland in September. Throughout the hazardous journey, Nansen and his men had also meticulously recorded the meteorological conditions and compiled other scientific data.

The six returned to Norway and the nation's acclaim. But Nansen was not content to rest on his laurels. Earlier observations had convinced him that a strong east-west current must flow from Siberia towards the North Pole, and from there down to Greenland.

Determined to prove the truth of his theory, Nansen drew up the specifications for a ship strong enough to withstand the pressure of the ice. The plan was to sail it eastwards along the Northeast Passage to the New Siberian Islands until it froze into the ice. The crew would remain on board the ship while it drifted westwards with the ice towards the North Pole and the straits between Svalbard and Greenland.

Nansens expounded his theory and his plans to the Norwegian Geographical Society and to the Royal Geographical Society in London. The response in Norway was enthusiastic, though mixed with some criticism. In London reactions were largely negative and many expressed doubt as to whether such a ship could be built.

Undeterred by these problems, Nansen carried on with his plan. Funds were procured and a special ship, the "Fram" (Forward), was designed and built. Though no beauty in the traditional sense, the "Fram" a squat vessel of enormous strength, was admirably suited to her purpose. The rounded hull gave the ice nothing on which to grip and hold. When the ice started to exert pressure, the ship would simply be pushed upwards. That, at least, was the theory. Happily it proved correct.

The expedition left Christiania (now Oslo) in June 1893, with provisions for five years and fuel for eight. The "Fram" sailed east along the northern shore of Siberia. About 100 miles short of the New Siberian Islands Nansen changed course to due north. By 20 September, at latitude 79 degrees, the "Fram" was firmly locked in the pack ice. Nansen and his men prepared to drift westwards towards Greenland.

There followed three long years of total isolation from the outside world. Progress was slow. But the tiny, 400-ton ship stood the test, resisted the encroaching ice, and was a snug and secure home for Nansen and his crew.

The long, frustrating months of barely measurable progress were a heavy strain on Nansen's restless nature. The "Fram" did not appear to be drifting as close to the North Pole as he had hoped. He resolved to make a bid for the Pole, taking with him one of the strongest and most stalwart of his men, Hjalmar Johansen. The two planned to make for Svalbard or Franz Josef Land after reaching the Pole, leaving the "Fram" in the capable hands of her captain, Otto Sverdrup.

Their bid was unsuccessful. Conditions were far worse than expected; their way was often barred by ice ridges or by patches of open water which caused delays. Finally, at 86 degrees 14 minutes north, they decided to turn back, and to make for Franz Josef Land. Nansen and Johansen had not reached the Pole, but they had been closer to it than any man before them.

After a further five months and three-hundred miles of crushing toil -- "enough to tire out giants" -- as Nansen described it, the two men arrived at the northernmost of the islands of Franz Josefs Land. This was later named Jackson Island, after the British explorer Frederick Jackson, whom, by incredible chance, the two men met out on the ice. Prior to this meeting, the two men had spent the winter in a tiny hut which they built of stones, and roofed with walrus skins.

In August 1897 one of Jackson's expedition vessels deposited Nansen and Johansen at the Norwegian port of Vardø. On that same day, and unbeknown to them, the "Fram" had shaken off the last of the pack ice near Spitsbergen, and was steaming south for the first time in three years. Nansen's theory had proved correct. It had followed the current that he had argued must be there. Furthermore, the expedition had collected valuable information on currents, winds and temperatures, and proved beyond doubt that there was no land close to the Pole on the Eurasian side, but a deep, ice-covered ocean. For the new science of oceanography, the voyage of the "Fram" was of major importance. For Nansen it marked a vocational turning point. Oceanography became the focus of his research.

Nansen's major exploring days were over. But before his life took another turn, and he devoted his time and energy to matters of state, and the plight of refugees, he cruised extensively in both the Norwegian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, compiling scientific data.

One burning ambition remained to Nansen; to lead an expedition to the South Pole. This was not to be. Another young explorer had asked him for the "Fram". He wished to mount an expedition to the North Pole; one which might yield valuable scientific data. Nansen decided to allow the young explorer to use the "Fram". Though still keenly interested in polar exploration, specifically in airships, he devoted the remainder of his life, until he died in 1930, to other works. The "Fram" was taken over by the young explorer who had asked for it -- Roald Amundsen.

Roald Amundsen

It is one of history's coincidences that Norway's two giants of polar exploration, Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, were contemporaries. Amundsen was born in 1872, eleven years after Nansen, near the town of Sarpsborg in southeast Norway. Abandonning a planned career in medicine on the death of both his parents, he decided instead to devote his life to polar research. A qualified seaman, he worked aboard a merchant ship in the arctic, prior to signing on as first mate of the "Belgica", the vessel that from 1897-1899 was the first to winter in the Antarctic.

