Author: Fiona Ludbrook
Date of Trip: May 2015
Easter Island had been on my bucket list of travel destinations since I was a small child and watched the first of many documentaries about the iconic and much speculated about Moai.
You only live once and I am no Scrooge, getting pleasure from mere dollar signs in the bank, when that same cash can be converted into travel, which like any form of education, remains part of your very being, knowledge and experience for as long as you live. I am prepared to invest in myself, rather than property or shares.Thus I invested in a major journey along the East coast of South America, eventually taking me to Rapa Nui, far better known as Easter Island.
I was pretty naive, believing that there was nothing more to ‘Easter Island’ than scattered collections of giant statues, some fallen, some standing and some half completed on a deforested isolated Pacific Island. Travel agents and even a few people I eventually met in Ecuador and Peru, assured me three days would be enough. Silly me took their advice. Four days and three nights and I’d see and experience ALL of “Easter Island”.
This description and anulling of such a vibrant population and culture is reminiscent of Australia being described by her British colonisers as “TERRA NULLIUS”, “the empty land” and leads one to believe that all that is Easter Island is the Moai. Rapa Nui has its own unique vibe and pulses with life, albeit quietly. Today’s Rapa Nui people, at least in my reading of brief encounters and local tour guides’ information, are as spiritually and tribally linked with those Moai as the generations that created them. Rapa Nui is anything but an “empty land” with only the Moai to offer.
In the Easter Island equation sold by travel agents and some travellers, big statues, a small island, a handful of shops scatterd along a meandering main street, that is the village/ main town of Hanga Roa, where chickens, lots of dogs and sometimes even horses roam free alongside the residents and a very few tourists; make for a couple of tours and you’ve seen and done it all.
I went to Easter Island, but I arrived in Rapa Nui. There was a lot to see and experience here. Never in the remotest piece of desert in Australia had the very intensity of isolation hit me, like the omniscient tsunami warnings and safety zones that dot the more populated areas of Rapa Nui itself. Rapa Nui’s very remoteness, necessitates simplifying and parring back to what really matters.Spend enough time here and you will discover that boredom seemss a modern concept and that all too often, being “busy,” is a form of escape. Life runs at the pace it needs to and it is possible to appreciate the simplest things in life.
Rapa Nui is the kind of place I could gladly have spent a month traversing on foot and on horse back. For a start there were the horses. These are owned by individuals but essentially roam free in big herds, unless being ridden. Rapa Nui is indeed a pretty wild place. I relished a place so wonderfully free of regulation and indeed crime. I didn’t speak the local Rapa Nui language, nor even a genuinely useful sprinkling of Spanish, but I managed to communicate sufficiently well to get by.
I loved the unreliable internet services. In Rapa Nui, it was as if the world remains on a very human scale and that scale is quintessentially Polynesian. Friendly welcoming people, with some scary, as well as beautiful cultural practices. The male posturing rituals, evident through dance, demonstrating strength and power to frighten and ward off enemies are essentially a brave front to disguise an otherwise gentle, inclusive and highly hospitable and respectful culture.
Their language word patterns, art and dance transported me back to Fiji and New Zealand. The similarities were striking but the differences made their own culture equally unique. I had spent enough time with Pacific Islander friends to immediateley feel at home, recognise some single words even, yet at the same time feel the plausible tension of the indigenous Rapa Nui, and the Chilean cohabitants. The colonial status of Easter Island was as apparent as the fierce independence and unique culture and history that is Rapa Nui. Nowhere else on earth have I felt the tensions between modern development and living sustainably and gently so overtly. The Rapa Nui deal with apalling roads and antiquated services on a daily basis. They want their culture and language to remain unique and strong, but grapple with the cultural price of improving basic services if such services bring mainstream Chilean architecture, education and Chilean Spanish as the dominant language. They want cultural control over their unique world heritage sites. Yet both cultures live in harmony on this tiny island, whose population numbers just under 6,000. The reality is, the Rapa Nui people’s sometimes uncomfortable position as a Chilean territory seems a necessary evil. The isolation is expensive and the Rapa Nui people certainly see themselves as part of the modern world. They are often well travelled, both within the Pacific and within South America, including Chile. For Chilean heritage locals, they crave development at a rapid pace.
Where else in the world can you visit and find your guide is the son of the two archeologists responsible for the repositioning the Moai into their standing positions. An act that was quite contraversial in the 1990s, when getting the famous stands of Moai back to their feet and platforms was happening?
Just how they were toppled seems to pale into insignificance. The reality is the Moai are omnipresent. A walk around Hanga Roa itself will soon demonstrate this.One even bids a final farewell in the outdoor departure lounge at the Hanga Roa International Airport. His unique, stoney gaze left an indellible impression on my heart!
Another local guide was a Rapa Nui woman and now retired ballet dancer on the world stage. She trained in Tahiti and was taken to Paris. She spoke four European languages fluently and was now enlightening tourist using each of these languages about the culture and heritage of her people, their amazing archeological riches and links into contemporary Rapa Nui culture.
