15-19/12/14 - Rapa Nui/Easter Island

View from our hotel across to Hanga Roa town

Where do you start with somewhere like Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as I shall call it from here on, since that is the name given by its inhabitants?  Perhaps by saying that there is nowhere quite like Rapa Nui.  The island is a speck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a triangle, with an extinct volcano at each corner, measuring just 24 km across.  The reason that it fascinates the world is that it was home to a unique culture, the concrete remains of which are hundreds of stone statues, or moai, several metres high, whose grim faces glare implacably into the centre of the island. Everyone has seen the pictures - most people must have wondered why and how the statues got there.  We have been lucky enough to go and see for ourselves.  I'm writing this on the plane back to Santiago.  It's a long flight and our entertainment system isn't working, so I've got plenty of time to fill and lots to say  If you're not that bothered about Rapa Nui, feel free to scroll down to the pictures!

It takes five hours flying in a straight line to get to Rapa Nui from mainland Chile.  We had bought a package of hotel and tours for this part of our trip, so we were greeted by the inevitable Polynesian lei (made of bougainvillea - prickles removed!) and whisked to our very pleasant hotel, from which we had an ocean view.  Arriving at lunchtime meant we had plenty of time to explore the little town of Hanga Roa and begin to get the feel of the place before beginning the real business of getting our heads around this strange location.  The flora around town reminded us a bit of Madang or Wewak, towns on the north coast of PNG, but less tropical and a lot cleaner!  The people are Polynesian, despite an attempt by Thor Heyerdal to persuade the world that they came from South America.  You only have to look at them to be sure of their origin - goodness knows what he was looking at (maybe his own ego?).  Their language has many elements of other South Sea island languages and they have that easy, relaxed demeanour. What they don't seem to have is the compulsion to force you to watch their dancing girls and listen to endless plunkety plunk guitar or ukelele music.  Those things are available, I believe, but we didn't see a single advertisement for a show, letalone have the faux "culture" thrust in our faces.  Perhaps they are just a little too casual.  Quite by chance, we discovered that the Symphony Orchestra of Chile was in Rapa Nui at the same time as us, and had given a wonderful outdoor concert.  There was no advertising, though we learned that it was attended by about 1,000 people.  Maybe they didn't really want tourists; maybe it was for the people themselves.

The weather on Rapa Nui is "sub-tropical", ie, quite hot with sudden downpours and lots of wind.  We got wet twice, but were dry in no time when the sun returned and the wind blew.  It's a fairly expensive place to stay (quite apart from actually getting there, but that was part of our round-the-world ticket), as so much has to be imported.  But the food is just delicious, with, of course, a huge emphasis on seafood. We ate fantastic fish dishes four nights in a row, in three different restaurants, always on a sheltered verandah, always overlooking the bay.  As it grew dark, we watched the die-hard surfers gradually give up and swim ashore as the lights in Hanga Roa came on.  So sorry if it sounds absolutely idyllic, but it was.

We had two full days of guided tours, then a free day, on which we hired a car and revisited some of our favourite spots for further reflection or more photos.  Martin had forgotten his camera on the second, full day tour, so we had to make do with our small, less sophisticated one.  Naturally, that situation had to be rectified and photos retaken to a higher standard!  It was great to have the same guide for all the tours.  Inevitably, places like Rapa Nui (or Stonehenge, or the pyramids) require a fair amount of speculation in their interpretation, and it could be that what we were told is biased or even slightly embroidered, but it was nice to get a consistent version of the story.  Our guide, Matu'a, was born on the island and takes great pride in his Polynesian heritage, so we were convinced that he believed what he was saying, whether it's true or not.

So, in brief, this is the story of Rapa Nui as told by Matu'a.  Around 400AD a group of warriors led by his namesake King Matu'a, left Polynesia, maybe the Marquesas, and sailed eastwards.  They landed on an uninhabited island which they called Rapa Nui, or The Navel of the World.  They were followed soon afterwards by others from their native islands.  Do not ask me how the second lot knew how to find the first lot!  The population settled and farmed the land and over time developed the culture of carving huge statues out of the volcanic rock and mounting them on stone platforms near the beach, each set serving as a cemetery area and looking inland to watch over the village close by.  Only one group faces out to sea.  The seven original explorers are represented on a platform gazing west towards their homeland.  All the moai were created at the same location, one of the three volcanoes, and today you can see some that were left unfinished when the practice died out.  Each one was carved as the rock lay in the ground and the final process was to cut away the "keel" that was holding it in place and let it slide down the hill, from where it would be transported to whichever clan had commissioned it. The moai represented the ancestors and had no significance until the final touches - the eyes - were  put in place.  Some, the most important, were given topknots, or head-dresses, made of red stone quarried in a different location.

This practice went on until the late 16th century, when clan warfare and rebellion by the working class (slaves?) brought the whole thing grinding to a halt and all the moai were knocked down.  It was at this time that various European ships began to call in on their way across the Pacific, but apart from bequeathing the island a western name and a selection of nasty diseases, they showed little interest and had little impact until Peru decided to kidnap a third of the population to work in plantations.  Of 1,407 people kidnapped, only 15 returned.  Another "cult" had developed by this time - that of the Birdman.  This involved an annual competition between the clans to swim out to an offshore islet and retrieve the first egg from the Sooty Tern colony there.  The victor would assure power for his clan for the following year.  This practice finished as suddenly as it had begun, after 117 years, and by the middle of the 19th century, the island and its people were in a pretty poor way, having destroyed all their trees to transport the moai in earlier years.  Only towards the end of that century, after Chile had taken charge and some interested Europeans and Americans began to come to see this extraodinary place, did anyone start to restore the moai and the platforms.  Every single moai standing today, whether upright in the ground around the quarry, or standing aloft on the great platforms, has been repaired and reconstructed.  Just as our people plundered bronze age graves and destroyed the great stone rows and circles of our ancestors, so the Rapa Nui people vandalised and ignored their heritage for centuries.  However, now they are proud of what their forefathers achieved and take delight in sharing it with the world.  What a privilege it felt to be one of those who have shared the story.

But why?  Why did they make the moai and why are they here and nowhere else?  Well, to me that doesn't seem so strange any more.  Every civilisation in the world develops beliefs to explain where we come from, where we are going and how to keep safe while we are here.  Powers that we don't understand need to be appeased and asked for protection.  Structures and artefacts are created, at huge expense of energy and effort, (think of Stonehenge), to represent those beliefs.  The Rapa Nui people arrived with a basic belief in the importance of ancestors and their spirits, but were then left in isolation for those ideas to evolve.  They had little in the way of natural resources, but they did have an awful lot of volcanic rock!  So they carved figures of the ancestors - the bigger the better, until social collapse took its toll.  Many of the great moai remain lying with their faces to the ground, but those that have been reconstructed stand, staring blankly (no eyes) at the denuded, largely barren landscape.  Those of us fortunate enough to visit this tiny dot in the middle of the Pacific, can only stare back, and wonder at it all.

Rano Kau crater - approx 1km across. The water is about 14m deep and the vegetation is floating

Carved moai just left when this phase abruptly came to an end in the late 16th century

Abandoned figures at the quarry

The only moai looking out to sea - all others look inland protecting the village in front of the platform. Tradition has it that these represent the seven men who first came to Rapa Nui and went back to tell their people there was somewhere to migrate to

The largest number of moai together not far from the quarry. Restored by the Japanese. The topknot on the second from right indicates a higher level of importance in the class system