The woman behind the Kon-Tiki Expedition

In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl and his crew sailed the balsa-raft Kon-Tiki from Callao, Peru, to the Tuamotu Islands in French Polynesia. The voyage made the six men world famous. However, it was a woman, Gerd Vold Hurum, who was key in organizing the expedition and kept the reins on shore. She was the secret 7th member of the expedition.


The Kon-Tiki raft under sail in the Pacific. Erik Hesselberg in the mast.

The crew arrive in San Francisco and meet the 7th expedition member, Gerd Vold Hurum. From left: Knut Magne Haugland, Herman Watzinger, Bengt Emmerik Danielsson, Capt. on M/S Thor I, Torstein Raaby, Gerd Vold Hurum, Harold "HAL" Kempel, Erik Hesselberg, and Thor Heyerdahl.

The Kon-Tiki expedition

The Kon-Tiki Expedition was a result of a theory Heyerdahl had been pondering ever since his stay on the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas in 1938: this group of islands in the South Pacific could not have been populated solely by peoples from the west. It must also have been populated by indigenous people from South America. Among the circumstantial evidence Heyerdahl pointed to, was the story of Con-Tiki Viracocha, a native chief who, legend has it, sailed west from Peru into the sunset. On the very coast he sailed from, local fishermen used log-rafts made of balsa wood. Perhaps these were the kind of vessel that Con-Tiki Viracocha had used to sail into the Pacific? Drawings of such vessels had appeared in Spanish manuscript as early as the the 16th and 17th centuries.

Heyerdahl presented his theory to a group of leading American anthropologists in the spring of 1946, but they ignored him. An American scientist had already documented that these balsa-log rafts were not seaworthy Heyerdahl was told. They would soak sea-water and sink, or disintegrate, within two weeks. One friendly archaeologist, Herbert Spinden, challenged Thor on this fact and said: “Sure, see how far you get yourself sailing from Peru to the South Pacific on a balsa raft!”

Heyerdahl accepted the challenge, and began planning the expedition that would take him and the crew across the Pacific Ocean on his own balsa raft.

Gerd Vold Hurum photographed on the beach in Callao shortly before the Kon-Tiki raft set sail for Polynesia.

Gerd Vold Hurum - The woman that the museum forgot

Gerd Vold Hurum was the key person helping Thor Heyerdahl to organize the Kon-Tiki expedition during the winter and spring of 1946-47. In today’s terms she would have been called a “project leader”. This was Heyerdahl’s first expedition, and the way she solved the task may have provided him some lessons for future projects. Gerd also had the idea to transport the raft home to Norway. The fact that Gerd Vold Hurum was a key person on the expedition team has been a well-kept secret for museum’s visitors.

Why has the story of the expedition’s 7th member not been part of the museum’s exhibitions before? The blunt answer is: Because she was a woman!

The Kon-Tiki Expedition took place during a time when men were given the leading roles. Women were often relegated to stay in the background, their competence notwithstanding. The men who sailed the raft got the attention, not the woman who helped organize the expedition and held the reins on land.

Gerd Vold Hurum joined the crew during the first hours of sailing the balsa-wood raft, and would have likely signed up for the whole voyage if that had been an option. The Norwegian ambassador in Washington, her boss, had explicitly denied her leave to go on the expedition. He did not want to lose a hard worker, and, in the end she was “just” a woman.

Thor Heyerdahl knew Gerd Vold Hurum’s qualities when he had chosen her – a woman – over other male candidates as the project leader for the expedition.

It took 75 years, but she finally got her rightful place in the Museum.

Gerd Vold Hurum, center, skiing with her parents Olaf and Oddbjørg and her sister Edith (Photo courtesy of Annette Hurum).

Growing up in Norway

Gerd Vold Hurum was born and grew up in a large, white Swiss chalet style house at Sæter, Oslo, with an idyllic garden. In addition to flowers and fruit trees, the garden around the house had a small birch grove. The family called the place “Løvås”.

