Te Pito o Te Henua

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Friday, March 24, 2006

Rachel's dad, Dennis, always wanted to vist the Easter Islands, but never managed to. He tells Rachel in an email that on this visit she is an ambassador for the Chow family.

Getting to the Easter Islands is one of the reasons that it took us a while to sort out our round-the-world flight. An expensive USD$650 flight in its own right, we wanted to get it included in our ticket without paying over the top. Eventually we manage to find a good value round-the-world fare that allows us 4 free internal flights within each continent we visit; a return trip to the Easter Island uses up two of those sectors in South America.

The flight out takes over 5 hours from Santiago, because it is nearly 4000km distant from the continent. The flight progress monitor on the TV screens of the plane shows the text for the Easter Islands, but the landmass is so small there is nothing else but blue ocean everywhere else. Eventually we look out the window and see a little green island far below, isolated in the vast Pacific ocean, with blue water strtching into the distance as far as the eye can see.

The island's triangular form is defined by three massive volcanoes; one in each vertex. These I understand are now extinct, but the island is most definitely of relatively recent volcanic origin as we find out when we are on the ground.

Easter Island goes by lots of other names: Isla de Pascua (Spanish) and Rapa Nui (local dialect), and it is also fondly called Te Pito o Te Henua (The Navel of the World) by the locals since it is stuck in the middle and isolated from everywhere else. Indeed the nearest populated landmass is the 2000km distant Pitcairn islands. It seems unbelievable that people arrived at such a tiny speck by canoe.

The plane lands on a huge runway that is extremely conspicuous on such a small island. Apparently Pinochet, the ousted Chilean dictator, allowed the USA to extend it to allow for possible space shuttle landings. The airport does however allow big passenger planes to get in and out a few times a week - the only way tourists like us get to the islands these days.

As soon as we land we are immediately struck by the sunshine, pleasant temperature, the swaying palms, and the friendly faces outside awaiting us. It feels a bit like arriving in Hawaii, except that everything is much less developed and on a much smaller scale. Compared to mainland Chile it feels very exotic and welcoming.

In a good mood we head out to the baggage collection area where there is a large crowd milling about in a very small area. Around the periphery are landladies from the local guesthouses and hotels come to meet the passengers off the plane and sell them some accomodation for their stay. Many people who have pre-booked their accomodation are given a welcoming Ley, or string of orchids, around their necks.

While Rachel waits for the bags, I chat to a few of the ladies from the different hostels and find Janet, from Residencial Miru, who offers us a room with private bathroom for 7,500 Pesos (about GBP7.50) each per night. She tells us that it has a big kitchen and a nice garden so we take her up on the offer. We have been told to expect everything to be almost twice the price of the Chilean mainland, so this seems quite good value. We also have brought enough food in Santiago to last us for 4 days, so having a big kitchen is important.

It so happens that Gaelle from Belgium, and Roland and Chantal from Switzerland, are also on the flight and are staying the same time as us. They opt to stay at another hostel which costs the same.

Janet leads us outside through the crowds, and finds a local man with a pickup truck to take us back to her hostel. Its one of those wide-bodied American pickups with a bench seat and its quite a squeeze with all four of us up-front, especially since Janet is built like a true Polynesian and has a backside the girth of an elephant's. We have barely been in the truck for a minute, and we pull into a pretty garden where the hostel is.

Janet's big size also equals her huge friendliness as she shows us to our room and around the bright orange hostel. The room is pretty plain and rundown, but certainly clean, and the kitchen lives up to its billing so we are happy. We meet Janet's equally large sister Sandra, who is a business partner with her. Sandra spends some time going over what we can do on the islands while Janet makes us a delicious drink of guava juice.

In the afternoon we are wandering down the main street of Hanga Roa, and we meet Roland and Chantal. We agree with them that we will rent a car for a couple of days to get around the main sites. Roland has found a place renting new 4 door Daihatsu Terios 4WDs for 65,000 Pesos for 2 days (GBP65 for 2 days). If we can get Gaelle to join us we will only have to pay 13,000 Pesos each (GBP13.00).

