This month marks the 35th anniversary of the landfall of the Las Balsas rafts in Ballina after their crossing of the Pacific Ocean from South America. Gabriel Salas, one of the crewmen, tells how the expedition came about, and how he was part of an earlier single-raft crossing of the Pacific Ocean. He also laments the lack of recognition for the remaining raft …
Back in 1970, when I had just finished my geology studies at the Universidad de Chile, I decided to hitch-hike with a friend across South America. We visited the north of Chile, the north of Argentina, crossed into Bolivia and then visited Perú and Ecuador.
We reached the city of Guayaquil in March, with the intention of travelling by ship to the Galápagos Islands, as these islands helped so much to shape Darwin’s thinking.
In the wharfs of Guayaquil one day we met three men – a Spaniard, a Frenchman and a Canadian.
They were tying a few balsa-wood logs together with the intention of crossing the Pacific Ocean from South America to Australia in a raft.
They wanted to double the distance covered some 25 years earlier by Thor Heyerdahl’s famous raft, the Kon-Tiki.
My friend, another friend we had met a few weeks earlier on the road and I decided to help these three people whilst we were waiting for our Galápagos ship.
Weeks later, when the ship arrived, I was invited to join the expedition.
As a result, my two friends continued their trip to the Galápagos and I stayed in Guayaquil.
A few weeks later, our sea voyage to Australia in La Balsa began.
La Balsa was the name of the raft. Six months later we made it to Mooloolabah in the Queensland coast. I stayed in Australia for a month and then returned to Chile.
Two-and-a-half years later I was invited again to do a second expedition by raft to Australia, but this time in three rafts (Las Balsas) with a crew of 12.
I decided to join this second expedition. A few months later I found myself at sea again.
One of the rafts forming part of this second expedition – the Aztlán – can be seen now in Ballina, where we arrived 192 days later on 21st November 1973.
The raft has been kept in Ballina for 35 years.
However, although our two expeditions were immensely popular during the seventies, very few people know where the Aztlán can still be seen now.
The first expedition La Balsa:
In November 1970, a raft carrying four people arrived in Mooloolaba, Queensland, after completing a six months crossing of the Pacific Ocean.
The name of the raft was La Balsa (meaning The Raft in Spanish).
Its port of departure had been Guayaquil in Ecuador, South America. It was the first primitive raft made with natural materials that had crossed the Pacific Ocean in modern times.
It is true that in 1947 Thor Heyerdahl in his Kon-Tiki raft had sailed from South America to the first islands of the Tuamotu Archipelago.
But this was half-way across the Pacific. For this reason, the main objective of the La Balsa expedition was to again test a primitive raft and see if it could sail much further and even make it to Australia.
Like the Kon-Tiki, La Balsa had been designed in agreement with the drawings and descriptions made of similar rafts seen by Spanish sailors far away from the coasts of South America during the 16th century.
Thus La Balsa was constructed without using iron, brass, steel or any other modern material. Only balsa wood and hemp ropes made its structure. A square sail made out of canvas, supported by two hardwood masts, was added to this structure.
The designs of the Kon-Tiki and La Balsa rafts did not include a rudder, which was an invention not known in pre-Columbian South America.
The Kon-Tiki had used an oar for steering.
Instead of an oar, we used ‘guaras’, or moving keel-boards, also made out of hardwood, and inserted in between the balsa wood logs.
These guaras – still used in Ecuador – helped us to significantly improve La Balsa’s capability of sailing across the wind and not just ‘drift’ like the Kon-Tiki but choose her path between favourable winds and currents.
She was also relatively small, light and fast.
As she was made of carefully selected female balsa tree trunks, she had excellent buoyancy. La Balsa did not lose much of her navigability after spending 186 days at sea.
La Balsa became very popular in Australia. At the time, she saw much more of this country than we the crew ever did.
A few weeks after her arrival, she was mounted on a truck and sent to be displayed in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
Hundreds of thousands of people saw her.
Afterwards, she was placed on a ship and sent to Spain, where her captain was born. By that time we, the crew, had all returned to our homes.
Second expedition Las Balsas:
The seaworthiness of La Balsa was a surprise to all of us.
After the 1970 expedition was completed, we knew that we could have continued travelling through the Torres Strait into the Indian Ocean and reached Africa, had we planned to do this.
Nevertheless, for a while, we thought about completing a circular trip intending to reach the first Polynesian islands and then turn south until catching the westerly winds to sail back to South America with the help of the southern winds and currents.
However, a few years later, we changed our plans and decided to fully cross the Pacific Ocean again, but this time in three rafts.
Why three rafts? Because if a fleet of three rafts could reach the other side of the Pacific and stay together, then larger numbers of rafts could have transported large amounts of people for long distances.
