An Exploration of Enchanting & Enigmatic Easter Island
Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island, Chile. October 1, 2015
Easter Island / Rapa Nui
A tiny spec of land in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean some 3,000 kilometres off the South American mainland, Rapa Nui, the indigenous name of Easter Island, is one of the most isolated islands in the world. Even so, some 800-1200 years ago a double-hulled canoe filled with seafarers from a distant culture landed upon its shores. Over the centuries that followed a remarkable society of Polynesian origin developed in isolation on the island, establishing a powerful, imaginative and original tradition of monumental sculpture and architecture, free from any external influence. They began carving and erecting giant statues out of volcanic rock. These monuments, known as moai, are some of the most incredible ancient relics ever discovered & form part of an unrivalled cultural landscape that continues to fascinate to this day.
– UNESCO commenting on Rapa Nui National Park
I spent a week on enchanting Easter Island being awed every day by its history, its enigmas, its uniqueness, and its sheer isolation. What follows is a day-by-day, picture & insight-heavy recap of my visit.
Read the whole posting in chronological order or jump to specific areas of the post using these links.
DAY 1 || Arrival, Hanga Roa, Tahai, & History (Discovery & the Moai)
DAY 2 || Orongo Ceremonial Centre & History (Turmoil & Tangata Manu/The Birdman Ritual)
DAY 3 || Ahu Tongariki & The Moai – Rise & Fall
DAY 4 || Museo Antropologico P. Sebastian Englert
DAY 5 || Easter Island Preservation, Anakena, Ahu Te Pito Kura, Puna Pau, Rano Raraku (The Moai Quarry), & The Moai In Numbers
DAY 6 || The Easter Island/Rapa Nui Stamp, Ana Kai Tangata (Cave Petroglyphs), & Ahu Tautira
DAY 7 || Ahu Tongariki Sunrise & Departure
The Complete Easter Island/Rapa Nui Gallery
Every time I stopped to remind myself today that I was on Easter Island brought a little smile to my face. It’s beyond super cool to be here on what is one of the remotest inhabited places on planet earth, a 23-kilometre-long triangular island out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean 3,000 kilometres off the South American mainland & some 2,300 kilometres from the next inhabited island. Yes, it’s way beyond super cool.
Hanga Roa & Tahai
It was a long day today. Woe is me I know but even a 4.45 a.m. alarm call, a flight delay & a 5-hour flight didn’t in any way dampen my mood. A late afternoon arrival on the island meant I didn’t venture too far from my comfortable base for the 6 nights I’ll spend here, Residencial Vaianny in the village of Hanga Roa, the island’s only settlement & home to its 7000 population. I’ll be breaking out over various parts of the island beginning tomorrow but this evening I ventured 10 minutes outside of town to Tahai, Easter Island’s de facto sunset location & the nearest gathering of the famous moai statues.
It’s only Day 1 on Easter Island. There’s more to come from enchanting Rapa Nui. Lots more.
HISTORY I - DISCOVERY & THE MOAI
The Polynesian islands to the west had been colonised since around 500 BC. It was sometime later that the seafaring natives set off from their homeland exploring, eventually coming upon Easter Island. No one is exactly sure when this happened (or how) but, and while some claim a landing as early as 300 AD, it is widely believed that humans first set foot on the island sometime between 800 & 1200 AD – according to oral tradition, the first Rapa Nui Ariki (king), Hotu Matu’a, was the first to arrive on the island in one of two double canoes similar to those used in the rest of Polynesia. Thereafter, the island’s mysterious history has been split by archaeologists into two distinct periods, the statue worshiping Ahu Moai phase, until the 17th century, & the god worshiping Huri Moai phase, from the 17th century until the arrival of Catholic missionaries in 1864. (Prior to that, the island was first ‘discovered’ by the western world when Dutch naval commander Jacob Roggeveen sighted it on Easter Sunday 1722 – hence its western name – & it was famously visited by Captain Cook in 1774, he making valuable observations of the local Rapa Nui people and the island’s “stupendous figures”.) It was during the Ahu Moai phase, the so-called ancestors’ cult, when Rapa Nui culture reached its peak with the construction of huge ceremonial centres, called Ahu, and moai statues. Since then, science has learned much about the enigma that is Rapa Nui and has put to rest some of the more bizarre theories. Questions and controversies still remain but it is widely believed that the moai statues were created to represent the important ancestors of each clan & were erected facing inland to spiritually protect both the clan and the territory it watched over.