Gerd was physically active as a child, and she frolicked in the birch grove of Løvås. Often, Gerd would sit in the top of her favorite tree and do her homework. In parallel to this tomboy side, she was a very sensitive child.

Skiing and hiking are important part of growing up in Norway, and these  were activities Gerd greatly appreciated. She became a skilled skier and not many men could match her speed. She also participated unofficially in the classic long-distance skiing race, Birkebeineren, even though women were not allowed to compete.

Gerd spent summers on her father’s family farm, near Hamar in Hedmark. At a young age she learned to milk cows and ride a horse. Horse-riding became a passion she continued for many years. She dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but her father believed the job was too physically demanding for a woman, and she ended up going to business school.

Gerd Vold Hurum and her friend Reidun Herbern as student in Oslo (Photo courtesy of Annette Hurum).

Resisting German occupation and serving the nation

Gerd Vold Hurum was 23 years old and working for Brage, an insurance company, when the Germans invaded Norway on April 9th, 1940. She reacted with every fiber of her being and immediately joined the resistance movement, writing stencils for the illegal newspaper “Vi vil oss et land”.

Gerd soon became an independent operator, with access to a radio transmitter and a postal route to Stockholm, as an agent for Special Operations Executive. She became a link between the resistance network in Oslo and the Norwegian government in London.

On December 18th, 1941, one of her contacts was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo. Gerd had to flee on foot to Sweden, and then on to England.

Gerd Vold Hurum in uniform during WW II (Photo courtesy of Annette Hurum).

In London, she became the first female assistant at the Armed Forces High Command’s Office for Special Operations, FO IV, led by Leif Tronstad, which collaborated with the British. This office organized sabotage operations in Norway, and Tronstad was the man behind the Vemork raid, in which saboteurs destoryed Hydro’s production of heavy water at Rjukan.

Gerd became the obvious contact for agents and was perhaps the first in Norway to undertake ”debriefings” of secret operations’ agents. She became friends for life with many of them, and also Colonel John Skinner Wilson, head of the Special Operations Executives’ Scandinavian department.

Gerd Vold Hurum in the office FO IV (Photo courtesy of Annette Hurum).

The resistance hero makes her stand in a battle for equal pay

After the war, Gerd Vold Hurum was not able to settle down in Norway. She therefore got a job as Head of encryption at the Norwegian Embassy in Washington in September 1945. Here she was to experience a new world and perhaps escape memories of war.

Gerd Vold Hurum had planned to stay at the Embassy for at least a year, and then make a trip to the West Coast of America before returning home to Norway. Unfortunately, the salaries of the employees at the Norwegian Embassy were not among the highest in Washington, or to be more precise, the men were well paid while the women received just a little more than half the men’s pay. The single women had a particular hard time making ends meet because of the hight costs of living, then as now, in the captial.

Gerd Vold Hurum in Washington, 1945-46 (Photo courtesy of Annette Hurum).

However, when life present you with some though choices, an unexpected solution may also appear. Luck would have it that the commercial counsellor at the Norwegian Embassy was going back to “the old country” and a replacement had to be found. He suggested Gerd Vold Hurum for the position. Even better, while Gerd earned $ 200 in her current job, the commercial counsellor earned $ 350.

The Ambassador imediately agreed when he was asked if Gerd Vold Hurum was a good choice for the job. She would become the first female commercial councellor in the history of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Only the question of salary remained, and then present the case to the ministry and get their approval.

But now the long and “proud” traditions of the foreign service began to interfere in the matter. The Charge d’affaires, who was responsible for filling the position, anticipated that it would not be a proper diplomatic procedure to proposed equal pay for equal work. Gerd Vold Hurum’s predesessor was a man, and the women working for the Embassy did not earn such high figures. The “smart” solution was to get her the job and give her a pay raise after the fact. At least, this was his argument. Consequently, he suggested a monthly salary of $ 290. He even thought he was being checky for even asking this much. After a good night’s sleep, the man had suffered a severe anguish attack and he reduced the proposed salary to $ 275. But doubts still gnawed him and he phoned Ambassador Morgenstierne who agreed. “Not higher than $ 250 dollars!” The faithful office ladies who had worked up to 28 years at the embassy for a minimum wage could become jealous.

