April 12th, 2015


Ahu, moai, and Rano Raraku

Sergio Rapu Haoa was at breakfast, holding court for a group of three men in didactic English. He was born on the island of Rapanui descent and befriended the American archaeologist William Mulloy when the Professor returned to excavate and reconstruct sites in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mulloy was part of Thor Heyerdahl's team in 1955. He was responsible for the re-erection of many fallen moai and was an enthusiastic advocate of heritage tourism. Sergio Rapu's brother Alfonso led the 1965 insurrection that drove the Chilean government to recognise Rapanui rights after decades of suppression and abuse. Sergio became the sole employee of the island's rudimentary museum in 1971 at the tender age of 22. It was through this that he met Professor Mulloy, who arranged for Rapu to attend the University of Wyoming to read anthropology there. Rapu went on to take a master's degree in Hawai'i. He returned to the island to reconstruct the important ahu at Anakena in 1978; the legendary beach upon which the first humans possibly (or probably) landed some 1300 years ago. He was the first Rapanui archaeologist and from 1984 he spent six years as the island's first Rapanui governor since its annexation by Chile in 1888. Just over a decade ago Rapu returned to a US university on a scholarship to study at UC Berkeley on courses pertinent to the management of the island's material heritage. Now he owns and runs the hotel which he built by extending the Hotel Topara'a, which was used by Thor Heyerdahl as a base on one of his later visits. He chose the name Tupa for the hotel because he believes that the stone domes were used by fishermen to scan the sea and he is proud of the hotel's ocean views (not because he sees it as a bone repository).

A meek hispanic woman glided about the buffet but there was no sign of any other hotel staff and, after we had stood by the reception desk a while, she glided up to us and, after some confusion, gave us the key to the Jimny. There was no documentation to sign and no checks required. It was more like borrowing a friend's car than any hire transaction.

Our 'concise guide to the history, culture and individual archaeological sites of Rapa Nui' recommended that we start our day's tour with a visit to Tahai and the museum but we had already been there and done that so we headed north out of the village past the church and across the full width of the island to the beach at Anakena. At the entrance to the national park a rope barred our way and a group of Rapanui were sitting around chatting and drinking beer. After we had signed their book they let us pass and we were soon parked beside a stand of palm trees filling the broad saddle behind a white beach with Ahu Nau Nau and a lone moai on the edge of the sand. It was like a picture book illustration of a South Seas island and it is essentially fake. The palm trees came from Tahiti and the monuments are all careful reconstructions but it is powerful imagery and even the reconstruction is a testament to human ingenuity.

The single moai on its small platform is the first to have been re-erected. It took Thor Heyerdahl's 1956 team just 18 days to raise it using piled stones as a fulcrum for long wooden poles.

Not all the visible archaeology here is reconstructed. In the shade of the palm trees are a host of small stone structures. Some are modern manavai (small circular rock enclosures to protect crops) but others are the remains of prehistoric activity on the site.

It was here, during Sergio Rapu's 1978 Ahu Nau Nau project that Sonia Haoa Cardinali discovered the coral and scoria remains of the first moai eye to be identified in the historic era; then 34 years old, she would go on to be the most systematic surveyor of the island's archaeological remains and is still active on this endeavour. The eye is displayed in the Sebastian Englert museum.

While we were enjoying the ocean view, after investigating the monuments, we met Rikki, who had come to spend the day in the sandy sun (or on the sunny sand) with Jessie. We agreed to meet them later at the Kaloa bistro on the edge of the Hangaroa Hotel complex.

As we left the Anakena car park we discovered the first challenge presented by the nightly heavy rain. All four wheels of our four-wheel drive vehicle spun uselessly in the gravel chips until the wheels reached the red mud below. I got out of the car and pushed it out of the four small pits until it gained enough traction to escape.

