South Pacific: Part 1 – Rapa Nui

Easter Island map
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Original image source. Created by Eric Gaba (Sting), translated by Bamse
Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 2.5 licence


You won’t find “islomania” in a dictionary, but the phenomenon exists, just the same.

Thurston Clarke, Islomania (2002)

A passion or craze for islands.

Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition (1989)

It seems Thurston Clarke just needed a better dictionary, but at least he drew the word islomania to the attention of a wider audience, some of whom would no doubt recognize the symptoms in themselves. As long-standing and unashamed islomaniacs, The Boon Companion and I took a trip to some of the more out-of-the-way parts of the South Pacific at the end of last year.

We started our journey on Easter Island (known to its inhabitants as Rapa Nui), dropping on to the broad tarmac of Mataveri International Airport after a five-hour flight from Santiago, Chile. Mataveri is said to be the most isolated airport in the world. Its improbable runway, lengthened by NASA in the 1980s, was once designated as a potential abort landing site for the Space Shuttle. And it’s nice that it is so long, because any plane that falls off the east end of the runway will tend to come to rest amid the airport’s fuel storage tanks.

Rapa Nui’s not really a place for a beach holiday—it’s built from three ancient volcanoes, and the coast consists mainly of unforgiving black rock. Only at Anakena in the north is there any extent of white sand—and the “tropical island” appearance has been artificially enhanced with a plantation of imported palm trees.

Shore at Hanga Roa, Easter Island
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The coast at Hanga Roa, © 2017 The Boon Companion
Anakena beach, Easter Island
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Anakena beach, © 2017 The Boon Companion

When we were last on Rapa Nui, over a decade ago, the airport was served by thrice-weekly flights from mainland Chile, and an occasional flight from Tahiti. Nowadays, LATAM’s Boeing 787s put down there twice a day, every day, in the high season. The island’s only town, Hanga Roa, seems to have quadrupled in size from the sleepy place we once knew.

Holy Cross Church, Hanga Roa, Easter Island
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Holy Cross Church, Hanga Roa, © 2017 The Boon Companion

And the islands famous moai statues are now cordoned off with warning signs and designated paths, where people once wandered around at will. I was alarmed by one of the new warning signs, which seemed to prohibit climbing to the top of a moai and throwing yourself off. Surely that goes without saying?

Easter Island warning sign 1
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

But the next moai in line revealed that the sign-poster had just posted the first sign ninety degrees away from its correct orientation. That makes more sense.

Easter Island warning sign 2
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

So. The moai. They’re everywhere along the coast, from the waterfront at Hanga Roa to remote corners of the north. When the island was first seen by Europeans in 1722, these huge statues were still standing along the shore, staring inland, arranged on platforms in groups so that their gaze could supposedly exert a protective influence on the villages they watched over. Half a century later James Cook noted that some had been toppled, but his expedition artist, William Hodges, produced a famous painting of the island that indicates he saw many statues still standing, even though his depiction is unrealistic in its details.

William Hodges' "A View Of The Monuments Of Easter Island"
William Hodges’ “A View Of The Monuments Of Easter Island” (1775)

But the moai continued to topple, and 1838 was the last year on which any Westerner glimpsed one in the upright position—contact with Europeans seems to have precipitated some sort of war on the island, with villagers mounting expeditions to push over their enemy’s protective moai.

Fallen moai, One Makihi, Easter Island
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Fallen moai, One Makihi, © 2017 The Boon Companion

The process of standing them back up again began in 1955, and is still ongoing. Many of the statues broke their necks when they fell, and the older repair work is clearly visible in the form of concrete necklaces; newer repair work is less intrusive. Many of the statues also originally bore red scoria top-knots (as Hodges’ painting shows), and a few of these have been put back in place (mainly on statues with unbroken necks, for obvious reasons). And one statue, in Hanga Roa, boasts a pair of slightly alarming, staring eyes—replicas of the original fragile coral eyes that have been found in fragments near the toppled moai.

Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island
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Tongariki moai, © 2017 The Boon Companion
"Travelling moai" Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island
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The “travelling moai” at Tongariki, © 2017 The Boon Companion
Hanga Roa moai
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Hanga Roa moai, © 2017 The Boon Companion

The moai all came from a quarry at the volcanic crater of Rano Raraku, chiselled out of a tuff cliff. The vicinity of the quarry is dotted with an astonishing number of scattered moai, apparently ready for transport to the coast, but all abandoned for some reason, and now more than half buried by soil movement. If you look right in the middle of the picture below, on the green slope below the cliffs, you’ll see a cluster of tiny dots. Each dot is an abandoned moai, two or three metres tall.

Rano Raraku cliffs and quarry
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Rano Raraku cliffs and quarry, © 2017 The Boon Companion

Here’s the view from a little closer.

Moai, Rano Raraku quarry, Easter Island
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© 2017 The Boon Companion
Moais, Rano Raraku quarry, Easter Island
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

More moai line the inner wall of the flooded Rano Raraku crater, and it was here that we encountered a man with something on his head, striding around with a look of immense satisfaction, chatting into his mobile phone. I’m guessing it’s some kind of panoramic camera, and for all I know he might have been doing something good and useful to humanity. But I couldn’t help wondering aloud if this might be the origin of the well-known phrase “knob head”.

Scanning guy in Rano Raraku crater, Easter Island
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Rano Raraku crater and strange scanning guy, © 2017 The Boon Companion

The other big attraction on Rapa Nui is the spectacular Rano Kau crater—more than a kilometre across, and two hundred metres deep. Its flooded bottom-land is the last refuge for many indigenous plants, so is off-limits for casual hikers. (From somewhere down there came the soil sample that yielded the surprisingly versatile drug rapamycin.) You can’t walk all the way around the crater rim, either, these days, because of concerns about erosion. But you can stroll along a fair section of its arc.

Rano Kau crater, Easter Island
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Rano Kau, © 2017 The Boon Companion

We finished our walk at the remains of the Orongo ceremonial village, which used to host the bonkers Birdman Race—an annual race in which men descended the outer crater wall, swam to the outlying island of Motu Nui, grabbed a sooty tern egg, swam back and then climbed back to Orongo. The man who brought back the first intact egg won privileges for his clan during the coming year. The Birdman cult seems to have started up around the time the  moai were being toppled, and the race was run for the better part of a century before it was (predictably enough) suppressed by Christian missionaries in the 1860s.

Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao Kao from Orongo, Easter Island
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Seen from Orongo, Motu Nui is the most distant island, © 2017 The Boon Companion


The next day, we went down to Hanga Roa’s tiny harbour, and joined a ship heading farther out into the Pacific. I’ll tell you more about that in my next post.

Hanga Roa harbour, Easter Island
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

2 thoughts on “South Pacific: Part 1 – Rapa Nui”

  1. Nice post – looking forward to more photos of what looks to have been a very good trip.

    Maybe the sign-poster got it right with the first sign – “Do not throw yourself off the moai”. After all, there are signs all-round the world warning about doing things that are obviously completely insane – walking on railway lines, climbing on ledges etc. Jumping off moai may be an entire sub-culture like base-jumping:-)

    1. Thanks for coming by to comment.
      Yes, the trip will supply me with posts for quite a while to come, I must confess.

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