Rapa Nui: Destruction of a Micro-Earth

Trip Start Aug 09, 2007
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Trip End Jul 29, 2008


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Flag of Chile  ,
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

After saying our goodbye's in Ecuador to all our new friends, we returned to Santiago for a day to see one of Pablo Neruda's famously eclectic houses and got unexpectedly stuck inside a student riot complete with stopped traffic, harassed cars, paddy wagons and lots of riot police.  This was our last day on the South American continent and from here we set off on the last leg of our Latin American experience.  We were on our way to Easter Island (Rapa Nui) which is a special territory of Chile but decidedly Polynesian in culture.
 
We flew 3600km west off the coast of Chile and arrived in the late evening to what is known as the Navel of the World due to it's extreme isolation.  The weather was hot with just a touch of humidity and though we were disappointed that nobody laid us (with a flower lei, that is) as we disembarked the plane, we were happy to be there nonetheless.  As I scoured the hotel-owner's stalls for a good deal on accommodations, the drug-sniffing dog scoured Nik's bum looking for....well, I have no idea why he had his nose so far up his ass actually.  Anyways, we found a pretty sweet deal and we were set to begin our exploration of this World Heritage Site that's only 163.6km2 in size. 
 
Easter Island was formed millions of years ago by the successive eruptions of 3 volcanoes whose cooled magma overlapped to create the island that we know today.  It is of course famous for it's giant stone statues, known as Moai (moe-eye), that were carved by hand and moved to their locations next to the ocean.
 
These Moai were carved from the quarry of an extinct volcano by 5 or 6 men over a period of one year and they were to represent a deceased relative and/or a person of importance.  These massive statues would then be removed from the quarry and rolled over logs to their respective family member's land on the coast and then erected on a stone platform known as an Ahu.  These statues could be up to 21m in height - absolutely HUGE - and required up to 200 men to move them!!  They are all of a similar style which is a characteristic face and torso with their hands crossed over their stomachs - they are often kneeling and also wear a top knot which looks like a mini hat but is worn for esthetics and to show status.  There are over 887 of these Moais discovered on the island and are very very humbling to behold.
 
Legend has it that while the original descendants of Easter Island are Polynesian, sometime around 500AD the white men appeared.  These white men with red hair stayed on the island and - shockingly - enslaved the Polynesian people.  From this time on, the white men were known as the Long Ears and the Polynesians as the Short Ears.  It was the Short Ears who were mandated to carve the Moais for the ruling Long Ears.  This went on for over 1100 years until at last the Short Ears declared war on the Long Ears and overthrew them, saving only one Long Ear.  Today, the people of the island are predominantly Polynesian looking, but there are some white-featured and red-headed people as well.
 
Once the rule of the Long Ears was overthrown, the Bird Man cult prevailed with MakeMake (Mak-e-Mak-e) as the chief god.  This cult lasted until 1860AD and basically consisted of a yearly competition to become the Bird Man.  The premise is that once a year, all the men would attempt to retrieve the first born egg from a bird's nest - which sounds easy, but this birds nest is located at the top of a spire rock, maybe 50+m high, which is on an island about 500m off the island's coast.  Further, the waves off this coast are unbelievably large and powerful!  Of course many died in the attempt but the man who won lived in near-solitude for one year and had his servant dictate his rules to the rest of the island to obey. 
 
This culture ended when Peruvian slave raiders stole many islanders.  Finally, some of these enslaved Polynesians were able to return, but with them they brought disease and as a result, smallpox devastated the island.  Missionaries later brought tuberculosis and once the population of Easter Island was decimated down to only 111 people, the population was moved to a nearby island to recover.  It was during this time that their unique written language was lost as was much of their culture and customs.  Hizaa!! For European domination and diseases. 
 
The island is also known to represent an extreme example of deforestation.  It is said that "the overall picture for Easter Island is the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific, and among the most extreme in the world: the whole forest gone, and its entire tree species extinct."  This has been attributed to using so many logs to move their Moais and possibly as well to the little ice age, but it is not conclusive.  We were actually surprised to see so many trees having expected a completely barren island, based on this description
 
Anyways, our first day on the island was absolutely magical.  We walked a mere 5 minutes from our hostel to see our very first Moais at Ahu Tahai.  This site had one Moai (Ko Te Riku) with its top knot on as well as an Ahu with 5 Moai (Tahai) on top looking inland to watch over the village.  They definitely did not disappoint and it was clear to us immediately why this place is renowned for these statues.  Nearby was an excellent museum where we went to learn all about the island and it's history (basically what I wrote above) and saw the plates the people used to write on, several theories on how the Moai were moved, old weapons, boat construction, and more. 
 
The next day we rented ourselves a scooter (Nik liked to call it a 'Moto' to make it sound more manly) to more fully discover this island.  Initially this sounded like a great idea.  We patiently waited behind a single girl traveler about our age whose hands were shaking like a Mother Ucker as she got on her scooter for the first time too and nearly drove right into oncoming traffic.  'Poor girl', we thought, 'at least that won't be us...we're waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayy more scoot....I mean moto-inclined'...  Well, I suddenly wasn't so sure as I climbed on the back behind Nik and we tore gracelessly out of the parking lot nearly turning directly into an oncoming truck - much like the previous girl - since we as yet had no feel for how this thing drives.  As we had our butts pounded along the dirt road up to our hotel, I started questioning how intelligent this decision was...but hey, adventure is the spice of life!
 