For example, 10 rafts could have reached anywhere in the Pacific. Or even 100 rafts, as mentioned in legends forged during South America’s pre-history.
In other words, if the navigability of rafts was so good that it was possible for them to sail fleets – as Columbus had done – then cultural interactions during the Pacific Ocean’s pre-history may not have been limited to occasional contacts.
Fleets of rafts could have transported whole ethnic groups carrying with them technology, arts, crafts, music, religion, writing, etc and thus have major impacts on the places where they arrived.
In sum, with Las Balsas we intended to show that fleets of rafts could have transported entire civilisations.
Thus, by the 21st of November of the year 1973, after covering some 9000 miles in a non-stop voyage which lasted longer than the La Balsa trip, we approached the coast of Australia in three rafts named the Guayaquil, the Mooloolaba and the Aztlán.
All were very similar to La Balsa. Although designed and equipped to sail independently, the three rafts had managed to stay within sight of each other during most of the trip.
However, just in front of Ballina we lost a raft.
So as to prevent the rafts from becoming destroyed by the surf whilst landing, we had accepted a tow by an Australian Navy ship just before reaching the coast.
Being under tow, we were suddenly struck by a storm.
As the waves and winds increased and the situation began to become dangerous, the Navy ship decided to abandon one of the rafts after taking its crew.
Thus we lost the Guayaquil five miles away from the Australian coast. The other two rafts, the Mooloolaba and the Aztlán, safely made it to Ballina.
A few years later, we lost the Mooloolaba and almost lost the Aztlán. The two rafts had been floating on the Richmond River for too long and the hemp ropes tying the logs began to rot.
With two other members of the Las Balsas crew still remaining in Australia and a large group of friends who wanted to help, we returned to Ballina with the intention of retying the two rafts with more durable ropes.
Unfortunately, it was too late for the Mooloolaba. Her logs had been separated and taken away by the tides and currents. Her masts and sail had disappeared. She had withstood the high seas but did not endure oblivion.
We were luckier with the Aztlán. We retied her logs just in time.
A few months later, Ballina Council gave her a place on dry land, and this provided her with a possibility of surviving.
A few years later, Council decided to build a small museum next to their Information Centre.
The museum hosted the Aztlán and included memorabilia dedicated to Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, who also had sighted Ballina at the end of his famous 1928 trans-Pacific flight.
We welcomed Council’s initiative and provided them with photos and a movie made during the expedition.
Now, 35 years later, the Aztlán still is in Ballina but forgotten.
Although Ballina Council did a wonderful job protecting and presenting the raft, only a few people in Australia know of her existence.
These days a few retired and very kind pensioners take care of the museum. Entrance is by voluntary donations.
In contrast, the museum in Oslo where the Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki raft is kept receives hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
They come from over 160 countries in the world. The entrance fees – of approximately $A13 per person – take care of the maintenance costs of the museum and also finance the activities of archaeological and anthropological research organisations operating all over the world. (The Museum’s site can be seen by typing Kon-Tiki Museum in Google).
Why does the Kon-Tiki Museum receive so many visitors and the Ballina Museum hardly any?
I believe the main problem is lack of publicity. The Ballina museum has not even a sign in the highway letting travellers know of its existence.
Even Dubbo City Council has done a better job of advertising the presence of the Zoo in its vicinity.
It is true that the Kon-Tiki was the first raft to plough the Pacific Ocean waves, but it sank half-way.
In contrast, the Aztlán is a raft that fully crossed the Pacific Ocean. She is the only survivor of the known fleet of rafts that sailed from South America to Australia.
Our story – the story of the people who sailed on her – is also a long story of survival and adaptation to the sea.
On the other hand, Ballina is not Oslo. But Ballina has grown immensely since the raft arrived 35 years ago and so has the tourist industry, not only in Ballina but also in nearby Byron Bay.
With a slight increase of publicity and some change of Council’s policies towards its Maritime Museum, wouldn’t the Aztlán help to augment the tourist industry in both towns? I think the answer is definitively “yes”.
I believe that the raft urgently needs to be realistically reappraised in its value.
Instead of being forgotten, the Aztlán could be seen by thousands of people; used as an educational material and, by becoming one of the important tourist attractions of Ballina and Byron Bay, generate additional income for local business and for the Museum itself.
I have not been in contact with Ballina Council for a long time but I understand its composition has significantly changed.
New ideas may be simmering and maybe there will be also a new future for the Aztlán and its Museum. Most of the work has been already done. It only remains to show it.
PICTURE: Ballina Shire Councillor Jeff Johnson, museum curator Ron Creber and Gabriel Salas.