The mysteries of Easter Island

After a strenuous sail we were eager to unlock the mysteries of Easter Island (Rapa Nui in Polynesian). Easter Island is the inhabited island, the second furthest away from civilization. When you consider that the nearest civilization (over 2000 km away) is Pitcairn with 47 inhabitants, to say that we’re in a remote location is no understatement. Due to there being no properly protected anchorages, you always have to keep one person onboard the boat, in case the weather shifts and you need to lift anchor and move to another part of the island. This was a bit of a bummer, because it meant that all 4 of us on board could never be ashore at the same time. So it ended up with Helge and Camilla exploring one day, and then Margrethe and I the next.

The first thing that struck us when we came ashore was the Polynesian feel of Hanga Roa (the capital and main settlement on Easter Island). Though both Panama and Galapagos were nice, there is a warmth to the people here that we immediately felt. Unlike in French Polynesia, people here speak Spanish, and it has a good mix of South American and Polynesian vibes. This wasn’t always the case, as the locals have been treated horribly in the past, but more about that later.

Margrethe and I decided that we wanted to see the island and what better way to do it, than by going on a roadtrip? It quickly became apparent that Moai would be a focus point of the roadtrip. The Moai are the famous Easter Island heads.

It should also come as no surprise that the Moai represent some of the mysteries of Easter Island. We know very little about the origins of Moai. We talked to guides, locals and tried to read up on history and to be honest the results are a bit baffling. Estimates of when the heads were made range somewhere between 400AD to 1400AD, so a solid 1000 years of uncertainty. It’s difficult to carbon date rocks, so it’s tough to find out when the Moai were carved. We also don’t know how they were moved. Here theories range from rolling them on trees, to them walking themselves, to believing Mana (a spiritual/magical/mystical force) moved them. The latter theory is what the locals believe in.

The reason we don’t know how and when they were made is that there are no written records to explain what happened, and because the local people died out before their oral tradition could be written down there is little to work with, except speculations and theories. We don’t even know how the locals died out. Theories range from that they starved to death from using all their resources on creating the Moai, to the more plausible that when westerners discovered the island in the 1722 they unwittingly introduced new bacteria and viruses to the island, that the locals immune systems were not able to cope with. The Peruvians also did a real number on Easter Island, when they in the 1860’s sent slavers here that rounded up 90% of the population and took them to Peru to work as slaves in their mines. When the Peruvians were forced to release them and send them back only 5% of the original numbers came back, the rest had died.

Chileans haven’t treated them much better and in 1955 when Thor Heyerdahl came to Easter Island to do excavations, he helped put focus on how horribly the locals were treated. This is only 60 years ago and back then the locals were not allowed to leave the then fenced in Hanga Roa and there are incidents where Chilean warships showed up, the crew went ashore and raped any local they could get their hands on, with no fear of repercussions. Luckily that changed, when the World started focusing on Easter Island and Chile was forced to treat the locals better.

Our roadtrip was a real joy. We were surprised at the large amount of free ranging horses and cattle, both whom you’ll find pretty much anywhere on the island. The scenery on the island is volcanic, with a number of volcanic cones visible. The island is only about 25 km long, so it would be a quick affair to drive around it, if there weren’t so many nice spots to stop. Our favourite spot was Rano Raraku, where they carved the Moai. It was a magical place, The pictures at the to pare from there. Below you can see pictures from other great stops we made in Ahu Tongariki, Anakena and Ahu Akivi. In most places the Moai face the village or inland, but in Ahu Akivi they face the sea.

We also went for a nice hike up to and along the Rano Kao crater, which looks unlike any volcanic crater I’ve seen before. Inside the crater looks the swamps of Mordor. On one end of the crater lies Orongo, a ceremonial village used for the annual birdman competition. To be honest I read about the birdmen of Rapa Nui in Donald Duck, so I was a bit surprised when my most accurate knowledge of Easter Island came from my childhood reading. It has now been confirmed 🙂 The birdman competition happened once a year and started when the chiefs of the different villages or their champions competed to race down the very steep (read: almost vertical) 300 meter cliff into the ocean. They would then swim to the nearby Motus islands, where the first one to collect a seabird egg and bring it back up to Orongo would become the birdman for the following year. It’s not as easy as it sounds, because if they survived the sprint/climb down, the swim out to the islands were in shark infested waters and sometimes they needed to wait for days or weeks, for the first egg to be laid. They then had to get the egg back to the top in one piece. This sounds a lot more exciting than sports nowadays, but sadly the last time they held the birdman competition was in 1867.

In San Blas we met Jonathan and Claudia on the boat Inti. We’ve kept in touch with them and knew that they had sailed here over two months ago, because Jonathan’s sister Elise lives on Easter Island with her husband Claudio (a native to Rapa Nui). Jonathan and Claudia lifted their boat out of the water and were busy doing maintenance when we arrived.

That’s Jonathan, but the boat with the shark painted on its bottom is luckily not Inty. When we showed up, they took a little time off from “fun” boat jobs, to hang out with us. Elise and Claudio have over 300 horses and when they invited us to come along on a riding trip, we jumped at the chance. Jonathan and Claudia picked us up in a beat-up truck and drove us to Elise and Claudio’s amazing ranch on the northern slope of the biggest volcano on the island. There we were given a horse each and told to saddle up.

What followed was a fantastic horseride along the coastline together with Jonathan, Claudia, Elise, Claudio, their daughter Nomi. Our destination was a cabin overlooking the ocean, where Claudio caught fresh fish and we made a tasty BBQ. We spent a few hours there before we rode back, stopping by a volcano tube cave on the way. Margrethe was a more confident rider than me (it must be her farming background). I succeeded in not making a complete fool of myself, by hanging on for dear life.

When we first came ashore in Hanga Roa, Margrethe noticed that there was a football field across the street from where we tied up our dinghy. Through the jungle telegraph she got invited to come and play with them and was able to show off some old skills. Margrethe had to admit that a bumpy passage wasn’t the optimal preparations for a football match, but she had a lot of fun.

The weather on Easter Island has been really good while we were here, but good weather doesn’t always translate into great anchoring conditions. The biggest challenge we’ve been faced with is that the anchorages are very exposed, so it’s been quite rolly on anchor. The good thing is that the Navy lets you know if the conditions are worsening, so that you can switch to another anchorage. We were anchored off Hanga Roa for a almost a week, before we moved to Vinapu on the south side of the island when the winds and currents become too northerly. Then when conditions improved, we sailed up to Anakena, the only beach on the island, to anchor there. It felt pretty good to be the only boat anchored off the only beach on the island.

Rapa Nui is amazing on land, but the water is equally impressive. It has without a doubt the best underwater visibility I’ve ever encountered. When we anchored I could actually see the anchor chain on the sand over 22 meters below us, that’s how clear it was. Helge and Camilla got in a couple of excellent surfing sessions on a few spots around the island and we were able to go freediving together right off the transom on Stella Polaris.

Our last stop before Rapa Nui was the Galapagos, where the visibility was to put it bluntly: shit. This was not the case in Rapa Nui, where the water was crystal clear and we could see up to 60 meters underwater. The only challenge was that compared to Galapagos there wasn’t much sealife here, but interesting rock formations and cool terrain, still made it fun. We were anchored right next one of the “must see” dive spots, so of course we put on our fins and went looking for the underwater Moai.

We felt like we’d barely scratched the surface of everything there was to see and do on Rapa Nui, but we came a bit closer to exploring the mysteries of Easter Island. We had a fantastic time there and were very impressed with the island and the people. It was definitely worth the tough sail to get there.