GAMBOLLING AROUND EASTER ISLAND
Chile lay 3500 kilometers to port and The Pitcairn Islands some 2000 kilometers to starboard. Every sailor, worth his salt, knew there was nothing but empty Pacific Ocean in between.
He had inadvertently come across the most isolated inhabited place on earth and named it Easter Island.
I am musing at my own gullibility of paying around $800 to take a 5 hour flight out of Santiago to this pimple of volcanic lava measuring 24 kilometers end-to-end and half that in width, when we come in to land.
The welcoming owners of my B&B lower the sign, hang a traditional lei around my neck and grab my bag. We drive for 10 minutes into Hanga Roa village where most of the 4400 inhabitants live.
Easter Island is, of course, all about the heads. The 887 huge moai statues carved from congealed volcanic ash that are spread along the coast.
My first moai sighting is a few steps down the hill. Past tin roofed bungalows with a horse or two grazing in the garden. Past small restaurants displaying tonight’s special on roadside chalkboards. A fine specimen towers over the tiny fishing harbour. Three more, with their backs to the sea, stand guard over young kids playing football just beyond the cemetery.
As with all great mysteries of the world, there are many opinions and conjectures surrounding their origin. The most popular theory runs: The island was discovered by Polynesians led by King Hotu Matua in the 8th century. Over time, the population grew. Clans were formed. Leaders were honoured by having their facial features carved into giant moai that would face their communities for all time. The ultimate ego trip!
Wood was used for cooking, building fishing boats, and moving the giant moai into place around the island – until eventually the trees ran out.
A shortage of food brought vicious wars between the clans, resulting in cannibalism and the toppling of each other’s moais. After Jacob Van Roggeveen, visiting explorers, including Captain Cook, reported finding more and more moai knocked from their ahus, (platforms), until none were left standing.
European whalers and planters followed. In 1862, Peruvian slavers took many of the islanders including the king. When the few survivors returned, they brought back smallpox, destroying most of the remaining population.
Chile annexed the island in 1888 and it was run as a sheep farm. In 1967 Easter Island, or Rapa Nui to the locals, hit the world map as a convenient refuelling stop for trans-Pacific flights.
Today’s standing moai have been re-erected on their ahus with the help of outsiders like explorer Thor Heyerdahl and American archaeologist William Molloy. In 1992, a Japanese company paid $2000,000 to restore the largest collection of 15 moai on a single ahu at Ahu Tongariki. The fallen statues had been swept inland by a tsunami in 1960.
I join a tour. Wild horses roam in packs along the roads, the hillsides, Everywhere! What better way to manage sheep and get around the island than on horseback, thought Europeans who introduced them in the 19th century. Ah! But the islanders eat sheep and not horses which have been allowed the freedom to multiply without predators.
Today there could be as many as 6,000 busily trampling the sites and denuding the land. Without tourism and Chilean aid, history might be repeating itself?
Most great historical sites are along the road following the jagged coastline. At Ahu Akivi, 7 moai unusually face out to sea instead of inland? Seven more line the back of Anakena, the only decent beach and safe landing spot in the place – Four have round red top-knots (pukaos).
Where were these incredible figures created?
We park at Rano Raraku, an extinct volcano, and hike up towards the cliff face. This is the genesis of all moai. The quarry used by the carvers. Full sized figures are already cut into the rock face waiting to be “freed” by their creators. Hundreds of half-buried heads peer eerily up, their bodies, trapped in the grassy slopes.
What is hidden beneath the ground? A “dig,” underway above the lake, on the backside of the quarry, shows hands and other body parts in much more detailed form. Exposed to the elements, moais, like totem poles, do not fare well over time.
What happened? Why did the carvers abandon their tools one day and never return?
Without doubt, this one extraordinary site is enough to set my imagination into overdrive. But there is more to come!
We climb back into the van. A narrow road leads to the edge of extinct Rano Kau. We peer down at the perfectly circular lake 200 meters below. The turquoise sea just beyond the crater wall makes a spectacular backdrop.
Further along the path, several boat shaped stone dwellings with low entrances and grass roofs have been restored. The Orongo ceremonial village sits on the edge of a cliff above 3 small islands. Petroglyphs of birds with beaks and hands clutching eggs are clearly carved into the rocks.
The bird cult, linked to the god Makemake in the 18th and 19th centuries, held their annual contest here.
Participants must race down the cliff, swim out to one of the islands, and collect an egg from the nest of a Sooty Tern. The first to return with the egg intact became “Birdman” for the following year and gained great status in the community. The wealthy were allowed to pay stand-ins and claim the fame for themselves!
We return to Hanga Roa, typical of a slightly worn, laidback Polynesian village. So what if a few street lights are out or the odd missing paver can land you straight into the drainage system. Why walk when you can grab a horse and trundle down to your favourite bar?
The little restaurants are friendly, pristinely clean and expensive! A supply ship arrives from the mainland once a month and anchors off shore. Tenders offload goods into a small harbour along the road.
Vegetable and fruit vendors sell their produce from the back of trucks in the early morning. Fishermen sell their catch a few yards further down the hill.
Despite a full flight arriving daily from Chile and more from Tahiti and Lima. Even adding in the odd cruise ship brave enough to anchor offshore – The island has seen few changes. Apart from a couple of fancy hotels, most of the 50,000 tourists who arrive each year are put up in family run B&Bs.
I quickly become attached to the bleak lonely beauty of the place. The lava fields. The wild coastline protected by jagged chunks of rock. The impossibly turquoise sea. Oh and the unique unsolved mystery of it all.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING AROUND: Horseback/Mountain bike/Group Tours/Jeep or Motorcycle. All are available. A jeep runs $50 a day. My tour with Kia Koe tours cost $50.
COSTS: A one time park entry runs a whopping $60 – Dinner with a beer around $50. My comfortable B&B cost $70 per night.
SAFETY: Apart from falling off a horse or tripping on a sidewalk it’s pretty safe. It’s always best to lock up your valuables wherever you are.
GUIDEBOOK: There are several. I found Lonely Planet “Chile and Easter Island” to be adequate and convenient for my purposes.
WHY TO GO AND HOW LONG TO STAY: I would agree with the growing number of visitors who say that Easter Island is totally unique and special. My ticket stated I had 4 days but by arriving and leaving around noon I had only 2 full days. The tour opened my eyes and the jeep allowed me to build on my new knowledge. An extra day or two would be better.
Copyright © 2012 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.