April 14th, 2015


Ahu Tongariki, Rano Raraku, and Orongo

We left the hotel before breakfast as the sky was beginning to soften on our way to see the sun rise over Ahu Tongariki. W had taken such dramatic colourful images of the sky on the previous morning that we were hoping for something similar but the cloud cover was thick and we were a little later than we had planned. The Rapa Nui Parliament activists were not yet ready to take names at the road block. Please sign on your way out they asked us pleasantly. There were a score of people at the ahu (including our new friend from Santa Clara) but the clouds were inappropriate for the diffusion of the low light and the skies stayed grey.

When the sun was high enough to crush any optimism we went to nearby Rano Raraku and had breakfast at the unprepossessing cafe just outside the site's entrance. We enjoyed hot meat empanadas and I drank coffee as we watched one of the two brothers that run the place sweep the patio and wipe dew off the tables and chairs.

We seemed to be the first to enter the site that morning and there was no sign of any park guard but visitors soon passed us as we took lingering photographs of the stones and the views. A fit young Rapanui woman in a headscarf with her shoulders bare strode past us with a brief 'Iorana', the all-purpose Rapanui greeting. Later we would hear her whistling and see her shouting at irresponsible tourists who stepped over the low barriers to get closer to moai.

From one of the bends in the track we saw a magnificent panorama of the southern coast of the island with Ahu Tongariki clearly visible to our left, other moai scattered across the landscape, and the bright blue ocean beyond it all. As we continued to climb we met the headscarfed woman crouched beside the path, smiling and gesturing for us to be quiet. With more signing she told us to look at the white bird nestling in a rocky crevice. I thought that it was a petrel or a tern and I would like it to have been a sooty tern because this was such an important part of the birdman cult that followed the moai building tradition. Examining our photographs later, we could see that it was red-tailed tropicbird.

Later we saw the same woman talking to an older Rapanui woman who had also been patrolling the site. In an embarrassing polyglottic pidgin of English, Spanish and Polynesian we asked for directions to the moai bearing a carving of a European ship: “Moai vaka? Moai barco? Moai ship?” we asked. And there it was: a typical moai with a three-masted European ship scratched on its stomach. This image must post-date the first European contact in 1722 but most archaeologists seem to accept that the moai carving period ended about two hundred years before this and that the image is later graffiti.

After photographing the vaka moai and looking around more of the site. I went to thank the helpful women. “Mauru' uru” I tried to say in my best Rapanui. They did not understand me. I tried again. Suddenly it dawned on them and they cheerfully corrected ny pronunciation. Sandra, the older woman, then spoke to us at length in a patois of English and Spanish as she explained how the Chilean authorities did not respect the bloodlines or kinship groups of the Rapanui people. She was a genealogist and the Rapanui people now have extensive records of their descents. I did not enquire as to how they bridged the dislocation of the Peruvian slaving raids, the language transformation and all the other creative recall employed in the last 150 years. None of this genealogy is reflected in the political structures imposed by the Chilean authorities. She told us that Topio (or Topia) is descended from the Queen of Easter Island but I could not understand the complexities of the genealogy that she described.

After looking around the tiny craft market attached to the cafeteria, we drove southwest along the coast road passing more stone structures but stopping at a solitary standing moai with three wooden posts around it. I imagine that the posts were there to protect the carving from cattle or horses because it was easy to walk between them. Once again this seemed like a candidate for The Polycarbonate Glass and Statue Club. I placed my cup atop one of the posts but had to weight it down with a pebble to defeat the breeze that would send it rolling across the rough grass. From this lone moai we could see steel sheds towards the ocean and several peaks inland.

I wanted to see the massive masonry of Ahu Vinapu but we decided to bypass this on our way to lunch along the southern side of the airport runway, which was new territory for us. At the eastern end of the runway stands the island's fuel depot: about half a dozen silos for diesel, petrol, and aviation fuel. Within its wire fence stands a single moai watching over its modern metal neighbours.

Our route to Hanga Roa was blocked by a felled eucalyptus. Too heavy for us to move, it was the work of the Rapa Nui Parliament activists for no purpose except disruptive civil disobedience. Some foreign commentators have expressed disgust at the felling of trees on a deforested island but the eucalyptus is an insensitive import that exacerbates the land erosion by desiccating the soil. We turned back and drove almost the full length of both sides of the long runway thinking our own thoughts about the space shuttle programme.

For lunch we returned to Caminito Ahi Ahi. The staff recognised us and I had no trouble getting beer and water to accompany my empanada marisco; a local seafood pasty that is a gastronomic delight. For dessert we walked across the road past the moai and the football ground for ice cream at Mikafe on the wharf. We were also recognised there and I had to ask for my cafe americano to be delayed until after my gorgeous coffee and tiramisu ice creams.

