Easter Island - a HEADline act

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March 5th 2016
Published: April 7th 2016
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Given that we were due to fly out from Santiago the following morning we chose to overnight at an airport hotel. The taxi driver who took us from the bus station had quoted us a rough price but couldn't be exact as the taxi was metered. In fairness, he tried so hard to get us there within the price range he had indicated that I think we broke all land speed records and he was only a couple of thousand pesos over at the end. He earned his tip! The Hotel Diego de Almagro did exactly what it said on the tin, even providing a reasonably priced and very tasty evening meal when airport hotels usually realise they have a captive audience and charge the earth. The complementary breakfast set us up for the day the following morning and we were quite impressed. We used their free shuttle service to take us to the airport in ample time for the 10.30 am flight to Easter Island. This was the first time in our travels that we had deviated from our forward motion, travelling from left to right. For this trip we had to double back on ourselves, travelling from right to left, to get back to Easter Island which we had probably flown across on our flight from New Zealand to Chile.

We've found that as soon as you mention the word 'island' the transport costs seem to increase beyond all reason. Given that Easter Island is one of the most remote islands in the planet you can imagine how much plane seats were going to cost to get us there. We prevaricated about whether or not to go but, as Chile is the nearest land mass and we were unlikely to be so close ever again, we decided it was now or never. So, when Steve stumbled across two seats on a LAN flight at a fraction of the cost of any of the others he bagsied them for us. I was half expecting a prop plane or even one that had to flap its wings to remain airborne but no, it was in fact one of those relatively new Dreamliner planes, with all the bells and whistles. Accommodation and guided tours from Paul, an American who lived on the island, had us all sorted eight months before we were due to go!

The flight was delayed but only by thirty minutes and we landed on Easter Island 4h 40 m after taking off. It was 3811 kms of nothingness in cloudy skies. We landed on the one and only runway after flying over the island, then turning back to land. Despite being the only flight of the day it took forever for our luggage to come through and the airport is tiny so there wasn't much to do while we waited. I wandered out to find Paul and to let him know we were here (he hadn't forgotten about us, even though it had been eight months since initial contact!) and I returned to Steve wearing the sweet-smelling and colourful lei Paul had presented me with. We eventually got our luggage, went out into the glorious sunshine and loaded up into the battered but functional Jeep Paul had come in.

What a find Paul was! He had first come to the island in 1968 to work on one of the first digs there. He was the first blue-eyed blond many of the native islanders had seen! He came and went intermittently over the years until finally settling there after meeting and marrying his Rapa Nui wife who sadly died a few years ago. What he didn't know about the island wasn't worth knowing and we thanked our lucky stars that we had stumbled across his website. After a quick tour of the town, Hanga Roa, where Paul pointed out the best places to eat, the ATMs, the LAN office, etc, we were taken to his hotel, the Tekarera, where we met Flor the dog and settled in for the evening. The verandah provided us with lovely views of the setting sun and we went to bed looking forward to exploring further in the morning.

Poor Easter Island. Being stuck in the middle of nowhere, literally, it has had a chequered past with not much going for it. The Rapa Nui people were at one point used as a source for slaves until this was forbidden (only slaves from Africa allowed) and the very small numbers of survivors were returned. Unfortunately, these survivors were infected with smallpox and the Rapa Nui people on the island were almost wiped out. Spain showed an interest in the distant past, as did the British who used the island for sheep farming until Britain eventually persuaded Chile to adopt the island. This has been met with limited success. The Chilean mainlanders think Easter Island is the back of beyond, some sort of third world country, and the Easter Islanders hate the Chileans, mainly because they were kept ghettoed until 1986 (or was it 1988?). Whatever, I was horrified to think this was such recent history. Paul said when he first arrived his future wife was only allowed out of the ghetto on very rare and limited occasions. America has apparently done a lot of work on the island, building the runway strip (in return for being able to land their planes there, of course, for some sort of satellite monitoring I think) and providing good quality roads to and from strategic places on the island, which are now falling into disrepair. The Rapa Nui are now trying to take back some control of the island but it seems a mixed bag of fortune. Paul said they were undoing a lot of the archaeological work undertaken by Mulloy, Heyerdahl and him (under their tutelage), were unwilling to take advantage of the learning opportunities presented to them (particularly by the USA) and were making unrealistic demands of Chile. All of this was told to us by Paul whose views may be somewhat subjective, as his own position on the island is now somewhat tenuous as only Rapa Nui can own property on the island and Paul's inn, which was in his wife's name, is likely at risk despite his years of contribution, investment and integration into the society.

