Easter Island, Chile
On our first morning after arriving we breakfasted with a middle-aged Chilean couple, Flor and Fernando, whose enthusiasm for being on the island was countered only by their vagueness about what they were here to see or do. When out and about on the island, this apparent contradiction manifested itself in general excitement, each of them taking it in turns to point and gesticulate at the slightest thing, without seeming to distinguish between, say, the fantastical size and shapes of the moai – the stone heads of Easter Island – at which they would nod gravely before moving on, or a nicely weighted walking stick found beside the path along the way, over which they would fight like children.
Their enthusiasm was nonetheless infectious, a counter to the cynicism with which many visitors treat the ordinary and everyday in their determination to see the main attraction. Not for them the awe and wonder at centuries-old stone giants or debate over exactly how they were transported to and erected upon their intricately carved dais. Much of our time in their company was spent in gently nudging them towards the sights while discussing the attitudes of island residents to mainland Chileans, the price of food in the shops and the size of the local cat population.
Walking with them was like taking a slightly frenetic country stroll down a well-worn path with just a few sights of world heritage importance to distract us. I had the impression that they could have been on a day trip around Santiago, rather than on one of the most remote and mysterious spots on Earth.
They could, however, afford to soak everything in slowly, they informed us, as they were here for ten days, more than twice the time the average visitor spends on Easter Island, despite the time and cost involved in reaching it. One morning we sighted a cruise liner in the harbour at Hanga Roa, the island capital, and later spoke to some of the passengers who had disembarked from bright orange lifeboats shuttling between the ship and the port. They were on a six-month world cruise and had just spent six days crossing half the Pacific Ocean. How long were they here for? Just the day they replied; they were due to start crossing the other half of the ocean tonight. And, sure enough, by the morning the ship was gone.
For many Chileans, travelling to Easter Island is like visiting a slightly distant corner of their own country: not such a blithe image when one considers the size of the South American continent. And, like many Chileans, Flor and Fernando had brought plentiful supplies of food in a large fridge box so that they could self-cater without paying the extortionate prices charged by local shops and restaurants.
This in itself had come as a revelation to me on the flight over. Used to travelling with minimum hand luggage for convenience as much as security restrictions, I was astonished at the amount of food and drink which Chileans carried on board and to which security staff turned a blind eye. Only the overt mixing of rum and cola by two young holidaymakers to drink while they queued for security and passport checks was admonished by a female guard who nonetheless handed the bottles back to the couple once they passed through.
As a result, our new companions were able to supplement their breakfast each morning with goodies from their own supplies or leftovers from cooking the night before, and we benefited from their generosity in sharing it out. They were equally assiduous in removing for later consumption anything not eaten by them or by their breakfast companions at our table, or other tables.
Our brief friendship began later on the first morning, on the walk up to Rano Kau volcano and the Orongo ‘birdman’s village’. It was a Sunday and Jill and I had attended mass at the Catholic church: not out of devotion but in order to enjoy the service being celebrated with hymns sung to a Polynesian rhythm and with a local guitar band.
Suitably inspired, we then set off along the south coast, passing our first, solitary, moai. Cradling his pot belly in his hands and facing inland, as they nearly all do, he watched over the residents of a scruffy fishing village, albeit with sightless, heavily recessed eyes.
For me, it was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments – when you encounter an iconic location or spectacle you thought you’d only ever read about or see in documentaries – suffused with the mundanity of the situation. For cheek by jowl with the icon was a shipyard, in which a half-repaired boat sat on its cradle, the tools of the local tradesmen strewn about unused – it being the day of rest – and a row of modern bungalows, in front of which washing hung on the line and children’s toys lay in the garden.
Further along the path a short flight of stone steps descended to a small, pebbled cove onto which the sea crashed intermittently. The sides and back of the beach were embraced by a tall but shallow cave of which the walls and ceiling were covered in ancient paintings of birds and fish. The long-forgotten artists had used the bevelled stone slabs of the ceiling, painted pastel blue, to denote at once the undulating water of the ocean and the reflection of a sun-drenched sky in which shapes silhouetted by quick white brushstrokes darted about.
The path then began to climb up the flanks of the former volcano, running for a time through a sparsely planted forest of Eucalyptus. Here, at an intersection with another path that ran up from the single tarmac road that bisects the island, lay the figure of a woman under the shade of a tree, a wide-brimmed hat over her face. I started at the prospect of seeing a dead body but at our approach the woman removed her hat and sat up and we recognised her as Flor. I looked around and there was Fernando, sat on a tree stump, mopping his brow and swishing at the grass in front of him with a long stick.
They clearly were not great walkers and the short climb to this point had temporarily curbed their enthusiasm for the great outdoors. We stopped for a rest with them, remarking on the things we’d seen on the walk so far. They hadn’t really noticed, they said, but then, regaining their energy, took us to see an ants’ nest which they’d found a little further down the path. We admired the view from the edge of the forest and then turned and continued on the climb together, Fernando swishing at the vegetation all the while, like a naughty schoolboy, and Flor marching on ahead, swinging her hat in her hand.
