Christopher Columbus was not the first European to cross the Atlantic. A Norse explorer reached the American shore a few centuries before the Genoese sailor did, and he did not harbour any grand design to reach India.
Long before Spanish and Portuguese explorers set sails to redraw the world map, Viking ships ruled the seas. They dominated the Baltic and the North Sea, raided French and Spanish coastal towns, colonised half of Britain and even reached a few Black Sea ports.
Modern Norwegians have shed their ancestors' aggressive traits but the explorer gene lingered. One of them led a surprise expedition to Antarctica to conquer the South Pole. Another one drifted on a balsa wood raft from Peru to Polynesia to prove a point.
Norway's maritime heritage is on display in the major museums of Oslo. The famed boat houses have enough history to pack a visitor's day in the Norwegian capital. All of them are situated in the Bygdøy peninsula on the western side of the city. They can be accessed by a bus from the city centre or a ferry that operates only in summer.
A boat unearthed in 1880 from a farm at Gokstad, on the western shore of the Oslofjord, contained the scattered bones of a man. The condition of the bones suggested that he was in his forties when he died. The left knee and the right thigh bone bore oblique cut marks, as if carved by a sword. The chieftain struggled to resist his challengers. He was tall and sturdy yet age was catching up. The swords cut into his left knee and right thigh. The end was near.
Built around 900, the Gokstad ship could accommodate 32 oarsmen. The 24-metre long oak ship is the largest of the three vessels on display in the Viking Ship Museum. It could have sailed as far as Iceland. It later became the grave of its probable owner.
The man must have been an influential person. The Viking warriors were confident that their longboats could carry them even to the netherworld. His mourners had packed everything he might need in his journey to the other world. They included a tent, a bed, a sleigh, three small boats, 64 shields and even a board game to pass any time he was left with. A dozen horses, eight dogs, two falcons and two peacocks were also buried with him.
The burial ship was already plundered by the time it was excavated. Predictably, it contained no weapons or jewellery. The burial chamber has a large hole cut open by tomb raiders in the Viking Age.
The first ship that greets the visitors to the museum is named the Oseberg ship, whose intricate carvings are unmatched by any Viking ship found anywhere else. It was found crushed along with the remains of two women. It took 21 years for the archaeologists to piece together the find. About 90 percent of the reconstructed ship is original wood.
The Tune ship is the first Viking ship to be excavated and preserved anywhere in Scandinavia. The ship is only partly preserved and none of the grave gifts have remained but it is the only ship that was never dismantled after being found. The ship shows us the waterproofing technology of the time -wool caulking between the wooden planks.
A handful of iron nails represent the museum's fourth ship burial that was found at Borre.
Marooned polar ships
Roald Amundsen's crew members stood with mouths agape when the explorer told them that their destination was South Pole, not North Pole. Amundsen changed his plans when he heard news that an American ship had already reached the North Pole. The South Pole then, he decided.
He kept his plan under wraps, informing only his brother and the ship's commander and a couple of key staff. The others did not know until they were about to resume the journey after a stopover on Madeira.
On January 14, 1911, four months after leaving Madeira, Amundsen's ship, the Fram, was anchored in the Bay of Whales off Antarctica. Almost a year later, Amundsen and four of his fellow travellers on dog sleighs became the first men to reach the South Pole, beating Robert Scott by a month.
The Fram is intact inside one of the most famous museums in Oslo. Built to drift across the Arctic Sea, the Fram is considered the strongest wooden ship ever made. It had carried the expeditions of Fridtjof Nansen and Otto Sverdrup through the Arctic before it was hired for Amundsen's ambitious polar plan.
The Fram museum was inaugurated in 1936. Visitors can squeeze their way through the underbelly of the ship, reliving the lives of the legendary explorers. Keep an eye out for the cabin of Oscar Wisting, Amundsen's trusted companion. Wisting captained Fram to its final destination in Bygdøy. While busy working on the museum, he died in his old cabin.
Back on the deck, a sound-and-light show recreates a turbulent sea at dusk and the dance of the Northern Lights.
The museum also exhibits Gjøa, the sloop that carried Amundsen across the Arctic Sea to the Pacific in 1906. Amundsen charted the hypothetical Northwest Passage after three years in sea and on ice.
The voyage was part of a continuum that started with early Vikings. Leif Erikson sailed up to the northern reaches of the American continent as early as 10th century but did not deem 'Vinland' was worth the trouble.
The Europeans' desire to find a westward sea route to Asia did not end with Columbus' accidental discovery of a new continent. The new passion was to find a way across the continent. Amundsen became a national hero in newly independent Norway when he succeeded in the effort.
Raft that rewrote history
Thor Heyerdahl had the craziest of ideas. The ethnographer wanted to drift in a balsa wood raft across the Pacific to disprove the dominant academic consensus of the time.
Researchers in the 1940s believed that Polynesian Islands in the Pacific were first inhabited by primitive sailors from Asia. Heyerdahl's fieldwork led him to believe that some of the islanders could trace their origin from the other side of the sea in South America.
The only way to prove his theory was to drift like the early settlers might have did. He put together a team of adventurers, made a raft from balsa logs and set sail from Callao, Peru. The six sailors and their companions- a pet parrot and a castaway crab- drifted for 101 days until the raft crashed into a reef off the Raroia atoll on August 7,1947.
You have to see the primitive raft on display in the Kon-Tiki Museum – bang opposite the Fram Museum – to understand the daredevilry of the explorers and their commitment to science. The handbuilt raft had drifted for about 8,000 km through the open sea, braving storms and sharks and scepticism.
The adventure was caught on tape and became the fodder for an Academy Award-winning documentary in 1951. The film is screened daily at noon at the museum.
Heyerdahl's feat did not put paid to academic debates but he went on more ambitious voyages. He thought early Egyptians had crossed the Atlantic on reed boats to settle in South America. After all the Maya and Aztec had their pyramids too.
The Kon-Tiki museum also showcases Ra, a primitive boat made of papyrus from the shores of the Nile. Heyerdahl's first attempt to replicate the imaginary voyage in 1969 was catastrophic. What we see in the museum is Ra II, which set sail from Safi in Morocco and reached Barbados in 57 days in 1970.
Heyerdahl demonstrated that Egyptians might have crossed the Atlantic even before the Vikings. Sea was a highway between ancient civilizations, rather than a barrier. He also navigated a reed boat from Iraq through the Gulf and into the Arabian Sea, suggesting that ancient Mesopotamia might have been in commercial contact with Egypt and Indus Valley civilisations.
If you are not seasick after the three museums, check out the Norwegian Maritime Museum or the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History in the same peninsula. The Oslo Pass covers entry to all the museums and bus/ferry tickets.