A place shrouded in mystery. We don’t know how or why the famous statues exist or how they came to be. Some have a few theories. However these only remain theories shelved in the history books of our time.
We arrived early on one of the most isolated islands in the world. Rapa Nui. Our first impressions had us believe the place had a strong Polynesian influence (even being greeted with a necklace of flowers). The people here seemed to speak a mixture of French, Spanish and a local ‘made up’ dialect that comes from something similar to Maori. Fem was beaming with excitement. Places like this intrigue her because of their enigmatic nature. I, on the other hand, had picked up some sort of stomach virus. Looked like there would be four volcanoes on the island….me being the only active one. The island came about some several millions years ago. As it’s smack bang in the middle of the ‘ring of fire’, volcanoes formed all of today’s total land mass. The island consists of 3 visible dormant volcanoes cones with Rano Kau being the biggest and the most sacred. Islanders first journeyed here around 900 BC, coming from the Pitcairn Islands (or so they think).
Upon arriving we were picked up by a Tahitian lady. She had lived on the island for some years and had come to love the tranquility of the place. We checked ourselves in at Mihinoa camping grounds. Boy oh boy was this place a treat. Overlooking the sea the sun set directly in front of our dwelling. However we were sceptical about our sleeping arrangements. It appeared as though our tent were made of straw and twigs with a paper bag on top (just in case you know – it rained). Luckily there were no wolves about nor any sign of bad weather, so we chucked our stuff in and put on our summer attire. Off we trekked to our first tourist destination – the ticket office. Before getting to see any of the island every tourist is subjected to paying an exorbitant amount of money (54000 chilean pesos or €70) to the ‘park’ – none of which seemed to go back into the protection of the sites – as many protest signs seemed to suggest. Anyway we were here, and couldn’t do much about it, so we paid (in cash – to draw out money in Chile it costs you €7 each time – and none of the places accepted card).
Next we had heard of the amazing hike up the Rano Kau volcano. The day was young, and we still had lots to explore and so we thought …Let’s squeeze in a hike for good measure – all the while I was squeezing something else in (for dear life). 2 hours later we had arrived on the edge of a magnificent volcanic cone. In front of us stood a sleepy hollow – peaceful, calm and untroubled. The valley below bristled with life. Birds fluttered every which way. Crickets slowly chirped. It’s hard to imagine that this sleeping beauty was once angry and agitated. A natural greenhouse effect protects the 10 meter deep lagoon below. Providing a microclimate for various plant and bird species alike. After admiring our surroundings it was time to move onto the next site. A place which used to worship this mighty Volcanic God. The sacred village of Orango sits on the very edge of the cone. Being occupied seasonally, this place was reserved for the bravest and strongest of the ancient island tribes. These men would race to be the first one to return a manutara bird egg – unharmed (An egg and spoon race, so to speak). A heated competition would ensue. Much like today’s rush for the freshest of eggs at any grocery store. It was in honor of their creator Make Make (which is a rather aptly named God ). Those that would win such a prestigious competition would forever be allowed to dwell amongst past winners on top of a volcano, without any contact with the village folk below. Strange way to honor a winner – you get to be with other winners but no one else for the rest of your life – but yet they would. Here the first Maoi would have been seen – had Queen victoria not received it as a gift in 1868. What made this specific head so unique was that it was made of the hardest material available on the island. Basalt. To this day no one knows exactly how the islanders built or even transported this 2.5 meter head up 324 meters but yet there it would have stood, unperturbed by its seemingly impossible feat.
We were in awe at the sheer size of the Moai heads, all who stood on platforms or ahus. They’re heads tower above, faces ever so stern. As if guarding some forgone secret. A large portion of them have been toppled over. However, some remain intact, resurrected from the dead to stand proud once more. According to the historian Jared Diamond, the island consisted of 12 tribes, each with their own row of heads. Tribe area was distributed out in a spherical manner, which meant each tribe had to negotiate with the other get their sacred heads to their part of the island. Diplomacy was the name of the game. All out war would result in a convoluted state of affairs. No one knows exactly what the heads meant or why they were built, but theories suggest they were for their tribal leaders. Each Moai head had insignia which would suggest what the tribal leader was known for (mainly fishing, rowing, or catching birds). Then a fine hat or Pukau was placed on top of their heads to represent honor and duty – or to keep their faces out of the sun? Once again, no one knows how these hats got to be on top of their heads, especially since they were constructed after the Moai were erected.
