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Rapa Nui: More than Moai

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The Ranu Kau crater at Orongo, site of the birdman cult

The idea to stop at Easter island en route to South America actually took hold midway through the trip, as we were discussing the possibility of visiting the Cox family in Santiago.  We met Juan, Carolina, and 5 of their seven children in Chiang Mai, and then connected with them in Luang Prabang, and a fast friendship was formed.  Soon we were making plans to reunite in their home of Santiago, Chile.  Juan proposed that we island hop our way there, stopping in Fiji, Tahiti, then Easter Island before flying into Santiago.  Despite the lovely trajectory that this route depicts on a map, alas, there are no flights from Australia-Fiji-Tahiiti, but actually requires a stop in Sydney or Auckland between Fiji and Tahiti.  But we found that Tahiti onward would work and so the plans got underway.

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Partially completed Moai, never moved from their original construction site at the quarry

Partially completed Moai, never moved from their original construction site at the quarry

It was a good choice.  Easter Island got its internationally recognized name when Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch explorer landed here on Easter Sunday, 1722, but the locals prefer to call it Rapa Nui.  It is also called Te pito o te kainga a Hau Maka which means The Navel of the World, and apt description seeing as it is further from any major land mass then any other populated island on earth.  And yet….navel doesn’t exactly conjure any of the other classic images of this mysterious and tragically beautiful land.  Why mysterious and tragic?  Because its history has been erased, lost to time and circumstances.  The few clues left behind, in the form of the iconic carved stone Moai (heads), the Birdman Cult petroglyphs, and a few scattered symbols written on wood tablets, all end up as the basis for new theories about who the first settlers were, how they lived, and what happened to them.  For example, most of the Moai were carved from a single source, a quarry of porous stone called volcanic tuff.   Throughout time, carbon dating and the resting place of the statues indicate that the Moai gradually were carved larger and larger.  The hardest material on the island was basalt, and it is believed that basalt tools were used to carve the tuff.  But there are about 10 statues, from an earlier period, that were carved from basalt, and they have slightly different characteristics.  One of these is the one on display in Washington DC, at the national museum.  The source of these large basalt stones have not been found, and some researches believe the basalt quarry is underwater, predating the arrival of the polynesian settlers by hundreds of years.  It is also not clear how these basalt statues would have been carved, since there is nothing harder than basalt on the island.  There are also just a few ahus (burial platforms) that have perfectly matched seams, cuts that would require an almost mechanical precision and a very sharp tool.  These stones are on the bottom of the ahu, and built up around, as if they were here first, before the polynesians came and added to it. I read just enough on the topic to become completely intrigued and also drive our guide, Tomy, crazy with my insistent line of questions involving theories he disagrees with. But that is what makes this island so completely fascinating, that people don’t know the answers.  Due to the capture of thousands of men and key individuals (by Peruvian slave ships), combined with disease introduced by European explorers, at one point in the 1870’s, the population of Rapa Nui had dwindled to just 111.  The oral tradition and lore went silent with this lost generation.  Written history was either destroyed in uprisings or stolen by explorers.  I think that is what surprised me most; the lack of knowledge about who the first people here were. Before I arrived I thought the mystery was all about the Moai: how were they carved and why, how were they transported, what was their purpose.

Cabanas Morerava, with wild horses grazing in the foreground.  Marcella had to chase them off the property each day!

Cabanas Morerava, with wild horses grazing in the foreground. Marcella had to chase them off the property each day!

Moai at Te'Ora near Hanga Roa, the main town of Rapa Nui.  We walked there our first night on the island to watch the sun set.

Moai at Te’Ora near Hanga Roa, the main town of Rapa Nui. We walked there our first night on the island to watch the sun set.

Despite our usual lack of preparation, Easter Island is one of those places on the trip where things just fell into place.  I suppose it helps that the island is small and manageable, with only a single town, and only a few choices in the usual categories, such as accommodations, activities, restaurants, etc.  We stayed in at the Cabanas Morerava, outside of the main town of Hanga Roa.  The Cabanas are long narrow houses, recipients of some architectural awards, and also eco-friendly.  The best part is that they come with the nicest of hosts, Marcella and her parents, and dependable bikes that you can ride into town.  We had hired a guide, Tomy, from Toki Tours, prior to arrival.  He met us at the Cabanas and we mapped out our 2 day plan.  One day of touring around to the Moai sites, and one day of hiking to the site of the Birdman Cult village, separated by a ‘free day’ where we were to take a horseback ride to the highest point of the island.