We stroll through Hanga Roa (the only town on the island) and find the museum which gives us a good introduction to the history of the island. Some of facts I knew before, but lots of it is new to me. I learn that the island was originally populated about 1500 years ago by Polynesians, and that they were succesful in growing crops, and fishing. This led to population growth and sufficient free time to sustain a priestly class and large numbers of workers. They carved out the famous Moai stone statues and erected them on Ahu platforms to look over the villages and protect them. Their lifestyle was dependent on resources such as wood to burn for cooking, and to construct means of moving the Moai from the quarries their resting sites. When the resources depleted, the overpopulated island split into factions and began to fight with each other, resulting in the toppling of the Moai. The islands were discovered by the outside world in 1722 by a Dutchman named Roeggeveen. At that time, there was still relative peace but within a few years most of the Moai had been knocked down as witnessed by successive early explorers.

In the late 1700's the birdman cult began to become the dominant belief system. The new leader of the island's argumentative people was the first to succesfully swim out to a tiny islet offshore and bring back the first egg of the new season from the Sooty Tern. Immediately his eyebrows were shorn off and he was to maintain a position of leadership for a year.

The arrival of significant numbers of Europeans in the 1800's decimated the islands population further through disease and slavery. Most of the islanders now are of mixed blood, but their Polynesian roots are obvious through looks, language, and culture. Chile annexed the islands in the late 1800's at a time of fairly rampant empire-building, after succes in the War of the Pacific. After exploiting the islands and the islanders for many years the government now has a somewhat benevolent approach, particularly with the advent of tourism. It is strange that such disparate cultures belong in the same country.

Too much time indoors we think, and head outside to walk down to see our first restored Moai at Ko Te Riku. The waves crash on the rocky lava shore, the wind blows gently, and the sun lights up everything clearly. As we look up into the Moai's white coral eyes it really feels as though we are in a strange place indeed. I marvel at the culture that carved him out of the rock and dragged him, all twenty tonnes, 15km across the island to erect him in this beatiful spot to overlook a few walled crop plantations. Close by there are other Moai, and on one platform there are five, gazing inland with stark stylised faces that speak of pride and power.

The next day we pick up the car and drive out to Ahu Akivi, where that are 5 restored Moai, inland somewhat, but gazing out into the Pacific. I learn that on the Equinoxes they face directly the setting sun. As its March 22nd, we agree to stop back in one evening to see them again.

Further on, at the coast we come across what we see many times over the next few days: fallen Moai, their remains littered over the black lava rock and tough green grass. The Ahu, or platform, on which they rest is an amazing work in itself, built of stones that are dressed to fit their neighbours perfectly.

In the afternoon we drive as far as we dare on Cerro Maunga Terevaka (there is no car insurance on the Easter Islands), and begin the slow steady walk all the way to the top which has an altitude of just over 500m; the highest point on the island. As we ascend we gradually start to see all of the island spread out beneath us. We pass a crater on the hillside and soon we are at the top. The view is a 360 degree spectacle, and on the horizon, in every direction, I can see nothing but pure blue ocean. Have you ever stood on land and seen nothing but sea on the horizon? I haven't, and it makes the place feel really isolated and spiritual. Clouds change and move to create amorphous thoughts and feelings in my mind. This is a really special place. I think about such a small island surrounded by so much emptiness and I wonder how I would cope if I was born here. We walk back down accompanied by a friendly stray dog that enjoys chasing mice in the long grass.

In the late afternoon we visit the only sandy beach where its safe to swim, Playa Arakena. There are 7 huge moai on a platform behind the beach. Most of them are crowned with a topknot made from reddish brown rock. A young girl wanders on to the Ahu for a closer look and is shouted at by a number of locals for being disrespectful. Most vociferous amongst them is a fat 12 year old boy, who is clearly a local, and enjoys telling tourist off for engaging in taboo activities.

At the beach the water is cool and pleasant, and there's a few waves to splash in. I really appreciate it after climbing the hill in the heat of the day. I see that my legs got rather more sun that they should have.

As we are heading back to the car we bump in to Sandra (from our hostel) who informs us that theres a local singing and dancing group about to perform in front of the Moai at sunset. It sounds like a spectacle not to be missed. Soon a bus full of geriatric American and German tourists arrives; I guess they must be the ones that paid for the performance.

