Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is known locally, is a peculiar place.
It is one of the most isolated places in the world; the nearest inhabited land is the tiny island of Pitcairn, around 2000km away. It is 4100km to the more populated, but still small island of Tahiti and 3700km to mainland Chile.
Locals call it “Te Pito o Te Henua” – the navel of the world. The English expression “the middle of nowhere” may be more apt, and certainly explains why the place feels strangely otherworldly.
Just to be clear, the people are not strange at all, but lovely and welcoming – here I am in the fresh flower garland given to everyone at airport arrivals.
Behind me are the spectacular crashing waves we could see from our campsite. Mark became a bit addicted to taking pictures of waves (NB: the gnarly surf and paddleboard dudes are, sadly, not either of us)
While Rapa Nui is officially part of Chile, it really belongs to Polynesia, a geographical area defined by an imaginary triangle between New Zealand, Hawaii and Rapa Nui itself. All of these places share common cultural traditions, such as similar traditional dances. We went along to a show one night. There were plenty of hunky men on stage…
…and beautiful ladies…
…and at one point, a scared looking Englishman…
I cannot foresee a time when this photo will fail to crack me up.
Rapa Nui culture reached its peak between 800 AD -17th century, when the famous large basalt statues of anthropomorphous figures known as moai were constructed.
We got up before dawn one morning to see the moai at Ahu Tongariki gradually revealed by the rising sun.
Perhaps more famous than the moai statues themselves is the mystery they represent; nobody knows exactly why or how they were made.
Saying that, it is widely accepted that the statues symbolise neither gods nor demons, but ancestors of the island’s different clans who really lived here.
The silent, watchful faces are not scary or menacing in the slightest despite their imposing size. They almost always face inland as if keeping a protective eye over the island’s inhabitants, as an elder would seek to look out for their young. Only one site of moai face the sea but they still watch over a village area.
These pictures were taken at Rano Raraku, the quarry site where the statues were prepared.
The statues’ facial expressions are mild, solemn and placid – I felt an overwhelming sense of warmth and comfort when near them and couldn’t help but smile. Perhaps the joyful spirit exuded by the statues is the reason why we couldn’t resist trying a few jokey impressions…
Other cultures commemorate their culture and ward off enemies with fierce, warlike imagery but the Rapa Nui way was to instil a sense of security via pride in the spirits of the island’s elders.
So the ancestral significance of the statues is agreed – the real enigma is the precise way that the moai statues were transported and erected. Experts debate theories involving levers, pulleys and sledges but no conclusions can be drawn.
Mark and I have no truck whatsoever with the belief some (crazy) people have that there must have been alien intervention. Puh-lease! If the monumental structures like Machu Picchu we visited earlier in our travels taught us anything, it’s that ancient peoples had ways of getting things done with manpower and hard graft that we modern softies just can’t comprehend. Anyway, like the tricks of a master conjurer, the puzzle adds to the powerful aura of the moai.
Although they vary considerably (after all, each moai echoes the characteristic features of a real person and the size relates to their clan’s perceived prestige), the average moai is 4m and 12.5 metric tons.
There are 887 moai in total, but only 288 are erected on an ahu (stone platform). 397 remain scattered around in various stages of completeness in the Rano Raraku quarry and 92 can be found outside of the quarry, forever en route to their ahu. The remainder are in fragments or part of museum collections.
The several moai that are in fragments were damaged largely as a result of the conflicts between different lineages (mainly over resources), which led to toppling of rival clans’ statues.
These conflicts from the 17th century also brought about the Tangata Manu or birdman rituals. Each year, men would compete to be the first to find the first egg of the season laid by the sooty tern aquatic bird. This was a tough challenge which involved swimming out through strong currents to the place where these birds nested, living in the wilderness for days and tracking birds before a final race back. The winner would be considered sacred for the next year.
Much of the artwork around the island shows symbols relating to the birdman rituals.
We hiked up to the volcanic crater of Rano Kau to check out the ceremonial village of Orongo, through gorgeous fields of wildflowers.
A friendly stray dog followed us all the way from town, waiting patiently while we puffed up steeper bits. We managed to hitch a lift in the back of a pickup truck on the way down and abandoned the poor pooch – he sprinted after the car as far as he could.
The volcanic crater of Rano Kau:
These are the rocks where the sooty terns lay their eggs, and where the contestants would swim as quickly as possible.
Orongo, an important ceremonial village during the birdman rituals.
Rapa Nui was very expensive: everything cost at least three times as much as on the mainland. We made do with meals cooked at our campsite, using provisions carried over from Santiago. One exception was the sublime ice cream from Mikafé, made with local island fruits such as goiaba, kiwi, coconut, sweet potato. The flavours changed each day so we made sure to make a daily visit!
We happened to be in Rapa Nui during the annual marathon race. There were also half marathon, iron man and 10k races. Mark was briefly tempted to sign up for one of them but decided that running with zero training, dodgy shoes and in searing heat would not be a good idea (the marathon had to start after church, at 10.30am, so it continued during the hottest part of the day).
While we did the sensible thing of chilling with a beer near the crashing waves on race day, our new campsite pals Alistair and Kate not only ran, but both won their respective age categories.
26.2 miles in the midday sun = madness. Told you this was a peculiar place!