The experience he gained on these voyages gave Amundsen sufficient confidence to tackle a challenge that had defied all navigators for 300 years, the North West Passage. Explorers had long been aware of the existence of this passageway linking Europe with Asia, north of the North American continent, but no single ship had succeeded in sailing its entire length. Amundsen purchased a sturdy, 45 ton vessel, the "Gjøa", equipped with sails and a 13 horse power engine, and in the summer of 1903 the "Gjøa" nosed out of the Oslofjord, and with its crew of six prepared to make its way through the ice-ridden waters of the North West Passage.

The expedition was successful, and in August of 1906 the "Gjøa" finally broke through the final stretches of the passageway. En route the men had also compiled a wealth of scientific data, the most important of which concerned earth magnetism and observations of the exact location of the magnetic North Pole. Furthermore, they had compiled ethnographic material regarding the Eskimo population along the Northwest Passage.

Encouraged by this early success Amundsen turned his attention to the North Pole. He had hoped to come closer to the actual Pole than Nansen had, by allowing his ship to freeze into the ice north of the Bering Strait, but financial backing was difficult to achieve. In September 1909 came the news that the Americans Robert Peary and Frederick Cook had reached the Pole. Amundsen then resolved to postpone his North Pole expedition and in the meanwhile to make a bid to reach the South Pole ahead of Robert Falcon Scott, who was already on his way to the Antarctis at the head of a large expedition. His main goal was to reach the South Pole.

In August Amundsen sailed south in the "Fram", which Nansen had put at his disposal. In order to pass through the Bering Strait ships had at that time to round Cape Horn. Therefore, no one suspected a change of plans when the Fram steamed southwards.

When the vessel stopped at Madeira, Amundsen informed the expedition members of his change in plans. A telegram was despatched to Scott, with the news that the Norwegian expedition was making for the Antarctic. The ensuing dramatic race with the Englishman is perhaps what most non-Norwegians generally connect with the name of Roald Amundsen.

Amundsen had no wish to follow the the same route as Scott by selecting the same point of departure, Ross Island. He chose instead to locate his base camp in the Bay of Whales. This was closer to the South Pole than Scott's departure point, McMurdo Sound. However, he took a big risk. The terrain between the Bay of Whales and the Pole was unknown, whereas Scott would follow a route staked out by his compatriot Shackleton in 1908. On 19 October 1911 Amundsen left base camp with his four companions, four sledges, and 52 dogs, but unencumbered by the weight of scientific equipment that Scott and his men took with them. Amundsen's mission had only one goal; to reach the Pole; fast. Two months later this task was accomplished, five weeks before Scott and his exhausted men arrived at the Pole to find Amundsen's flag and tent.

On 14 December 1911 the Norwegian flag waved at the Pole. The Norwegian team had crossed the dangerous Ross Barrier, to reach the foot of a high mountain range interlaced with glaciers. Further progress seemed hazardous. But thanks to skill and a fair portion of luck, the men forced their way up the Heiberg Glacier, crossed the mountain range, and gained the plateau which led to the Pole.

In the English-speaking world the general consensus of opinion has been that Amundsen's victory over Scott was due to the element of surprise he achieved through keeping his plans secret for so long. It later became obvious that Amundsen had planned his journey with far greater care than Scott. He had set up well-stocked depots for the return journey, while Scott had stored neither sufficient food nor fuel. Above all, Amundsen was a far more experienced polar explorer. He chose strong dogs to pull his sleds, while Scott relied on ponies and motor sledges, which soon proved useless.

For an explorer of Amundsen's calibre, there were no great challenges left, but there was one thing he still wished to do; to explore the Arctic Ocean by air. He carried out a daring expedition in two seaplanes, the N24 and N25 in 1925. The planes had to crash land on the ice at 88 degrees north, but the team succeeded in getting one of them airborne again and returned to Svalbard three weeks later.

The American, Lincoln Ellsworth, had financed and taken part in the seaplane expedition together with Amundsen. The following year Roald Amundsen, together with Ellsworth and the Italian Umberto Nobile, led an expedition in the airship "Norge" (Norway) from Svalbard over the North Pole to Alaska. The explorers passed over hitherto unknown territory, filling in the last blank, white patch on the map of the world.

Arctic exploration was Amundsen's whole life. It was also to be his death. When Nobile, two years later, embarked on a second arctic flight aboard the "Italia" -- sister ship to the "Norge" -- the expedition disappeared. Amundsen joined a search party that set off to look for it. A second search party found the airship and Nobile, alive. But Amundsen and his companions never returned.

Ice and snow are natural elements for the Norwegians, accustomed as they are to long and sometimes bitter winters. Nansen and Amundsen explored in environments that, although infinitely worse than their native ones, had some degree of familiarity. But the most widely known comtemporary Norwegian "explorer" Thor Heyerdahl, has operated in quite different latitudes. Strictly speaking he cannot be called an explorer. It is not unknown territory that he has probed, but the cultures of our earliest forefathers. His quest is to discover more about the historical landscape, not the geographical one.