We take a ringside seat on the grass and smile as the troup of about 20 men and women start to sing and dance. Three of the male dancers are covered in ochre paint with loincloths and huge feather headresses. The eight female dancers are wearing grass skirts and bikinis; they sway their hips mesmerisingly to the beat as I and every other male in the audience watches entranced. Much to the girls' amusement the boys seem to compete to do the best pelvic thrusts in time to the music. The sound of the sea playing its own rythmns on the shore, the sight of the Moai statues behind, the music, and the dancing, make for a memorable end to the day.

The next day we take a longer tour around the south of the island. We stop at a small bay beside some toppled Moai in an area where surf smashes fiercly on to the pristine coasline. Three local people with bathing suits and snorkels enter the water in a slightly more sheltered area and we watch them splash around in the shallows to scare fish into a net that they have strung out. In about 10 minutes two come out of the water, and we are amazed to see the variety of fish they have caught in the net. The third man comes out a moment or two later; he is carrying a writhing conger eel about a metre or more in length. He shows us how he has incapacitated it by biting it in the belly and the neck. He offers us some eggs from its abdomen after demonstrating to us how tasty they are; none of us take any, the animal is just too frightening even when nearly dead.

We pass a large number of other archeological sites along the road that morning, but none is more spectacular that Ranu Roraku, where we see the quarry or 'nursery' where the Moai were carved out of the rock by the locals. The number of Moai around the area is incredible - over 1000 in various states of completion. They vary widely in size, from a few tonnes to over 100 tonnes and 21 metres in length. The setting is also startling as the quarry is built into the side of an extinct volcanoe. Some of the Moai we find are being carved out high up on the crater rim, where there are impressive views along the coastline and into the interior of the island. Other completed Moai litter the southern slopes looking like a group of giant gnomes on a drunken night out (Drunken because of the various angles they rest at).

Down on the shore, there is one of the largest Ahu I have seen with 15 beautifuly restored Moai (Ahu Tongariki) along its length. The restoration project was funded by the Japanese, and judging by the look of awe on visitors faces has to be regarded as a big success. The 15 statues include some of the largest ones ever to be removed from the quarry in the volcano about a mile away. I circle them, taking photos from every conceivable angle, and trying to work out how they make me feel. I am filled with excitment at the scale and beauty of the construction but I am at a loss for words to extract meaning from it.

That afternoon we head back to the beach at Anakena, before continuing on to Ahu Akivi to watch the sunset over the 7 Moai that face the sea. The sun slowly sinks into the unfathomable Pacific as the Moai watch peacefully from their little patch of land in this vast ocean. The sky turns from blue to red and there are colourful reflections off the base of the high cirrus clouds that speckle the sky. Only one other car appears during the evening which reflects the fact that the islands are relatively untouristed and unspoiled (say compared to Hawaii) and its easy to get time and peace here to enjoy the sights.

The next day on the island we no longer have the hire car, so we hike to the top of Rano Kau, where there is a huge crater and an ancient ceremonial village. That morning its a little dull so we make the hike in reasonable time without the sun beating on our back. We walk along the coastline enjoying watching the huge Pacific rollers pound on the rocks. We stop beside a cave which is decorated with ancient paintings in of birds and fish in grey blue and red.

The slopes of the crater have been planted in Eucalyptus. Many of the indigenous trees are on the brink of extinction, and some, such as the Tomorimo are being nursed back into the wild from a few speciments held in botanical gardens in far off parts of the world.

The view from the edge of the crater is amazing. It must be about a kilometre in diameter and the bottom is a blue lake which has a patchwork of natural grass rafts growing on it. The steep walls of the crater make it look like a giant stadium for some prehistoric sport. The screech of the numerous harriers flying around sound like pteradactyls according to Rachel. One part of the crater rim is much lower where the ocean is starting to erode the rocks far beneath the sloping walls.

