Walking with giants

Photos by Mary King

Mary King gets ahead on Easter Island, one of the world' most mysterious and remote travel destinations.

A chill runs down my spine as two large eyes stare into mine, unblinking, yet pulling me down into their fathomless depths where I find no answer, only riddles and mysteries unsolved. Palm trees swish on Anakena beach as large rain clouds loom overhead and Pacific waves crash against this mysterious volcanic outcrop, one of the world's most remote inhabited island. "Rapa Nui, Rapa Nui," the breeze seems to whisper as tropical rains lash against the basalt skin of these petrified beings, a rare race that died out after witnessing centuries of inter-clan wars and savagery.

Soaked to the skin, I stand transfixed by the gaze of the four moai (stone figures) that tower over me with countenances at once arrogant and enigmatic, seduced by the power of these incredible colossi in this sprawling outdoor museum, a testament to an ancient people over whom debate still rages.

Navel gazing
The island is commonly known as Easter Island in the West and is called Rapa Nui by modern locals, but the original settlers gave it the charming moniker Te Pito O Te Henua (Navel of the World). Just 180km2, its nearest populated neighbor, Pitcairn, is 1900km to the west while the South American coast is 3700km away, or a five hour flight. The spell of the island is cast as soon as you disembark from the plane at Mataveri Airport and find yourself mobbed by gregarious islanders, brimming over with enthusiasm, who place garlands of pink tropical flowers around your neck.

The island's nerve center is the village of Hanga Roa, a stone's throw away from the airport, and it is refreshing to discover how little it has actually been developed. There are few large hotels, catering to hordes of tourists, to blight the island. Accommodation is mainly found in the small family-run pensions scattered around Hanga Roa. A stroll down Policarpo Toro, one of the main roads, takes me past rather crude dwellings and shops. Hardly a car passes my friend and I as we head toward the beach. Banana trees hang heavy with their fruit as do the papaya, mango and guava trees that grow in gardens amid a myriad of colors; the pinks and purples of bougainvillea, the warm oranges and yellows of hibiscus and the sensual scent of jasmine. Each garden is a tropical paradise. A handful of stores sell groceries or souvenirs but business, even that geared toward tourists, the islanders' main source of income, is extremely laid-back, with shops closing religiously each afternoon for that sacred Latin prerogative, the siesta.

Turning off toward the small outdoor vegetable market near the waterfront, I see groups of youths astride beautifully proud horses, galloping bareback out across fields. Other young islanders congregate to chat. Someone strums a guitar, some splash about and surf in the Pacific's inky-blue waters. Many of the island's restaurants are also here, giving diners the opportunity to enjoy their meals while taking in the refreshing sea breeze. "Nihonjin desu ka?" inquired an elderly local man as my travel partner tucked into a plate of cerviche, a delicious local specialty, also served elsewhere in South America, of raw tuna marinated in vinegar and lemon. "Yes, I'm from Okinawa," she told him. At the mention of the southern Japanese island, he became extremely excited and pulled up a chair to join us.

"I've always wanted to go there. My grandfather came from Okinawa," he explained. "He was a tuna fisherman, and arrived here on a fishing boat. He stayed, married a local woman and never went back, dying when I was a small child," he added. Senor Martin knew little more about his grandfather who, along with the rest of the crew, had got lost at sea and was even near death, before finding the shores of this triangular speck of land. That evening, my friend and I strolled out to Ahu Hanga Kio'e, where under an almost full moon and the watchful gaze of the moai, islanders, decked out in feathers, their bodies brightly painted and tattooed, performed ritualistic dances to mark the end of Tapati Rapa Nui (Easter Island Week).

During this annual festival that takes place from late January to early February, tourists descend on the island en masse to lap up a whole host of cultural events, including traditional boat building, singing, dancing, stone and wood sculpting as well as the queen contest. Islanders, young and old, take part with enthusiasm, maintaining a pride in their history and traditions. Many still cling to the old myths and superstitions that hark back to the islanders' earliest beginning on Rapa Nui. Who were the first people to settle here? Where did they come from, when and why? These questions have long puzzled anthropologists, historians and archeologists, and two main schools of thought exist.

Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl maintains that the first settlers were Indians from the South American mainland, basing his theory on the similarity between Rapa Nui and Incan stonework. To try and prove his theory that it would have been possible to make such a journey, he set off from Peru in a balsa raft (the renowned Kon-Tiki expedition) but missed Rapa Nui, making it to Paroia, east of the Tuamotu Islands. Others have suggested that Easter Island is the remnant of a lost continent, or the result of an extra-terrestrial influence.

However, the more widely accepted theory today is that Polynesians, who themselves had originally hailed from Asia, settled on the island around 400AD, and were later joined by other people. Upon their arrival, an impressive and enigmatic culture began to develop. In addition to the statues, the islanders possessed the Rongorongo script; the only written language in Oceania. But many questions about the islanders remain unresolved, open to speculation, and very often shrouded in the myths of the people.

