Why you should consider exploring the mysteries of Easter Island
The first thing to know about Easter Island is that, to be sure of getting there, you should fly to it, rather than visit on a cruise.
One of the world's most isolated islands, a tiny turtle-shaped dot in the vast expanse of the South Pacific, the sea and the weather rule there: one cruise director reckons ships have a one-in-three chance of getting passengers ashore.
So, while our five-hour flight from Santiago was reassuringly reliable, it also sparked admiration for the navigational and sea-faring skills of those who first discovered Easter Island around 300AD.
Where did they come from? Polynesia, probably – but this is the second thing to know about Easter Island: that every answer leads to new questions. Certainly the local name, Rapa Nui, and the language, sound familiar to Kiwi ears; but why is this the only Polynesian language to have a written form? And why can no-one now read it?
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Our Explora Hotel guide Beno Atan has long dreadlocks and a koru tattoo on his calf. He speaks with the natural authority of a first-born son in this society and he shrugs off such mysteries as simply part of life here. And there are so many, prime amongst them of course the famous moai. There are nearly 900 of these huge and distinctive statues – of ancestors, not gods – on the island, most of them facing inland, most of them toppled.
He takes us to a quarry on the side of an extinct volcano and we see incomplete statues lying on their backs, still attached to the underlying tuff. Some of them are immense: the biggest is almost 22 metres long. There's no doubt why that one is still in place – but the others around the island? The tallest is 10 metres high and weighs 83 tonnes. How were they all moved?
"They walked," Atan says. "With mana," he adds, content to leave the interpretation of the word open: practical knowledge or supernatural power – it's all the same to him. Experiments with moai on log rollers, or using ropes to rock them along, have been inconclusive.
Gazing downhill at the rough terrain and long distances between the quarry and the final positions of the moai around the coast, we shake our heads in bewilderment. When Atan tells us that, once erected on their platforms, substantial topknots of red scoria were somehow placed on their heads, we give up trying to understand. We simply marvel at the impassive power these timeless monoliths still have, even the many now lying toppled – why, is yet another mystery..
Before arriving, we already knew about the moai; but the birdmen were a surprise. At the other end of the island, perched on the rim above a crater lake with a steep drop to the sea behind, is Orongo. No-one knows when, or why, a separate cult of bird worship developed, but the rocks surrounding this deserted village are covered in petroglyphs depicting winners of the traditional birdman race. From here, once a year, one young man from each tribe would race down to the sea, brave the surf and sharks to swim to the motu where sooty terns nested each spring, and return with an egg, climbing back up the 300 metre cliff to present it, unbroken, to the chief.
Later, we board a boat to bounce across the beautiful sapphire sea out to the rocky islets, circling the guano-splashed rough black rocks that stream with white foam. From here, we can see how sheer the cliff is: just to climb it seems frankly impossible, never mind the egg. Once more, we shake our heads in disbelief.
Young boys paddling surfboards in the surging swells near the town of Hanga Roa demonstrate that challenging the elements is still part of everyday life here; but we are happier to watch the waves crashing spectacularly onto the rocks as we picnic further around the coast. Black rocks, deep blue sea, white surf, pink champagne flavoured with fresh raspberries: it's all pure gold, and we love it.
There's also a lot of green. Not the tropical jungle we expected, but bare grassy hills grazed by thousands of free-range horses. Atan tells us the all too familiar story of introduced species ravaging the environment – and that includes humans, who cut down every single tree so that in the end they couldn't even build boats to go fishing. There are tales too of warfare, invasion, disease, starvation and slavery, all of it reducing the population to just 111 souls by 1877. It would make for grim listening anywhere, but is especially hard to hear on such a remote island, that would originally have been the classic tropical paradise.
It's a triumph, though, that despite centuries of oppression, the indigenous culture has survived and is flourishing today; and Atan's pride in its history is well-founded. During our three days on the island, he shows us elaborate caves and ingenious sunken gardens, the crops protected from the wind. There is intricate stonework, almost Incan in its construction. Even hen houses on Easter Island are marvels: neatly built of stone with a secret door that only the owner could identify. Atan demonstrates with delight a stone sphere that makes his compass go crazy.
We could have gone horse riding, diving or cycling; instead, we walk, to the quarry; up to the crater rim to gaze down on the reedy lake below; around the deserted village with its restored stone buildings and long blue views to the distant horizon; to the coral sand beach; and around the town. It's colourful and relaxed: dogs and small children play around the harbour, a teenager rides a horse bareback along the main street, in the market many miniature moai are on display.
At night, we go to a dance concert, full of energetic moves, smiles, colour and loud singing.
Outside the theatre, in the dark, the stars in the black sky are dazzlingly bright, shining down on the silent moai: Easter Island's eternal mystery.
Pamela Wade visited Easter Island as a guest of LATAM Airlines.
Getting there: LATAM Airlines flies direct from Auckland to Santiago, Chile daily and on to Easter Island 11 times a week: latam.com
Staying: Explora Rapa Nui is elegant, comfortable and eco-friendly, and offers a choice of 30 explorations of the island conducted by local guides: explora.com