Easter Island (or Rapa Nui, as the original inhabitants call it) is the most geographically isolated populated place on earth. It´s just a speck in the middle of the vast Pacific. You don´t want to get injured on Easter Island, as help is not close. We stopped there on our way from Tahiti to Chile.
And you can just feel the isolation — waves crash violently on the tiny island´s shores, scant hills are bereft of trees, and from some vantage points, you can see almost the entire island. It takes less than an hour to drive across.
But what’s truly unique about the island is, of course, the Moai, the megalithic carved statues. They make Easter Island the grandest Polynesian archaeological site in the world. We saw our first Moai in the island’s one small town, Hanga Roa, just after we arrived. That evening we had a wonderful meal of fresh fish at a Chilean restaurant — Easter Island was annexed by Chile about 100 years ago.
The next day, setting out in a small SUV across the island, our driving skills weren´t great after eight years of city living. Good thing the roads were empty. The naked hills looked unnaturally hemispheric, and were covered in purple grass and bright yellow flowers. A small stand of trees in the middle of the island comprised the "forest." At a small, pretty beach on the other side of the island, we ate our picnic lunch.
Apparently the swimming, surfing and scuba is good in the summer.
Near the beach was an Ahu, a platform made of stones that holds Moai. This one held a group of massive Moai carved from grey volcanic stone with top-knots carved from red stone. Moai were commissioned by individuals to increase their mana, and discourage their enemies. All of the standing Moai on the island have been uprighted recently, most with modern technology. They´d been toppled for many years, as a result of tribal fighting.
A short drive away, were a group of stones set up like a compass, on a rocky shore. Locals considered the middle stone to be the "navel of the earth."
Tongariki has the largest Ahu with the most Moai. Their backs are turned to a violent shoreline; they gaze at a volcanic crater.
The crater contains the workshop where most of the Moai were created.
Hundreds of Moai are still there, in various states of completion. Some are only partially carved out of the hillside, while others sit propped up, awaiting final refinements.
Ironically, when most people think of Easter Island, they think of these incomplete Moai, with their cro-magnon brows and kissy lips, jutting haphazardly out of the hill. The completed Moai once had eye-whites and pupils, were more refined, and stood upright.
It was surreal to climb between all the massive, contemplative, "Far Side" heads protruding from the earth.
Walking along the windswept edge of the crater, we could see the marshy lake in the center. Wild horses were grazing; they´re all over the island.
After carving the mammoth statues, they somehow transported them to sites around the island, some quite far away. There are many theories on how they were transported; it´s one of the great mysteries of the island. What is known is that Easter Island once had much larger forests. Timber was used to transport the Moai (somehow), and over the years the forests were depleted — many species became extinct. An early environmental disaster on a microcosmic level, this is why the hills are nude today. The disappearance of the forest meant that Moai could no longer be created. This led to lots of changes, including increased importance of the Bird-man cult of the island.
The next day, we saw the other major sites of Easter Island, including more Ahu and Moai, by the ocean.
At one site, there was a shore-side area "paved" with large stones — a canoe launching point.
Some of the islands vistas were so idyllic.
Jason tested his, er, technical driving skills on the rutted dirt roads. There were lots of volcanic rocks scattered on that side of the island. And wild horses.
We could see formations that looked like stone walls or piles, created by the Polynesians. We also explored a lava tube cave, where the they´d piled stones in formations.
Banana trees and other plants in the mouth of the cave, where horses couldn´t reach them.
That evening, we explored Orongo, a shore-side camp important to the Bird-man cult. The windswept site is on a cliff between a large volcanic crater and the sea.
Ceremonial rock huts were built atop the cliffs.
Petroglyphs of bird-men and other figures are on boulders at the cliff´s edge (photo by Jason).
Later, we rode horses to the highest point on the island.
The view was beautiful; the ride was painful. Standing at the top and turning around 360 degrees, the Pacific was an unbroken horizon, except for one bit of land that broke the view.
Tiny Hanga Roa was having an Earth Day type celebration on our last day. We saw some native song and dance, with traditional electric guitars. These guys had greeted us at the airport when we arrived.
The local Catholic church incorporates Bird-man iconography.
At the end of our visit, Raoul, our host at the Orongo hotel, made us an amazing fish dinner. Easter Island was a gentle introduction to South America.