Easter Island unearthed and on the cheap

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, digs a little deeper to uncover the mysteries of the Moai of Easter Island

8 mins

I’d spent a couple of days hanging around Hanga Roa waiting for a guide to take me around Rapa Nui (Easter Island), so I could have someone explain all the sites to me. But my guide kept having something else come up, and finally I was tired of waiting, plus no one really knows the precise history of Easter Island anyway.

There are theories, and I’d read about many of those at the local museum. Science has taught us about a transition in the ecosystem and a colossal near-extinction, and excavations have given us facts, but the memory of what exactly occurred on Rapa Nui is unclear. The island was once healthy and green. Later, Moai were quarried, sculpted, and moved long distances. There was war, but was it due to environmental catastrophe or something else? The Moai were knocked over, and only a small number of residents survived. The majority of people here now were descended from settlers who arrived later.

That didn’t stop anyone from presenting ancestral dance and culture programmes. I watched, and considered these might well be original to Rapa Nui. After all, there had been survivors. Or the dances might have been brought ashore by migrants from nearby Pacific island cultures. I enjoyed watching, either way.

And when I could no longer stand waiting on the guide, and had done all the sightseeing I could by foot, I hired a car and headed off one morning with only my guidebook for company.

I first drove around near the airport, where a Moai head peered up at me out of the ground. That was a little startling, and then I drove across the island, stopping at all the best-known Moai sites and some of the lesser-known ones too. At the far end of the island, wild horses roamed Anakena beach and sniffed around a row of seven Moai here at the former camp of Thor Heyerdahl, the famed Norwegian explorer.

I followed the coast on the only road on this part of the island, and swung around to Tongariki, home of 15 standing Moai. These had been restored in the 90s. All standing Moai on Rapa Nui had been restored – not a single one of them had been left erect during the conflict here in the 18th century.

After driving along the rocky, rough, and stunning coast of Rapa Nui all day, I headed to my last stop. The quarry. This is where the Moai rock had been quarried and the sculptures carved. This is often the final stop on tours, and so I’d made it mine too. The quarry is undoubtedly the most dramatic Moai spot on the island. Dozens of incomplete and partially buried Moai litter the grassy slopes here. And how did the Moai find their way all over the island? Local legend says they walked. Many people have tried to make miniature Moai or reproduction Moai walk using a system of wood and ropes to inch them along. Other people say the Moai moved on rolling logs. The truth is we don’t know. At least not yet.

Rain started to drizzle on me at the quarry, and I finally headed back to Hanga Roa, after a long and satisfying day.

I still had the car the next morning, so I dragged myself out of bed at 5:30 to head to the far end of the island for sunrise…

...and got a hazy, overcast day.

But the clouds parted just enough for the sun to peek through for a few minutes. I enjoyed the moment, stopped a few times along the coast on the way back to town, and then learned I was up much too early for anything to be open. I headed to Ana Kai Tangata, a cave with some bird paintings, before stopping back in town for my morning coffee. I kept an eye on the time. I had to return the car to the rental agency on time.

I’d really enjoyed hiring the car. Aside from my car hire in Western Australia, my round-the-world trip had included many months of sitting in taxis and buses. Travelling on my own schedule felt great, and I liked being alone in the car.

But I wasn’t going to be alone for long. I had to gear up for company. My flight back to Tahiti was tonight. And once there, I’d have a night in Papeete, then would board the Aranui 3 freighter for two weeks of living in a dorm. There would be no alone time.

Leaving Rapa Nui felt a little weird, like I'd just started to figure out this little-town-turned-tourist-attraction and then it was time to leave.

My adorable French-Rapa Nui host family left me at the airport with a Rapa Nui feather charm that meant I was destined to return.

"Je vais rentrer," I said clumsily pretending I spoke French. They smiled politely.

Maybe they even understood my terrible accent. 

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