As the days went by our curiosity only piqued. We hired a mini 4×4. Our friend Jimmy was a faithful steed, getting us to all of the 900 Moai heads and visitor’s sites that lay scattered across the island. Fem wanted to see it all. I was obliged, even through the odd volcanic eruption. We awoke early on day two, wanting to capture the stars with the Moai heads. No internet on the island meant we had no idea what time the sun would actually rise. Not wanting to miss it we left the camp site at 4am. We arrived in the pitch black, and parked the car. We jumped out and set up our cameras for some experimental star photography. Finely tuning the cameras to capture our milky way we started to get a sense of our celestial surroundings. Beautiful nebula’s shot up through the night sky, stars streaked past racing toward the edge of our universe. Jupiter and Saturn beamed with delight. We had no clue what constellations we were looking at, but decided to reserve that for the Atacama desert. Feeling rather chuffed with the pics we managed to snap, off we went to search for the sunrise Ahu Tongariki Moai. Arriving at the gate the sign said ‘opens at 8’. It was 5am. “Great, now what” we said to each other. Using our tiny pocket torch we searched for the Moai from the other side of the wall. Luckily there was one lonely fella. Our torches landed on his dimly lit face. He grimaced as if we were waking him up from slumber. We set up the tripod and captured this peaceful moment. The Moai head was beautifully posed with stars twinkling in the background. Soon it was time for the sun to wake up. The crowd started to appear. No one wanted to miss out on this morning spectacle.
Feeling satisfied with Moai head and sunrise we left the site and went in search of the infamous quarry. A place where these giants would groan to life and stroll down the nearest ahu. Ranu Raku is home over 200 of these guys. Some of which are half finished. What struck us as strange was that it was as if the the sculptors simply said, “right lads whos sick of carving rocks? Let’s go grab a beer.” What a task it must have been to carve away at the rock face. At first it is difficult to distinguish them, but when you look closely you can see carvings come to life right before your eyes. We took a while to absorb what we had seen. The heads, the carvings, the tools. How we marveled at what this civilisation was able to accomplish.
The remainder of the day was left to searching for more Moai heads, visiting surrounding villages and, personally, witnessing the odd volcanic explosion. Some of the villages had rather peculiar stone houses with entrances that could barely fit a small human baby. Why on earth the locals would build these houses with such small entrances was beyond us until we dug up some information. Apparently the islanders only had chicken for sustenance, and thus, had built hundreds of ‘chicken coops’ to protect their flocks. A weird fact but had the island not been known for Moai heads people would flock (or maybe not) to see the endless amount of stone chicken coops.
We were absolutely fascinated by the way this place used to be. Fem started reading a book called ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond, who delves into the history of Easter Island (amongst other forgone civilisations). According to the author’s theory, the islanders simply ran out of resources to survive and started rioting, killing tribal leaders out of pure anger. Theories suggest that the island was full of trees and fauna that allowed the tribes to live peacefully for 1000 years. Once all the trees were cut down (for boats, huts and other daily needs), it resulted in a cataclysmic chain of events that left many without food or water. Chaos and devastation ensued which resulted in people eating each other and attempting to flee the island. When the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen landed on the island in 1721 he described seeing people as ‘forelawn’ and skeletical. The population went about consuming their own natural resources without knowing what the consequences would be? Surely someone would have raised an alarm? Maybe others didn’t quite believe it? Quite the analogy for our current state of affairs isn’t it.
The rest of the time was spent fighting typhoons and campground owners, dipping into the cool blue seas, and treating ourselves to some delicious Ceviche (raw tuna salad with an assortment of dressing). Delicious! It was time to leave this tiny remote island and return to the soot. But it wouldn’t be for long. Next on the journey would entail peering into the wonders of our universe and getting a taste of Bolivian food. San Pedro de Atacama.