Thursday, September 27

Rapa Nui - the navel of the world


It's proving to be a quiet week in Swiss Cottage. To keep myself ambused i've written a post about a travel adventure from 1999. Eight years later the entire experience remains as vivid as the day it happened. I'm talking about Easter Island.

Sitting along in the Pacific Ocean it remains one of the most intriguing places I've ever visited. The nearest populated landmass is the equally remote Pitcairn Island more than 1,900km west. South America lies a further 3,700km east. To get there I caught a flight to Tahiti, stopped for a couple of days in Pape'ete, and then boarded a midnight flight with Lan Chile. The island has been part of Chile since 1888.

Five hours later our Boeing 767 slowly descended across the Pacific as a small triangular island flew into view. The airport runway runs almost the full width of the southern corner of the island. I later learnt that it had been extended by NASA in 1985 to serve as an emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle program. This extension made the island accessible by large passenger jets for the first time, thus paving the way for mass tourism.

Despite being such a small island (we're talking 117 sq km) there was a surprising amount to see and explore. I spent 2.5 days on the island, barely enough time to enjoy its highlights. The first afternoon was spent visiting two significant sights; Orongo ceremonial village and Ahu Vinapu. Surprisingly, neither is reknown for the presence of moai, the island's famous carved stone heads.



Orongo sits on the southernmost cliff tops of Easter Island overlooking the flooded volcanic crater of Rano Kau. Here, in the 18th and 19th Century, the island's birdman culture flourished. Youths would compete in a ritual each spring to secure the season's first Sooty Tern egg. These birds nested annually on a small pinnacle of rock several hundred metres from shore.

Securing the egg required scambling down a near vertical cliff, swimming through heavy ocean swells and finally returning to the top of the cliff. Whoever returned first with their egg intact was crowned ceremonial chief for another year. As I stood on the edge of this wind-swept outcrop I couldn't help but marvel at the courage of these men.

Today, all that remains of this strange cult are a series of low stone houses. Nearby are several birdman rock drawings. Perhaps the most spectacular vista in the area is a few metres further on. Here we stood on the edge of the crater itself, marveling at the weed-covered lake sitting more than a hundred metres below.


Our second sight on Day One was the anu, or rock platform, of Ahu Vinapu. This forlorn platform sits at the end of the airport runway in the midst of sheep paddock. It was here we sighted our first toppled moai. Access to the site is unrestricted enabling us to wander among the fallen icons as leisure. You could see that each statue was craved from a dull grey stone. I also discovered that each moai had once been capped with a separate red stone 'topknot' stone.


Ahu Vinapu is known for its seamless fitting stonework. The only such craftmanship on the island. Archeologists marvel as its precision. The world's only other locations with such stonework can be found among the Inca ruins of South America. This resemblance raises conjecture that Easter Island was once visited by the Incas. Garry and I visited Peru in 2005. The stonework there does indeed look identical to that of Ahu Vinapu.

Accomodation on the island is a relatively simple affair. I stayed at a small, local residenciale lodge. These are generally private homes with an clean, tidy guest accomodation extension. Each night I booked a simple dinner, while breakfast was included in the tarrif.


My first full day on the island was probably the most memorable. On this second day we visited several of the island's most photographed locations. First up was Ahu Akahanga. Here a long row of moai lie toppled along the length of their raised stone platform. Again, access was unrestricted enabling close examination of these amazing statues. Archeologists speculate that these stone man represented ancestors. Each stood with its back to the ocean, silencing watching over a neighbouring village.

Nobody know why the islanders began carving moai. Likewise, nobody knows why they stopped and why every statue was later toppled from its platform. Their presence remains one of the most enduring mysteries of Easter Island.


Our second stop on Day Two was Ahu Tongariki. This is the largest ahu on the island. A Japanese team restored it's 15 moai making for one of the island's most popular postcard locations. One of our tour group included a freelance Canadian journalist. A photo of the group that he took here later appeared in print. My first and only moment of celebrity in the Toronto media.

Our final stop for the day was the highlight of my entire time on the island. Rano Raraku is the volcanic quarry from which every moai was carved. It sits on the side of an imposing cliff face, affording views of Ahu Tongariki nestled on a distant shore. Remarkably, an enormous 21-metre moai remained partially carved in the quarry. We climbed its length marveling at its size.

Close by are a series of completed moai sitting upright, half buried in the earth. Apparently, as each statue was completed it was moved to a custom dug pit for temporary storage. The Islander moved the moai to its final location at a later date. A group of these 'stored' moai remain in place today.

Wandering between these silent stone faces is an incredibly moving experience. You can't help but be overwhelmed by their presence and the mystery of their creation. Here I stood, thousands of kilometres from anyway, surrounding by the world's most iconic statues. I felt truly alone. lost in the isolation of this remote dot in the ocean. I'll never forget the experience as long as I live.

Our trip to the quarry was completed by a short walk over the lip of the crater wall into the mouth of Rano Raraku itself. Here we watched horses watering along the shores of a small lake. They are the largest animals on the island.


Our last day on the island was spent visiting three locations. The Museo Antropologico Sebastian Englert was our first stop. This small museum displays photos and items from every day Rapa Nui life. We then drove north to the beach of Anakena. This is one of the only white sand beaches on the island.

Two things set it apart from the rest of the island. First is a plantation of palm trees. These are some of the only mature trees on the island. Most of Easter island is covered in brown, wind-blasted grassland. The island wan't always denuded of vegetation. Overpopulation saw its trees and bushes progressively removed for food, fuel and shelter.

The second highlight is Ahu Nau Nau and its solo moai. This statue is famous for its method of restoration. Famous adventurer, Thor Heyerdahl spent nine days erectind the fallen moai using traditional methods. Nearby, another ahu was the location for the discovery that the island's moai weren't 'blind'. Each face had been decorated with white coral and rock inlaid eyes.


Our final stop for the day was at Te Pito o te Henua, the navel of the world. Here, just above the high tide mark sits a stone sphere surrounding by small stone pillars. Archeologists believe it is a symbolic navel, denoting the island's location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It's a sure sign that the locals knew that their home was sitting in the centre of nowhere.

Later the afternoon I boarded my flight back to Tahiti and modern civilisation. I'd enjoyed a remarkable three days on Rapa Nui, the home of the world's most remarkable statues. Thank you NASA. I couldn't have done it without you. Who would have imagined that the American space program would have an impact in a place like this.

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