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Easter Island: a journey to the ends of the earth

The Pacific outpost of Easter Island, known to its inhabitants as Rapa Nui, is a bewildering combination of the exotic and the familiar

On Easter Island, the moai (pronounced mo-eye) face inland, casting a protective gaze over ground that once held ancient settlements.

Photograph by Getty Images
Published 26 Apr 2019, 14:41 BST, Updated 31 Jan 2022, 15:36 GMT

This seems familiar. I feel as if I’ve seen this land before. Perhaps fragments of my past are resurfacing — half-remembered scraps of childhood holidays.

But all these memories are English memories. Have I really come all this way just to be reminded of home?

The grassland before me could pass for England. And in the distance, the walls of a quarry jut out like a huge row of neglected bottom teeth. Behind me, the ocean laps at the shore, which rises up to form familiar-looking craggy cliffs. And two yards away, a chestnut horse is grazing at the base of a rock.

What was I expecting of Easter Island, known to its inhabitants as Rapa Nui? Palm trees and coconuts? Mango juice and Hawaiian shirts? At this moment in time, it doesn’t feel very exotic at all. Except that within this familiar-looking clump of coastal countryside is something that turns the whole scene on its head — 15 objects I won’t find in any childhood reminiscence.

The statues are arranged in a faultless line atop a large rocky platform, called an ahu. Each faces the distant quarry from which it was painstakingly carved centuries ago, and each has its back to the ocean. I’d always imagined them looking out over the water, but this is one of many things I’ve wrongly assumed about Rapa Nui .

The moai (pronounced mo-eye) face inland, casting a protective gaze over ground that once held ancient settlements. Their mottled, stone bodies are compact and neat, and on each one sits an elongated head, with heavy brow, sharp nose and prominent lips, pursed together in that iconic expression of defiance and pride.

As I look down the line I wonder what they’re thinking. Perhaps they’re recalling their torturous journey from the distant quarry to this stretch of shore in the 13th century. If so, are the larger moai still wondering how on earth they ever made it?

This restored site, known as Ahu Tongariki, has the most complete ahu of standing moai on Rapa Nui today, but many more are scattered across the island. Of its 15 specimens, three stand out. Firstly, there’s the looker of the group, with sharp features and a clear complexion. My guide tells me it owes its vitality to decades spent sheltered in New York. Then there’s the biggest of the bunch: a 33ft moai weighing several tons. Yet despite its bulk, this enormous specimen is upstaged by a third statue: a flamboyant moaiwith a resplendent red topknot — a huge chunk of volcanic rock, worn like a hat, that weighs more than an adult elephant.

Not for the last time, I ask myself how. How did they move that topknot? How did they even lift it? And how did the islanders heave so many moai out of the quarry and haul them to the furthest corners of this land?

Did hundreds of men really drag them over uneven ground, with ropes, boards and logs? Or could there actually be anything in the concept of mana — the mystic ability to make each moai walk unaided? Within the past decade, it’s even been suggested that the larger statues might have been ‘walked’ in an upright position, the way one shuffles a refrigerator across a kitchen floor.

But whatever the truth, the moai at Ahu Tongariki are giving nothing away this morning, and after a few more minutes of contemplation, I turn and walk away to rejoin my tour group. As the rain recedes, we make our way along the coast to a cave cut into a cliff, where a small party are having a barbecue. I’m shown to a seat and handed a plate of flame-grilled meat and a large pisco sour.

The sun is finally shining — fiercely in fact, and I can already feel the skin on my nose start to burn. As I sip my cocktail, I gaze out onto the Pacific Ocean and the thousands of miles of nothingness that stretch out before me. And I finally begin to sense I’m in one of the most remote places on earth.

Made for walking

The best way to experience Rapa Nui is in a sturdy pair of walking boots. Most of its 4,400 inhabitants live in the main town, Hanga Roa — beyond it, the land is quiet, uncrowded and ripe for exploration. As we traverse its many paths, often our only companions are the horses that roam the island.

While the rural landscape had initially taken me by surprise, with each new walk more variety is revealed. For although it’s certainly green, Rapa Nui is also volcanic, and each crater, cave and lava tunnel I encounter make the land feel less familiar than it initially appeared.

My base is the Explora Rapa Nui, a luxury lodge run along similar lines to a safari camp, with guests encouraged to take part in two guided activities a day — often hikes to one of the island’s beauty spots. Many of these walks are given extra spice by the presence of the moai — which have been distributed widely across the island. Indeed, it’s immensely satisfying to be surprised by an ahu full of statues at the end of a demanding hike.

