Friday, December 28, 2007

Easter Island - A Proper Account

Many apologies for the delay in writing this post. Rest easy, Martin. I have not been lost at sea or cursed by the Easter Island spirits. I have simply been very busy with resuming life in New Zealand.

Now back to November and my travels.

From the guidebook and a conversation with a previous visitor, I had a good idea of what I wanted to do on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). It’s not a large place and the points of interest at the Western end of the island are accessible to a hiker with long legs. Hanga Roa, where virtually the whole population lives, is on the West Coast. There are bicycles for hire if you want to see the sites on the further Eastern coast on the cheap, but I find a guided tour is a good way to get some history of a place. The plan was to energetically walk on Monday and Wednesday with a less strenuous tour in between.

I had arrived quite late at night, so I had to make my arrangements in the morning. The landlady at the residencial was one of those with whom conversation was difficult. I don’t think it was the novelty of a Polynesian who spoke Spanish, when I am used to Maori who speak NZ English. There were some people with whom communication was more difficult than others, and the senora was one of them. Nevertheless, once she understood what I intended, she phoned a tour company for me and passed the receiver across.

The lass at the other end of the line spoke good English. Yes, they had a tour, but not on Tuesdays. I would have to go on Wednesday. OK, I had been hiking most of my days in mainland Chile since the cruise and the distances are not great. I can manage consecutive days on my feet.

I sallied forth into tropical warmth. Bread and ham were supplied by the supermarket and a ludicrously cheap pawpaw by a little market across the road. With my daypack loaded, I set off for the island’s museum. My map was not very detailed, but there were signs along the way to keep me on course.

What I had overlooked was that most museums in Chile close on Mondays, and this one was no exception. Curses! But the museum is adjacent to one of the best sites on the island and, as an unexpected bonus, an information board described a trail system from the museum to Orongo village, with many points of interest along the way.

The statues are called moai. The platform on which they stand is called an ahu. The purpose of the moai was to represent the mana of an ancestor, so that they could continue to protect and influence the village. They were also a sign of wealth, because it took tremendous resources for a stone-age community to feed and reward the teams that made and transported the moai.

This ahu is just to the North of Hanga Roa, close by the museum.

The design of the moai changed little over the centuries. Only one very early example has been found with legs. All the others are the trunk-and-head form that has intrigued visitors ever since Roggeveen became the first European to find the island on Easter Day 1722.

The expressionless face (on the statue!) allows for any kind of fanciful interpretation. I appear to be anxious that the camera might bite me, but in fact it was concern to get the angle right so that the moai appears beside me and within the frame of the photo. Two previous attempts had failed.

The reddish stone shape balanced on the moai represents the pukao (topknot or hairpiece) of the ancestor. Elaborate, decorated hair-dos were known to be popular with the islanders in earlier times.

What I didn’t know before I came to Easter Island is that moai originally had eyes. They were made with white coral rock and obsidian to represent the pupils. Moai did not gaze out to sea, as many people think, but instead overlooked the village. With one exception, the ahu was sited so that the moai had their backs to the ocean.

This is the only example of a moai with restored eyes. I found the moai with eyes to be rather off-putting. Click on the picture to enlarge it and you'll see what I mean.

The child sitting on the sign has strayed onto the paved area in front of the ahu. This is forbidden because all the moai, ahu and contiguous paved areas are tapu (sacred).

This is the base of a boat house. I don’t mean that it was used to house a boat, but rather that it was a boat-shaped dwelling for the islanders.

It is very likely that when they first arrived, the Rapa Nui people used their upturned canoes for shelter. It seems that the design was adopted for permanent living quarters. The doorways were very small so that even chiefs had to get down on hands and knees and crawl.

Only the rich had stone foundations. Most of the populace planted their roof-bearing "ribs" in the ground to support the thatch.

This example was presumably a very special building because none of the others had a paved area around them.

Hanga Roa has two tiny harbours. Almost all the coat is jagged, volcanic rock to make navigation perilous. As with most Polynesian islands, fishing is an important source of food.

The highway of the sea is also important for the goodies not available locally. While I was there a cargo ship was moored off shore. You can just see it in the photograph. Although it was quite a small ship, it has to be unloaded onto barges while it rode at anchor, and the barges brought the freight into the wharf of the other harbour.

The information trail mostly followed the coast. At one point it descended the cliff into a very rocky cove with a cave. A large rock made a convenient bench to sit and eat my lunch while watching the waves foaming into the rock pools.

On the wall of the cave were pre-European paintings. I found them rather hard to decipher, but I’m pretty sure this represents a birdman. The head is at the top with the beak to the left.



The gardeners of Rapa Nui figured out that crops grew better inside these circular stone walls. Some of them are still in use.