We had arranged to have a guided tour from Paul on our first full day on the island, followed up the next day by us exploring key sites on our own in his vehicle. The historical and archaeological facts can be Googled; the actual scale, physical presence and atmospheric aura of the moai has to be experienced. I'm sure we've all seen the photographs but they don't begin to set the scene. Paul took us to the Ahu Vai Uri Tahat and the Ahu Tahai/Ahu Ko Te Riku archaeological complexes, showing us some of the moai he himself had worked on and pointing out the remains of boathouses he had helped unearth but now being overgrown with grass once again. On the seashore he pointed out some white rocks. He had never seen these until recently and initially wondered if they were being painted by the locals. However, investigation revealed them to be part of a coral reef, somewhere miles away in the ocean, now being washed up in the beach at Easter Island. Paul put this down to global warming. We visited Rano Raraku, the quarry used to create the massive moai, and the remains of some that broke after being moved less than fifty yards from the rock face, after years of carving with primitive tools. Others remained half submerged in the soil, sad reminders of a culture no longer in existence. We couldn't help but be moved and inspired by the massive lumps of rock and what they represented. We visited the cave where Paul's mother-in-law used to live and we were going to visit a volcanic caldera but it was too foggy so we left that for another day. Paul dropped us in the small town so that we could have a bite to eat, and we paid a visit to the local chemist to try to get something for the lingering heartburn Steve still had as a result of that darned bottle of Chilean wine. Our language skills were severely lacking in this situation because the shocked assistants initially thought we were describing a heart attack, then constipation and it was only the magic and apparently universal word of 'Gaviscon' that clarified the matter. Armed with our cure-all we took a slow stroll back to the inn to watch the beautiful sunset on the verandah again.

The next day we were free to explore the island on our own. We took the Jeep which had a manual transmission and it was a little strange after all the automatics. In theory, they drive on the right on Easter Island but the road rules were all a bit 'loose'. There is no such thing as car insurance on the island - generally it is mutually agreed who was at fault though we felt sure 'the stupid tourists' would get the blame should anything happen to us. The only rule everyone seemed to adhere to was to let the large animals have right of way. These included cows, which are neither farmed nor milked (!!) and horses, literally thousands of wild horses, which wander at will including all over the ancient and irreplaceable ruins, doing untold damage. At one point, we were told, the horse population outnumbered the human population on the island. The horses are all owned, in that they are branded, but apparently if you fancy one and can find one without a brand you can claim it as yours! It's a status thing, seemingly .... So, we tried to drive on the right and avoid anything big enough to do us serious damage but there was nothing much to be done to avoid all the potholes in the roads. My poor back ....

We had a lovely day. We revisited Paul's MiL cave and checked it out inside to make sure it was still in good order - it was. We took the coast road round the island as far as we could and saw that the Japanese cruise ship which had arrived yesterday had managed to unload its passengers onto the island, using the islanders' very few boats to get them to shore. Apparently, if the sea is too rough the cruise ships just turn round and set sail for home again after a couple of days, which seems like an expensive way to not see your final destination to me. We made it up to the volcano, now filled with water and with colourful plants growing up the sides. We went to Te Pito Kura and Anakena and had some empanadas on a tourist beach with fake, concrete moai (why, in a place with plenty of the real things??!!) and one of the Japanese tourists whistled Greensleeves to us at the Bellybutton of the World site which was .... bizarre. We decided to visit Paul's final suggested attraction, even though he said it wasn't the best. My usual mantra of never being able to see everything and to choose wisely went completely out of the window - I absolutely had to see everything there was to see, it was all so wonderful and I'd never be coming back. So, I put up with the aching back and the tiredness and climbed up every hill and down every incline to soak it all up. It was just wonderful - full of mystery and atmosphere and I even made the time just to sit and savour the moments. Fantastic.

On our last day we had to revisit the LAN office to try to get our boarding passes printed. The office had been closed the day before to be fumigated(!!) and Paul did not possess a printer. We arrived to an enormous queue of people. Happily, we spotted a couple of empty computers and printers and we managed to print them out ourselves after a couple of false starts trying to interpret the Spanish instructions on their somewhat complicated website. It was only after we were successfully clutching two copies of said passes that we noticed a little box on the screen with various national flags on display and words that presumably said 'select your language'. No matter. We also called at the post office to post some cards and get an 'official stamp' of the island on one of our official documents, quite unofficially and probably illegally, in exchange for a small tip. We woz there!

On returning to the hotel Paul presented me with a shell necklace and Steve with a keyring as souvenirs of our visit, which was lovely of him. I got all emotional at the thought of leaving him and this amazing island, knowing I'd probably never return but I could say that about a lot of places. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time and our Dreamliner plane awaited us on the runway, looking completely out of proportion in its enormity. Despite being the only flight of the day we were half an hour late departing. I blamed the postman, whose van eventually screamed up to the cargo doors at a great rate of knots. I hoped our postcards would be on there! Finally, we set off for the return flight to Santiago.

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