Easter Island, aka Rapa Nui: Beautiful, remote, mysterious and captivating

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Ahu Ko Te Riku is among the restored platforms at a Rapa Nui village site called Tahai on Easter Island. The moai is one of the few with repaired eyes, made from coral and red scoria, a volcanic lava. It wasn’t until 1978 at Anakena Beach, another restored site, that evidence was uncovered about the composition of the eye material.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the first post about my adventures. 

Before he cemented his place in the pantheon of minor explorers, Jacob Roggeveen (1659-1729) had already mastered several other occupations. He’d been a doctor of law, a notary and a longtime employee of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia, Dutch East Indies, known today as Jakarta, in Indonesia.

Note that this brief resume has no mention of years spent at sea as a captain, officer or crew.

Nonetheless, he persuaded the commercial trading conglomerate Dutch West India Company — less successful than the more powerful, highly prosperous Dutch East India Company — that he was the man to search for the elusive Terra Australis, a hypothetical southern continent.

And so in June 1721, as commander of a complement of 223 men and 70 cannons spread across three ships — the Arend (named for his father, whose dream he was pursuing), the Thienhoven and the Afrikaansche Galey (African Galley) — he departed his country of birth, the Netherlands. His was indeed a voyage of discovery, just not the land he’d been in search of.

Over six months, the ships sailed to the South Atlantic. They reached the Falkland Islands, and continued on through Le Maire Strait, around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean.

Heading north up the coast of Chile, they landed at the Juan Fernandez Islands, about 400 miles off the mainland, where the ships underwent repairs and took on food, water and other supplies.

Thus restocked, the ships were on a west-northwest heading, scanning the horizon for Terra Australis. Late one afternoon, the Afrikaansche Galey sighted a spit of land (later determined to be 64 square miles). Because it was Easter Sunday (April 5) 1722, Roggeveen named it “Paaschen Eylandt,” Dutch for Easter Island.

Bad weather and attempts to determine the friendliness of the Islanders delayed the landing party until April 10, when 134 sailors, most of them armed with musket, pistol and cutlass, went ashore.

They were at a loss to explain the full significance of the most striking thing they saw: numerous, toweringly tall monolithic stone figures, what we know today as moai.

From Roggeveen’s journal: “What the form of worship of these people comprises we were not able to gather any full knowledge of, owing to the shortness of our stay among them; we noticed only that they kindle fire in front of certain remarkably tall stone figures they set up; and, thereafter squatting on their heels with heads bowed down, they bring the palms of their hands together and alternately raise and lower them. At first, these stone figures caused us to be filled with wonder, for we could not understand how it was possible that people who are destitute of heavy or thick timber, and also of stout cordage, out of which to construct gear, had been able to erect them; nevertheless some of these statues were a good 30 feet in height and broad in proportion.”

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From left: Ahu Tahai, Ahu Vai Uri and Ahu Ko Te Riku. In the distance is the town of Hanga Roa.

The Dutch explored the island for just one day, though they were anchored offshore for a week. On that lone day, 10 to 12 of the Islanders were killed, possibly in a skirmish over a gun or an attempt to steal clothing, and more were injured. Amends were made: The Islanders traded chickens, bananas, sugar cane and sweet potatoes for cloth from the Dutch.

My arrival on this remote, isosceles-triangle-shaped spot of land fortunately took a fraction of the time that Roggeveen’s did. Departing from Santiago, Chile, and relaxing in a sleek, state-of-the-art Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, in under five hours my fellow passengers and I landed at Hanga Roa, the only town on modern-day Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui (in the Rapanui language) and Isla de Pascua in Spanish.

That a 787 can land at Mataveri Airport at all is thanks to the American space program. When NASA needed an emergency landing strip for space shuttle missions scheduled to depart from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California in the mid-1980s, Easter Island was one of the selections.

The existing runway was lengthened to 10,886 feet, anticipating that a Boeing 747 could land, have the space shuttle hoisted piggyback and then return to the United States. The emergency scenario never came to pass, chiefly because the shuttle never launched from Vandenberg.

Larger passenger aircraft has meant a boon for local tourism, though service is still restricted to one flight a day much of the year. Weather conditions on the island can delay departure from Santiago, about 2,300 miles away, which is what happened in the days before I arrived. Two flights a week depart from Tahiti.

Conaf, administrator of Chilean national parks, reports 65,064 visitors came to the island in 2014. (Other sources say 80,000-95,000 tourists came that year.) By 2020, Conaf projections anticipate 92,000 and 118,000 tourists per year.

The permanent population is only about 6,700 — triple what it was in the early 1990s — with about half being island natives. Though the influx of currency is welcome, limited local resources are finely stretched, and the island’s ecology as a whole is challenged by increasing tourism numbers.

Peter, co-proprietor of Hare Swiss, the bungalow where I was staying for the next four nights, met the afternoon-arriving plane and bestowed upon me a deeply reddish leaf-and flower lei. It didn’t have the sweet scent of the white frangipani I recalled from a trip to Hawaii, but it was a lovely welcoming gesture. We chatted amiably as we waited for his other guests, a couple from Paris, to collect their luggage.

Originally from St. Gallen, Switzerland, Peter formerly worked for a Swiss airline. He’s married to Tiare, a Rapa Nui woman, with whom he has two adorable, dark-haired daughters. He met his future wife when the extended South American charter trip he was crewing in 2004 stopped on Easter Island.

