Sue Tordoff

Around the World


Crossing the Pacific Ocean:
             island of mystery

Early start for 8.50 a.m. flight to Easter Island. The hotel is less luxurious than the previous ones, we didn’t expect anything else out here. We hadn’t expected the smell though, reminiscent of an old Blackpool B&B plus the foistiness that comes with constant damp. It’s hot and humid, more so because apparently they have been having a lot of rain here lately. We have umbrellas but no waterproofs. No fear we are abandoning our Englishness then.

Walk into the main town, a few minutes along the shore. Sticky even though the sky is very overcast and there is a little breeze. Dogs everywhere. One adopts us, follows us, even waits for us while we have tea and cake. Boys are surfing in the bay at Hanga Roa, big waves. The town is simply a crossroads, very few useful  shops but lots of cafes and diving shops. The long shed marked ‘supermarket’ has a single row of tables, mostly empty. Many people riding horses bare back through town, obviously their usual mode of transport. Hens everywhere too.

We see our first Moai which overlooks the harbour at Hanga Roa, or rather has his back to it. There is a nice feel to the place and I love being near the sea at last. Two cities are my absolute limit. We have dinner at the hotel, no butler in sight! Short walk along the shore and we see young folk, all wearing brightly coloured tropical shirts, in beribboned pick-up trucks, apparently heading for some wedding or pre-wedding bash over the hill. The backs of the pick-ups are full of folk too.

Before we left I came across a bit of Japanese poetry which now I’m here seems to sum up being in these vast reaches of the Pacific.

Spring approaches
          the Pacific Ocean
          will be my sitting mat

                   Soen Rschi

We are far away from anywhere, and it feels like it.

Booked a tour for this afternoon, gives us time to post cards and get passports stamped [at the post office, $1 a pop] – as it is Saturday, things start to close at noon.

We find out another deficiency of the hotel, the plumbing. Takes a lot to flush the toilet and nowhere near adequately, however long you keep your hand on the handle. Harvey comes out of the bathroom, marching purposefully to the French windows to the garden. I need a stick he says solemnly. For a moment I am mystified, then I remember a similar occasion at Maureen and Tug’s house. He comes back with a bit of a stick with which he proves very resourceful over the course of our stay, but it’s too close to a declenching tool for comfort. [ref for the uninitiated - Couples TV prog]

Dawn comes late here, around 8a.m. with cocks crowing and dogs barking. Though it had been overcast yesterday, I wake this morning sunburnt where my T-shirt ended, a huge red ring round my neck as if I’ve been the victim of an unsuccessful strangling in the night. Not a pretty sight. Thank goodness for aloe vera which not only takes the sting out of it, but starts to tone down the redness.

At first glance the island looks a lot like Galloway , and then you get your eye in and see the volcanic shape to the hills, and volcanic rocks strewn everywhere.

To our surprise, we are not only booked on the afternoon tour, but this mornings and tomorrow’s full day as well! Luckily we are about ready to walk to the village when the tour called to pick us up. I feel pleased with our spontaneity; we just went! Not very English at all.

Elena our tour guide speaks excellent English and is interesting as well as informative. Our first stop is Orongo, a small village of 55 ancient houses reminiscent of the houses at Scara Brae in Orkney but in use more like the summer shielings of Scotland. For one month during the year, men would come down here to take part in the birdman competition. Would-be leaders sent young fit men to compete on their behalf, scaling down 200ft cliffs, followed by a long swim in turbulent seas to an island in order to collect the first seabird egg of the year. This decided the leaders of the clans for the next year – he was the Birdman; the symbol is the top half of a bird, bottom half of a man, holding aloft the egg. The custom continued until the arrival of the missionaries in 1860; they declared it pagan and stopped it, along with much else besides, one supposes.

Next stop, Rano Kau, a volcano. We climb up to the rim, 1km in diameter, the biggest volcano on the island though not the oldest. Jacques Cousteau plumbed its depths in the 1970’s, found it to be 200m at the centre. Reed grows on the water now, and the hillsides are covered with fruit so hard to harvest that the birds have it all.

Last stop to see a cave looking very like an Orkney geo. The ceiling once had paintings of the birdman symbols, but the sea washing in over centuries has eroded them to a small patch, difficult to make out.

We get the coach to drop us at the Hanga Roa post office where we post cards and have our passports stamped with a Moai impression, just as they are closing. Lunch in a small café from where we can see the Moai and the sea. We order scallops and fresh bread, both delicious though we are rather surprised that the scallops are very thinly sliced and raw. After Harvey’s recent episode, we are a little wary, thinking not only of the travel ahead but the dreaded plumbing back at the hotel. Fears prove groundless on all counts.

The afternoon tour takes us inland on terrible mud roads [due to the unseasonal rains] to Puna Pau, the quarry where the red stone topknots [representing hair] of the Moai were carved. Still many lying around, part finished as if the workers were suddenly interrupted.

Then on to Ahu Akivi [ahu is a platform on which the Moai stand], our first line of Moai [pronounced mow-eye]. These are not the biggest but they are impressive. The ahu was the burial place of the clan leaders and the Moai are effigies of them, raised on the ahu. During the ceremony, eyes would be put into the empty eye sockets of the statues, made from white coral and black obsidian. At the end of the ceremony they were removed, so that only one original eye has ever been found.

The countryside round here is lovely, with very many horses roaming freely. They are all branded and belong to people, but are allowed freedom to roam.