I spent the day today being awed some more by Easter Island. It was a pleasant day in these parts. My first port of call was the ceremonial village of Orongo. Perched high on the rim of the crater of the extinct Rano Kau volcano at the extreme southwest of the island, it was a stiff 90-minute (mostly) uphill walk from my base in Hanga Roa. Orongo was the centre of the island’s annual birdman ceremony. And while so much uncertainty remains about aspects of the island’s past, the cult of the birdman is well understood as it was practised right up until 1878.
HISTORY II - TURMOIL & TANGATA MANU/THE BIRDMAN RITUAL
Rapa Nui’s Ahu Moai statue worshiping phase ended around the 17th century with the so-called Huri Moai phase, a turbulent period of social conflict which saw the great moai toppled and the Tangata Manu, the so-called birdman ritual, begin. Linked to Makemake, the most important god in the local religious order, the birdman ritual was the centrepiece of a new system of societal organisation that sprung up in the wake of the clan warfare that saw the decline of the moai carving & erection period. The annual ceremony would see a Hopu, a competitive representative of the various clan chiefs, scale down the perilous cliffs of the Rano Kau volcano from the ceremonial village of Orongo to the waters of the Pacific Ocean before swimming 2 kilometres out to sea to Motu Nui, the largest of three uninhabited offshore islets. Once there, the aim was to find the first egg laid by the sooty tern (a migratory bird) and return safely to Orongo. The first participant to do so with the egg intact would win Tangata Manu, or birdman, status for his chief & the right to rule the island for a year, not to mention a year of special status for his kin-group.
Having returned from the rim of Rano Kau to Hanga Roa, it was time for sunset back at the Tahai ceremonial centre. And what a beautiful end to the day it was.
Two days down. I still have much more time remaining on the island than has already passed but I know already I’m going to miss this place.
Easter Island only measures some 170 km². It’s almost small enough to explore by bicycle, assuming you have the time and energy. I have both so today saw me breaking out from Hanga Roa on my luminous green mountain bike to skirt the island’s 16 kilometre-long southern coast. Dotted with ahu, platforms for the once proudly erect moai statues that now mostly lay fallen in the vicinity, the coastal road ends at the island’s most spectacular sight, the awe-inspiring Ahu Tongariki, 20 kilometres in total from Hang Roa and on the opposite side of the island.
Moai || Rise & Fall
Moai, the symbol of Easter Island & exclusive to it, were created, it is widely believed, to represent the important ancestors of each clan. Installed on ahu and facing inland to protect the clan’s territory, they also visually represented the power of the clan and as such over time they began to be carved larger and larger. The increasing need to demonstrate power & prestige through the moai eventually led to clan disputes for dwindling resources such as wood & food. This eventually led to societal upheaval & the toppling of the great statues, most of which remain toppled to this day.
There’s more of the island to explore beyond its southern coast which, admittedly, holds the bulk of Ester Island’s must-sees. I’ll tour the island again in a few days’ time when the pending hurt, mostly saddle sore & sunburn, has subsided (and I think I’ll hire motorised transport next time). I might just have to take it easy again until then.
It rained today on Easter Island. A few times. Just light showers. Nothing major. Apart from the drizzle it was a glorious day on this little Pacific high volcanic island. High volcanic islands are one of 4 types of Polynesian islands, islands created as a result of strong eruptions through fractures, or hot spots, in the ocean floor (the islands of Hawaii were created the same way, as I blogged about some time ago on my last visit to that particular corner of Polynesia). I know that little titbit of information because today I brushed up on my geology in the island’s excellent Museo Antropologico P. Sebastian Englert, somewhere I spent a good chunk of the day being further schooled on all things Easter Island.
I spent the rest of the day walking a bit of the coast outside Hanga Roa, staring at more moai, & loafing around the leafy, fragrant streets of the town. I stopped by the local church to say hi to someone who’s dearly missed (it reminded me of a typical community hall, boxy & functional) & had a few coffees in a few cafes. Oh, and I found time for a selfie.
All of today’s shenanigans brought me invariably to that time of day, sunset down at Tahai, about as ritualistic an event as you’re going to get on present-day Easter Island.
