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Published: March 2nd 2008
Moai of Easter IslandThe most remote island?
At Rano Raraku, where the moai were quarried.
Located almost 4000 km from mainland Chile, and well over 2000 km from the nearest inhabited land (Pitcairn Islands), Easter Island has a fair claim to being the world's most remote place. Remote it may be but isolated it is not, as daily LAN Chile flights from Santiago and Tahiti, not to mention the huge numbers of tourists that visit, mean you never feel the solitude that the earliest inhabitants of the islands must surely have felt. Indeed, until 1968 the island was visited only once a year by a ship from Chile which brought supplies, something of a contrast to nowadays! In spite of these crowds it's easy to escape and find quieter spots where you can still feel some of the island's remoteness.
It was with some excitement that we left Santiago and flew out across the almost empty ocean. LAN is the only airline with flights to Easter Island, and we had a window seat for the flight with excellent views, first of Santiago as we left Chile and then of an island in the middle of nowhere (Robinson Crusoe island perhaps). The next land we saw was Easter Island almost 5 hours
Posing by the moai of Ahu Tongariki.
after leaving the mainland. After landing we were met by the lady who runs our campsite and greeted with a garland of flowers, a traditional welcome on the island. On our short ride from the airport I counted 5 moai - not all these are genuinely old moai as many were built for the 1993 Hollywood movie "Rapa Nui", and I'm sure many more have been constructed for hotels and restaurants in the tourist industry - and it finally began to sink in that we were here.
Easter Island is a volcanic island, with, I estimate, about 1/8 of the volcano above sea-level. It's roughly triangular shaped, with a maximum length of 23km and a width of about 10km. The only settlement is the village of Hanga Roa, on the west of the island, and in the last census the population was just under 4000 but it feels to me like there are more people. There were certainly plenty of tourists adding to the numbers. Our campsite/hostel was located just outside the town, about 10 minutes walk on the coast road, and from our tent we could see and hear the ocean. Camping Mihinoa is something of a backpackers
Easter Island from the air
Yuo can see Orongo, part of Rano Kau, and the "birdman" islands opposite Orongo.
magnet, and is well set up for visitors, as it's very cheap, with hammocks, a nice terrace, two kitchens, and even a moai at the bottom of the garden. This was our base for the next week, where we met some great people and spent many nights on the terrace eating, drinking, playing cards and watching the beautiful sunsets. Exploring the Island
We had seen pictures of the moai before our trip and we had even seen a genuine moai in the excellent museum in Vina del Mar, but seeing them for the first time on Easter Island was very special. On our first two days we walked and cycled to some of the sights nearest to Hanga Roa. We met some people who had rented cars and attempted to cover all the sights of the island in a day, but it's much more relaxing to give yourself a few days, take it in slowly, and to let the magic of the island grow on you slowly. Walking between the sights also makes you appreciate the effort that must have been involved in transporting the moai and the pukao around.
On the first day we walked as far
Mirador Rano Kau
It's not all moai. There are other excellent sights on the island such as this volcano, Rano Kau, one side of which has been eroded by the sea.
as Puno Pau, the quarry where the pukao (moai hats) were quarried. While archaeologists have figured out how the moai were raised on platforms in the old days, they still don't know how these pukao were placed on the upright moai. Indeed, over the past 30 years many moai have been restored to their original positions, but when it came to raising the hats, the only means of placing these hats was by crane. Some of the hats weigh several tonnes so it's a mystery how they did originally. One of the many riddles in Easter Island's history!
On day two we walked again, this time south from Hanga Roa to the Rano Kau volcano and the Orongo ceremonial site. The Rano Kau volcano is a good target for a half day walking trip from town, with a nice path along the coast road where you can see an ahu (platform on which the moai were raised) and old cave paintings in good condition. It was a steep climb to the rim of the volcano but we were rewarded with good views of the village. At the end of the path we reached the rim without expecting it and
suddenly, spread before us, was the stunning sight of Rano Kau, a volcano whose crater is over 1km wide, filled with water and containing lovely coloured rocks. One side of the crater overlooks the ocean and much of it has been eroded by the sea giving a window onto the ocean. It's a fantastic sight. We walked around one side of the crater to the Orongo archaeological site, which contains a ceremonial village, which used to be seasonally populated during the Birdman festival. Every year there was a race amongst the locals to find the first egg of the migratory sooty tern on one of the islands just off the shore from Orongo. Whoever brought back the first egg of the season earned the title of Birdman and won the dubious honour of living in solitude in a sacred house for a year. And of course the moai
Of course it's the moai that is Easter Island's big attraction. What do they represent? Why were they built? Why were they toppled? How were they moved? How did a stone carving cult develop in such an isolated place? These are just some of the questions whose answers continue to divide
Tapati Rapa Nui Festival
This is how the girls on Easter Island dress! Well, for the festival at least.
historians, archaeologists, and probably every visitor to the island. After walking to the nearby sights in the first 2 days we realized we'd need a faster way of getting around if we wanted to see more so we hired bikes from our campsite and set off to explore the southern part of the island.