Of all the walks on offer at Explora, the one I’ve been looking forward to the most is the hike to Rano Kao — the volcanic crater dominating the southwestern corner of the island. As we set off, the rain is already heavy, but there’s an adventurous spirit about the group, and nobody contemplates turning back. For the first hour or so, we stick to the coast, as the land steadily rises to form tall cliffs. As we climb, we pass a handful of ahus in various degrees of disrepair and the occasional toppled moai.

Today, the tormented ocean is dazzlingly blue, and as I watch the waves I recall the story a guide had told me the previous day. When he was young boy, a blue whale beached itself on the shore. The islanders tried everything they could think of to entice the huge creature back into the water, but when it became clear this task was beyond them, pragmatism took over and they set about carving the whale up with chainsaws for meat.

“What an amazing childhood memory,” I responded, momentarily forgetting the plight of the animal. “Maybe,” said my guide glumly. “But it was so sad to see it in such pain.”

I take a last look out to sea, wondering if there are any whales out there today, before we turn away from the cliffs and head inland, through a eucalyptus forest. After a short descent, we emerge from the trees at the lip of a spectacular crater.

Rano Kau may not be the largest volcano in the world but it’s certainly a majestic sight. The steep banks of its circular crater resemble the sides of an enormous cooking pot. Inside it sits a tranquil freshwater lake, patchily covered in large squares of reeds. A giant bite has been taken out of the far wall, which is all that stands between the crater and the Pacific. It’s an almighty view, one even the rain can’t spoil.

Between the cliff edge and the crater sits the Orongo Ceremonial Village — a collection of 50 or so restored circular dwellings. My guide explains that Orongo was the focus of the birdman cult, which was practiced on Rapa Nui in the 18th and 19th centuries, long after the last moai was carved. At its height, the cult centred upon an extraordinary competition, in which young male challengers, each representing a particular clan, would clamber down the sheer face of the 800ft cliff upon which Orongo sits.

Using a raft of reeds for support, they would then swim across shark-infested waters to one of three tiny islets and steal an egg from the nest of a sooty tern. With the egg placed in a headband, the challengers would then swim back and attempt to climb up the cliff. The first one to reach the top and place the egg in the hands of his chief was the victor, and his clan would rule the island for the ensuing year.

One glance at the vertical drop makes it clear just how insanely dangerous this was, and I’m not at all surprised to learn many contenders lost their lives.

Today the spirit of the birdman cult lives on in the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival — a significantly safer way for the islanders to determine clan supremacy. Each year, two families put forward a candidate for the title of Queen of the Festival. However, this is by no means a solo effort — each candidate’s supporters come together to compete for points, in events such as a dance-off, triathlon, moai carving, horse races, singing competitions, cooking contests and a sled race down the slopes of volcano.

Maddeningly, this year’s festival is being held just a week after I’m due to depart, although I’m told if I head into Hanga Roa, I might catch some of the dance rehearsals.

Having just about dried off from our trip to the crater, we head into town and I’m struck by how tropical Hanga Roa feels compared with the rest of the island, with its occasional palm trees, traveller-friendly hang-outs and sporadic groups of children playing in the streets.

It seems laid-back and welcoming, so when I hear a commotion coming from a nondescript, single-story building, I think nothing of heading inside. As I enter, I find myself looking down on a school hall in which a group of well over a hundred local people are arranged in standing rows, with women to the front and men near the back — there’s even a line made up exclusively of mothers-to-be.

A lengthy haka-style chant is followed by some frenetic drumming, and soon the whole hall is moving to the pounding rhythm; the men acting out sharp gestures that look pregnant with meaning; the women effortlessly swishing their hips and floating their hands.

It’s hugely entertaining, and quite unpredictable, with rows breaking up and reforming, and men charging down to the front, before disappearing back into the crowds. I watch for about 40 minutes, convinced I’m seeing a curious combination of basic steps and inspired improvisation. Yet when I leave the school, I head to a neighbouring sports hall in time to see the rival clan put on a remarkably similar show, and only then do I understand what I’ve just witnessed — two painstakingly rehearsed, choreographed performances.

On my way out of the hall, I take one last mental snapshot — of the drums, the faces, the melodies, movements and chants — and reflect it must be one of the most overwhelmingly Polynesian spectacles I’m ever likely to see.

Edge of civilisation

They might technically be citizens of Chile these days, but there can be no doubt the people of this land — the Rapanui — have a distinctly Polynesian culture. And when the first settlers arrived here in canoes from the west, between the fifth and eighth centuries AD, they would have found the island suitably tropical, covered as it was with huge, endemic palm trees.