I’ll be back on the road tomorrow, this time on a scooter, touring the portions of the island I’ve yet to see. Here’s hoping the good weather of today has the decency to stick around for tomorrow, day 5 on the island. Wow, day 5 already. Time really does fly when you’re having fun.
By now I’ve navigated all the main roads on Easter Island. There aren’t many. Any stretches of tarmac I didn’t cycle on day 3 were driven today, day 5, as I spent the day zipping around the island dodging cows and wild horses – Beep! Beep! – on my 100 cc hired Yamaha scooter.
Easter Island Preservation
Almost from the moment they were created, the unique archaeological treasures of Easter Island – the moai statues, the ahu, the petroglyphs & various other rock art – began to suffer the effects of different deterioration processes, mostly surface erosion, cracks, weathering etc. – all are outdoors and thus subjected to not only the weather but sea breezes. Livestock is also a modern-day issue as out-of-control cattle graze all over the island. Tourism, although the sole money earner for the island these days, is a growing concern too as the island becomes more accessible and thus attracts more visitors.
My hired Yamaha got me to the parts of the island I had yet to see and back to parts I’d already frequented. There are some places on Easter Island you need to visit more than once. Sometimes a lot more than once.
It was a gorgeous day today and I was treated to beautiful clear skies for most of it. The day started with me, once again, passing time in the company the 15 moai of Ahu Tongariki. With the sun out, the setting was gorgeous. I stayed quite a while, finding it hard to move on to hitherto unseen portions of the island. I did eventually move on but not before capturing a few (more) pictures of Rapa Nui’s most spectacular sight.
More pictures from today at Ahu Tongariki (click to enlarge).
Today was a different kind of Easter Island day; despite the clear skies of the morning & afternoon, there was no sunset. Nope, not even a vague inkling that one was trying to break through the spoilsport blanket of clouds that seemed to come out of nowhere towards the end of the day – playing the Easter Island meteorology game is exhausting. There was also another surprise in store when, & for an hour or so mid-afternoon, and after finally dragging myself away from Ahu Tongariki, I felt like I was back in the Caribbean.
You wouldn’t come to Easter Island for a beach holiday but were you to hanker for a swim when here then the sands of Anakena, on Easter Island’s mostly rocky northern coast, would be a damn fine place to do so.
Of the 7 moai originally mounted on Ahu Nau Nau, only 5 survive as complete statues to this day. They are some of the best preserved moai on the island thanks to the fact that they were submerged in beach sand until their restoration in 1978.
– Pierre Loti, French navel officer, commenting on the pukao of the fallen moai upon visiting Easter Island in 1872.
Leaving Anakena, I continued on my merry way, eventually finding myself standing in front of something of an Easter Island legend, the moai of Ahu Te Pito Kura.
Leaving the coast and heading to the west, Hanga Roa side for the island via the island’s lone east to west inland road, I next paid a visit to Puna Pau, the quarry for the distinctive red pukao, the moai topknots.
My scooter exploits for this day were almost at an end but not before I revisited the east of the island one more time, back once again to the vicinity of Ahu Tongariki & neighbouring Rano Raraku. Things on this day were about to get real special.
Rano Raraku || The Moai Production Line
On day 3 I visited Easter Island’s Rano Raraku, the tuff (compact volcanic ash) quarry on the east of the island where all Easter Island moai were carved, the island’s moai production line. The location of 397 of Easter Island’s 887 registered moai, it was a gigantic megalithic workshop & today is the biggest monument from ancient times in Polynesia. The site’s slopes are dotted with dozens of moai of various size, orientation & in various stages of completion – some are still attached to the bedrock while others are fully complete, laying here, there & everywhere in pits awaiting transport to their ahu. I revisited Rano Raraku today in the hopes of getting better pictures than I did on day 3, when the conditions were dull & overcast. I wasn’t to be disappointed.
Moai In Numbers
• They used to have a name, now they only have a number. 887 moai have been registered to date: 397 reside at the Rano Raraku quarry; 288 were moved and erected on an ahu; 92 lay dotted around the island en route to an ahu; and 110 lay in fragments or in museum collections around the world.
