Easter Island – Mystical Idols in the South Pacific
A place of mystery and atmosphere, a micro-dot in the unending Pacific: Easter Island, Isla de Pascua, Rapanui. How could we resist?
After six hours of flying over the ocean, we approached the runway, which neatly bisects the island between areas of higher land. And as we flew over the airport and back out to sea to approach from the west, there were tantalising glimpses of the legendary dark figures along the shore.
Soon enough we were on the shimmering tarmac walking towards a Polynesian-looking airport. No stamps for us though, as we were still in Chile. Greeted cheerfully at the airport by our hostel with the customary and fragrant garlands, it was looking like a beautiful day. And, for the most part, we had good weather throughout our stay.
The island itself is triangular in shape, with the airport and capital (Hanga Roa) in one corner between the Volcano Rano Kau and Orongo (ancient site). It’s 25km long by 12km wide, with a single road forming a loop: the south coast, heading north and cutting back inland to Hanga Roa. Perfect for walking (at a stretch), cycling or – in our case – zipping around in a small jeep. Even more adventurous types (or patient types) can be seen hitch-hiking up and down the isle. The large Volcano, Terevaka, sits in the northern tip of the triangle with Volcano Puakatike sitting in the Eastern corner. The landscape is rugged, and the coast black, volcanic and craggy. There are few trees.
Dotted around the coast are the famous Moai, stone idols in groups of usually 7 or 15 standing in line on mighty stone platforms. They date from 1250 to around 1500 CE and the tallest are nearly 10m and weigh in at 82 tonnes of tuff (compressed volcanic ash). Many have a top-knot, which is a stone hat of sorts, carved from a different red volcanic material. Nobody is fully sure how they were dragged from the quarry at Rano Raraku to their resting spots along the coast, although multiple theories abound: most likely cranes and rollers. I’d like to think that, once separated from their quarry umbilical cord, they mysteriously appeared in place overnight.
At Rano Raraku, an extinct volcano, hundreds of Moai stand upright, fallen over or broken, and still others were left in the process of being carved from the very cliff faces. It’s an eerie place.
At some point in the island’s past, the carving stopped and the statues were toppled. The Easter Islanders suffered many hardships, some self-inflicted and some from outside. They felled all the trees for their boats and the soil washed away. Consequently, they had neither food from the sea, nor from the land. Then outsiders arrived with disease and the slave-trade. Wars over resources broke out and the Gods were thought to have abandoned them. Eventually the different factions toppled each other’s Moai, although some say it was an earthquake.
Mystery after mystery, not least being how people arrived on the island in the first place on simple boats with an unforgiving, endless ocean before them.
We spent our 5 days slowly touring the many archaeological sites. It was quieter than we had anticipated. Often we had time to sit and contemplate the brooding monoliths with only the quiet breath of the sea and bird song to accompany us. For an avowed atheist, it was really quite spiritual (oops…did I just become a hippy?).
Orongo is a sacred village that was built on a volcanic rim, with the crater on one side, sheer cliffs and the ocean on the other. This site is associated with the Birdman cult. Each year, contestants would descend the vertiginous cliffs, swim the kilometre or so to a small Motu, scale the cliffs and search for the first egg laid by the sooty tern. The first to return an unbroken egg became the Birdman for a year, a symbolic leader honoured by the rest of the islanders. When you look down from Orongo to the Motu, you realise what an amazing feat this was. But neither of us was too keen on being the Birdman, so we didn’t have to attempt it.
Five days passed leisurely and easily. In addition to becoming spiritual hippies for the duration, we took in lovely sunsets and we wined and dined… well, a little bit (Easter Island is not low-cost, but it’s not ridiculous either–see our next destination for that). All of our activities were watched over by the knowing eyes of the Moai, which felt more comforting than threatening. With its Polynesian influence and Spanish language, Easter Island provided a fitting interlude between mainland South America and our next stop: Tahiti.