We stocked up and peeled out, fortunately a lot smoother this time, and our first stop was this amazing place called Ana Kai Tangata which we just called 'The Crashy Wave Place'.  We were standing on a cliff nearly 30m high, if not more, and literally the waves would crash into the sheer cliff and spray us so high up - it was incredible and relentless - just amazing to watch.  There was a fisherman next to us precariously balancing on the cliff to bring in his catch, also amazing to watch.  After standing in awe for several minutes, we continued up the not-so-smooth-road and turned onto the never-ending pot-holed-dirt-road. 
 
After a steady climb up this road, we arrived to an outlook over the Rano Kau volcano crater which was incredible and then went further up to Orongo which was the ceremonial center of the Bird Man cult.   From this stone village, we could look out to the island of Moto Ku Kau which is the spire that the Bird Man had to climb to retrieve the first egg from a very mad momma. 
 
From here, we made stops along the incredibly scenic coastal highway to see other Moai and Ahu sites until finally arriving at the most incredible place on the island - the Rano Raraku quarry where all the Moais began and many remain there unfinished or unmoved
 
The sheer size of this quarry and the many many Moai still standing, leaning, and half-buried in this space was amazing, very moving and very beautiful.  To build a Moai the family would start carving out the mountain, literally.  They would initially start on the front of the Moai (face and torso) and carve down around the sides of it.  They would then carve cylindrical holes on the bottom (back) of the Moai so that ropes could be strung through the holes and then they could raise the statue into a vertical position.  The last stones connecting the Moai to the quarry would be carved away simultaneous to the family pulling the Moai into a vertical position inside a trench where they finished carving the torso and heads.  Finally, they moved the Moai from the quarry to the final location by rolling it horizontally over a bed of logs.  Again via ropes they would stand the Moai up atop the Ahu and give him a headpiece too, likely by using a crane of some sort.  The whole process is quite amazing, even more so once you've seen the size of these!!   Of course, some of the Moai were never moved and that's why we see them today standing vertically or slightly entrenched at the quarry. 
 
We hiked to the top of the quarry which is actually an extinct volcano and were rewarded with an amazing view of the island.  We were surrounded by innumerable unfinished and abandoned Moais and still there was more beauty to behold - we saw another site in the distance that was incredible and had an ocean back drop, Ahu Tongariki, and then a huge patch of purple flowers that were incredible to look at.  We finished looking around the quarry taking photos here and there then headed of to the next site.
 
Ahu Tongariki is an amazing collection of roughly 15 Moais standing in a line.  Behind them is a huge table top mountain to one side and gigantic crashing waves to the right.  This area was by far the best area on the island in the way of stone monoliths.  We took our time got our pictures and then headed off to our last spot of the day. 
 
We drove down the road to the final Moais, Ahu Anakena.  The road did seem to deteriorate as we kept driving from one Ahu to the other.  There were 2 portions of the road where it was completely flooded.  I got off the scooter and Nik said he would drive it through the puddle.  Initially I thought he would gun it through the middle, but, Nik had no idea of how deep it was.  He drove it to one of the sides where he saw a bit of a dirt patch - this patch was deceiving though and he skidded out, got a good soaker, and ended up having to pull the scooter along through the puddle while he tried to keep from slipping into the puddle again.  Eventually we made it to Ahu Anakena which is located in a sandy beachy part of the island.  There are coconut trees all around and the only place on the island that has a suitable beach for swimming.  After taking in the scenery, we were both tired and anxious to feel our bums again, so we decided to head back to the hotel.
 
The next day we got up and saw our final Ahu, since we had to have the scooter back by 11am.  The last one was the most inland of all of them and is actually located between some farmers fields.  It is also the only set of Moai that look out over the ocean.  In fact, we could not only see the ocean but we could also see the initial Moais that we saw on our first day there, just amazing!
 
When we got back that evening we decided to take in a Polynesian show. It was f-ing incredible.  Usually at Polynesian shows the girls are always the stars, probably because they are in grass skirts and coconut bras (Yeaaahh).  But the guys were awesome, they were jumping around, shoving their staffs in people's faces, acting like monkeys, pretending the floor was a surfboard and paddling out and to top it off they  were dancing like pimps with the girls in grass skirts.  The ladies themselves were pretty nice, I wouldn't kick them out of bed for eating crackers, and they really moved their hips in a sexy way that was pretty top notch.  After a good 1.5 hr show and fantastic Polynesian music, we bought one of their CDs and then headed back to the hotel to practice our new dance moves. 
 
The next few days we kicked around the hotel and didn't do too much.  It pissed rain for 2 days straight, which was pretty shitty since there is not a lot to do on the island when it is raining.  When the rain finally broke, we decided to go back to the inland Moai site which was close to the city to see more of it.  While at Ahu Akivi, we met 2 Polynesians that were showing their mainland relatives around, we got talking to them and then they invited us back to their home for some food and flower crowns - it was one of their birthdays and flower crowns are commonly worn either to dress up or for celebrations.  So we both got all spiffied up and headed off to join our new friends.  When we got there they gave us wicked crowns of red flowers made of hibiscus or heliconia, so we put them on and then had a blast with our new found friends.  It was a nice way to spend our final evening on the island!
 
The next day we were leaving for Papeete, Tahiti (French Polynesia) on our second of three-leg-tour to get from South America to Australia.  We were both saddened by leaving the beautiful island of Rapa Nui, but, we were positive that we would return to this tropical island 4000 km from anywhere else
 
So far we had flown from Santiago de Chile to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), 3600 km from the South American continent.  Now we were flying from Rapa Nui to Tahiti, which was another 4000 km and finally, from there we'd fly to Sydney, Australia which was an additional 3000 km.  Man, Oz is really far from anything else, except for maybe New Zealand but who lives there any way? Just farmers and sheep.
 
Iorana!
 
Love
Niko y Sarita
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