Easter Island (Rapa Nui or Isla de Pascua)A visit to the most isolated place on earth
December 18-22, 2003
The nearest speck of land is Pitcairn Island about 1200 miles (1900 km) away and it is 2300 miles (3700 km) west of South America. Easter Island has been a territory of Chile since 1888. I was told that the population is about 3,700 people.
My basic Spanish was enough to get by in, but most people I met spoke better English than I spoke Spanish, as well as some French and the local Eastern Polynesian Maori dialect, Rapa Nui. I reconized many words that were the same as New Zealand Maori words, and one of my guides, Tomy, said that the two languages were so closely related (like Spanish and Portuguese, he said) that when he visited New Zealand, he was able to hold very slow conversations in Maori.
The flight from Papette was about 5 hours long and there was a 5 hour time change (Easter Island is on Eastern Standard Time), so it was 11:00am when we arrived. The weather was a comfortable 29°C (85°F).
The runway at the Mataveri International Airport (Chile's longest) is an alternative landing site for the Space Shuttle (the US Space Program paid for an extension to the existing runway to make it suitable for the Shuttle).
Getting through Customs was a breeze and I was met outside the small airport by a man with my name on a small sign (as well as 3 other names). He was from the tour company and would take us to the Hotel Matavai (next time, I'll just take a taxi for 1,000 pesos because Hanga Roa is so small and easy to navigate). I was the first one at the van, but I was quickly joined by Dasan & Dagmar from Prague. They were both government workers, Dasan worked in Prague, and Dagmar was in Bruxelles working for the EU (she is originally from Slovakia). They had also been in Tahiti and were going to spend a week on Rapa Nui before heading back to Tahiti for some more tropical relaxing.
After a long wait, two others showed up and we were on our way to the Manavai Hotel. Boom had told me that his friend Benjamin owned it and I quickly met him upon arrival. He was a really nice man and spoke excellent English. He told me that there was a screening of the movie Rapa Nui at his bar that evening (Co-produced by Kevin Costner). He said it was a pretty good movie, but the writers had taken some liberties with some of the facts (like the fact that the Birdman Competition era did not overlap with the Moai carving era).
I checked into Room 16 ($68 USD per night), and headed up the road to Rapa Call, the internet cafe. For an hour it was $5 USD (less if you pay in pesos. The conversion was about 570 pesos per dollar at this time). On my return walk, Boom (a man I met on the flight) pulled up in a mini-van with his nieces as well as their cousins from Easter Island. He told me to hop in as they were just about to go for a small sightseeing tour.
We left town on the road near the harbor and drove down the rocky road towards a cave known as Ana Kakenga (Dos Ventanas in Spanish, Two Windows in English). There wasn't a sign or anything that made it obvious where the entrance was, but there was a small car park as well as a small off-shore island that was the tip-off that we were in the right place. Kenny (one of the kids) was the first to the 1-metre-square hole in the ground. There are a few smallish steps and then just a square hole. I was the last one into the cave, and none of us had a flashlight. I just put a hand up above my head to feel the ceiling and used my foot to figure out which way to go. The passage is very easy and mostly flat for about 6 metres then a bit of light starts to infiltrait the cave from the far end (a flashlight is not necessary: I crawled in there twice without one, but it would make most people more comfortable to be able to see in the small passage). The cave is an ancient lava tube that ran a few metres underground until it reached a cliff. The "end" of the cave is a drop off into the ocean (there is a split in the flow channel, thus two openings or "windows").
After 20 minutes or so, we drove back to Hanga Roa, then out to see the seven Moai at the Ahu Akivi site.
There was a tour group there and we listened in as the guide told about these seven Moai. Except for these Moai, all the rest of the statues on the island are looking inwards, to the center of the island. These seven are thought to represent seven explorers that look to the sea.
Boom had to get the kids back to town, so we drove back into Hanga Roa.
Hanga Roa has a small harbor just at the end of the road near my hotel. I went down there to watch local surfers riding some waves (about head-high, breaking onto rocks on some parts).
My jet lag kicked in and I fell asleep before dinner (and the movie) and did not wake up until 8:00am the next morning.
Tuhi, our wonderful tour guide easily transitioned between Spanish and English, while a second guide took care of the Japanese tourists.
