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By Ute Junker
The mysterious Easter Island has some big surprises in store, Ute Junker discovers.
It isn’t until your plane starts its descent to Easter Island that you realise something startling: this island is tiny.
It’s just 24 kilometres long and 12 kilometres wide, floating in splendid isolation in the Pacific – the next landfall is the even smaller Pitcairn Island, more than 2,000 kilometres away. So it’s astonishing to realise that this scrap of land is the home of a culture that created some of the world’s most famous sculptures.
With their oversized ears, sloping brows, and prominent noses, the Easter Island statues, or moai, are at the heart of an unlikely tourist boom. For Easter Island is not easy to get to.
Most visitors first head to Santiago in Chile, then take a five-hour flight to the island, which the locals call Rapa Nui. It’s a long way to travel to look at some carved stone heads, but the mysteries of Rapa Nui can only be properly explored on the island itself.
On such a small island, accommodation options are limited, and Explore Rapa Nui is the pick of the properties. The Explora group has built a reputation as the best way to discover some of South America’s most spectacular landscapes. Its approach combines essential luxuries – think fine dining, hot tubs, and a spa – with activity-rich programmes that let you get beneath the skin of a destination.
Power of the ancestors
On Rapa Nui, of course, what everyone wants to see are the moai. There’s no shortage of sites to explore, with almost 900 moai scattered across the island, some standing, some fallen, some little more than chunks of crumbling stone.
We start our explorations at the quarry. This is where teams of master craftsmen would carve out slabs of volcanic rock, before shaping them to resemble powerful chiefs. The moai were believed to preserve the power of a tribe’s most powerful ancestors, and pass that power down to their descendants.
The slopes of the quarry are littered with hundreds of sculptures, including some that were put on display like mannequins in a shop window, advertising the skill of their carvers. Working with rudimentary tools, it’s believed that the people of Rapa Nui started carving the moai somewhere between 500 and 800 years ago, with each one taking up to a year to complete.
The island’s largest moai, known as El Gigante, was never fully completed, and still rests on the slopes of the quarry. It would have stood more than 21 metres high and is estimated to weigh around 170 tonnes.
Not far from the quarry lies one of Rapa Nui’s most spectacular sites, called Ahu Tongariki. Fifteen moai stand on a platform with their backs to the ocean. Some are tall, some are short; some have broad noses, others are upturned.
Each moai was built to represent one of the island’s clans, the size of each statue reflecting the comparative power of that clan. One is crowned with a striking red stone, depicting the way powerful chiefs would decorate their top-knots with red mud.
Ahu Tongariki has been rebuilt to show how the moai were originally positioned: on a platform gazing inland, watching protectively over their tribe.
At some point in the past, all the island’s moai were toppled, perhaps as a result of civil war, perhaps as a gesture of despair by people who felt their gods had forsaken them. It was only in the 20th century that attempts were made to restore some of them to their original positions.
The first Westerner to land at Easter Island was a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, in 1722, who gave the island its Western name. From then on, a succession of European explorers came to the island, including James Cook and Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.
The coming of the Europeans was to have a devastating effect on the islanders, ending in a series of slave raids and epidemics in the 1860s that destroyed most of the population, including the literate elite. By the time of the 1863 census, only 111 locals remained.
Today, their descendants are working hard to preserve what remains of their culture, and take great pride in sharing it with visitors.
On our hikes, we visit a number of other fascinating places across the island.
There are ancient agricultural sites, such as the collapsed lava tubes that were turned into plantations. The sheltered environment was perfect for growing crops, including bananas, taro, and sweet potatoes. And scenic spots include the exquisite crater lake of Rano Kau, one of the island’s few bodies of water.
If hiking isn’t your thing, there are also opportunities to go snorkelling and horse riding. Need some chill-out time? Then head for the lovely Anakena Beach, a curve of white sand lapped by crystal-clear waters, while behind you a cluster of moai continue their centuries-old vigil.