Easter Island is a strange place. It’s small – only about 22km across, and it only has one town, with a permanent population of not that much over three thousand. It’s a little out of the way: South America is some three and a half thousand kilometres to the east, the nearest inhabited island is Pitcairn Island, around two thousand kilometres to the west, and the nearest inhabited island that anyone actually cares about is Tahiti, a good distance beyond that. And it’s fascinating.
It’s understandable, I suppose, that it’s not typically the sort of place people come more than once in their lives. It’s also obvious that for many, this is very much the trip of a lifetime: you could tell from the number of photos taken on the twenty-odd metre walk between the plane door and the plane-side entrance to the airport terminal. And beyond that, you could tell from the sheer quantity of baggage that came off the plane, combined with the utter chaos of the scrum at baggage collection, that this is a trip considered worth taking even for a lot of people who, err, don’t get out much. (That, and this is still South America after all. There’s a reason that international flights through this part of the world automatically get double the usual baggage allowance, and it’s not because Brazilian string bikinis take up a lot of space in your suitcase.) And you can see why: Easter Island is a fascinating place.
But the thing about Easter Island, of course, is that there’s only that one canonical attraction to see here: the moai, aka giant stone heads. Well, there are other things too, I guess: petroglyphs (primitive rock art), the old stone crater-side dwellings of ’O Rongo, and other artefacts of the island’s history. Those things, however, are boring. Especially the petroglyphs: clearly other people disagree, but I find it remarkably hard to get excited over the cultural magnificence of a rock carving just because it’s old-ish – the resemblance to a three-year old’s finger painting is just a little hard for me to surmount.
(I’m calling things “old”, by the way, rather than, say, “ancient”, because the island’s human presence – and the artefacts and traditions that followed it – only originated around probably 1000 AD. Well older than the European history of Australia, sure – Captain Cook was reporting differences in the state of the islands compared to previous British encounters with it shortly after he turned and headed home from his second mission to explore the seas down under – but still, nothing compared to the age of many of the other archaeological artefacts we’ve seen on our travels. Enough so that “prehistoric”, while potentially accurate, also sounds deceptively inappropriate.)
Nor do I find myself intellectually titillated by how much the squiggles tell us about the important features of tribal life on the island. Yes, they drew a lot of pictures of fish and fishing and boats. Yes, that’s because the sea was important to them. This is not a cultural revelation; this is fairly predictable consequence of the fact that they lived on an effing island, surrounded by a lot of effing water, and they ate a lot of effing fish. Err, hmm, anyway… (There was a particular site on the north of the island – Papa Vaka – with a path which toured a collection of petroglyphs, and which offered nothing else but included some especially gushing praise for some intriguingly uninteresting subject matter. It got on my nerves.)
So, basically that leaves the moai. Oh, and a description of the old Bird Man ceremony, in which islanders would swim out to the little islets pictured in the first photo above, camp out for a few days, and steal the first egg from returning migratory birds, in order to win local acclaim. Then the victor would get to live in complete isolation for the next year as a prize – which presumably has to cast at least some entertaining doubt on the contention that the islanders were a friendly and admirable society from whose cultural and spiritual development we have a lot to learn. “Good work, Jim. As your reward, you get to not have to put up with the lot of us for the next year. Enjoy your splendid respite.”
As I was saying, the moai…
The moai are a product of the islanders’ ancestor worship. Also, no doubt, of their boredom and isolation. With a very few exceptions, each stone bust (they’re not actually just stone heads – they all have at least torsos, and a handful have legs too) was carved out of volcanic rock on the sides of Rano Raraku, one of the island’s three volcanos, and somehow – no one actually knows for sure how – transported to its present location on the island, where it was generally erected on a ceremonial stone platform called an ‘ahu’. Each bust represents a deceased chief or head of family, and the point of erecting them was to maintain a link with their ancestors, who could look over their descendants and protect them. Turns out all that looking-over and protecting didn’t work very well: in the 17th century it became the done thing for tribes to push over their opponent tribes’ moai, with the result that fairly shortly, there was not a single one left standing, other than some of the many that had never found a home outside their birthplace at Rano Raraku.
Fortunately for us tourists, quite a few of them have been put back up now.
We were on Easter Island for a full week, which was excellent, because you really only need two or three days to do it all: one day for the ones near town (which you can walk to, so long as you don’t mind some time spent on foot), including ‘O Rongo (yes, you can walk to that too), and one day to hire a car to start up at Ahu Tongariki at sunrise before making your way around the rest of the island over the course of the day. As I said, there’s really just the moai; once you’ve gone round the island and seen them all (or at least the main ones), there’s actually very little else. Barring some quite beautiful rocky coastline, the island itself is not really very attractive, especially since its denuding of pretty much any tree cover centuries ago – a result which lead to the wiping out of the majority of animal life on the island, and severely impacted the dwindling human population as well. And other than the moai, the island’s main claim to fame is that its airport has an unnecessarily large runway: it was extended in 1986 to serve as an emergency landing facility should the Space Shuttle need to abort its mission shortly after launch and subsequently be retrieved on the back of a 747.
(Lest anyone think this post has too negative a tone, I actually find it quite fascinating that a society that was in most other ways remarkably unremarkable could produce something so unique: as I also said, this is obviously the trip of a lifetime for a lot of people, and I really can’t say I can fault their reasoning on that one. It’s a very cool place, and one that I highly recommend visiting.)
And frankly, in our week there, we had a fantastic time appreciating the moai, and to top it off, I appreciated some time just bumming around. (You’d be surprised just how many of the blog posts that appeared here from mid-January onwards were written with the aid of a few cold beers out on a rest day or two on that little speck of dirt with no other land – or fast internet – in sight.)
Anyway, just as there’s not actually that much time required to see all there is to see on Easter Island, there’s really not much more to say about it either.
Other than perhaps that if you go, you should try the enormous, delicious hamburgers at “Club Sandwich” in the middle of the main strip, and that you should probably not leave your acquisition of sufficient cash until right before you really need it, given how annoying it is to find yourself unable to pay cash and so facing a 10% credit card fee to pay for your accommodation on your last day because all three of the island’s ATMs are down. (Speaking of accommodation, Camping Mihinoa is where you want to find yourself. I suggest you don’t camp – the tents you can hire are apparently unbearably hot pretty much whenever the sun is up – but the rooms are cheap. Which can’t really be said for anywhere else on the island.)
So without further ado, my favourite photo of the week…
… and with that, pretty much, we’re done!