To better appreciate the pictures and this entry, a little background about the island and the people is important. I will only write a minimum, so if your curiosity is piqued, then you can Google the topics.
Easter Island, known in the native language as Rapa Nui, is the most isolated inhabited island in the world. It is located 2,237 miles west of Chile, which annexed it in 1888, and it is at the southeastern most point on the Polynesian Triangle. It is 15.3 miles long by 7.6 miles wide (at its widest point) with an area of 63.2 square miles. It is a volcanic island consisting of mainly three extinct volcanoes, the positions of which give it a roughly triangular shape.
It was given the name Easter Island by the Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, who encountered in on Easter Sunday in 1722. There are conflicting theories about when the island was originally settled, anywhere between 300 AD to 1200 AD. The first settlers were more than likely Polynesians from several different island groups.
It is a World Heritage Site (as determined by UNESCO) with much of the island protected within the Rapa Nui National Park. It is probably most famous for its 887 statues, called moai, of which about 600 have been resurrected. These statues were carved from soft volcanic rock called “tuff” and most can be seen around the coast line of the island, although some are inland near the quarry from where they were carved.
These statues, or moai, are often identified as “Easter Island heads.” However, most of the statues have torsos which have become buried by the shifting soils. A total of 887 stone statues have been inventoried on the island and in museum collections . . so far. About 400 of these can be seen along the coast line of the island.
These statues were carved to honor the ancestors of the Rapa Nui people. It took almost a year to carve each one – distinct with large heads and deep-set eyes. All are enormous, many over 18 feet tall and weighing several tons. The people believed that these ancestral statues would then protect them and provide what they needed. They were not part of their religion nor did they represent a deity. Deceased ancestors were greatly respected by the Rapa Nui people. Most of the statues were placed along the coast line of the island, facing inward with their backs to the ocean. This was to protect the people within the island. Many of the moai were placed on stone platforms, called ahu. These were considered sacred because they were often the burial ground for the deceased.
Before we left home, we had hired a local guide to give us (and Barb & Charlie – friends and tablemates from our 2010 cruise) a private tour of this island. We had heard that it is difficult for cruise ships to get to the island since there is no dock big enough for the ship so tender boats are necessary to reach the island. Many times the seas are rough, making tendering unsafe or impossible. Of the 10 or so cruise ships that try to get here each year, only about 3 or 4 are able to make it to the island.
We knew if was “iffy” today because the seas were a bit rough, but the Captain made every effort to get us ashore. It was very difficult boarding the tenders because the wave swells kept the tenders and our ship at different heights. So, it was a long process. Once in the tenders, it was a rough ride to the shore. We tossed about like a toy boat. But we did eventually make it, and met our guide, Carlos.
The first stop we made was to see Rano Kao, the southwestern volcano near the airport [Aside: this small airfield has one of the longest runways anywhere because it was made to accommodate a possible emergency space shuttle landing for NASA.] It was a stunning sight – looking down the steep slopes of this crater that lead to a freshwater lake at the bottom, whose micro-climate allows the growth of dense and varied vegetation. The surface has mats of freshwater reeds (Scirpus) that can also be found on Lake Titicaca in Peru. Part of the crater wall has been worn away and looks out into the ocean.
Perched between the rim of Rano Kau’s crater and 1,000 foot cliffs straight down to the Pacific Ocean is Orongo. This was a ceremonial village composed of 54 houses and used seasonally various initiations and coming of age ceremonies. However, its real significance came into being near the end of the 17th century when it was the site for the annual Birdman Competition. The houses, restored by William Mulloy and a group of islanders, were built out of basalt slabs since the standard grass covered houses would not have survived the winds up here. The thick walls with earth fill between the inner and outer walls were designed to stop the wind passing through. The doors were small (only one person could enter at a time) – to help keep the elements out as well as intruders. Each of the clan tribes had their own houses, some connected to each other like a rabbit’s warren.
Standing in front of these dwellings, looking out over the Pacific, you can see three offshore motus (meaning islet.) One is Motu Kao Kao, the needle-shaped one, then Motu Iti (small islet) and finally the largest and most important, Motu Nui (big islet.) This was the site of the Birdman competition.
Towards the end of the 17th century, the organized and structured society on Easter Island had collapsed into warrior-led anarchy, and inter-tribal warfare dominated the island. Resources on the island had become scarce which caused the tribes to ransack each other’s territories. No longer were the maoi being built – instead, they were being thrown over and destroyed through vandalism and revenge. The solution came in the form of a competition that now rewarded physical prowess – the Birdman Competition.
