As I write this I am looking out over stormy clouds that fades the horizon between the sky and the sea from this tiny island in the Pacific. Formed from 3 volcanic eruptions Easter Island (or Rapa Nui as it is known locally) is the most remote inhabited island in the world and holds a mystic past of which today, sadly, little is known.
We are just waiting for our flight to whisk us over to Tahiti and we are thanking god that the last 5 days we’ve been here it hasn’t been pouring and blowing a gale as it is now. Instead, it has been gorgeous tropical weather and we’ve had the most magical few days exploring the island on foot and by bike, coming across countless fallen (and several restored) moai that adorn the island as well as numerous legends passed down orally through the generations.
It was a sad goodbye to mainland South America when we left last week but scarily now feels like a bit of a dream. However, Rapa Nui has held so many treats and suprises that there hasn’t been much time to think about it. After a bit of a hectic flight with LAN (initially telling us weren’t booked – we were – and every single group being split up on the flight meaning lots of changes) we arrived at the tiny airport where everyone was walking around the runway taking pictures. I guess that’s what happens when yours is the only flight arriving that day!
We were greeted with flower garlands (the purple petals looked particularly fetching on James) and then taken along to our accommodation 5 mins down the road. The place is a campsite with rooms, directly overlooking the sea and 10 mins away from the only village on the island, Hanga Roa. We set off in our excitement and almost immediately came across our first moai, re-erected just above a small harbour with dozens of colourful fishing boats and palm trees. It was huge and imposing and we took loads of pictures. But little did we know that this was nothing compared to what we would find over the next few days.
We managed to acquire an incredibly useful book about the island, written by a Scotsman who studied Easter Island from Cambridge and is now living out here. Although it was expensive, it saved us money in the long run as it allowed us to explore by ourselves without a guide but still get incredibly interesting anecdotes and information about the culture that made these incredible statues. Unfortunately, very little is known for definite. From an estimated population of 14,000 at one point, there were only 111 islanders remaining by the 19th century due to lack of food and resources (mainly attributed to the effort that was put into building the moai), inter-tribal warfare, slave raids from Peru, and disease spread from abroad. The island has slowly rebuilt and now has an estimated population of 4000, but understandably, much of the history of the place has been lost: from what actually happened to cause the wars,to how the moai were constructed and moved such huge distances. It’s a wonderful but frustrating thing trying to imagine what the island was like when so little is known about the people who lived here. What we do know is that in a relatively short period in the 18th – 19th century, all of the moai were hauled from their platforms and destroyed, leaving the island littered with over 900 moai, some originally completed and later restored onto their platforms in the 50s, some left in the quarry seemingly abondoned in haste for which there are a number of theories but no proof any which way.
After the moai period came the birdman ritual, in which tribes would compete, getting one representative to climb down the cliffs of a volcanic crater to the thuderous, shark infested sea, swim across to one of the islands, wait for the first egg to be laid then swim back and produce it unbroken for their chief to be the next birdman and ruler of the island. It is thought that this was the solution to stop the warring between the tribes to give equal opportunity to each tribe each year to rule the island.
Climbing up to the crater of the volcano and looking down into the freshwater lake from the rim of the crater, it all seems too serene but the relief carvings on the rocks, the village found from where the competition started and the view over to the islands is all a bit haunting.
We climbed through caves formed by lava tubes after the volcanic eruption which have “dos ventanas” – 2 windows – out over the sea, watched sun set over the horizon with 7 restored moai in front of us, cycled up to inland moai, got lost on the way back and climbed down through fields of rocks (which we really hope weren’t destroyed moai we were trampling all over), cycled in the pitch black to our very own private screening of the film “Rapa Nui” in a hotel bar, seen beautiful astronomical petroglyphs, eaten mean hotdogs (the unofficial national dish of Chile apparently) and generally enjoyed every second we’ve been here.
I just feel sorry for the new arrivals and this rain!
* Due to a power cut, we couldn’t post this before we left last night so we have now in fact just spent our first morning in Tahiti. Oh. my. word.