The rich, volcanic soil enabled the settlers to thrive and their numbers grew considerably. Then, at some point in the 13th century, they began to sculpt the statues for which they’re now famous; each one, it’s believed, representing a deified ancestor, brought back to stand guard over its clan.

However, as time passed, more and more trees were cut down, and when the final palm was felled, the Rapanui deprived themselves of the timber they needed to build canoes, dramatically reducing their ability to fish. With deforestation came environmental disaster, as crop yields dwindled due to soil erosion and streams and creeks dried up. At its height, the island’s population stood at 12,000-15,000, but with a greatly reduced ability to feed themselves and no means of escape, the Rapanui turned on each other. At some point around the year 1500, the statue-building abruptly stopped, and over the ensuing centuries, warring clans toppled each other’s moai in gestures of aggression. By the mid-19th century, every single complete statue had been upturned or destroyed.

All of the standing moai on ahu in Rapa Nui today have been restored at some point during the previous century — something that surprised me, as I’d always imagined those famous lines of statues were just as their creators had left them.

However, if it’s authenticity you’re after, head to Rano Raraku, the quarry from which almost every statue was carved, and where many remain, in various stages of production.

Rano Raraku is actually an extinct volcano, and we approach it from the shore to get an idea of the distances the statues would have been dragged. The overgrown, grassy trail tells the story of the nearly men — near-completed moai, abandoned at various stages of their torturous journey to their designated coastal ahu. They lie face down and forgotten, each one being slowly reclaimed by nature.

Over the next hour we encounter several horizontal statues, but when we reach the southern slope of Rano Raraku, we find countless vertical moaiprotruding from the grass at unexpected angles, some buried up to their shoulders, others no more than heads. The path winds through a passage of impressive specimens, but the lack of eyes mark them out as unfinished — only after transportation would the sockets have been carved, before coral eyes were added at the ahu as a final flourish.

As we move higher, the grassy banks give way to crater walls, and at their base I can see the beginnings of several moai, carved into the rocks. As my eyes adjust, more heads seem to emerge from the wall, but, when our guide directs us to a rocky slope, it’s several minutes before I understand his excitement — the slope is actually a gigantic moai, with a long, weather beaten face and an endless body, carved into the rock.

What I’m seeing is the largest moai ever attempted, a 72ft monster that would have dwarfed everything else on the island. But as I begin to imagine this beast upright on an ahu, my guide casts doubt as to whether it could ever have been shifted.

Leaving it to its sleep, we climb over the crater’s edge, into the heart of the quarry, to find a beautifully fecund space, with verdant walls enclosing a freshwater lake, in which two scantily dressed men are practising for the triathlon.

A scattering of moai dot the banks, buried up to their necks — the ground beneath two has been recently excavated, revealing hidden bodies, kept pristine by the protective earth.

To think when I first arrived I was taken aback by the familiarity of Rapa Nui’s rural landscape. Yet here I sit on the bank of an extinct volcano, within an alien forest of sprouting stone heads. The nearest inhabited land is over 1,000 miles away. I can no longer see my guide or my group, and as the triathletes disappear over the crater rim, I’m able to easily imagine I’m completely alone.

It’s beginning to get dark. The air is still, and there’s an eerie silence. I should really start making a move. But I don’t.

It all just suddenly seems too much to take in.


Getting here: LAN Airlines flies from Santiago, Chile, to Mataveri International Airport on Easter Island. It also has the only other direct service to the island, from Papetee, in Tahiti. There are no direct flights to Santiago from the UK but LAN operates a Madrid to Santiago service, as do Iberia and Air Europa. Other airlines with an indirect service include Alitalia and Air France. Average flight time: 5h40m from Santiago to Easter Island. The journey from the UK to Easter Island, via Madrid and Santiago, takes a minimum of 24h.

Getting around: Guests at the Explora Rapa Nui will be taken everywhere in a minibus, although bicycles are also available at the camp and several outlets in Hanga Roa offer car, motorbike and mountain bike hire. Reasonably priced taxis are available in the capital. It’s best to book the return trip in advance if you want to explore the countryside.

When to go: The peak season runs from January to March, with January and February being the hottest months with temperatures around 28C. Timing your visit to coincide with the spectacular Tapati Rapa Nui Festival in February is highly recommended, although accommodation prices might be a little higher. July and August are the coolest months, but the island never gets too cold.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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