Once the Parisians exited the small terminal and were similarly “leied,” we all piled into the family minivan. Peter drove us through town — Hanga Roa is quite small — pointing out the supermarkets, shops, restaurants and a few historical sites.

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The bungalow on the left was my home at Hare Swiss for four nights. On either side were visitors from France. Peter and Tiare, a Swiss-Rapa Nui couple, opened the first bungalow in 2011.

Lodging options on the island range from budget-friendly cabanas and bungalows (and limited camping) to five-star resorts that can cost $850 a night, with a three-night minimum.

I chose Hare Swiss (“hare” is the native language word for house) because I liked the idea of having my own veranda-fronted, sea-view bungalow (but not right on the ocean).

November is considered shoulder season, and flights and accommodation cost far less than, say, February, which is high season. I planned my entire Chilean trip around the Santiago-Easter Island flight, securing the least-expensive airfare, and booked everything about six months in advance.

Because nearly all goods must be imported to the island — fuel, food, medical supplies, etc. — prices can be steep. There are some budget-friendly eateries, but an added plus at Hare Swiss is a full kitchenette, with microwave and mini-refrigerator.

Peter supplied bread, cheese, a few eggs, yogurt, cereal, sugar, tea and instant coffee, but you’re welcome to bring instant soup/noodles, oatmeal and other packaged food from home. Or shop locally and cook in the bungalow. This is especially handy if traveling with children.

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This is the veranda of my bungalow. Note the topknotted moai likenesses acting as part of the fence railing.

The only drawback at Hare Swiss is that the bungalows are a solid 20-25 minute walk into town over some unpaved terrain, which can be muddy and rutted. It’ll take longer if you stop to shoot pictures, and I guarantee that you will.

Peter said that sunset was about 8:30 p.m., so with a few hours of light left, I grabbed my map and camera and set off to explore the landscape of the western coast, eager to get a closer view of the moai we had passed on the way to Hare Swiss.

Waves were crashing over the rocks by Cook’s Point, named for famed British captain James Cook, who led the third European expedition that put in at Easter Island. The ships HMS Resolution and Adventure arrived in March 1774, in search of fresh water and food.

Nearby is an area referred to as Tahai, believed to showcase the layout of a Rapa Nuian village. Its restoration in 1968-70 was due largely to the efforts of American William Mulloy, an archaeologist from the University of Wyoming, who made numerous trips to the island over several decades. He died in 1978. A small plaque indicates the final resting place of his ashes.

It reads (in three languages): “By restoring the past of his beloved island he also changed its future.”

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The face-down moai enclosed in the rectangle in the foreground was deemed in too poor of condition to be restored to the platform of Ahu Vai Uri. In the background, far left, is the empty plinth upon which it was intended to sit.

Tahai has three ahu (stone platforms) with moai, a stacked-stone hare moa (chicken house) and remains of an elliptical-outlined hare parenga (house), sometimes described in shape as an upside-down canoe. According to James Grant-Peterkin’s “A Companion to Easter Island,” carbon dating reveals that Tahai may be where the first inhabitants of the island settled.

Among the best preserved statues is Ahu Ko Te Riku, with a cylindrical red topknot (possibly based on a male hairstyle) and eyes, two features which are absent from most of the moai around the island. The restored eyes are made from white coral, with red scoria for the pupils. The topknots are also composed of red scoria, volcanic rock that comes from a different quarry than where the vast majority of the moai were carved.

Five moai of varying height and shape comprise Ahu Vai Uri. All the statues face inland. The form on the farthest right is small and squat, and the one directly to its left is the squarest. A sixth moai was deemed too badly damaged to restore to the ahu. It is face-down in the earth nearby.

Ahu Tahai, with one lone moai, is located in the middle of the other two platforms and statues.

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Easily portable moai replicas, and larger ones too, were for sale from this friendly vendor.

A genial gentleman had set up tables displaying his wares, replicas of the moai. He was happy to explain his carvings, and there was no pressure whatsoever to buy. While touring the island in subsequent days, I saw other artisans similarly camped near entrances to the ahu and moai.

In future posts, I’ll be writing about other ahu and moai around Easter Island, theories about how the statues were transported several miles from the quarry where they were carved to their ahu, and additional historical and cultural background.

And what of the rest of Roggeveen’s voyage? He and the three ships eventually sailed past the Society Islands (now part of French Polynesia) and Samoa, and headed toward Batavia. In May 1722, a coral reef got the better of the Afrikaansche Galey, wrecking the expedition’s smallest ship and scattering its food stores.

In September, the disease-ravaged other two ships (61 crew had already died) limped into Batavia, encountering hostility from officials of the rival Dutch East India Company. Citing a monopoly breach, the Arend and the Thienhoven were confiscated and the crews arrested.

They were held until November, then unceremoniously sent back to the Netherlands, reaching home in July 1723. The Dutch East and Dutch West companies hashed out their differences, finally compensating Roggeveen and his backers for the cargo seized in Batavia.

Quick reference: Hare Swiss, Sector Tahai, www.hareswiss.com. With only three bungalows, it’s important to make your booking inquiry many months in advance. Pay Pal or cash only. Peter checks in with his guests daily, generally in the morning and evening. He can arrange rental cars, island tour bookings and occasionally guides guests himself.

Latam Airlines has the monopoly on fights to Easter Island. http://www.latam.com

To read a translation of Roggeveen’s log about “discovering” Easter Island: http://www.easterisland.travel/easter-island-facts-and-info/history/ship-logs-and-journals/jacob-roggeveen-1722/

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