Easter Island Travel Story - Backpacking in the South Pacific

We expected the stone heads or Maoi to be the main attraction as we flew the five hours from Santiago in Chile to Easter Island . Little did we expect that there would be so much more to one of the world's most remote islands.

Five hours across open water, not in a struggling turbo-prop, but in a very modern Lan Chile 767, focuses the mind upon one of the tiniest wonders of the world. Isla de Pascua or Rapa Nui , as it is also known, is 3900km from Chile and 4050km from Tahiti , so finding a tropical Guernsey , thousands of miles from anywhere, is a surprise to the senses.

The land is deforested, but lush and green, tamed as opposed to wild. The similarity with a Channel Island ends with the lush tropical foliage, lava strewn coastline and the heavy Polynesian air. The mystery of the place makes it impossibly special and secret. Even the Lan Chile life-line dropping in for an hour three times a week on its way across the Pacific makes the place seem more remote, instead of better connected. It is hard to grasp the remoteness and isolation, especially in such an alluring and friendly place.

The people of Rapa Nui used their resources to carve the massive stone Maoi from volcanic rock. Various tribes on the island erected hundreds of the stone heads, each were different and all beautiful and enigmatic. They were brilliant to me and the delight in seeing them never faded. Today they are positioned standing proud and restored, just as they would have been, but also savagely toppled and abandoned at many coastal sites, cruelly left face down and often cracked or broken. Some, sadly, never left the quarry, but now half-hewn examples form a particularly impressive sight.

The islanders appear to have fallen out of love with the heads as fast as they were built and feuding tribes are said to have pushed the heads over in rage as the cult of building them waned. The sites left strewn with face-down maoi and their bright red top-knots flung as if made of a far lighter material, are far cry from the upright heads of the picture postcards.

But to me these ruined sights were a particularly delicious surprise and tell us much more about the cult that engulfed and almost destroyed the islanders' way of life. A wall built with Inca style precision also adds to the wonder and mystery surrounding the island and especially the question of how it came to be inhabited.

The local people were ridiculously friendly and we ended up getting to know quite a few of them, our stay of a week, a lifetime compared to the people who just hop in and out on the way to Australia or Tahiti or both. We attended a big party thrown by the islanders in a cow shed cum disco. Thanks to the Chilean government, many of the local teenagers get to go to university in Santiago and the Chilean Air Force pick them up by plane once a year and drop them back in summer.

We had spied the air-force plane at the usually deserted Mataveri airport for some time and wondered what it could be for. Lan Chile usually the only connection with the outside world, although the airport is capable of accommodating the US Space Shuttle after the runway was specially extended by Nasa!

The students' send off, needless to say, involved lots of drinking and dancing with the locals. Much to the delight of my friend, all of the students' families were there and the mothers kept asking me to dance, in such a way that you couldn't really say no! The next day there was some sort of tropical typhoon, so we didn't have to feel too guilty about having a hangover on a precious Easter Island day. We did open the door to take a photo of the sulky sky at one point and drenched our entire hotel room in seconds.

We were lucky enough to hire a jeep and a local ( Chico ) to drive us to the most remote (well, as remote as it can be on such a small island) peninsula of Poike , to discover its hidden delights! We enjoyed crawling in lava caves and visiting seldom visited parts of the island. We would be driving across a meadow type field and then suddenly pull up, Chico would get a torch out of the boot and lead us to some tiny hole-in-the-ground entrance to a cave.

We would climb in through the mud in torch light and turn up at some amazing view of the aquamarine sea, through huge lava-bored windows. Chico and I had a few problems getting into some of the caves due to our height and my friend was left unimpressed as she had worn a skirt for the impromptu pot-holing expedition. We had that feeling of being somewhere that we should not be, for the whole time that we were there!

We discovered that the eastern end of the island was sandy red, as deep and evocative as anything in the red centre of Australia . This was a hidden delight for me and the smell of pine forests and the glinting treasure of obsidian strewn across the floor almost made me weep! A pink coral sand beach at Ovahe made a perfect spot for lunch.

Driving to the highest point on the island, there was a rather flimsy looking tripod put there by NASA to measure something in space, but that was overshadowed by seeing a perfect 360 degree view of the whole island, the Pacific beyond and amazingly, unmistakably the curvature of the earth.

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