• Only some 5% of moai were carved in material other than tuff – red scoria, basalt & trachyte, the latter harder than tuff and thus more of a challenge to carve. The largest ever basalt moai, Ho’a Hakananai’a, was found in the ceremonial village of Orongo and was pilfered, carted off to Great Britain. It presently resides in the British Museum in London, something the Chilean authorities are none too happy about.
• The average moai was a little over 4 metres tall & weighed 12.5 tonnes. The largest ever was 21.6 metre-high El Gigante (The Giant). Estimated to weigh 180 tonnes, it’s unfinished and firmly affixed to the slopes of tuff at the Rano Raraku quarry (viewing it’s massive bulk one can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, the Rapa Nui had bitten off more than they could chew with this moai). The smallest moai ever erected was a mere 1.3 metres high, while the tallest was 9.8 metres-high. The heaviest moai ever erected on an ahu was an 86 tonne moai at Ahu Tongariki, conveniently the nearest Easter Island ahu to the Rano Raraku quarry.
Rano Raraku is a volcanic crater of tuff, the slopes on either side of which were used as an open-air moai carving workshop. Thanks to a designated trail, the outer slopes see the vast bulk of the visitors but moai are to be found on the inner slopes of the crater too, a sheltered, beautifully peaceful place where seemingly few venture and a place that’s home not only to moai but also to a picturesque crater lake. I explored the crags & hills of the inner slopes today, making friends with a few of the permanent moai residents as I did.
My day was done once I came down, both literally & metaphorically, from my second visit to Rano Raraku. I’ve two sleeps, one full day, left on Easter Island. I’ll have my Yamaha for the duration. I’ll also have an Easter Island to-do list, now full of ticked boxes. Completing the list only took 5 days. It could be done quicker – a lot quicker – but this is no place to be rushed. Two sleeps. Umm, I guess it’s better than only one.
I was up before the sun this morning. Not only was I up before the sun but I had made my way, in the pre-dawn darkness & drizzle, to the other side of the island from Hanga Roa in a bid to get to Ahu Tongariki, the island’s de facto sunrise location, in time for the sun to show. I needn’t have bothered. It was a nasty, cloudy start to the day & even though my optimism en route convinced me that conditions would improve, they didn’t. Not for sunrise and not for any part of the day thereafter, day 6 on Easter Island & my last full day savouring its wonders. It wasn’t a total bust however as I did get to spend some time, 20 minutes or so, alone with the 15 Ahu Tongariki moai before others turned up to spoil the solitude & to join me in being disappointed by the sunrise no-show. For those 20 minutes it was just me, 15 towering moai & the sound of the Pacific Ocean crashing in the distance through the darkness. It was surreal. My camera stayed in my bag.
The rest of today, between sunrise & sunset, was slow. I took another spin around the island, heading east again along the southern coast road and returning via the central road, a 40 kilometre loop. I drove it with very little urgency – if the Yamaha had gears I doubt she’d have been taken out of first.
The overcast conditions mirrored, or maybe even enhanced the somewhat melancholy demeanour I carried around the island with me today, the result of knowing the Easter Island end is nigh. I’m outta here tomorrow, but not before I give sunrise at Ahu Tongariki another chance to impress in the morning. My alarm is set & I’ve another drive in the darkness along the island’s southern coast to look forward to. Here’s hoping at the end of it that there’s something to see (at this stage I’m not even all that interested in photographing it). It’s been great so far so I can’t really expect too much more from Easter Island. That said, a sunrise over Ahu Tongariki would be a nice send-off.
Date || October 3, 2015
Location || En route to Santiago, Chile
And so it is done. I knew this day, this moment, would come. It had to happen eventually. My time on Easter Island has come to an end. We’re not long airborne and I’ve just taken my latest last bittersweet glimpse of the island. It’s over my left shoulder getting smaller and smaller and smaller.
Before I left the island, I did get a nice send-off. There was a sunrise this morning and it was pretty, as sunrises tend to be. Throw Ahu Tongariki into the mix and one is bound to be impressed.
I’ll be honest, I was happy to just take in the spectacle this morning, happier to savour it than photograph it; I didn’t even bring the big camera, opting only for the smaller one to keep me company on this my sixth & final visit to Ahu Tongariki. But I did take a few quick captures as I was standing there first waiting for the sun to appear and then watching it slowly rise behind the Ahu Tongariki moai.