"We believe that Hotu Matu'a, our ancient chief, came from Hiva, west of Rapa Nui. A man named Hau Maka dreamed that his spirit had flown here, where he was amazed by the beauty of Anakena and decided that this would be the place where the chief should land. After waking from his dream, Hau Maka sent seven men out to find the island, and later the chief and his court followed, landing here," explained a young islander guarding the moai that stand at Anakena Bay. The rain clouds had at last rolled away, and the moai, standing dignified on their ceremonial altars (ahu), were now bathed in warm sunlight.

Islanders perform ritualistic dances to celebrate Tapati Rapa Nui

Big heads
There are about 1000 moai on the island; all represent the bust of a man and range from 1-22 meters in height. I wondered what were the impressions of the first Europeans who landed on Rapa Nui. The officially accepted discovery of the island was made by Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen and his crew on Easter Day (hence the island's name), April 5, 1722. One of his crewmen wrote how an islander rowed out to their ship in a canoe and then came aboard: "His body was tattooed with a variety of figures and his ears were so long that they reached to his back. We offered him a glass of wine, but to our surprise, instead of drinking it, he poured it over his eyes. I believe that he thought we wanted to poison him."

Hopping back into the jeep, my friend and I followed the coastal road, passing rolling green hills, meadows and fields full of grazing cows and horses, to Rano Raraku Volcano, the island's vast open quarries where the moai were carved. Even from a distance on the road you can make out the sculptures on the slopes of this volcano. There are about 500 statues and megaliths in various stages of completion to be found here. The largest statue, which is still joined to a rock face, measures about 22m, and it is estimated that it would weigh about 300 tons if it were cut away from the mother rock. It is an eerie feeling walking up the slopes of Rano Raraku, between all the moai, large and small, some standing, others leaning, lying, crumbling, and even buried by tall grass. You feel as if you are passing through a great cemetery, where gods are rising from their graves.

Huffing and puffing, a strong wind pulling us this way and that, we eventually made it up the narrow path to the top of the volcano from where there is a magnificent view of the island, lapped on each side by Pacific waves. The interior of the crater offered an even bigger surprise, the view of 20 or more horses galloping wildly around an emerald-green lake. This lake is the islanders' main source of drinking water. Running through the tall grasses, we descended into the crater to study more closely the moai here. These grand stone images once personified founders and members of the island's clans and were revered.

Another lake can be seen inside the crater of the Rano Kau Volcano. Here, you can also see the low communal dwellings, made of lenticular-shaped basalt flagstones in the Orongo ceremonial village. Orongo once served as the island's main cult center for devotees of "Birdman" (Tangata Manu) and the creator-god Makemake. Petroglyphs in the area show fertility symbols and pictures of Makemake and Birdman. From the southernmost tip of Rano Kau it is also possible to see the islets of Motu Kao Kao, Motu Iti and Motu Nui. Motu Nui played a vital role in the Birdman cult as this was where the sooty terns, migratory birds, laid their eggs during August and September.

"Whoever brought back safely the first egg laid by the sooty tern became Birdman, a kind of military chief, for one year," explained Nancy, an islander. "But it meant risking your life," she added, pointing out to where Rano Kau's sheerest side plunges into the sea. "It was very difficult to get down there, swim through the strong tides without bashing against the rocks, and then return with the egg in one piece."

The cult survived until the end of the 19th century, and those skilled enough to retrieve the egg of the sooty tern were believed to be Makemake's representative on earth. Tangata Manu was believed to hold great powers by the people, who were unable to go as freely as the birds from this isolated island.

Where to stay:
Hotel Hotu Matua: swimming pool, credit cards accepted. Room price is quoted as US$146 with breakfast. Tel: +1-56-100-242.
Hotel Iorana: swimming pool, credit cards accepted. Room price is quoted as US$118 for single with breakfast. Tel: +1-56-100-312.
Hotel O'Tai: swimming pool, credit cards accepted. Room price is quoted as US$80 with breakfast. Tel: +1-56-100-250; fax: +1-56-100-482.
Residenciales range from US$60 to $30. A residencial is so classified by the numbers of rooms; most are under ten rooms and may or may not have private baths. Credit cards are not usually accepted. Puku Rangi Uka: Tel: +1-56-100-405; Cabanas Vai Mohana: Tel: +1-56-100-626; Cabanas Taha Tai: Tel: +1-56-100-623.

Hiring vehicles:
Vehicles for rent include everything from jeeps to cars to vans to motorcycles, and some bicycles are also available. A car will run around US$100 a day. There is one gas station on Easter Island. You should have an International Driver's License.

Getting there:
LanChile flies to Easter Island, with flights operating between Santiago, Chile and Papeete, Tahiti. Airfare from Santiago, Chile to Easter Island (round trip) costs approximately US$800. For more

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