The path led up to the lip of the crater from which a breathtaking panorama was revealed. A massive, near perfect rock bowl yawned in front of us, bending away for perhaps a mile either side and wrapping around itself to broken cliffs on the far edge, beyond which, in all its vastness, lay the deep blue Pacific. Down below, like the aerial view of land masses seen from space, a reed-strewn lagoon half-filled the bowl, its surface broken intermittently with blue pools. It was a truly impressive sight and one all the more treasured for the opportunity it gave us to rest from the climb to this point.
From here we followed a path around part of the crater and along a spur of the mountain to the south-west edge of the island and another glorious location. At Orongo, on the edge of a cliff overlooking the jagged islets of Moto Rui, the generation of islanders that immediately preceded the appearance of western sailors had built a ‘village’ of stone huts, roofed with turf, which had been recently restored. The village had never been permanently inhabited and was only created for the use of the leaders of each of the tribes of the island, and their priests and other hangers on, as part of a ceremony which lasted for around six weeks each spring.
The tribal parties would ascend to the village each year to await the return of terns to their traditional nest sites on Moto Rui. Once the eggs were laid, the appointed champions of each tribe would race down the precipitous cliffs below, dive into the sea and swim across half a mile of shark-infested water to seize an egg and return it, via the same route, to their chief. The champions, if they survived, could suffer appalling injuries to ensure the success of their tribe whose leader would then rule over the whole island for the coming year. But it was a small price to pay to avoid the tribal warfare which had apparently preceded the introduction of the ceremony.
Even Flor and Fernando were impressed with the location, though I wasn’t sure if they had imbibed the full story of its significance and my Spanish wasn’t good enough to elaborate. After a few photographs of themselves on the edge of the cliff they wandered back along the path while we investigated the figures of animals, fish and other symbols carved into the nearby rocks and peered into a few of the stone huts before catching them up on the descent home.
At breakfast on the second morning Fernando asked if we were interested in sharing the cost of a hire car to get to the beach. We had been wondering about taking a bus to the same location, which was on the opposite, eastern, side of the island but there didn’t appear to be any regular services, or indeed any services at all. So we readily agreed to their proposal and strolled into town together after breakfast.
By now Flor and Fernando had taken under their wing a young student from Santiago called Juan. Tall and lanky, he was less talkative than his two compatriots but equally laidback about the day’s itinerary. Down one of the dirt roads on the far side of Hanga Roa we found a garage / car repair shop which hired out jeeps and duly rented one for the day at a fraction of the cost of a guided island tour.
Fernando drove, an experience which gave us more than a few frights as he didn’t see the need to stop talking or gesticulating any more than when walking alongside us and, with three people in the back of the vehicle, frequently turned to speak to us directly while holding the wheel and hurtling along the narrow, potholed, two-lane highway. On the positive side, neither he nor Flor were any more sure of their destination than when they were on foot, which allowed me to persuade them along one or two diversions.
About halfway along the south coast we reached Rano Raraku, another volcanic crater and the one which provided the stone from which most of the Moai had been carved. There was also no need to climb this one: the sights we had come to see lay either side of a gently undulating track which meandered along the bottom slopes of the mountain.
During a surreal hour and a half we walked through the former quarries of Easter Island, the heart of the once-thriving population’s statue-building industry, passing several dozen, perhaps a hundred, stone heads standing, reclining or fallen in various positions below the cliffs of the volcano. This included some broken heads and some still in production when work stopped, it is thought, some 350 years ago, when the resources being devoted to the industry were outpacing the island’s environmental capacity, diverting labour from food production and causing often violent competition between the local tribes.
Among the unfinished heads, an indication of the ‘over-vaulting ambition’ of the carvers, was El Gigante, perhaps eighteen metres long and weighing an estimated ninety tonnes. If completed, he would have been by some margin the largest moai ever erected. How these colossal monuments were moved to their intended final destination elsewhere on the island is a logistical problem with which archaeologists still grapple.
The path entered the crater itself where more heads could be seen high up on the interior slopes, and a reed-filled lake, similar to Rano Kau, spread out over the volcano floor, surrounded by tussocked sand dunes. Chestnut-coloured horses grazed the grasses around the lake, part of the local farming culture, and they started as we entered through the gap in the cliffs. Herding more closely together for comfort, they eventually gathered the nerve to rush past us as we approached the shoreline, some of them leaping up and then over the sand dunes on either side, before bolting for the exit and pastures new. The sudden fury of the occasion was reinforced by the sound of the collective stampede echoing from the walls of the surrounding cliffs, while the dust of the horses’ hooves flew up and shimmered in the sunlight before dispersing over the water.