I started talking to Tammy and Kelly, sisters from Vancouver. Tammy was currently teaching in Colombia, and knew the ex-girlfriend of a guy I work with in New Zealand. Small world...
After the tour I took a nap, then met the Canadian sisters at The Fisherman, the best restaurant in town. It is located near the dive shops just down the hill from the Manavai Hotel where I was staying. The sign on the roof says "Restaurant La Taverne Du Pecheur", and it is operated by a Frenchman and his wife. I was told that he had the best fresh tuna in Hanga Roa, and I found that to be true.
Tomy is in his mid-thirties, with a lovely wife, Elizabeth and two small children. They run a local tour company called Toki Tours out of the Matavai Hotel that is owned by Benjamin, his brother.
Tomy lived in the USA for 10 years, worked at LAX, and was educated in Hawaii that BYU campus. His english was excellent, he was interesting to talk to and was an excellent guide. I appreciated that he wanted to know what I was looking for as a photographer, and had suggestions and photos of different parts of the island. For sunrise, he suggested the ffifteen Moai at the Tongariki site, about a 20-minute drive from the village.
We arrived at the site just before sunrise and there were only about 4 other people there. The sunrise was disappointing as far as photography goes, but it was a wonderful experience to watch the light change over the moai as the day broke. A distant rain storm passed in front of the sun just as it broke the horizon, so there were no spectacular light shows as there are on many mornings...
Tomy and I arrived back in town at about 7:30am and I had a shower and breakfast before another tour bus picked me up at 9:00am for a full-day tour. We worked our way back to the same fifteen Moai, stopping at various sites that had historical siginifigance.
Just behind the fifteen Moai was the main rock quarry for the Moai. We visited it and saw lots of Moai in various states of completeion. There were ones that had their heads carved, but still remained in the rock walls, there were ones that had been removed from the quarry and awaited more carving on their backs, and there were completed Moai waiting to be transported to a site. All of them had closed eyes, meaning that their eye sockets had not yet been rounded out for the white eyes that would be mounted once they were put into place (when the white eyes are put in place, the Moai "awakens").
At the top of the quarry is a surprisingly large "reed lake". I don't think any of us expected to see that the quarry is one of the three major craters on the island, and I certainally wasn't expecting a lake...
After enjoying the view for a little while, the group descended and had lunch at the bottom of the hill. There were two delightful New Zealanders on the tour, Scott & Maureen from Auckland. Scott and I talked a lot about engineering and physics (he is one of only a few Nuclear Physicists in New Zealand; a Nuclear-Free nation)
We also visited the quarry where the "Top Knots" are mined from, and the Moai site of the seven explorers.
That evening, Kelly, Tammy & I had arranged a ride up to Orongo with Tomy to watch the sunset.
After that, we drove northeast to the highest point on the island, Maunga Terevaka (elevation: 507 metres above sea level).
A light rain shower started as we left the high point and we descended a rough road to the east to have lunch at the secluded Ovahe Beach. When we got there, the wind was howling directly on shore, so we found a small campground with some shelter just inland.
Next, we headed to Ana O Keke, a small cave on the north side of Poike, just below Vai A Heva on the far east side of Easter Island. We climbed down a cliff and crawled into an old lava tube that was kind of muddy from the rain earlier that day. The cave only went back about 10 metres or so, and never got high enough for any of us to stand up.
A taxi took me to the airport for a peso, and I checked in early, securing a window seat all the way to Buenos Aires. Afterwards, I went back to Rapa Call to send a few e-mails and I ran into Booom again. I gave him my contact details because he said business might take him to New Zealand in the next few months and he'd look me up if so...
Once again, I got my film hand-checked at the airport and waited in the departure lounge while the place was unloaded of passengers, refueled and loaded back up again.
The five-hour flight to Santiago was pretty uneventful and I slept most of the way. Luckily, I awoke just as we crossed the Chilean coastline. The Andes were visable on the horizon with some of the higher mountains having snow on them. The approach to Santiago was long and slow and the sky was hazy from some fires in the valley.
I had a 4-hour layover and mostly just programmed on my laptop and listed to some music to pass the time.
My Lan Chile flight left at 23:30pm headed for Argentina.