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08 January 2015

Tom's Trip to Easter Island

Written by Published in Eco Travel

Images: Gabriel O'Rorke

Images: Gabriel O'Rorke

Images: Gabriel O'Rorke

Images: Gabriel O'Rorke

Images: Gabriel O'Rorke

Images: Gabriel O'Rorke

Images: Gabriel O'Rorke

A Pacific squall batters the coast as rain and mist swirl around the grim, stern faces of seven stone figures, lending an atmospheric quality to this awe-inspiring sight. Tom Laing explores the misteries of Easter Island

Easter Island Eco Travel

Legend has it that this beach was the landing point of Chief Hotu Matu'a, the original founder of the Rapa Nui civilization that made Easter Island one of the most iconic places on Earth. I can imagine a similar look on the faces of his Polynesian crew, finally coming ashore after what can only have been an epic and arduous voyage by carved-out canoe – Easter Island’s nearest inhabited neighbour is over 2,000 kilometres away.

easter-island8Stirring from my ruminations, I notice a similar expression on the face of my wife. At least the Moai have hats, I reflect, as we take refuge under some nearby palm trees. We share this tropical shelter with a herd of the feral horses that roam the island in their thousands, casually tearing at grass within metres of one of the world’s most recognizable man-made creations.

We are at Anakena, the most northerly of the Moai sites and famous for its white, sandy beach, a rarity on the rocky outcrop that is Rapa Nui, known to the world as Easter Island. There are few sights on Earth more emblematic than a line of Moai, standing sentinel with their backs to the vast Pacific Ocean, gazing over the island that they have called home for the past 500 years.

An air of mystery surrounds the monolithic statues, and it is hard not to wonder at the immense effort that must have been expended in carving them and transporting them to their final resting places – the largest raised statues weigh close to 100 tonnes, and they all come from one site in the middle of the island.

There is much debate as to how they were transported: popular legend has it that the tribal chiefs ordered them to march there themselves, or that they were fired by exploding volcanos. Slightly more practical theories are that they were dragged or rolled on tree trunks. Even there, opinion is divided – were they rolled face up to avoid damage to their front, face down so that they were in the right position to be hauled up to their stands, or vertical so that they arrived pre-erected? Just another mystery on this mystery-filled island.

Opting to avoid the ubiquitous minibuses that ship tourists around the island, we rent a shiny red moped for the weekend. Less than an hour from end to end, it seems the perfect way to explore.

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Screeching out of Hanga Roa, the island’s only town, with a bit of a wobble, we make our way to Rano Raraku. The quarry on the side of this volcanic crater was the ‘workshop’ where the Rapa Nui crafted the vast majority of the Moai, chipping away at the entrails of the mountain to create the vast stone figures.

Hundreds of sculptures still scatter the green slopes of the volcano, destined never to leave. Standing and lying around in various poses, they remind me of the Polynesian carvers themselves, as if frozen on the world’s longest lunch break. Their unfinished work, statues half-carved and still firmly attached to the bedrock, emerge from the hillside nearby. Historians still speculate as to why the Moai tradition was so abruptly abandoned – most put it down to civil strife and political upheaval on a densely populated island with few resources. They certainly didn’t lack for ambition – one incomplete statue would have weighed 270 tonnes had it been completed.

Careering back down the hill we make for Ahu Tongariki. Fifteen Moai line up along the shore, their eternal gazes directed to their birthplace back up the slopes. Pulling up to the entrance, we find ourselves alone. For such a small island (it measures only 64 square miles) it is easy to escape the crowds. Perhaps the drizzle has kept them away, but it's a small price to pay to have such a memorable site to ourselves - this is the largest of the Moai sites and one of the most recognizable.

Next, we make for Puna Pao. Whilst Rano Raraku was the workshop of the statues, Puna Pao was the barber’s, the quarry from which every Pukao was carved – the distinctive red hat or topknot seen on many of the largest Moai, carved from the quarry’s distinctive red rock. As with the Moai themselves, this rather cumbersome headgear was hauled to their destinations before being hoisted atop their intended recipients. Once again, theories abound as to how exactly this was achieved, but it’s worth noting that some have been found more than 15 kilometres away and weigh more than 10 tonnes.

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Mud splattered and more than a little damp, we sputter back to our hotel, the Hangaroa Eco Village and Spa. Sitting on a promontory with commanding views out to sea and across the bay towards Hanga Roa, it has been built to blend into the surroundings. Its grass roofs and dark, volcanic rock walls echo the nearby ruins of the village of Orongo, a 16th Century ceremonial settlement perched between the Rano Kao crater and the cliffs that plunge into the Pacific to form the South-western headland.

Beyond its building style, the hotel reflects aspects of life on the island itself: many of the materials, such as the huge cypress-trunk pillars and oversized beds, had to be sourced from elsewhere. Life on this barren island is supported by imports, mostly from the South American mainland, an option that wasn't available to the current residents' forefathers – their civilization famously collapsed from unsustainable resource depletion several hundred years ago.

easter-island13Whilst the island is officially a part of Chile, it has strived to retain its Polynesian culture and strict rules have been introduced about the ownership of land by non-residents. Hanga Roa hotel, however, is owned by a family from the mainland, and there were disputes about whether the purchase was completed before the rules came into force. ‘In 2010, a group of islanders took over the hotel for several months. They turned up and refused to leave,’ manager Andrés Sanhueza tells us. They even used the pool to corral their horses. As part of the settlement it has been decided that in 30 years the hotel will become a Rapa Nui foundation.

Whilst efforts are continuing to try to smooth such tensions between the Chilean and Polynesian cultures, they are momentarily put to one side as we sink into huge clay baths to warm through before heading to the bar for our daily complimentary sundowner - well-earned rewards for a hard day's site-seeing. Buoyed by pisco sours, we stroll through the town to La Taverna de Pecheur, a French restaurant overlooking the harbour where turtles bob amongst the boats.
 
easter-island12The chef and owner, an enormous Frenchman with a magnificent moustache and belly to match – and an uncanny likeness to the Walrus in Alice in Wonderland – holds court, marching around barking to guests in unapologetically French-accented Spanish. Huge glasses of wine match the equally generous dishes, and we are soon defeated by plates of king crab gratin and buttery seafood al ajillo, content to sip our Carmenere and lazily watch the town from our balcony vantage point.

The first Europeans to discover the island were Dutch explorers, who came to shore on Easter Day in 1722. One can barely imagine what they made of the statue-lined island and the Rapa Nui who watched them step ashore. Almost 300 years later, my arrival is a little less arduous, and the locals somewhat less surprised at the sight of foreigners visiting their home. But the evocativeness of the island and their famous statues remains undimmed, and the mysteries unsolved - what drove them to build so many statues, why did they so suddenly stop, and how on earth did they move the damn things?

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Hangaroa Eco Village and Spa
Easter Island, Chile
Tel: +56 (2) 2957 0300, Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
hangaroa.cl

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