Friday 15 January 2016

Pacific Summer Series: Easter Island (Part 2)

Through January, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles about Pacific islands.  

Last post, I described my first day on Easter Island in 2005. Now the adventure continues...

Now we reach the jackpot: the moai quarry at Rano Raraku, a volcanic crater from whose sides the statues were cut by hand.

This is the sight of the day.

Rano Raraku’s steep slopes are peppered with gigantic stone figures, many buried up to their noses or heads beneath the soil.

There are also unfinished moai, partly carved but never freed entirely from the rock; and a curious early statue with a more realistic head and a kneeling posture, which looks a lot like a statue of Buddha.

Though they’re much younger, the statues remind me strongly of archaeological remains I've seen in Egypt.

There are hundreds of moai here, and hundreds more across the island, carved by hand without the aid of metal tools. Nothing is roped off, and we wander everywhere, astonished at the sheer quantity of abandoned work.

Standing in front of a selection of massive late-period moai, with their curiously distended heads, pointy noses and pouting lips, it's easy to see how theories of alien visitation began.

By now I’m feeling like one does about cathedrals in Europe or obelisks in Egypt: I've had enough for the day. It’s also seven hours since we've eaten. But at our final stop, Anakena Beach, the kiosks have run out of their skewers of barbecued chicken or fish.

It's a beautiful place, however. The one extensive beach on Rapa Nui is a deep swathe of sand bordered by a broad sweep of grass dotted with palms.

Above it are more moai on a sand-swept ahu, marking the spot where the legendary first king of Rapa Nui, Hotu Matua, arrived with his band of Polynesian emigrants.

The moai here had been well-preserved after being immersed in sand, so their faces and the decorative details on heir backs (thought to represent tattoos) stand out clearly.

There are more tours to take, but there’s more to Easter Island than moai. Hanga Roa is a surprisingly pleasant town, though it’s never going to win awards for sheer energy and excitement.

Instead, it’s a great place to chill out, with its quiet streets, slow-moving traffic and laidback restaurants with their outdoor terraces.

As we look out on the Pacific from an eatery near the fishing harbour, a Polynesian horseman comes riding by, shirt off, long hair flying, backpack slung over his shoulders. Then he’s followed by a compact 4WD, a striking contrast of old and new.

With many everyday items being imported from mainland Chile, most restaurants have a similar range of dishes. The standout ingredient is tuna, we realise, as it’s locally caught.

With this in mind, for our late lunch we share a large carpaccio of fresh raw tuna in lemon juice and oil, with a parmesan-like cheese and capers. Exquisito!

The empanada is also a popular local choice. Chilean fast food, it’s a pastry envelope filled with ingredients like beef, tuna, cheese or vegetables, then fried or baked, and served hot.

There are more mysteries to be discovered within Easter Island’s half-forgotten heritage, and more spectacular sights to see.

They include the beautiful freshwater lake in the volcanic crater of Rano Kau; the sacred cave and islands of the Birdman Cult; a wall of misplaced Peruvian-style stonework; the curious symbols of the Rongo-Rongo tablets; and the excellent Anthropological Museum that pieces it all together.

There’s even nightlife, though it’s mostly of the disco and pool table variety.

On our last day, I feel sad to be leaving. The locals are friendly, cars are left unlocked, and tourism’s employment opportunities have removed any need for crime.

In many ways, Easter Island epitomises the romantic view of the island hideaway, where you can shed your troubles and remove yourself from the outside world. On top of this is its intriguing Polynesian culture and its fascinating archaeological sites.

Will time and tourism change all that? It's another mystery to add to all the others.

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