We walk along the rim for a while until we get to the entry point to Oronogo Ceremonial Village. We pay our 5,000 Peso (about GBP5.00) entrance fee and we are joined by a stray dog which has three legs and half a tail. Inside the village, the dog shows us round all the sites which include low houses with dry stone walls, grass roofs, and tiny entrances barely large enough for a person to squeeze through. These houses were used during the annual birdman festival when contestants for the islands leadership would swim out to the tiny nearby islets.

On large rocks in amongst the houses are petroglyphs of figures: contorted bodies, half man half bird, clutching an egg with outstretched arms.

The dog suggests we sit down to share lunch, but neglects to tell us that its not allowed inside the village complex and we get kicked out by a ranger. Outside the village, the dog suggests another lunch spot and collects his tip for the tour in the form of fragments of ham sandwich.

That evening Rachel and I head back to the site just north of Hanga Roa, where we saw our first Moai with the coral eyes, to watch the sunset. It seems that everyone reckons this is the best place to catch the sunset and there are lots of people milling around with cameras trained on the horizon. Some people are taking the whole thing very seriously and run from place to place to get the perfect shot as the sun rapidly decends into the ocean. Mind you, the suns rays bouncing off some high floating clouds with the silhoutted Moai in the foreground is pretty spectacular, and we take quite a few photos ourselves.

On our last day we take a quick peek in the local catholic church which we've heard has some interesting iconography. I am amazed that the church has wooden sculptures that combine the image of the birdman with the saints. I thought this only happened in Roman times when the church was trying to convert local tribes by fusing elements of old and new belief. It seems the same trick was used less than 200 years ago here as we see imediately that the church has birdmen reliefs all over the facade, alongside an all-seeing-eye. Inside there are numerous wooden carvings which have the birdman all over them.

Our final stop before the airport is a local hotel where Rachel has heard that she can get a stamp in her passport confirming that she has been in the Easter Islands. We walk through the front gate and a fat man with a high voice wearing just a sarong around his bulging waist tells us to come and see him. Rachel asks if he has a stamp for our passport and he snaps back that we'll have to wait while he continues what seems to be a rather unimportant conversation with a local lady. After a couple of minutes I tell Rachel that we should leave as he is clearly not interested in helping us, but Rachel tells me to hang on a few more minutes. He goes through a doorway, and reappears with a stamp and inkpad in hand. Rachel shows him where she wants the stamp, but he disagrees and tells her that it should go on a fresh page. Rachel finds another page where there is more space for the stamp, but not a blank one because blank pages are important in a passport thats rapidly filling up. Finally he deigns to stamp her book and then immediately demands a dollar. Rachel, thinking that the service was free (especially since it was such bad service) , refuses to pay and he goes off on a rant about her nationality, and that if we don't pay we will have problems in the airport. As the threats start to heighten we walk out surprised to have met such an unpleasant person on this otherwise very friendly island.

Outside we meet an English couple, Paul and Claire, who we have bumped into a couple of times and they immediately tell us how they are really unhappy with the feeling that they are being 'milked' continually for money on the island. We tell them the story of the stamp in the passport and they laugh because we complain about being milked for just a dollar. To be fair, when I hear what they have paid for things, we are glad that we brought all our own food to the island as everything seems to be almost twice the price on the mainland. Most of Paul and Claire's woes would be solved by bringing your own food and finding a hostel with a good kitchen to cook it in.

Back at Residencial Miru we say goodbye to Janet (who makes me feel great by saying I have lovely blue eyes), and walk the ten minutes over to the airport terminal. On the way there the dog with three legs and half a tail turns up to wave us goodbye and almost gets run over by a passing car. Perhaps his poor traffic skills explains why it lost a leg and half a tail.

Soon we are in the air and gaze down for the last few minutes on the green island far below. We feel privelidged to have visited it; it is so rich in archeology, nature, and culture for such a small place. Strangely, the place it reminds me of most is the Orkney Islands of Scotland.
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rachel_john on

Re: Those wacky Polynesians
Hi Mike

I reckon that when the Polynesians got to Australia they didnt like it because it was a bit too ´continental´ for them. In addition a small canoe load of Polynesians may have been easily frightened off by the local Aboriginals who had been around for 50,000 years or so.

Unpopulated islands may have been more appealing.

Take care,


PS We are now in BOLIVIA and its a real culture shocjk compared to Chile

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