This is one of several with detailed information boards in both Spanish and English. The food plants included taro and bananas.

An endemic tree, the toromiro, has become extinct in the wild. Luckily, scientific expeditions to the island had saved seeds and some healthy young examples were growing in one of the walled gardens. I was delighted to identify the toromiro as an almost identical plant to NZ’s kowhai.

From the gardens the trail turned inland and climbed through some woodland. Beyond the trees the path got steeper. Rapa Nui is the result of volcanic activity, with three main mountains.

This is the crater of Rano Kau in the southwest corner of the island. It is an almost perfect circle with a shallow lake that sprouts totora rushes; the same type as form the great reed beds of Lake Titicaca.

The birdman cult flourished after the island's civil wars. The causes are not known with certainty, but a growing population and scarcity of resources are the prime suspects. Religion get dragged into the conflict and the followers of the birdman overthrew the culture that built the moai.

The central event was an annual race to swim out to these islets and bring back a sooty tern’s egg. Competitors would make the outward journey in good time, sometimes searching days or weeks before they found a nest with an egg. They then had to climb down the sides of the islet, swim to the main island (reed floats were permitted) and climb up the cliffs to Orongo all without breaking the egg.

Orongo village was the centre of the birdman cult. There were houses with stone walls and turf roofs. They did not seem to be as narrow as the boat house on the earlier picture, but they were very low.

As you can see, they featured doorways so low the occupants had to wriggle in and out.



Hard by Orongo’s uncomfortable houses was the island’s largest collection of petroglyphs. The volcanic rock is not very hard, so many of the carvings are rather indistinct. Visitors are limited to five at a time on the ledge where the best collection can be viewed.

I think these are meant to represent birdmen.

I had now tramped from the museum, to the North of Hanga Roa, to Orongo on the southwest corner of the island, including a long climb to the rim of Rano Kau’s crater. Rapa Nui is not in the tropics, but the day has been one of brilliant sunshine and views of a deep blue Pacific Ocean stretching placidly to the horizon. The return was cooler as the sun was lower in the sky and it was all downhill or level. I was still glad for the last of my 2-bottle water supply.

I had seen moai; not photographs in a magazine but the real ones up close and personal, even though touching was not allowed. The cave paintings were a bonus. I don’t recall ever reading about those, and I had quite forgotten about the petroglyphs. I first read Thor Heyerdahl’s book, Aku Aku, about 40 years ago, so the dreams of visiting Easter Island had been waiting a long time for this. Sore feet were a tiny price to pay.

The soreness was nonetheless a nuisance. My tramping boots were old and had been resoled in Argentina. For some reason they did not fit quite as well after the repair. I had been on my feet a lot since the cruise through the fjords. And what do you get if you walk a long way in boots that don’t quite fit properly? Blisters :-( .

Back at the guest house I administered what first aid I could and considered my options. Not only were the boots raising blisters, but one of the new soles was coming adrift. It was time to retire the boots.

Living out of a backpack doesn’t allow for many choices of footwear. My only other shoes were sneakers, purchased for a very reasonable price in Puerto Iguazu a couple of months previously. Although they bore an Adidas logo, I fear they were inferior products passed off with an unsanctioned reputable brand name. Too bad. They would have to do.

On Tuesday morning I repeated my selection of lunch purchases and set off once again to the museum. It was well worth the time, with interesting exhibits and copious explanations in Spanish and English. Oral histories tell that the moai "walked" across the island from the quarry on Rano Raraku to their ahu. Some of the less magical theories of how they were transported were still pretty far fetched. My imagination failed at the seriously-proposed notion that the 60-tonnne statues were stood upright, had ropes tied around their heads and were rocked to and fro in such a way that they made forward progress. I think the wooden rollers idea is more practical.

I, and other visitors, had to race through the last part of the museum because it was closing for lunch.

I set off North along the cliff-top path, admiring the jagged coastline. No amount of scenery could take my mind off the soreness of my feet, though. Where the track crossed grassy areas it wasn’t so bad, but stepping on the irregular rock jabbed painfully through the feeble sole of my shoe.

Lunch was a relief, not only for the food and drink, but for the respite from putting weight on my unhealed feet. As I ate I watched three local youths. They had scrambled down the cliff to just above the waves and were fishing with a handline from the rocks. I didn’t see them catch anything.

My destinations were Ahu Tepeu and Ahu Akivi. Their locations seemed quite clear on the map. It felt strange that I couldn’t see Ahu Tepeu from my lunch spot, but the land was uneven and there were plenty of dips and gullies that could conceal a platform. I switched from the footpath to a rough road used by farm vehicles. The track turned inland at the place where the map indicated that it should. The ahu should be hereabouts, but there was no sign.