Refreshed we resumed our tour by making the long drive back and forth alongside the runway past the fuel depot. This time we turned up the flanks of Rano Kau, the volcano that is at the heart of the birdman rituals. We had decided that we would have to prioritise our destinations aggressively on the remains of this last full day on the island. Our first stop was Orongo, the eighteenth century ritual village that was the focus of the annual birdman contest until the missionaries banned the practice.

The contest determined which kinship group would rule the island for the coming year. Each September just before the spring migration of the sooty tern each of the ten kinship groups (or subtribes, if you will) on Rapa Nui would identify a champion. These ten young men would run around about a quarter of the volcano rim to its lowest point, descend the cliffs to the shore, and swim over a mile to Moto Nui with a reed surfboard carrying their supplies. Moto Nui is a small rocky island with caves in which the men would camp until the sooty terns laid their first eggs. The first competitor to grab an egg would signal his success to the mainland and then swim back with the egg. The chief of the winning group would leave the village and go to live alone in a special house served by a single attendant. After a year of rulership the chief and his champion would be accorded special respect for the rest of their lives. An unfortunate aspect of this system was that the warrior elite of the ruling group had a tendency to terrorise the other groups during their reign and there is oral evidence that much of the moai toppling was part of this aggression.

The visitor centre was locked but the site was attended by a couple of activists. The woman was on a leisurely patrol of the site while the man read a book on Polynesian fish and dealt drugs to the occasional stoners visiting the area.

A narrow trail led along the cliff top to a lookout point with a clear view of the small motu in the ocean offshore and along the promontory to the reconstructed stone houses of the village. The houses were low oval drystone structures with corbelled roofs and very small doors through which people had to crawl singly. Given the widespread hostility between the groups it was not surprising that they built structures that so handicapped any visitor upon entry. Two houses had been been left unrestored when William Mulloy led the rebuilding project in 1974. The first house that we came to had been restored with half its roof left open to afford modern visitors a view of the interior. There are 54 of these sleeping shelters but the furthest of them have been blocked off to visitors because erosion renders that part of the site dangerously unstable. Sadly, this also puts the island's most spectacular petroglyphs off-limits.

The magnificent moai that now stands in the Wellcome Trust Gallery at the British Museum was taken from one of the Orongo houses in 1868. Many people see this as an appalling piece of looting but it is clear that the islanders of the time traded the statue away and helped the crew of HMS Topaze to load it onto the ship. It is a particularly special example, however, because it is made of basalt rather than the more common tuff and it is covered in birdman decoration. It is therefore a unique bridge between the two ceremonial cultures of the island and there are widespread calls for its repatriation.

On the walk along the landward side of the village there are spectacular views of the Rano Kau crater filled with blue water crowded with reeds that form weedy rafts. These views were beyond the scope of my 50mm lens so, leaving W on a bench in the shade of the visitor centre, I went around the site again with a wide-angle lens.

Back down the hillside road we stopped at a viewing point for another perspective on the crater but we did not bother to visit the other viewing point that gives a popular view across Hanga Roa and much of the island. Likewise we decided to skip the botanical gardens and end our day's tour at the decorated cave of Ana Kai Tangata but this was not to be because roof collapse and other erosion has made it too hazardous for visitors. Because the cave's name has been mistranslated as 'cave man eat' rather than 'cave man gathering', it is sometimes known as Cannibal Cave as part of a wider misconception that cannibalism was once endemic. There is some evidence of cannibalism on the island but not to the extent that some writers would have us believe.

We took the car back to the hotel and walked to Tahai for the sunset. The cloud was low but it was not raining and the evening was much warmer than it had been on the previous day.

As we sat overlooking the ahu, perfectly positioned to catch the setting sun between the moai, Ellie and Michelle came to join us. A bright-eyed dog with pricked pointed ears and sandy wiry hair pawed at a small stone on the ground until Michelle picked up the light volcanic rock and threw it for the dog to fetch. They played this game for a while before Michelle tired of it and the dog wandered away. Mr Santa Clara was also there, grumbling cheerfully about the quality of the morning's sunrise.

This evening we finally got to eat at at the ‘nice place’ (or Haka Honu as the world knows it). We had a long wait for a table with an unrestricted view of the ocean (such as it was in the dark) but we were content to sit with our drinks discussing the appealing Anglo-Spanish menu. When we came to order, my stumbling Spanish was overridden in English for the first time since we left England. When the meal came it was pleasant enough but we decided that the restaurant was not quite as nice as we had hoped.

Back at the hotel we sat in the lobby with its acceptable wifi signal but low broadband speeds to book a Santiago hotel for the next evening. Sergio Rapu ignored us again when we collected our room key from the chatty Estaban but he did come and say goodnight as we used the internet.