Easter Island

Kelly Wright
Thu 7 Jan 2010 15:35

Travelogue 3:  Easter Island (June 29, 2009)


We finally limped in to Easter Island after a two-week voyage that should have lasted just 10 days, but was extended by the slow speeda necessitated in handling our fragile  rig.  Within the first 36 hours after our arrival at Easter Island we moved to four different anchorages as the wind kept shifting, and there was no protected harbor for us (there was for smaller boats).  Within a day technicians arrived to replace the six defective turnbuckles with new ones, and all is now back in order with the boat.


Easter Island is known to its approximately 4,000 inhabitants as Rapa Nui, its original Polynesian name, although Chile formally refers to it as Isla de Pascua (Easter Island in Spanish).  The population is divided about evenly between people of Polynesian descent and the “continentes”, or hispanic Chileans from South America.  Also, of course, there is a good number of people of mixed ancestry.  I only ever heard Spanish being spoken, even among those of Polynesian ancestry, although I did not meet many Polynesians.  A continente told me that relations between the two groups are good.


This island is totally tourist-based – that is, there is no other industry.  There are a few fishermen and orchardmen and gardeners but I was told they do not export and all their production goes to feed locals and tourists. One of the great limiting factors is that there is no source of freshwater other than rain.  Fortunately for the Easter Island Chamber of Commerce the US built a runway at the airport as a possible landing place for shuttle missions, and there is a small NASA base here (although staffed by scientists from the University of Chile, a continente proudly informed me).  The size of the runway allows big jets from Santiago and Tahiti to land here and so tourists abound, along with tourist shops.  Everyone comes to see the famous “moai”, or long-faced humanoid statutes carved by the Polynesian inhabitants centuries ago.   


There are a total of 887 such statues -- although half are still in the quarry at Rano Raraku -- all of which are cut from porous volcanic rock, so fairly easy to carve with the stone tools the carvers were limited to.  Average height is 13 feet tall and weight is about 10 tons, with the largest successfully erected statue (in the quarry are some larger but never erected) being 32 feet tall and about 75 tons, and the smallest about six feet tall.  All the statues represent high-ranking ancestors and resulted from the island’s division into 11 or 12 clans and the resulting one-upmanship between the clans.  There is probably some religious significance in them, too, and we overheard one guide at the quarry conjecturing about their sexual symbolism.  The island is about 13 miles long by 7 miles at its widest.  All the statues faced inland towards the clans’ territory.  The ones seen today were re-erected by the local government to foster tourism, after the native islanders toppled them a couple of hundred years ago when their society collapsed and anarchy reigned.


Best guess is that the island was discovered by Polynesian settlers about 900 A.D. and was the easternmost colony of the amazing Polynesian settlement of the Pacific that stretches all the way to Hawaii in the north and to New Zealand in the South.  Population here grew until it reached about 15,000 in about 1500, again according to the best guess of archaeologists.  Later the society collapsed and after European-introduced diseases had killed thousands, and another approximately two thousand were captured and taken as slaves to work in the mines of Peru, population tumbled to about 120 at its lowest.


During their heyday, the islanders used logs – thousands and thousands of logs -- to move the statues from the quarry to the ultimate sites.  Islanders also used their supply of trees to construct their dugout canoes, in construction of buildings, for firewood, and – unusual among Polynesians – to cremate their dead.  Such extensive use of the island’s timber resources finally led to the island being totally deforested, to the extent that the islanders could no longer produce boats to go to sea and fish (the islanders also made extinct 24 of the 25 bird species on the island), and no longer even had firewood, so that their society collapsed and fell into anarchy and even, due to widespread starvation, cannibalism. 


Then the Europeans arrived and dealt almost a death blow to the entire Polynesian ethnic group, mostly due to the spread of disease, especially smallpox.


Not a happy history, and doubly tragic because Polynesian people as a whole are some of the most gracious and generous people in the world.  One of their traditions here on Easter Island that is very curious was the Birdman competition.  Every spring the one species of bird that had not been wiped out, the sooty tern, came to nest not on Easter Island itself but on a small islet a half mile or so off the southwest corner.   Representatives of the clans then competed to see who would be the first person to climb up and over a volcanic crater several hundred feet high, then down a cliff into the sea, swim to the islet, climb up the harrowing cliff – I’d estimate it is 75 feet high at the top – and steal an egg, then return until reaching the crater again with the egg intact.  That person then became Birdman for the year and was considered next to holy – tapu in their language – and lived in honored seclusion until the next birdman was chosen.


Now everything has degenerated and you find cute hispanic girls in plastic fake-grass skirts doing Hawaiian luau dances to Don Ho music for the gringo turistas, and most of the young hispanic men sporting Polynesian long-hair, similar to Japanese samurai, and tattoos of Tahitian motifs.  There have been efforts at some reforestation, and even attempts made to reintroduce seabirds, though the latter have failed.  We understand that fishing is not great either, and one restaurant owner we met claimed there were none to be bought except an occasional tuna caught far offshore.  I ate out twice and asked for fish at a restaurant and was told at each all they offered was tuna ceviche.