Our first day of touring with Tomy was amazing.  He took us to the main sites and explained what is generally known about the history of the island, and what some of the theories are about things still unknown, like how the massive stone heads were moved to the burial platforms by the sea.  He talked about the purpose of the Moai, as ancestral deities that watch over the villages (they faced inward, not out towards sea), and how they were quarried, carved, and erected, and then, eventually, that they were toppled during civil wars among the islanders.  We saw several sites where the platforms and Moai had been reconstructed, and other sites left in their natural state.  All of this was interspersed with stories from his own childhood, as he grew up on Rapa Nui, a descendant of two different tribes on the island.  Our views of the island that day were amazing.  We had read that the entire island was treeless, so were surprised by the natural beauty around us.   Wild horses roam the mostly grassy, windswept hillsides of this island, formed by three volcanic eruptions, hundreds of thousands years apart.  Steep slopes gave way to rocky cliff faces that plunged into the churning and white frothy surf.  One of two beaches on the island had been replanted with a palm grove.  We hiked up to a crater filled with a small lake.  We returned to our cabana that night, still chatting about all that we had seen and learned that day, fascinated by the mysteries of this place.

Ahu Tongariki in the distance, viewed from the main quarry

Ahu Tongariki in the distance, viewed from the main quarry

Tomy, patiently answering our questions and feeding us the theories about the Moai

Tomy, patiently answering our questions and feeding us the theories about the Moai

The kids viewing a partially carved Moai.  They were carved like this, then buried in the hillside, where their features could be more easily fine-tuned without the use of ladders

The kids viewing a partially carved Moai. They were carved like this, then buried in the hillside, where their features could be more easily fine-tuned without the use of ladders

One of the examples of "Incan" style stone fitting, which is on the back of one of the ahu on the island - the stonework around and above it is rougher and less precise.

One of the examples of “Incan” style stone fitting, which is on the back of one of the ahu on the island – the stonework around and above it is rougher and less precise.

Our horseback ride the next morning was postponed due to rain, and we used that day (my birthday) to instead tour around town on bicycles and visit a local museum.  We had a tasty dinner that night at a local restaurant and the kids and Jon baked me a chocolate cake!

one of the only original coral "eyes" of the Moai, excavated on the island and now located in its small museum

one of the only original coral “eyes” of the Moai, excavated on the island and now located in its small museum

The following day, Tomy met us again and led us on a six hour, 14 km hike along the southwest corner of the island.  We circled the rim of the now extinct volcano, Ranu Kau, gazed at the historical bird islands (Motu Nui and Motu Iti) – both played pivotal roles in the annual ritual of selecting a new bird man to lead the cult.  This cult is thought to have arisen out of the disenchantment that people felt after their last era of worshipping the Moai.  Disease, hunger, and deforestation had left them desperate and struggling and they turned to this new belief for a century or so before the missionaries finally converted them Christianity.

Our last full day on the island, we were picked up at our Cabanas by Marcella’s father and taken to our waiting spanish ponies.  The horses were excited as we set out, but soon settled down as the steep grade required them to work a little harder.   We walked, trotted (and even galloped a short way) to the top of the highest volcano on the island (500 meters), which afforded a 360 degree view of the water surrounding Rapa Nui.  After a few bone-chilling moments of being buffeted by the wind from all directions, we mounted up and headed back down, our horses slipping occasionally on the mud-soaked grass road.  Best horses of the trip – the caballos were spirited and responsive, not the usual barn-sour horses that plod mindlessly in a nose-to-tail line that they can’t deviate from.  Our guide, Joe, rode behind us the whole way, keeping an eye on things, but mostly letting us enjoy ourselves, as he savored the quiet solitude with his sweet 3 year old grandson riding along in the saddle in front of him.  Occasionally he spoke to us in Spanish and the only word I understood was caballo.

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Our next trip here will be one February, so that we can witness the annual festival where there are horse races, sled races straight down the side of a volcano, and triathlete-style competitions and traditional dancing.  Will definitely need to plan ahead for that one!

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