From Rano Raraku we drove back down the hill and further along the coast to Tongariki, perhaps the most famous collection of stone heads on Easter Island. Re-erected on a long stone plinth in the late 1990s, the fifteen statues, each with different faces and of different heights, gazed back on the volcanic crater from which they were hewn. The statues are throught to commemorate, and to have been modelled on, several generations of real tribal leaders, after their death, and to have been positioned overlooking their erstwhile communities as a form of protection.
When Captain Cook visited Easter Island in 1774, fifty years after it was first discovered, he documented many of the statues in a fallen state, probably the result of in-fighting among the islanders for the reasons already described. Those at Tongariki were no exception and nearly all are missing their red ‘top hat’ or pukao, some of which still lie in the field opposite. However, all the stones were swept further inland on a more modern tsunami, following an earthquake measuring 9.5 on the Richter Scale, in 1960. Now resurrected, and despite their size, the statues are all the more impressive for the vastness of the barren landscape in which they stand, reinforcing their isolation and sense of mystery.
Continuing along the coast we bypassed Poike Peninsula, the eastermost point of the island, and eventually reached Anakena Beach, a palm-fringed crescent of white sands and turquoise waters – the quintessential Pacific island scene – where we ate our picnic lunches and spent what remained of the day.
What differentiated Anakena from other Polynesian beaches, however, was the presence of yet more moai, this time a row of four behatted heads and some broken stumps known collectively as Ahu Nau Nau, which stood on their plinth at the back of the beach, once again facing inwards. Nearby was another, solitary moai, a rare, round-headed figure known as Ahu Ature Huki.
Even Flor and Fernando, after strolling around the monuments, agreed that it was altogether a splendid place to while away the afternoon and we agreed to devote a full day to it later in the week. The couple were nonetheless more impressed with the rock pools and shallow coral reefs at the far end of the beach and it was here that Fernando in particular spent hours poking around with a stick on our return.
This section of the coast of Easter Island is thought to be the first place at which its original human settlers arrived, perhaps only a thousand years ago and probably from the islands of French Polynesia, over two thousand miles to the north-west. The idea of crossing that stretch of ocean in flimsy wooden canoes is difficult to contemplate. With no fixed destination, only the stars to guide them in a general direction and, after weeks at sea – for the first settlers at least – the looming prospect that they were sailing into nothingness, the terror of the journey can only be guessed at. It is not surprising that only one or two waves of such travellers are thought to have made the journey and that the belief grew among later generations, with no evidence to the contrary, that they were the only people in the world.
The inhabitants of Rapa Nui, until they first sighted the white sails of a Dutch vessel on Easter Day 1722, developed the notion that they were on a solitary piece of land in the middle of a watery world: what they termed ‘the navel of the world’ or, in Spanish, el ombligo del mundo. I had not heard this term until Fernando mentioned it in the jeep on the way home after our first visit to Anakena, something that was doubly surprising as it was the first time that he or Flor had demonstrated any interest in island history. More intriguing was the fact that the name also applied, he said, to a specific site on this coast.
It was too late to go searching for el ombligo that evening and Fernando, who had acquired his information from “someone who had been to Easter Island before”, could not be more specific with directions. However, on the afternoon of our second visit to Anakena we left the beach a little early in order to look for it and, without realising, came within a few metres of the site when we visited Ahu Te Pito Kura, the site of a fallen 9.8 metre moai, and his hat, right on the ocean just a mile or two south of Anakena.
On the final day of our stay Jill and I walked around the north-west corner of the island, over-exerting ourselves in trying to reach one collection of moai too many. Exhausted and footsore on a dirt track leading back to the main road, and with the sky threatening rain, we got a lift off an English-speaking Chilean couple and their child who were on a whirlwind tour of the island. They could drop us off at the road leading back to Hanga Roa, they offered, or we could accompany them on a drive around points east for a brief, final look at the sights. It was not a choice.
Despite our limited time on the island, we found ourselves acting as guides for our new companions and returned to a deserted Anakena for a final time, though by now it was overcast and spitting with rain. On the road back I mentioned the legend of el ombligo del mundo at which our driver braked the car. He wasn’t sure, he said, but that was basically the translation of the name of the moai site we had just passed – Ahu Te Pito Kura, the word Pito also meaning ‘cape’ or ‘land’s end’.
Returning to the fallen giant by the shore we looked a little more carefully for another monument and sure enough, in a natural rock circle behind his erstwhile platform, wet and glistening from the occasional tide, we found it: a smooth round stone and four smaller ones arranged around it, like a dinner setting on the beach.
The central stone was small enough to sit on and the whole site was, relative to the attractions of the rest of the island, inconspicuous: so much so that we had missed it on the first visit. But in the eerie half-light, next to a centuries-old stone giant, with the rain lashing our faces and the ocean lapping at our feet, it did indeed feel like confirmation that we were at ‘the navel of the world’. I couldn’t wait to tell Flor and Fernando.