We arrive in Easter island from Santiago on our first of many hops (well leaps) across the Pacific on our way to Australia and Asia. 3700km off mainland Chile, a 6 hour flight, part of Chile, Spanish name Isla de Pascua, indigenous name Rapa Nui, the same name given to the indigenous Polynesian population and local language.The population of 6700 live in the one peaceful, pretty town of Hanga Nui – with one main street and a handful of shops and cafes, mostly Rapa Nui people, though an increasing number of mainland Chilean people have settled here too. .
My notion of island hopping, gained from my European mentality and experience of Greek island hopping in the Med, was blown right out of the water in the planning phase by realising the immense distances of the Pacific, surprisingly limited flights and non existent sea trips (unless you have your own yacht and a lot of time and experience on your hands!) and we were urged by travel agents to book direct to New Zealand and then perhaps take a return flight to Fiji. Undeterred, and not wishing to add further to our carbon footprint by doubling back on ourselves, we booked this hop and our onward flight to French Polynesia before we left home, keen to actually see something more of the distant countries dotted around this vast ocean!
The island is 117 sq km, an easy days drive around the island. One of the remotest places on earth, it’s over 2000km from the nearest populated island – the British Pitcairn Islands, to the west. This beautiful gem in the Pacific, with its history linked to, but unique from other Polynesian cultures, harbours legends, secrets and magic and is the most amazing place to begin our Pacific adventure. The full stories of the building of the famous moai statues dotted all over the island and the subsequent demise of a once thriving Rapa Nui civilisation, centuries before the Europeans arrived, is part legend, part mystery and part speculation!
We are privileged to stay at the Tekarera Guest House with Paul, a wonderful host who is an archeologist from the US who first came to the island in the 1960s to help with the early research and restoration of the moai and returned years later, married and settled down. His passion and knowledge bring the history and beauty of the island alive for us and together with his amazing hospitality make our few days on the island very special. It’s our first welcome to a Pacific island. Each given a flower as we come into the airport terminal and then a lovely garland by Paul as he meets us. This is the typical, friendly and beautiful welcome throughout Polynesia that we come to know as we arrive in other islands too. It’s been quite a long flight from Santiago – the clocks go back a couple of hours as we edge further west. We are tired but perk up as Paul shows us around the beautiful 3 bed house which is set peacefully beside the other guest rooms with a large verandah overlooking lush woodland and the Pacific. it has a large lounge and kitchen and there’s a shelf full of games which Lara quite quickly manages to lay out all over the lounge floor, whilst Ben and Zoe start building Lego sets acquired yesterday at Kidzania in Santiago.
Nothing is too much trouble for Paul – it makes our stay wonderful. Milk, butter and other basic foods waiting for us on arrival, A tour around town to get our bearings with a stop for the most delicious empanadas, an easy supper! Fresh breakfast food delivered to our veranda every morning, which is varied per our requests each day. We have five days – just about right! The following morning we walk down the track to the sea and take a long walk along the beach and through the sleepy town seeing moai and ahu (Moai are the giant statues, ahu are the death mounds on which the Moai are erected and where dead bodies would be laid).
Wandering right through the little town, stopping at a couple of lovely playgrounds on the cliffs, and past the little harbour, we are headed for the nearby volcano on foot. It’s hot and we’re rather tired when we meet Ellie, visiting for a couple of days, with a rented a car. She stops to ask directions and ends up very kindly driving us around all day – we have a new friend!
We are saved the steep climb to the volcano, where there are breathtaking views over the crater, and almost 360 views around the ocean. We walk around the long-deserted Orongu village with cave houses set into the hillside. A little reminiscent of hobbit homes, they form the well-preserved (restored?) Bird Man Village where it’s believed the population moved for part of the year – where their tribal heros would appoint a Hopu to participate on their behalf in the Bird Man Contest.
Competitors had to dive off the ridiculously high cliffs and swim out to the nearby tiny island to find and bring back the first egg laid by the sooty tern, and climb back up the treacherous cliffs again. Many fell, drowned or were eaten by sharks! The winner presented the egg to his patron, bestowing on him the prestigious title of Tangata manu, or Bird man and earning special priveleges for his clan for the coming year! The new Bird man would take the egg and lead a procession back down to their main village before going into seclusion.
The cult was suppressed in the 1860’s by Christian missionaries. One thing we find remarkable in Easter island is how recent all of the history is and yet still so much is unclear and shrouded in mystery.
Onward. Ellie takes us along with her to visit some other sites and see the 15 moai at Ahu Tongariki, standing tall along the beach. It starts to rain a little but a magnificent rainbow curves it’s way over the Moai as the sun starts to drop in the sky. Beautiful!
Our third day, we take a trip with Paul to see lots of different moai and ahu around the island and hear the many tales and legends as well as Paul’s own experiences and involvement in archeological research and restoration. We find a site where Captain Cook, curious about the giant burial mounds simply blew one up, hopeful they might contain some hidden treasure! Back at our house we chill a bit then wander to the nearby moai site for sunset and a sushi supper in town!
Day 3, we spend some hours at home. The kids do some schoolwork then we walk along the coast for ice creams, a quick dip at the tiny beach for Lara, but it’s cold!
We see giant resident turtles in the small bay, meet a Swedish family living here for a few months and chat a while, shop, then head home to enjoy sunset, make a fire for sausages but end up with pasta as the fire just takes too long! Later it sparks up on its own way after the kids are fed and in bed!
Our fourth day, we wander down the track to the Rapa Nui museum, learning more of the mysteries and beliefs about how the moai were carved and moved across the island. After lunch Paul takes us to Rano Raraku , the quarry where the moai were carved directly from the rock, from where they were somehow ‘stood up’ and ‘walked’ (or perhaps wobbled) sometimes many miles across the island to the village of the dead person they represent and where the mana (or spirit) of the dead person they represent is transferred to the moai and it’s erected, atop the Api, its back to the sea and facing the village, to look over his or her family and village.
But suddenly everything stopped. The quarry is deserted with half carved Moai. And around the island, Moai were toppled and broken. Some say it was a feud and neighbouring villagers crept out and destroyed one another’s sacred Moai. Each act of revenge causing more damage!
Others speak of legends that suggest a tsunami or quake that swept over and destroyed them, fuelling stories of angry gods and mothers that killed many and stopped the survivors in their tracks. We also visit a gorgeous beach with more statues and swim and play awhile. At night, we have another fire and this time the kids manage to cook sausages over it!
Our fifth and final day we get up very early and go see sunrise at Ahu Tongariki but there is too much cloud and rain. The rest of the day we’re packing and I’m running through town to sort flights, get the Easter island passport stamps then to the airport for the only wifi I can find to book somewhere to stay in Tahiti for tonight. Martin and the kids go to the seafront and have ice cream, coffee and cake then we have a final supper at the house before Paul takes us to the airport, to board our midnight flight to Papeete. The girls are asleep on chairs in the airport before we board! What an amazing week! As a goodbye, Paul gives us beautiful shell necklaces, another Pacific Island tradition which means we’ll soon be the proud owners of quite a lot of these!
[We travelled to Easter island in April 2013, making a stop over here with LAN Air on their twice weekly flight to Papeete in French Polynesia]