Also the lack of freshwater except for rain runoff causes problems for the many horses that the Chileans ride about the island, and for the several score cattle that we saw grazing on hillsides, and we heard that all the grazing animals are unhealthy because of poor forage and a lack of consistently water. For energy one would think they should use wind generators as there is plenty of wind here – and we did see a small one for a bathroom facility on a beach -- but the sole source of energy is a big generator in the main town, Hanga Roa.  I heard that authorities feared that big wind generators would detract from tourism. 


From a cruising sailboat’s point-of-view there is not much to recommend Easter Island due to the lack of anchorages and facilities and gear for boats, the shifting winds, the high expense of provisions and services, and the Chilean bureaucracy.  However, one thing Easter Island excels in and that is photo opportunities taken ashore with your boat in the background and the giant moais in the foreground.  With the sun in the proper location and properly framed, there are some world-class shots that would honor any office wall lucky enough to support them.  We anchored just off the largest assemblage of moais, where 15 stand just up off the shore (and in 1960 were knocked around by the same tsunami that destroyed Valdivia on the mainland), and we were able to land the dinghy and hike among the moai and other ruins and over to the nearby quarry and the volcano crater of which it is a part and take some truly outstanding photos.  We also spent several days off a beautiful half-moon sand beach with palm trees and a smaller collection of moais.  The wind blew like hell at both anchorages, but we deployed a second anchor and used an anchor alarm when windspeeds reached 25 knots, and felt the effort was well worth the beautiful scenery.  Walking among the hundreds of heads at the quarry was highly interesting and almost moving in its peculiar mix of beauty and tragedy.  Some of the moai are exquisite works of art.


The island itself is composed mostly of volcanic mountains and plains in between, so that as a whole it is quite photogenic.  The shore line is mostly composed of jagged lava beds with only a couple of small sandy beach areas.


The first night here we faced the worst dinghy landing site I have ever seen, with about a five foot surge that would pick the dinghy up and then just drop her with a big slam while we were trying to climb up a ladder that led to the landing.  All this was in the pitch dark between rain showers that bedeviled us all that evening.  That night and the next morning we had to load the technicians and their boxes of equipment at that landing, and it was always a great challenge.  John did a good job handling the dinghy, keeping her in gear and shoved up against the face of the landing, even though the dinghy itself was flying up and down.  Later, the only time we got really wet was in a flat calm with no wind but the Pacific swell was still rolling, and coming out of the main harbor at Hanga Roa a six-foot-high swell broke just as we approached and showered into the dinghy, soaking us.


Another positive attribute of Easter Island for me is that I really like Chilean people, even the slow-moving bureaucrats, as everyone seems good-natured with smiles on their faces, and eager to help.  Easter Island is not an exception, like Isla Robinson Crusoe seemed to be at first, and is full of good, friendly folks.  We always felt safe there with hardly a thought about theft or security, and it was always easy to talk to the locals.


One amusing story:  On the day I began the tedious check-out procedure, I was standing in the Chilean Navy office waiting for paperwork when a youngish mom and her about 8-year-old daughter came in and the mother began chatting with one of the officers.  The little girl was visibly upset, with puffy eyes and an unhappy disposition.  The officer led the pair out onto a veranda overlooking the main harbor of Hanga Roa and talked to them, directing his attention mostly to the little girl.  It turns out the girl had heard a rumor that a tsunami was headed for Easter Island and she was scared, and the officer was assuring her she was safe.  Later we learned that a Chilean psychic had recently predicted such an occurrence and the news media had been spreading his forecast, causing consternation among the unsophisticated.


We also heard from a continente couple, Mario and Cecilia, who we hired as guides, that Easter Island has been hit rather hard with H1N1 flu cases.  Mario and Cecilia, by the way, came out to our boat for afternoon coffee one day and brought us Chilean sopapillas which are similar to the Mexican sort we are accustomed to but flat and covered in molasses, as well as frozen mangoes and frozen guava juice for our voyaging.  They are about our age and devout “adventistas” – Seventh Day Adventists – but a lot of fun, really cut-ups, both of them, and quite knowledgeable about many different subjects.  Mario recently retired after a 30-year career in the Chilean navy.


Meeting them and others and relaxing for several days in succession without any worries, enjoying the fascinating hike to and around the quarry, and seeing other interesting sights, all make me about half-way reluctant to leave Easter Island.  But we have spent eight days here and must be moving on.


We have traveled a bit over 2500 nm, and our next stop will be Pitcairn, about 1100 nm to the WNW.  The voyage there should take less than a week if we have wind and we maximize use of our sails.  We are used to going slow, though, so we might still sail undercanvassed for awhile until we build up confidence in the rig and our ability to handle it.  We are starting out in very light winds.


One final thing I would like to mention is when in future someone asks, “Where were you the day Michael Jackson died?”, we the crew of Anna have earned the right to boast, due to the rather exotic nature of the location, that we were on Easter Island.  We are even more likely to boast, however, that we were able to totally avoid the incessant reports and speculation about Jackson’s death that you poor folks, back in the real world of celebrity fixation, are forced to endure.