Onwards to see a lava tube leading from the volcano to the sea 3km away. The caves so formed were used as vaults for family members not important enough to be buried on the ahu. Each family had its own cave. Later people hid in them from marauding Peruvians who took men and boys to work down the mines in Peru . There is such a maze of cave-tunnels that they couldn’t be found.

Another stop at Ahu Vinapu, two ahu, one built with huge interlocking stones similar to those seen at Machu Pichu. This platform was specially strengthened to hold the largest Moai ever made, which lies unfinished at the quarry we’ll see later. It is 22m high and weighs 160 tons, the topknot would add another 50 tons. What happened to stop this?

There are only 2 known female Moai, one of them here. It is 9th century and now  eroded almost beyond recognition.

A great day spoiled only by getting soaked to the skin on the way home from dinner [also a disappointment], in spite of our very British umbrellas. Not what we needed when things don’t dry because of the humidity and we have to check out of the hotel tomorrow morning even though we don’t fly until late evening.

Rain hammered on the roof all night, but the tour goes ahead, this time a full day with lunch included.

First stop is Vaihu, a platform by the sea with many toppled Moai. The Moai were toppled after the clan wars, so that any we see standing have been restored in the last 40 years. There was also a tsunami, after an earthquake in Chile , which moved some of the fallen topknots well inland. All the Moai except one group face inland, maybe to watch over the villages, but no one really knows why. The island is full of mystery.

Our second stop, Ahu Tongariki, is also a platform by the sea. This is the one featured on all the postcards, the one we most want  to see. 15 Moai on a huge platform, all different shapes, sizes and features. Only one still has a topknot. This group took 10 years to restore. It’s a beautiful setting so close to the water, very atmospheric. During the tour we meet Richard who is just retiring from the Navy, having been based in Portsmouth . Richard is throwing himself into his trip with a joy it’s great to see, having himself photographed at every possible opportunity for the record. He kindly returns the favour, one of the few photographs of us together.

Our guide took us next to the Moai quarry at Rano Raraku, an amazing hillside with 400 unfinished Moai of varying sizes, including one huge one still attached to the rock face. Some are standing, some at an angle, many laid flat on the earth. The path meanders in and out of the Moai over quite a distance. A bit eerie, like some alien graveyard.

Lunch is served here for us, brought out in hot containers from the hotel; chicken and rice with salad. There are little market stalls too, where we buy souvenirs.

The countryside round here is dotted with broken down platforms, often quite small, and Moai that were in transit when it all stopped. The island certainly has a ‘Marie Celeste’ feel. We see the biggest Moai ever moved from Rano Raraku, weighing 74 tons, plus its topknot from Puna Pau Quarry we saw yesterday, 12 km away. How it got so far is a mystery, and why it stopped where it did is a mystery too. This huge Moai was the last one to be toppled. The Dutch Admiral Jacob Roggeveen anchored off the island in 1722, naming it in honour of his arrival on Easter Sunday. Roggeveen noted that it was standing then, while on a visit a few years later, he recorded it toppled.

Moai date from the 3rd century when the Short Ear clan arrived, bringing carving skills. The Long Ear clan was already settled here, calling the island ‘the naval of the world’. They used the Short Ears to carve memorials – the Moai - to their leaders. All carving stopped after the clan wars.

I ask Elena if it is easy for Easter Islanders to trace their ancestry. She said they all know who they are descended from; she is a Long Ear. 35 families are still unmixed with other races, but only 3 Long Ear families are left. In the old days, the Long Ears elongated their ear lobes by inserting stones to weigh them down. The ancientness of these races feels different to our own.

Last stop of the day is at Anakena, a beautiful beach with ahu and Moai. Absolutely gorgeous beach, palm trees, golden sands, horses roaming. Four of the Moai here still have their topknots, that’s unusual. It’s so lovely that I sit for a while on my own on the sand, imagining a house on the hill looking down on this beach and sea. Idyllic.

Back to the hotel for a shower, change of clothes and repacking the suitcases. We surrendered our room when we left after breakfast, so have to use the public facilities which are less than adequate, the kind of shower which is so small the plastic shower curtain sticks to you. Yuck! Nowhere private to dry and change. But at least we feel civilised again. Very English! How did I ever manage to fear we might lose it?

Luckily I had managed to convey to one of the staff, a Japanese woman who spoke a little English, that my soaked pants from the night before needed somewhere to dry rather than being packed in a plastic bag in my suitcase. They are indeed dry and though rather creased are better for travelling in, being my only pair of long pants. We’re all ready in the small lounge, waiting for our lift to the airport, when one of the staff tells us the plane is delayed ‘for operational reasons’ for 4 hours. This pushes our departure time back to after midnight, and there is nowhere to get a cup of coffee or any drink other than water. The TV is playing loudly in Spanish, but there is nowhere else to wait. Too wet outdoors to risk getting another soaking just before we travel, so I lay full length on a sofa I’ve bagged, and sleep for a while.

Even Richard’s good spirits seem dampened by this delay.

Easter Island

Hanga Roa transport

Hanga Roa

Birdman Island

Lip of the Volcano, Rano Kau

S&H at Ahu Akivi

Ahu Tongariki

Two Moai at Ahu Tongariki,
the one below still has his topknot

Some of the 400 unfinished Moai at Rano Raraku,
the Moai quarry

Moai in the distance at Anakena

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