We found even more mud at our approach to Ovahe; Rapa Nui's only other beach. This is about half a mile south east of Anakena along a dirt track. We left the car beside a low drystone wall, squeezed through a narrow gap and picked our way over muddy volcanic rock to a small promontory that was used as a crematorium in prehistoric times. Keeping off this sacred site we scrambled to a very small sandy cove with a slightly larger bay beyond. There were a few people sunbathing on the larger beach and we were not that interested in negotiating the sharp muddy rocks to get a better view of the red cliffs so we returned to the car attempting to scrape the sticky mud off our shoes as we went.

About a mile and a half further along the coast we came to Te Pito Karu, where an unrestored ahu stands beside the toppled remains of the last moai to be recorded as a standing stone. No visitors after 1838 mention any standing moai. This huge figure lying face down (as are most fallen moai) with the usual broken neck is, at 10 m long, the largest statue to be erected on the island. Beside it lies the vast red topknot standing a little taller than me. This moai was known as Paro and although some cautious sources describe it as one of the few that can be identified by name I can find no others.

As we approached the platform a couple of white tourists were walking across it and prodding the fallen moai. “Nothing here. Very dull” they said unapologetically in Germanic English. Sigh ...

Near the ahu, within a very low stone wall, lies a round boulder just under a metre across. Around it are four smaller stones placed recently as seating. Oral histories tell us that the boulder was brought to the island by the first settlers but geologically it would seem to be local. When we approached a slender white girl with a circlet of flowers in her long black hair was sitting on one of the small stones with her hands pressed to the boulder in an attitude of supplication. Steady rain started to fall. She continued to sit. I would have photographed the scene were it not for the incongruous blue plastic cooler box beside the grey stone wall. Three of the girl's friends waited for her. When she stood she circled the boulder making mannered hand gestures before exiting the enclosure. Another of the sodden girls took her place, entering the enclosure on her knees. We left them to their damp contemplation.

I do not know who first wrote “Today it rained and rained. And then it rained.” Well, that.

We left the rainy northeast coast and drove across the island back to Hanga Roa, where the rain had stopped. As we approached the village on Puki Rangi Uka, we noticed a row of moai in a garden; given their condition, they may have been modern replicas and the house may be a hotel but their presence made us smile. We had a simple lunch on Main Street in the tiny Moiko Ra'a cafe beside the road. Water, beer, and empanadas (of a standard size; no XL products here) were all unremarkably pleasant. We were the only diners.

Fed and dried, we resumed our tour. On our way out into the countryside we decided to stop and visit a single moai that we had previously spotted alone on an ahu looking along its length (which is unlike other ahu we had seen). It stood on a shallow slope below the steeper mound of Maunga Tangaroa crowned with its distinctive trio of crosses and below the ahu a small depression lined with rocks formed a trough of fresh water. We drove on to Papa Vaka where a cluster of flat rocks have been decorated extensively with petroglyphs. Marked paths wound between the rocks with raised platforms affording an improved view of the carvings although they would have been much clearer under the raking light of the early morning or late evening. We picked out fish hooks, tuna, shark, turtles, octopus, and a large canoe.

A little further round the coast stood Pu O Hiro (the trumpet of the rain god Hiro): a single stone covered in small vulvate petroglyphs. It is pierced by artificial holes which can be used to create a booming trumpeting by people more skilled than us (and, indeed, why would we wish to summon a rain god on such a damp day?).

The most easterly point of the island is the volcanic peak of Poike but it is not accessible to vehicles so we skirted its western slopes to visit the astonishing iconic site of Ahu Tongariki where a vast row of fifteen moai turn their backs to the ocean that once swept them away. Although these moai were originally toppled with all the rest in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the real damage to this site was done when a tsunami washed all the statues 100 metres inland in 1960 and swept away the ahu with its backwash. The site was only restored between 1992 and 1996; I imagined that it had been there for most of my life. Anyway, it was amazing. I also expected it to be heaving with people but there were only a couple of dozen of us. W and I walked all around the long ahu and marvelled at the magnificence of the huge torsos.

