Almanac

- April 3, 2013

Destinations: Magical island

Barbara Wood and daughter eschew tourist guides and discover Easter Island on their own

by Barbara Wood

Our goal was to see the sun rise behind the row of 15 massive stone busts at Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island, but as we jolted along potholed dirt roads toward our destination in a small rented SUV driven by an exuberant Israeli who seemed to know where he was going, it looked like we wouldn't make it.

The clouds were coloring in the east and we had left 15 minutes later than planned, and, to make things worse, this was our only chance as my daughter and I were leaving the island the next day.

Finally we arrived at our destination, squeezed ourselves out of the vehicle and rushed, cameras in hand, to join about 20 others with the same goal. We had made it.

For the next 20 minutes it was photographers' heaven as we watched the clouds take on flamboyant colors that a set designer might chose as the perfect backdrop to the mysterious moai, stone statues weighing an average of nearly 14 tons that have fascinated and perplexed Easter Island visitors since Europeans first discovered the island on Easter day in 1722.

I traveled to Easter Island in early January because my daughter wanted to go, but it turned out be a place filled with many of things I love most — friendly people, archeological wonders with mysteries attached, photos begging to be taken everywhere, and all on a tropical island in the southern hemisphere, where January is summer and the ocean fine for swimming. Even better, most of those things were within hiking distance of our guest house.

Easter Island is technically a part of Chile, although the Rapa Nui, as the island inhabitants like to call both themselves and their island, are not particularly happy about it. Easter Island is literally in the middle of nowhere, in the South Pacific, with the closest inhabited island being Pitcairn, not exactly centrally located itself at 1,242 miles to the west. So it's easy to understand why Easter Island inhabitants feel they don't have much in common with Chile, even further away at 2,300 miles to the east.

While the tourism authorities recommend exploring with a guide, my 21-year-old daughter and I both like to hike, so armed with maps we traversed much of the island on foot and on our own.

While Western visitors took away many of the island's treasures after they arrived in 1722, so many natural and man-made wonders remain that exploring the island is a constant experience of discovery. According to information in the Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum on the island, Easter Island was formed by the eruption of several volcanoes starting three million years ago.

The volcanoes left behind many caves and also a huge crater, which is where we hiked on our first day. The crater is a visual delight with a patchwork of colors and textures made by water and vegetation on the bottom, and, where ocean waves have eaten away a half-moon opening on one side, a tantalizing glimpse of the ocean beyond.

Beyond the crater is a small museum and the remains of the civilization that existed on the island when it was discovered by outsiders. The so-called Birdman culture existed, according to the island museum, between 1680 and 1864, when the first missionaries arrived. During that time, warring clans toppled most of the moai, which had been erected between 800 and 1680 AD, when Rapa Nui culture was at its peak.

On our second day we took a longer hike, and explored caves, moai that had been restored over the years, moai still toppled to the ground, and the remains of the sacred platforms on which the moai had been erected. We shared our walk, even in town, with horses and dogs — which seem to roam, and reproduce, at will — and spent much of the hike in sight of an ocean so blue that I kept removing my sunglasses to make sure I was seeing the true color.

Many of the archeological wonders were not marked or explained, which made the walk a constant process of discovery, and a bit more of an adventure.

By the third day, footsore, and with the island's main attractions too far away to reach by hiking, we took up the offer of a young couple staying in our guest house to share their rental vehicle. He was from Israel and she from Sweden and it was their plan to visit the largest group of moai on the island at sunrise.

The four of us followed that up with a visit to one of the two white-sand beaches on the island, complete with another group of moai, stops to see more toppled moai, more caves, and some petroglyphs, before arriving at the most amazing spot on this magical island — the quarry called Rano Raraku, where 397 moai, in various stages of completion were abandoned.

Some of the statues in the quarry were just beginning to be worked; others appear to be on their way out of the quarry to a final destination.

The quarry highlights the mystery of Easter Island. Why was work on the statues abandoned? How were they moved from one part of the island to another and what purpose did they serve?

Not knowing the answers makes Easter Island all the more tantalizing a destination.

Barbara Wood is a freelance writer, photographer and gardener who lives and works in a 1889 farmhouse in Woodside with her husband, Labrador retriever and flock of chickens.

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