Friday 8 January 2016

Pacific Summer Series: Easter Island (Part 1)

Over the rest of January, I'll be running a series of my previously published print articles about Pacific islands.  

This article was first published in 2006, so some details may have changed, though the destination retains its allure. For first up is mysterious Easter Island...

"There are 3,500 people on this island, and 3,500 stories."

Mystery is the essence of Easter Island's attractions: for centuries, its hundreds of massive hand-carved statues (moai) have puzzled and fascinated visitors.

How did people living on such an isolated, food-poor location manage to create these great monuments, then transport them across the landscape to their final destinations?

And what exactly did the statues represent?

But for the moment, there’s a more pressing question right in front of our eyes, as we leave the humble terminal building at the Pacific island’s Mataveri Airport.

Namely, why does the bloke with our names on a board, waiting to transport us to our hotel, have an Aussie accent a mile wide?

It turns out that Bill Howe, the co-owner of the Taura’a Hotel, once worked in the film industry, and came to Easter Island for a job on Kevin Costner’s epic movie Rapa Nui.

He came, he saw, and he ended up marrying a local woman. Now he and Edith run the Taura’a, surfing the increasing tide of tourism washing up on their shores.

Bill may seem an improbable fixture on this remote Polynesian island run by Chile, but then everything seems improbable on Rapa Nui (its Polynesian name).

The triangular island, the product of ancient volcanic eruptions, is only twenty by ten kilometres at its extremes.

Around it stretches nothing but deep blue water, with the nearest inhabited island a whopping 2000 kilometres away. Mainland Chile itself is some 3700 km to the east. 

Just the fact that Polynesian migrants found this speck of land some 1500 years ago, sailing from the diverse archipelagos to the west, seems amazing. But once the new arrivals had adapted to the cooler climate of Rapa Nui, what they achieved is truly staggering.

For this limited population, with finite food sources and no metal tools, created hundreds of giant statues out of the volcanic rock and stood them on ceremonial platforms across the island.

And the moai are, of course, what visitors come to see.

Tantalised by decades-old theories of extraterrestrial intervention and UFOs, or by the more down-to-earth theories of researchers, tourists arrive with alternative theories whirling through their heads, and a burning curiosity.

There are plenty of ways to explore the archaeological sites. Various tours run daily, with full-day and half-day options, in small or large groups.

For a more flexible approach, 4WDs, motorbikes, bikes, taxis and even horses can be hired. Though the island is small, there’s a lot to see, so it’s best to break down the sightseeing over a few days.

We decide to go on one of Bill’s tours; he has a minibus that only takes half a dozen passengers, so we’re guaranteed not to be swamped. I asked him if there'll be any commentary on the tour, and he laughs.

"I give you loads of information," he says, and he’s right – he’s full of speculation, useful information and practical tips.

His personal theories on archaeological and cultural mysteries add colour to the tour; though he's upfront in telling you if his ideas are not shared by the experts. Like he says, there are 3,500 stories on the island, so a few more won’t hurt.

As we leave the island’s only town, Hanga Roa, my first impression is how un-Polynesian the landscape looks. There's little of the lush green vegetation you expect in the South Pacific.

Instead, we see rolling fields covered with short grass, occasional stands of eucalypts, and low stone walls. It could be farming country somewhere in Australia or even Europe, but for the distinctive grey volcanic stone which pokes up everywhere through the eroded soil.

Our first stop is Ahu Vaihu. This ahu (ceremonial platform) has eight toppled moai, lying flat on their faces.

Around the time that European navigators first visited the island, a civil war broke out between Rapa Nui’s tribes, partly prompted by the increasing environmental degradation of the island.

The result was the toppling of all the moai, presumably by raids on the villages they overlooked as ancestral guardians. Many have since been re-stood.

We also stop by a moai face down in the middle of a field, abandoned in the middle of its trip from the quarry to the coast. And the transport methods involved are still the greatest and most hotly-debated mystery.

There are several theories of how it was done; but the traditional belief was that the figures became infused with mana (magic) and walked to their ahu. It's quite a mental image.

Then we reach the jackpot...

[Next: The moai quarry, Anakena Beach, tuna carpaccio, and many more stone heads...]

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