When the job-offer arrived from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the proposed monthly salary was cut by another $ 50 to only $ 225. Gerd Vold Hurum, who was proud and did not intend to sell herself cheap, told the ambassador that she would not take the job unless she received equal pay for equal work. On returning to her office, she booked a flight home to Oslo a few days later, on December 6th, 1946.

Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition was to benefit from Gerd Vold Hurum’s unfortunate case. Ambassador Morgenstierne ordered her to remain in the position as Head of encryption until a replacement could come from Oslo and be trained. The Kon-Tiki boys willingly made her project leader and part of the Kon-Tiki family, and benefited from her profesionality and top notch work ethics that her country did not appreciate highly enough.

Gerd Vold Hurum, Torstein Raaby, Thor Heyerdahl , and Erik Hesselberg, in Callao during the final preparations for the Kon-Tiki Expedition.

The woman who could fix everything

The expression “a man’s world” sometimes refers to the fact that frequently, established networks of men help other men make carriers. However, when it really mattered, it was a female with an extensive network and great organizational talent that helped Thor Heyerdahl. Her contacts from working at FO IV during WW II and her time in Washington, gave Gerd an uncanny ability to solve pressing problems challenging the organization of the expedition.

The expedition had been offered to test equipment for the US War Department, but Heyerdahl wanted to meet the decision-makers in person, to persuade them to quickly approve the offer. Others had refused help when they heard that the primitive balsa raft would sail alone across the Pacific. Heyerdahl turned to the rich Norwegian-American Georg Unger-Vetlesen, a key figure in intelligence-work during WW II and later one of the architects behind the airline SAS. Vetlesen identified General Hoag and Colonel Clark, as key figures in the Quarter Master division of the armed forces, although he did not know either of them personally: ”You need someone to introduce you.”

Gerd Vold Hurum driving the Ford she had bought for her brother-in-law (Photo courtesy of Annette Hurum).

Heyerdahl despaired, but immediately cheered up when the driver of the new Ford taking him back to Washington, Gerd Vold Hurum, said she could handle the task. The very next day, General Hoag sat in Vold Hurum’s apartment with the Kon-Tiki boys. Colonel Clark came by a few days later.

The raft under construction at the Peruvian Naval Base in Callao. It were Peruvian seamen who did most of the construction. Here we see their officer in discussion with Bengt Emmerik Danielsson, the only crewmember who spoke fluently Spanish.

When the expedition arrived in Peru and they needed help from the authorities, Gerd charmed General Reveredo with her intellect and efficiency so that a car and driver was made  available to the expedition. Whenever they encountered problems Thor Heyerdahl always said with optimism in his voice: ”Let’s send Gerd!”

A comfort to the families

The most difficult part of Gerd’s job began when she returned from being aboard the raft a couple of hours to Callao, in a sailboat belonging to the editor of Lima’s largest newspaper. The Kon-Tiki expedition sent radio messages to newspapers during the voyage. Gerd Vold Hurum’s task was to convey the messages to the press and partners. However, she understood quickly how important it was to keep the families of the crew informed. In today’s age, this is a simple task. In 1947 all letters had to be typed, two or three at a time. Since they became so popular, she had to produce 14 copies while managing her full-time job at the embassy. Gerd also encouraged the families to update her on their daily life in order to heighten the boys’ spirits. This was transmitted to the small radio aboard the raft.


The Kon-Tiki radio-station at Raroia atoll in the Tuamotu Islands.

Gerd never actually got paid for the job she did for the Kon-Tiki expedition. Fortunately, she was paid for the work she did at the embassy. She considered that being part of such a historic event as an incredible experience.

