Photo: Willy Haraldsen/ NTB scanpix

Famous Explorers

Since the Viking age, Norway has produced many explorers and adventurers. Thanks to their shipbuilding skills, Norwegians have travelled the globe in search of new lands and adventure for centuries.

The first famous Norwegian seafarer was Leif Eriksson, the Viking who discovered America 500 years before Christopher Colombus.

In more recent times, Thor Heyerdahl drifted across the Pacific on the Kon Tiki, a raft made from lightweight balsa wood. He wanted to show that South American Indians could have travelled this way hundreds of years before, and made the journey himself from Peru to Polynesia in 1947. In 1969 and 1970 he made two expeditions on the Ra, a boat made of papyrus, to prove that ancient vessels would have been able to cross the Atlantic to America. Heyerdahl’s last great raft expedition took place in 1977-78, when he made a boat from reeds (the Tigris) and sailed around the Arabian peninsula.

As a nation with 40% of its land within the Arctic Circle, Norway has a long history of polar exploration. Fridtjof Nansen was the first person to cross the Arctic Ocean in 1893, in a ship specially built for him. The Fram was the strongest wooden ship in the world and was designed to travel through ice-packed waters. Nansen had already set a record in 1888 by becoming the first person to ski across Greenland.

In 1898, Otto Sverdrup captained the Fram on an expedition to Greenland. However, they became ice bound in the frozen waters of Arctic Canada, and the people of Norway thought the ship and its men were lost at sea. There was much celebration when the Fram returned in 1902, four years after it first set sail.

In the 20th century, Roald Amundsen became the inspiration for many modern explorers who have followed his path to both the North and South Poles. Amundsen discovered the Northwest Passage between Greenland and Northern Canada on his 1903-1906 voyage. In 1911, he led his men to become the first to reach the South Pole, using the famous ship Fram, dogs and skis.  Amundsen later tried to reach the North Pole by polar ship and plane, and in 1926 he crossed the Arctic in the airship Norge. He died on a rescue mission to the North Pole in 1928.

In modern times, more Norwegians have explored the world’s most remote places. Erling Kagge is the first person to complete the ‘three-pole challenge’ of reaching the North Pole, South Pole and the top of Mount Everest. Børge Ousland is a record-breaking explorer who records his travels on film and on his website at


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Did You Know?

Fridtjof Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his work helping refugees after the First World War. He was a friend of King Edward VII, and was the first-ever Norwegian ambassador to London from 1906-08.