Among the swells at Easter Island, Rapa Nui

Reading countless books about 16th and 17th century sea expeditions, I became inevitably drawn into the mystic and spellbinding history about one of the planet’s most isolated place: Easter Island. Visiting Rapa Nui (the Polynesian name of the island) was very high on my short list of places to see during my journey. In fact, I came to realize that the round-the-world trip probably was just an excuse and a construction to justify coming here. An island which is otherwise so much out of the way from Europe. Still, I had to go to great lengths and persistence to find the best deal for an airline ticket including Rapa Nui as stopover.

Landing in Hanga Roa at Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Being part of Chile, the national carrier LAN Chile is the only airline flying to the Isla de Pasqua (the official Spanish name). The very helpful and friendly staff of LAN Chile at the Auckland city office in New Zealand spent most of an afternoon with me, by punching in routes and alternative itineraries to search for the best bargain deal. When I mentioned to them that I wanted to stay for at least a week, they shook their heads in disbelief and asked me whether I was an archaeologist. Because nobody would spend more than three days on this small island, which is 24km at its maximum length and 12km at its widest points. Nevertheless, I settled for a booking which allowed me to stay twelve days.

Landing at the airport of Hanga Roa, the only town on Rapa Nui, was the most electrifying moment on my journey so far. I was both reluctant and excited. Would Easter Island live up to my expectations or was this just another dull tourist trap? However, knowing about the measurable fact that only 40’000 tourists per year would visit this island, was a strong indicator that I probably would not have to deal with “Sausage and Sauerkraut” or “Fish and Chips” shops along resort-laden beach strips.

All this went through my mind when I passed customs and immigration, where I was greeted with a smile. I’ora na. Welcome. Sometimes back in Perth (Australia), I was told by another backpacker, that there was no need to book the accommodation in advance on Easter Island. Locals would hang out in the arrival hall of the airport promoting their home-stays. This information turned out to be spot on. While waiting for the luggage belt in the terminal to spit out my Rucksack, I wandered along the makeshift stalls of various residencias, ending up in renting a room from an old, charming lady.

Days later I found out that I probably struck gold with Cabanas Vaianny, the place owned by my old, charming lady. Other tourists with advance bookings shelled out more than twice as much as I did – sometimes for worse rooms. I also got a better deal than staying at the HI-Hostel, which charges almost the same for a dorm bed with shared bathroom. Having my own bathroom certainly is a bit of luxury. But when I tried to haggle with my old, charming lady about the fact that I did not really fancy a private shower, she replied “but I cannot take out the plumbing”. She gave me a small discount, anyway, since I stayed so long.

The included breakfast is so substantial, that most guests wouldn’t want to miss it. In fact, the resulting chit-chat around the tables in the morning is entertaining and informative. Plans for the daily excursions are being laid out, previous day’s experiences shared. And hints and tips for our next travel destinations being exchanged.

Moai at Tongariki

A lot of Easter Island’s history remains a mystery up to these days. Such as the time when first inhabitants arrived in Rapa Nui. Still being debated by archaeologists, it depends on the reading material, when this event happened: During the 4th century (Thor Heyerdahl) or the after the 8th century – according to most of the scientific community. Recent dating of the Moai statues suggest an even younger settlement, starting around the 12th century.

As if this uncertainty wasn’t enough, the reason for erecting the total of 887 statues is speculation: They might have been a representation of deceased ancestors, a powerful clan chief or important status symbols of parts of the tribes. After being discovered by the European explorers, namely a Dutch expedition which spotted the island on Easter Sunday 1722, the history of the Moai’s started to become traceable. At that time, most – if not all – statues were still standing. Later expeditions noted that some of the Moai’s had been toppled. Finally, a report of the year 1868 finds no more standing statues.

Consequently, in the few places where upright statues are in place, these have been erected in the 20th century by various archaeological teams. A visit to the Antropological Mueum in Rapa Nui during the third day of my stay, further helped to clarify most of the cultural and historical backgrounds of the Moai, Ahu (ramps covered with evenly sized stones), stone walls & houses and petroglyphs – all of which are scattered around the island.

On the other hand, part of the social heritage is known due to oral testimony. For example, the various tapu (taboo) in place. People who broke them would be severely punished. One of them allowed fishing only during certain months. Outside of these dates, fishing was tapu. This had the goal to ensure enough food supply for all the Rapa Nui people. Other tapu were in place to maintain hierarchical orders. Despite these rules, the island has been largely deforested over time by the indigenous people. This and probably the inevitable food shortage of the ever growing population had led to various tribal wars between the 16th and 19th century.

The era after the building of the Moai statues has been shaped by the cult of Tangata manu. The cult of the bird man. Each year, selected competitors from each clan would have to swim from the cliffs near Orongo to Moto Nui, a nearby island. There, they would collect the first egg of a local bird and bring it back to Orongo. This race was dangerous and contestants were regularly killed by falling down the steep cliffs, drowning in the harsh sea or by shark attacks. The winner would become the Tangata manu and his lineage would be the only one in the right to harvest from Moto Nui that year. This cult persisted until the late 19th century.

My same day visit to the makeshift cinema, where the movie Rapa Nui was shown, helped me to put most of the seen and learned historical and cultural aspects into a social context. Although certainly controversial in terms of accuracy, it certainly also helps to explain and understand the beginnings of the societal collapse.

However, it would be plain wrong to blame the Rapa Nui for the decline of vast parts of their heritage. Unsurprisingly, the European colonization was again a shameful factor easing the cultural loss here. For example, Peruvian slave traders made a raid on Easter Island in 1862, taking over a thousand skilled men to work in their mines on the Chincha Islands. The result was a huge loss of knowledge, such as the Rapa Nui writing. Today, the historical tablets featuring the beautifully drawn native written language are simply undecipherable.

Anakena Beach

Due to the length of my stay on the Isla de Pasqua, I took a slow approach in hiking to all of the various sites. I did not want to run out of places to see too quickly. During our daily ritual around the breakfast tables, I would make up my mind where to go and what to see. This is where I met Fabiano, a Brazilian student who was on his way home from Tahiti. There, he stayed for five months, working in various water sport related jobs. During his stop-over on Rapa Nui, he was successfully selling the goods he purposely bought beforehand to get some extra money. Among these goods were five surf boards, four of them he sold.

Since we both found some spare time in the late afternoons, I went one day with him and his surf board to Punta Baquedano – one of the surf beaches at Hanga Roa. I did rent one of his boards that he sold the day before to the local sports shop. This is how I got my first surf lesson from a very patient Fabiano. I did learn how to surf the swells mostly like you’d expect from me: Hesitating and clumsy. But I had tons of fun learning this new sport and drinking salt water.

It had to take a guy bringing a surf board literally to my door step to finally convince me to realize an idea that foolishly had stuck in my head for two months – since my visit to Western Australia: Trying out surfing. As a side benefit, this proved to be a great way to meet locals. Most of them were anyway eager to get to know the crazy old man which they had spotted in the swells as he was manoeuvring unskilled and clunky on his board – on the easiest part of the bay. Which leads to why I learned a couple of phrases of the local language in a short time – but that is yet another story to tell one day.

After a three days, my Brazilian teacher had to fly home as planned. Currently, I am still staying on the island with my new local mates. They continue to give me hints and tips how to take certain waves. And I still fail sometimes miserably – toppling like a Moai into the water.

However, by the end of this week, it will be my turn to leave this great island full of mystery, history, culture, nature and very fine and friendly people. Melancholic? Not an inch! I’ll be hiking around the island and enjoying life among the swells. Until they call my name at the boarding gate of Hanga Roa airport.