I followed the farm track another 200m and spied a rocky ‘something’ that didn’t look natural. There were no welcoming signs or obvious footpath, so I picked my way through tall grass and scrambled over the rubble where a wall had half collapsed. The ‘something’ was indeed man made, but it was just a neatly stacked pile of rocks. Most strange. But close by were shaped stones identifiable as the outline of a boat house, complete with holes for the roof supports. Once upon a time this had been a village.

If this were a village the ahu would be seawards, and in that direction was a rocky outcrop that now seemed more like a pile of rubble. And that was exactly what it turned out to be. Amongst the desecrated ruins of the ahu were broken moai, carved from distinctive, yellowish stone.

I spent some time exploring the site, taking care not to stray onto the tapu areas. The moai seemed to be virtually all head. If they had broken off at the neck, where were the trunks? At the rear of the ahu, the wall seemed to be relatively intact, but everything else was thrown down and broken up. A few fragments of red stone testified to former pukao.

It wasn’t Ahu Tepeu, but it was more exciting in a way to have "discovered" this old village.

My initial plan to go on to Ahu Akivi, the sole example of moai gazing across the village at the sea, and then follow the road or track clockwise (inland) back to Hanga Roa. Maybe over a soft, turf walkway my feet could have managed it, but they were hurting quite considerably by now. I chose the shorter option of a return along the cliff tops to Hanga Roa.

More first aid with the needle from my tiny sewing kit helped a little, and a delicious dinner of fresh fish raised my spirits enough to hobble back to the first ahu I had visited by the museum to try and catch the sunset with my camera.

Wednesday was my last day and it was travel by minibus, which was a boon to my tender feet. Another bonus was the best bilingual guide of my entire trip. I feel bad that I have forgotten her name.

We were treated to plenty of historical background, and it was consistent with the museum's information, which added to its credibility. There were friendly people in the nearby seats, which makes a bus tour so much more enjoyable. Across from me sat a 30-something Dutch couple and behind them were Sharon and Jan from California, who were closer to my age.

Wednesday must have been the regular day for this tour, because there were plenty of minibuses clustering round the sites and the souvenir stalls were ready and waiting.

To whet the appetite we were started off with a couple of stops at restored ahu and a cave that had been used by the local people. The highlight for me, though, was touring Rano Raraku, the volcano in the southeast quarter of the island where most of the moai were carved.

Teams using stone tools would hack the basic shape out of the side of the mountain. I had previously pictured this as within the crater, but of course the moai nursery was on the outside of the volcano. A moai was carved on its back. It would be properly shaped until it was an almost complete figure attached by a keel along its backbone.

Taking the weight on wooden levers, it would be carefully separated from the bedrock. The rough-formed statue would be skidded down the slope (a tricky process as several cracked moai testify) and the remaining keel removed. Representations of fingers across the tummy and any tattoos would be added here. The last detail was always the eyes, and these were only done after transportation to the ahu. Then the eye sockets were shaped and the coral/obsidian eyes added.

Moai were raised by levering them up a little and wedging rocks underneath. Lever a little higher and cram more rocks in. Repeat many times until the moai rests on its base. Thor Heyerdahl proved this method worked during his expedition to the island. It took his team 9 days.

After a leisurely lunch we set off to the most impressive ahu on the island, Ahu Tongariki. This is on low lying ground near Rano Raraku that was hit by a tsunami late in the 20th century. The moai had, of course, already been toppled. The tidal wave turned the ahu to gravel and washed the moai up to 100m inland. For some reason a Japanese engineering company was so moved by this event that it decided to restore the ahu and all 15 moai that stand on it. Having seen the island’s port facilities, I am mightily impressed that they even managed to land the crane.

Jan standing in front of the ahu. Three moai have been left out of the frame.

Last stop was Anakena, where the island has its only beach. The original settlers landed here. From what I have seen of the coast this decision was a no-brainer. Someone thought that a few imported palm trees would make the island look more attractive, so a grove has been planted in the sand behind the beach.

The Anakena ahu, too, has been restored.

Some of the tourists had been invited in advance to bring their togs. Sharon, who used to swim competitively, was prepared. She had brought goggles as well as her swimsuit. The water, she reported, was not as cool as she had expected. By rolling up my trouser legs I managed a paddle. The water in the shallows was really warm, and there were small fish to admire darting around the rocks.

I suggested dinner together to cement the day’s new friendships. Only Sharon turned up. Still, it was nice to eat with good company. The restaurant produced another delicious fish dinner before I had to go to the airport.

And it's farewell to Easter Island.

1 comment:

Julia said...

Incredible likeness in one particular photo - do you think you may be descended from a moai perchance? LOL Glad you are back and safe - take care good buddy xxx