Voyages into history

Heyerdahl was born in 1914 in the small town of Larvik, on Norway's south coast. Encyclopaedias list him as a zoologist and anthropologist. It is the latter that has brought him to world attention.

Following exhaustive studies of ethnographic and archaeological material from Polynesia, the American continent and southeast Asia, Heyerdahl advanced the theory that Polynesia had been peopled not from southeast Asia, as had previously been believed, but from America.

His hypothesis was coolly received, so like Nansen before him, Heyerdahl decided to demonstrate personally what he believed to be the truth of his contentions. The vessel he made for the voyage was a balsawood raft, an exact reproduction of the Indian rafts made in South America in prehistoric times. Setting off from Callao in Peru in 1947, with a six-man crew, Heyerdahl sailed to the Tuamotu islands of Polynesia on the now world-renowned voyage of the Kon-Tiki.

The hazardous three-month voyage was not only a daring enterprise, it was also a scholarly achievement. The book that Heyerdahl wrote after the expedition, "American Indians in the Pacific" supports his theories, with comprehensive material that gives credence to his claims. In his book Heyerdahl asserted that the first settlers of Polynesia came from Peru around 500 AD, and that a fresh wave of settlers arrived from the northwest coast of North America from 1000 to 1300 AD.

In order to further support his theories Heyerdahl headed a Norwegian archaeological expedition to the Galapagos islands in 1953. The expedition found evidence for Heyerdahl's theories, in the shape of antiquities of American Indian origin, dating from both Inca and pre-Inca periods, the first such finds ever made.

Three years later, in 1955/56 Heyerdahl led a 25-man strong expedition to Easter Island to carry out extensive digs. The findings on Easter Island proved the existence of three distinct cultural epochs, the second of which produced the well-known stone statues. Excavations also uncovered older statues very similar to some found in Bolivia. It must be pointed out, however, that Heyerdahl's views on the history of settlement in Polynesia and the ancient cultural transfers in this area are contested, sometimes strongly, in anthropological circles.

Heyerdahl returned to the ocean element when he in 1969 led the first Ra expedition, whose objective was very similar to that of the Kon Tiki. In the reed boat Ra, named after the Egyptian sun god, the expedition left Safi in Morocco in an attempt to cross the Atlantic, and thereby prove that the papyrus vessels of the ancient Egyptians had been capable of crossing the Atlantic. Heyerdahl maintained that the early African and Egyptian civilizations could have brought cultural impulses to the Indians of Central America.

However, after a voyage of 5,000 kilometres, the Ra started to break up, on account of faulty construction, and had to be abandoned. But the Ra II expedition, a repetition mounted one year later, was a success, and the expedition reached Barbados after a two-month voyage of 6,100 kilometres, proving that in theory boats such as the Ra could have sailed with the Canaries current across the Atlantic in prehistoric times.

In 1977 Heyerdahl undertook yet another voyage with a reed boat, this time too to test theories concerning the ocean routes of antiquity. The purpose of the Tigris expedition was to throw light on ocean trade routes and cultural intercourse from about 3000 BC between Sumer in Mesopotamia and a number of other cultural centres in the Middle East, northeast Africa and the present Pakistan.

After the Tigris expedition, Heyerdahl has been engaged, among other things, in research into the early history of the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean.

He also has new excavations in progress. One of these is in Tenerife in the Canary Isles. There he discovered a sun-oriented pyramid which believably dates from the time of the guanches, the indigenous peoples of the Canary Isles. Heyerdahl is leading extensive digs at a huge site in Tucume, Peru, where 26 Andean pyramids are under excavation.

Rich treasures have been discovered at the site and remains show that the people who inhabited this region before the Incas were capable mariners, with extensive contacts along the entire South American coast.

Heyerdahl, now 80 years old is at present creating a museum on Tenerife, and studying the island's ancient cultural links to the old and new world.

With little but outer space left to explore, there is no scope for further exploration in the purest sense of the word. Nevertheless, a number of present-day Norwegians, perhaps inspired by the examples of their illustrious countrymen, have pitted their strength against the elements.

To the overwhelmingly male-dominated ranks of "explorers" it is refreshing to add the name of 45 year-old Monica Kristensen, meteoroligist and expert glaciologist who in 1986/87 led a South Pole expedition, following in the footsteps of Roald Amundsen.

The fact that adverse conditions forced her to turn back after passing 86 degrees south does not detract from the merit of her achievement or her courage and initiative in mounting the expedition.

Ms Kristensen is now attracting the attention of the scientific world for her research work in the Arctic and the Antarctic. In 1989 she was awarded the prestigious Gold Medal (Founder's Medal) of the Royal Geographical Society in London, becoming the first woman in fifty years to receive this award. In December 1991 she took on the task of coordinating a three-year, three-nation research assignment with participants from Norway, Sweden and the UK.

ReiseNett AS
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