A strong, young man was chosen from each tribe/clan to compete. These chosen men would walk up to Orongo and install themselves in these earth dwellings, waiting for the signal to begin. Then they would scale down the sides of these steep cliffs and swim out to the Motu Nui with the aid of a reef surfboard. At that time there were sharks swimming around these motus, so it was a dangerous swim for these young competitors. There they would wait for the Sooty Tern (the migratory birds which came yearly to this area to lay their eggs and raise their chicks) to lay their eggs. This could take weeks, so the men had to bring supplies with them to sustain themselves while they waited. The man who could get the first egg laid would become the winner. The tribe from which this man came would be the ruling tribe for that year, until the competition took place again the next year. The last race was in 1866 when the Catholic missionaries put an end to an event whose religious beliefs centered around bird’s eggs and the creator god Make Make.
We continued our drive from this southern end of the island across the middle to the northern part of the island and to Anakena Beach. It is a wide and deep, sandy beach on a mostly calm bay. We had a quick lunch at one of the little stalls – a empanada with a beer from Chile, Escudo. The older lady makes these at her home and then brings them here to sell. They were very good, still warm from the oven, and very filling.
We then walked down to the beach area to see the centerpiece of of Anakena – Ahu Nau Nau. It is a platform (ahu) with seven maoi standing on top, some more complete than others. It was underneath this platform that the white coral eye was discovered – now displayed in a museum. As you walk around these maoi, you can see the intricate carving of the eyes, noses, lips, ears and hands. Also, some are wearing “hats” on top of their heads, and others have “top knots” which shows the hair knotted at the top of the hat. Hair was considered almost sacred and you were not allowed to touch a another person’s hair. You can see the same level of detail on the backs of these maoi as well. The circular patterns represent the buttock tattoo designs.
Our next stop was Rano Raraku, the quarry where nearly all the moai were carved and where almost 400 unfinished moai still lie. The sheer number of moai here in all stages of carving was a bit mesmerizing, as well as an almost ghost-town atmosphere, as if all the workers simply put down their tools one day and never returned.
A large moai would have taken about 1 year to be carved by a team of workers. They were carved at the upper reaches of the quarry and always carved on their backs so that the details of the faces, torsos, and arms could be completed before they were chipped away from the bedrock and lowered down the hillside to pre-prepared pits where the statues would be stood upright so the carvers could complete the back. If you look up into the cliff, you can see vacant niches where the moai had been removed. When the carving had been completed, the moai were taken across the island to their final destination. How they were transported still remains a mystery, although there are different theories of how this was done.
One unique moai was the one that is kneeling. When this was unearthed in 1955, the team was intrigued with the round head and unusual facial features as opposed to the very square style of all the other moai. Also, this one was the first they found that had legs – tucked neatly underneath its body. It is thought to be one of the earlier carvings, but that is merely a theory.
Our final stop was to Ahu Tongariki, which we could see in the distance from the quarry. This platform with 15 colossal moai represents the very pinnacle of the Rapa Nui stone carving period. It is the largest ceremonial structure anywhere in Polynesia. While these were not all carved at the same time, they style didn’t change much – but the size and level of detail did. At this same site, we also saw petroglyphs of turtles. On the way to the platform you pass by two stone circles, each with a carved turtle inside.
There was just so much to see, and we took so many more pictures than can be shared here. Our guide said to really appreciate this island and what it offers, you need almost ten days to really absorb it. I would like to return some day and spend more time seeing the things we couldn’t in just one day.
We stopped briefly in the village of Hanga Roa to try to find a book about Easter Island. It’s called A Companion to Easter Island by James Grant Peterkin. I borrowed it from our ship’s travel consultant and will get it when I get home. It really explains so much in detail and has great pictures.
We said good-bye to Carlos and went to get on our tenders. We later learned that the ship stopped the tender crossing at 2 p.m. that day due to rough water and such high swells, but had them for those of us already on the island to get back to the ship. Three tenders were damaged due to the windy conditions – two windows were broken out and one had its propeller broken on a rock trying to get into the small calmer harbor area where we unloaded onto the island. We were on the one where the front window shattered and we were up to our ankles in water. It was quite the adventure.