The Italian movie star Sophia Loren, with Roberto Rossi, stepping onto the Kon-Tiki (Photo: Bjørn Fjørtoft, Norwegian National Archives).

How did the museum come to be?

How did the Kon-Tiki raft end up in a museum? Thor Heyerdahl went on the expedition to prove that ancient Peruvian balsa-wood rafts were capable of ocean crossings. This he had proved and initially he intended to let the log-raft stay on Raroia Island as a testimony to its seaworthiness. Neither did the expedition have funds to pay for transport home.

Gerd Vold Hurum sitting on top of the wrecked Kon-Tiki raft, which are stored outside at the location of the new museum.

It was Gerd’s idea that the raft should be exhibited. Perhaps the ticket sales could make some hard-earned cash to cover expedition expenses. The Kon-Tiki raft was towed to Papeete and moored along the promenade quay. Gerd got the job of arranging transport to the US, and she managed to arrange for the cargo ship M/S Thor I to stop by Tahiti.

Stateside, Gerd attempted to arrange for the Kon-Tiki to be exhibited in a local park in San Francisco. But even in America there are obstacles for entrepreneurs. They would need to pay rent for the exhibition space and salaries to people for guarding the raft. Additionally, a financial guarantee that the raft would be removed afterwards had to be put up in advance. Without fresh cash this was impossible. Gerd again had to organize transport. This time to Oslo.

The Kon-Tiki House, the first museum which opened May 15th 1950 and was replaced by a permanent museum in 1956.

Knut Magne Haugland and Thor Heyerdahl together on the raft some days before the Kon-Tiki House welcome its first visitors.

Knut Magne Haugland, who supported Gerd’s idea, took on the job of raising money and building the museum once back in Oslo.  On May 15th, 1950, the Kon-Tiki Museum opened its doors at Bygdøy and in a few years it became one of Norway’s most popular museums.

Gerd's life after the Kon-Tiki Expedition

In 1950, Gerd met Sven Hurum, a businessman and Honorary Norwegian Consul of Manilla in the Philippines, who was on vacation back home in Oslo. The couple fell in love and got  married 15 days later. After a few years in the Philippines, the family moved to Montreal in Canada where Sven Hurum established an office for the Norwegian shipping-firm Wilhelm Wilhelmsen. Here they got two children, Sven Olaf and Annette. Gerd and Sven Hurum possibly had their best years back in Oslo after their retirement in 1977.

Gerd Vold Hurum and Sven Hurum in Manila, Philippines, shortly after their marriage (Photo courtesy of Annette Hurum).

Gerd Vold Hurum with her son Sven Olaf and daughter Annette, in Montreal (Photo courtesy of Annette Hurum).

In Montreal she became restless being a housewife, and started her own company selling Norwegian gift items. However, when she got news that some Canadian medical researchers intended to organize an expedition to study the health of the people on Rapa Nui or Easter Island, she again volunteered to help. It became the Medical Expedition to Easter Island, METEI, 1964-65. In 1967, Father Sebastian Englert, the Catholic priest who had helped Thor Heyerdahl’s Norwegian Archaeological Expedition on Rapa Nui in 1955-56, came to America and Canada. He fell ill and Gerd Vold Hurum accompanied him back to the island.

Gerd Vold Hurum exploring the famous moai statues of Rano Raraku on Rapa Nui or Easter Island (Photo courtesy of Annette Hurum).

Stanley Skoryna, Father Sebastian Englert, and Gerd Vold Hurum in Montreal in 1967 (Photo courtesy of Annette Hurum).

Without Gerd Vold Hurum the Kon-Tiki raft might not have sailed from Callao on April 28th 1947. This Thor Heyerdahl and his crewmembers knew very well. For them she was the 7th member of the expedition.

Drawing by crewmember Erik Hesselberg in Gerd Vold Hurum's copy of "Kon-Tiki. On raft across the South Seas" (Courtesy of Annette Hurum).