Saturday 18 January 2014

Rapa Nui


Easter Island: the final destination on our Pacific Island Moon, and what an island to end it with! A tiny speck of land in one of the most remote inhabited locations. The island was so different geographically to the majority of the islands we had been to more recently, but quite similar to parts of Hawaii's Big Island. Amazing to think that the Polynesians navigated around the Pacific in outriggers using only the stars, the currents and wildlife to find new land. At our camp site, our tent was a few metres away from the surf. It was awesome to watch the sunset and crashing waves on the first night that we arrived and to go to sleep with the sound of the ocean. 

We decided to do one dive during our time on the island and were lucky with the weather conditions. The dive was incredible purely for the visibility. We could see at least 50m in the water. Underwater we saw a (modern) Moai which had been sunk as a tribute and as we swam a big silvery Jack and some rainbow wrasses faithfully followed us along as our companions, which was fun. 

On our final night and day we hired a motorbike to go on a Moai exploration. In the evening we drove up to see one of the Volcanic craters. It was a pretty spectacular site. Further along the road we saw the spiritual area where the people of Easter Island used to follow the Bird Man ritual. As we looked down and out to sea we could see the island that the men had to swim to in order to compete in the Bird Man Contest. There was something about the area that really had a powerful presence and it was awesome to be there completely alone, after the park had closed. 

At 6am on the final morning we woke up and jumped on the motorbike to ride in the dark across the island. As we reached our destination there were only a few other people waiting. We were all there to see the spectacle of the sun rising behind 15 Moais at Ahu Tongariki. It really was quite special to see their distinctive features come to light in such a spectacular location. As the sun rose, the moon was still bright in the sky. It was a full moon (Wolf Moon) which indicated to us that it was our lunar anniversary. Ty and I continued our Moai hunt and somewhat unintentionally punked into the quarry where the Moai were all carved from the side of a volcanic crater.  The rangers hadn't opened the gate to the park yet, but we followed some trails up onto the outskirts of the volcanic crater- Rano Raraku- to see the perfect light illuminate so many faces on the hill side. This really was a magical morning on a mystical island. 

The Moai are just awesome.  Yes, they're the stuff of childhood fascination - with their intensely mysterious origins and eerily unimpressed expressions casting eternal thousand yard stares.

Of course the Moai were what I was most excited about seeing - no doubt.  But the real interesting thing that captured my imagination about this island is just how totally extreme the experiences of the civilisations that grew and existed here over the last 1000 years have been.

The very fact that the island was found in the first place boggles the mind - it's so impossibly far remote from where the Polynesians might have set sail from.  And when they arrived, there could not have been much regular trade with other nearby islands or archipeligos - there are no neighbours for thousands of kilometers.

And it's amazing to think that the people here thrived and developed great technologies allowing them to allocate immense surplus resources to build the hundreds of Ahu and Moai that were moved across the island and erected.  All at the expense of the island's natural resources, perhaps - not very Pono at all, it might seem.  But that, too, may be trivialising the situation a bit - who knows what happened in the last 300 years or so when the Moai production halted and the existing Moai were all destroyed and pulled down in generations of warfare as the land became insufficient to sustain the people?  The population plummeted, and new systems like the bird man cult emerged to bring some sort of order to the embers that remained. Truly apocalyptic.

Even at the time when the first European visited, on Easter Day 1722, most of the Moai seemed to be standing and the land fully cultivated - even though the trees were already gone and the population had already been in decline.  By the time Cook visited in 1774, all of the Moai were destroyed, and he described a society in warring shambles.  Things only got harrier into the 19c when slaving ships from Peru arrived and missionaries got to Work.  Things even seem a bit fiery today now as in 1990 and 2009 islanders barricaded the airstrip with rubbish and old cars to protest against the Chilean government's policies.  Could the arrival of the Europeans have been some sort of a catalyst to the spiralling of the situation?  I am in no informed position to speculate at all, but what is certain is that this young volcanic island has been host to some intense human experiences.

It's been fascinating and humbling to visit this farthest corner of Polynesian settlement.

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