“In Easter Island the past is the present, it is impossible to escape from it…”. So said British archeologist Katherine Routledge, who conducted one of the first surveys of the island, in 1914. Routledge was born just a few miles from me, in Darlington, County Durham, and is counted among the great female explorers and travellers of the time. I wanted to travel to Easter Island, following in Routledge’s footsteps, to see if her words still ring true today, 87 years on.
Easter Island is home to 877 moai; towering stone statues with unnaturally massive heads – leading many to name them ‘the Easter Island heads’. They are majestic and regal, yet menacing; their stares are cold and hard and their sheer size is intimidating. The moai have come to symbolise and define this remote volcanic island, their iconic image instantly recognisable around the world.
After a five hour flight from Santiago, I arrived, along with two friends, to the bustling crowd of people that filled the tiny, packed airport, not surprisingly, the remotest on earth. Garlands of fresh flowers were thrown around our necks in greeting, and the tropical air was buzzing with excitement; families awaiting loved ones returning from the mainland, and tourists, delighted to have finally made it, no doubt eager to see their first moai.
Easter Island is one of the world’s most remote inhabited islands. Although belonging to Chile, it lies over 3,500 km to the west, in the southern Pacific. It’s population, of around 4,000 people, is concentrated in the only town, Hanga Roa. It’s people are the Rapa Nui and speak both their native language, Rapa Nui, and Spanish.
On arrival at the hostel, Kona Tau, we were offered fresh fruit juice and drank in the stunning views. From the wooden terrace that led down to the hostel’s garden, teeming with banana trees and tropical plants, I could see Hanga Roa, and beyond, the imposing peak of the islands highest point, the volcano, Terevaka. Our hostel was run by a welcoming Rapa Nui couple in their 40s, who lived with their teenage children in the adjoining house.
We set off to explore the island with our guide, Rick, an American who had visited Easter Island some years before and had never left, after falling in love with a Rapa Nui woman. They now had two Rapa Nui daughters, something he told us with pride – he was eager for them to preserve their ancient traditions and, even though they had an American father, to be classed as Rapa Nui.
Every single one of the 877 moai statues that cover the island was carved from the volcanic rock at the moai nursery in the Rano Raraku crater, between 1100 and 1680. Once professional carvers had crafted the moai, they were transported all over the island before being raised. 397 moai remain in the quarry; eerily protruding from the grassy slopes at jaunty angles. They are gigantic, and the mind boggles at how the islanders could have ever moved these great slabs of dense rock weighing up to 86 tonnes. Even today, experts are still unsure as to how they were transported.
Many of the moai at the Rano Raraku site are only visible today thanks to the efforts of Katherine Routledge’s expedition, during which she uncovered many of the statues, which had previously been completely or partially buried under rubble and earth. In her 1919 account of the expedition, ‘The Mystery of Easter Island’ she describes being ‘overcome by the wonder of the scene’ as she glimpsed her first sight of Rano Raraku.
Looking down from the Rano Raraku quarry you are met with an incredible sight – Ahu Tongariki, the largest ahu (the plinth on which the moai stand) on Easter Island. It holds 15 statues, standing proudly in a straight line, their backs to the Pacific. It is no surprise the moai statues were originally regarded as the embodiment of powerful former chiefs and regarded as important status symbols – they are imposing and fearsome, especially when you are confronted with fifteen!
At Anakena beach you are suddenly transported back to the tropical Pacific island – families barbecue and sunbathe, or snooze in the shade under tall palms. But even here, there is no escaping the island’s history; seven moai keep watch from their ahu resting place.
According to Rapa Nui legend, Easter Island is the centre of the earth, and, close to Anakena beach, you can find ‘el ombligo del mundo’ (the navel of the world), a smooth, rounded stone that, it is said, fills you with energy if you lay your palms on its surface. Here, you really do feel a million miles away from the rest of the world. On Easter Island, history and culture combine in a tantalising mixture that gives the island its distinct magical quality.
In the Kari Kari dance show Rapa Nui dancers in traditional dress stamp and shake their hips while a band play Rapa Nui songs – fast and rhythmic beats that sound like a call to battle. The women wear white feathered skirts, and many are tattooed, like the men, who wear their hair long and grimace menacingly – bringing to mind the Maori Haka – made famous by the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team.
The Pacific waters around Easter Island are said to be the clearest on earth, and contain 24 species of fish endemic to the island. The waters are a haven for diving enthusiasts, but it doesn’t matter if you are a complete novice; there is no better place to learn to dive. I spent a morning diving with Orca, a diving company located just off the harbour in Hanga Roa. Diving is a brilliant way to explore another side of Easter Island – it’s wildlife and nature are mesmerising.
Climbing to the highest point on the island involved traipsing through green rolling fields, more reminiscent of the English countryside than a tropical Pacific island, where wild horses were grazing nonchalantly. We slipped through barbed wire fences (ok, so we didn’t realise there was a path) and scrambled up the near-sheer face of the volcano, Terevaka. Standing at the highest point for thousands of miles, looking out at the azure blue Pacific surrounding us for as far as the eye could see was an incredible experience.
The crater lake at Ranu Kao is spectacular and unforgettable. As you walk up and gaze over the rim of the crater, the sight awaiting you is breathtaking. The fresh water lake, covered in green specks stood out against the bright blue sky, and gazing out towards the horizon, I could actually see the curvature of the earth in the distance.
The Rapa Nuis’ relationship with Chile is traditionally tense. Right up until the 1960s, Chile confined the native islanders to Hanga Roa. At the time of Routledge’s expedition in 1914, the Rapa Nui indigenous population were only allowed out to the archaeological sights to provide any information that might help the expedition.
In Hanga Roa, banners filled the main square declaring ‘Independencia!’ – something many Rapa Nui crave.
The owners of our hostel told us that it is not uncommon for Chileans to come to the island and commit crimes, especially robberies. A Chilean maid at the hostel, who had recently arrived from the mainland, was caught trying to steal our money. She had been employed the previous week because the Rapa Nui maid, who had worked in the hostel for many years, had been taken ill. The Rapa Nui hostel owners were utterly dismayed – she had threatened their livelihood by taking advantage of their customers, something many Chileans are accused of doing on Easter Island.
The indigenous Rapa Nui have been protesting recently about what they say are plans to develop the island, as immigration and tourism increase. They are demanding the return of ancestral land they say was unlawfully seized from their grandparents.
Easter Island is magical, other worldly and full of exciting things to see and do. But the best part of all is the Rapa Nui people, the modern incarnation of centuries of history and culture. They are kind and extremely welcoming, fiercely proud of their traditions and past, and want to preserve it at all costs.
Katherine Routledge was right, Easter Island’s past is most definitely its present. And its past is that of the Rapa Nui, who are becoming increasingly eager to be allowed to benefit from its quite lucrative present.