You won’t find “islomania” in a dictionary, but the phenomenon exists, just the same.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s the view from a little closer.
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”.
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.
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.
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 soon.