I loved the Quarry, Rano Ranaku, where you could touch this ancient production line of Moai and see them at every stage of completion. Second to Rano Ranaku, for me, were the incredible agricultural practices that created sustainable arrable microclimates, by using the more sheltered spots and creating high rock edged circular gardens to protect tender plants from the often raging winds, as well as increase fertility via the rock dust, every time it rained. These practices are not only ancient, but as contemporary as all those home vegetable gardens that are lovingly tended in the same manner today, as for generations, post and possibly even prior to, deforestation.
Rapa Nui is an Island. You can never forget this, as it is impossible to get so far away from the Pacific Ocean lapping its shores, not to smell the sea or observe the sea birds soaring overhead. Even on the beachfront esplanade of Hanga Roa you can watch waves full of green turtles surfacing for air, dining on the rich life that fills these oceans.
Most of all I had low expectations of the possibilities of gastronomic delights within such a tiny isolated place. True, fresh ingredients are hard to come by at the two very small local food stores. But a thriving farmer’s market happens on Saturday mornings, filled with wonderful organically grown, flavourful vegetables and fruits. There’s fresh catches of fish and seafood a plenty, fabulous locally produced beef, lamb, pork and poultry.
I had two of the best meals of my life here. One at a restaurant operated by a large Rapa Nui family, serving traditional Rapa Nui cuisine, on the beachfront, a confusing walk beyond the main part of town and another at a Japanese restaurant on the road to the airport. The proprietors had ingeniously crafted their own little piece of Japan, with few other resources than imagination, ingenuity and passion. Then there were the best empanadas I enjoyed in all my travels in South America, both at the main bakery in town and a little restaurant at Rano Ranaku.
At the bar that overlooked the sea dancing with turtles I met an American carpenter and his Chilean partner.You can learn a lot in an hour’s conversation at a bar sometimes! He arrived there to surf and work with a contract six years earlier. He was building the new music school with a team of local builders. His partner had become part of the local indigenous community and was employed voluntarily helping alongside the local women. They had kind of been subsumed into the extended family and had access to the complex workings of Rapa Nui culture and traditions. They were managing to raise funds or source rare and highly prized electric drills and other tools from friends in the USA. I was invited to the school, but sadly had insufficient time to take up their invitation and access so much beyond the tourist circuit.
Nor did I have a chance to go fishing in these rich waters, nor horse ride or trek to the side of the Island without roads, but as rich with Moai and sea birds as the more touristed sites. Rapa Nui was a place I longed to have more time alone, to drink in and relish solitude and isolation as much as engage with the local Rapa Nui People. Rushing from one significant archeological site to another felt incongruous. One way of overcoming this was to wine and dine and interact as much as possible at local haunts. I spent very little time at my hotel, despite its glorious grounds and views.
I missed getting my passport stamped with a Rapa Nui visa, as it was closed on weekends. I missed the one screening a week of the Rapa Nui film at a Hanga Roa hotel. I missed the apparently fabulous small local museum and even attending church on Sunday just to hear the Rapa Nui choir, because I did not have time and could not make it!
I had to accept limits of my budget and time constraints as the only barriers to a far deeper appreciation of all that lies beyong those glorious UNESCO World Heritage Listed Moai and other glories!
Rapa Nui is a place that takes time and deserves time. I managed to squeeze in a dawn taxi ride, visit and do a photoshoot to Ahu Rongariki, as well as tours there and to Rano Ranaku. Another tour allowed me to access Ahu Aviki, the only Moai that face the sea, as well as a glorious beach and some petroglyphs. Here too I made my way to the bar and chatted with the locals, rather than bask in the sea and surf with the other tour members. The view was enough. I wanted to get inside the place, not just sneek a peek. That morning we visited the village complex of Rongorongo, the glorious ex volcanic lake, where rays of the sun were reflected back off the mirrored surface, the sight of sights in a life time of some truly awe inspiring places. Either the Gods or the Moai themselves must have been with me that day. We ventured to see the island where the Birdman (the symbol of Rapa Nui) collected an egg in the annual competition and became king for a year as well as the “navel of the world” and a sacred cave in the cliffs. An incredible series of volcanic tubes and cave complex resplendant with bananas and paw paws growing with verdant profusion was another highlight. Food production continues. It never stopped!
The spirits of Rapa Nui thoroughly embraced me, despite my short visit. I really believe this place may well indeed be the navel of the world. Did I not just witness that sacred navel with my own eyes?
It is possible to land here and find excellent guest house accomodation with local families, or spend a lot as I did on hotels that are expensive through their scarcity, rather than level of ammenities. I chose one well out of town to bring it within my tight budget. Either way avoid the Birdman festival time, as prices go through the roof and the population swells by up to 3,000.
As for getting there, you have two choices, via Santiago in Chile as I did, or via Tahiti. Flying onwards to Tahiti back to Australia would have been preferable, but was prohibitively expensive. So return to Santiago I did, despite already being a third of the way home in Rapa Nui. Looking back, the necessary extra air miles means I need to look into planting a forest for my forced contribution to climate change emmissions!
If you like wild and lonely places, world heritage archeological sites, lots of mystery, myth and speculation then Rapa Nui is a must visit destination. However, if shopping is your thing or you thrive on crowds and lots of nightlife, then maybe head to New York instead.
But if you do make this very big trip, do organise it yourself, or convince your travel agent to book a very minimum of a week in Easter Island. Personally, a month in Rapa Nui would still only find me scratching the surface of this fascinating place and its people!