The reconstruction had only been made possible by the donation of a huge Japanese crane with serious funding from Japan. In 1988 Sergio Rapu had said on Japanese television "We've been dreaming to see the Moai standing. If only we had a crane...". Japanese crane company Tadano promptly donated a crane to the island, along with tools and expertise. The first crane was not big enough for the job so they replaced it with a larger model. The Japanese government also donated over £1 million to the project. When the replacement crane failed about twelve years later in 2003, Tadano donated another.

As a gesture in recognition of this generosity, Rapa Nui lent a moai to Japan for the Osaka Trade Fair. When it was returned, this moai was placed above Ahu Tongariki, by the southern entrance to the area. It was nicknamed Traveling Moai, or Mōai Ha'ere Ki Haho. Sadly, this famous moai was shrouded in scaffolding and protective plastic during our stay.

The last stop of our day's exploration was the most iconic site on the island: the head covered slopes of the Rano Raraku quarry. Fortuitously, this is one of the few places with a public toilet and, because it is a private enterprise, this was open despite the strike. I gladly paid the CLP 500 (about 55 pence) to use the well-kept facilities before following W into the site about half an hour before it closed. There were few other visitors and it was like stepping into the pages of my childhood books about the mysteries of Easter Island. Of course, there are few mysteries left and many of those flowed from misinterpretations committed in the few decades before my birth. Many of the big questions about the island are general questions about prehistory: 'who made the moai?' is only a mystery in that we do not know their names. There is robust evidence for the dating and the provenance of the original human inhabitants is widely agreed. Easter Islanders made the statues and erected them. We need no master race and no extraterrestials.

Many of the statues at the quarry site are buried up to their necks, which is where the popular misconception arose that they had no bodies. But Katherine Routledge's 1919 book reported (among other things) that her excavations showed that the quarry heads were partially buried moai just like all the exposed ones. And, although they face away from the volcano and, thus, towards the ocean, they have no eyes because these were only added after they were erected on ahu, so they cannot look out to sea. And, away from the quarry, very few indeed look outwards from the island (and those that do gaze across settlement sites).

There are about 400 moai in various stages of manufacture at the quarry. It is far too many for them all to have been abandoned abruptly in a single cataclysm. Some would have been abandoned incomplete when artistically inconvenient hard basaltic inclusions in the softer tuff formed insurmountable flaws. Others are broken in some way. Some may have been intended as permanent monuments at the quarry site. The catastrophic model of all the workers downing tools one day and going to topple all the standing moai simply does not make sense.

All these thoughts became clear to me as I photographed the few statues on the lower slope near the beginning of the heritage trail. I knew that each statue is believed to represent about two years' work for a small team. Imagine having to say 'Sorry, guys. We dropped your statue.' And yet that clearly must have happened occasionally judging from the remains. And how many people died in accidents as the huge blocks were manoeuvred down the hill?

The site was closing and we had to leave. Evening was approaching and we had learned our lesson about changeable weather the previous evening. We drove to Apiña and parked by the campsite. Rikki and Jessie were drinking cocktails outside Kaloa with two other women from the campsite: French Michelle and Londoner Ellie. Later we were joined by Sonia's dive buddy: Austrian Tina and her friend. We chatted, munched snacks, and sank cocktails as the sun went down behind thick cloud. When it grew chilly in the darkness we moved inside the bistro where we were seated on a mezzanine at a large circular table that comfortably accommodated all eight of us in solitude. The room was elegantly pale and the menu was appropriately stylish for a hotel that charges over US$700 a night. I had a trilogy of white fish ceviche with ginger, tuna sashimi crusted with soy sauce and sesame seed, and a third fish dish that I now forget because the first two blasted it from my mind. Either of them would have been something special in a meal. The service was very slow but the company was dazzling entertainment as we shared travellers tales. All the others were on very long journeys of exploration. Rikki relayed high energy stories of adventure and embarrassment. Tina told tales of people more than places. Jessie provided droll commentary on Rikki's stories. Michelle's English was not as strong as that of the rest of us so she participated the least. And Ellie had been a political aide like Rikki before spending a few years as an HR management consultant; she had also been at primary school with my namesake, Bristol Conservative candidate Theodora Clarke.