Much of this southern shore line contains grounded moai, most of which were toppled in the 1770s. It seems such a waste of human effort when you see the sad sight of the fallen moai, especially the ones where the stone has cracked. Nowadays, some of these moai here have been restored, but many remain toppled. A Spanish voyage from 1770 reported that all the moai were upright, while only 4 years later Captain Cook's detailed visit noticed that many had fallen. Clearly something major went wrong in this time, and archaeologists have a variety of theories regarding this destruction. One book I read speculates that the islanders lived in harmony until their resources became overstretched, and, in particular, no trees remained for canoe building or for transporting the moai. This lead to fighting between the different clans, to the toppling of the moai and
One of the floats during the parade in the Tapati Rapa Nui festival
eventually resources were so scare the entire population was nearly wiped out. He also speculates that a similar overuse of resources may cause something similar to happen to the Earth one day!
The most impressive sight along the southern shore - perhaps the most impressive sight on the island - is the 15 moai at Ahu Tongariki. It gives you some idea of the ferocity of the 1960 tsunami that these huge moai - many weighing over 20 tonnes - were toppled and carried far inland. In the 1990s, with support from the Japanese government, there moai were restored, and they now look immaculate.
Nearby it an equally important sight, Rano Raraku, the volcano from which all the moai were carved. There are hundreds of moai to see here: many were fully carved and placed in large, specially dug holes to await transportation to ahu; others, including the largest moai ever made (at over 22m) remain in the rockface. We walked to the far end of the site and walked over the narrow part of the rim into the crater, a much less visited part of Rano Raraku, but containing equally stunning moai. More than just moai
Easter Island Sunset
Taken from our campsite!
Of course there's more than just moai on the island. There are also some spectacular volcanoes, remote caves and beautiful coastline. After a rest day at the campsite on day 3 (okay, we were a bit hungover after the festival the previous night) we hired bikes again the following day to follow the coast road north. This was a very difficult road to cycle as it was steep, winding, and unpaved. We stopped at Dos Ventanas (Two windows) caves, where a short but very dark passage lead to two natural openings looking out over the sea. It's a spectacular sight as you're in complete darkness for most of the walk then you turn a corner and the sunlight comes streaming through. We had no torch but a very kind French guy who showed up at the same time lent us his second torch. Later, we found larger caves further inland which were used as a living place and a shelter in times of war and which contain bamboo and banana trees.
On our last full day on the island we hired scooters for one last look at the sights. I don't drive and Ruth had never driven a scooter
Traditional dancing in the Parade
And if you think the girls wear little, the guys wear even less.
before but we quickly picked it up and in no time we were doing 70km on the island's road. Our first stop was Ahu Akivi, where we saw another moai platfrom, unique in that these moai face the sea rather than inland. We then set off on foot for Maunga Teravaka, the island's highest point. This is a good hour long hike from Akivi, with good views of nearly of Hanga Roa on the way up and of nearly all the island from the top. It's only 507 metres high so it's not the most difficult climb, but it's not so well visited as the island's other sights. Along the way you can also see some of the regenerated forests. The island was once covered in forest but as I mentioned earlier the resource was over exploited.
With the scooter we also went to see the southern shore and Ahu Tongariki one last time, before driving along the dirtroad to Anakena. This part of the island we hadn't seen until now so it was just as well we had the scooters. Anakena is a lovely spot, slightly incongruous with a beautiful beach and tropical trees, unlike anywhere else on
the island. There are moai here as well, better preserved than in other sites as they were buried in the sands for many decades. Tapati Rapa Nui
Our week long visit coincided with the Tapati Rapi Nui festival, the highlight of the year for the islanders (and for many visitors), a two week festival celebrating the island's culture and history, with biathlons, triathlons, music, singing, dancing, and a competition to find the new Tapati Queen. While it meant there were far more tourists than usual it also meant there was a nice diversion from sightseeing and something to do every evening. We saw the last few days of the festival, including the coronation of the new Queen. In all of the competitions, the competitors are supporting one of the candidates for Queen, so becoming Queen is not just a beauty contest. We watched the biathlon which involved canoeing in a traditional boat for 1km, then swimming on what looked like a gigantic sweet corn back out to the boats and then back swimming back in to the shore. While I appreciated the toughness of this competition, I think Ruth appreciated the contestants - local guys wearing what might be
On the road to Anakena
We tried walking, we tried cycling, but the most fun way to get around the island is by scooter.
called a mini G string. We also spent time watching the parades, which mostly involved beautiful local women singing, marching and dancing. Every evening there was entertainment on the stage, the main area for the festival, and here you could watch the music or eat and drink in any of the makeshift bars. The final night was great. We went to see the crowning of the Queen with Ailbhe and Mark from County Clare, and Gethan from Belgium, and had a great night out. The next day was another rest day though I blame it on the Chilean beer which is full of chemicals!
One thing about Easter Island that surprised me was the amount of young people. From what I saw they make up a significant amount of the population, and I think it's great so many of them have stayed here, given that there is the means and perhaps the temptation to emigrate. I don't think I could settle in so remote a place but I admire them for doing it. Another thing I noticed was that while Easter Island is part of Chile, it doesn't feel anything like Chile. The people look Polynesian and, as we
Cycling the dirt roads
Many roads in Easter Island are unsurfaced, making it difficult to cycle them. This is the north coast road to Ahu Te Peu.
saw during the festival, have preserved so many parts of their culture that there is a big distinction with the mainland.
It was very sad to be leaving Easter Island. We'd spent a week here, which is just about the right amount to see everything at a nice, relaxed pace, but as the island is one of these once-in-a-lifetime places, we felt a little despondent as we left. The girl from our campsite presented gave us a moai necklace at the airport as we said goodbye. She said it would be something to remember Easter Island by, but I don't think there's any danger of us ever forgetting it!
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