The lips are compressed, the nose raised high. There’s no mistaking that look: the face in front of me is decidedly disdainful. And given that this particular face is well over two metres high, that’s a lot of disdain. I remind myself not to take it personally. After all, this face has been looking unimpressed for at least 500 years.
When you look at images of Easter Island’s amazing stone heads, they seem to be nearly identical. Standing in front of them, however, you realise that not only are they bigger than you had imagined, but each one also has its own personality. Next to the grumpy face glowering down at me is a more serene face. Further up the hill is an even happier chap, who seems about to burst into a big smile.
Ready for another surprise? All of Easter Island’s heads – including these specimens littering the slope near the island’s quarry – are attached to bodies. It’s just that, in many cases, they are buried beneath centuries of built-up dirt. Elsewhere on the island you can see these monumental statues as they were meant to be seen, erected on huge stone platforms, backs to the sea, keeping a protective eye on the island.
Rapa Nui – the native name which the locals still use for both the island and the people – is a place filled with surprises. Visitors who come here to admire the mysterious statues will be surprised by how many of them there are – almost 900 in total – and also by how much more there is to see and do on this tiny scrap of land, which measures just 24 kilometres from tip to tip. There are 2000 archaeological sites on Rapa Nui, from stone houses to ancient petroglyphs, not to mention lovely crater lakes and white sand beaches.
One of the most enjoyable things about Rapa Nui is how laidback the visitor experience is. Once you have paid your entry fee to the national park, getting around the island is easy, and I rarely encounter more than a handful of visitors at any of the sites I visit. So it’s something of a surprise to learn that Rapa Nui is looking for ways to clamp down on tourist numbers. It has already reduced the length of time visitors can stay, from 90 days to 30; other measures are still under discussion.
The numbers help explain the problem. Rapa Nui is one of the most isolated places on earth; the nearest major land mass is the South American continent, five hours’ flight away. With no permanent rivers or streams and virtually no agriculture, almost all necessities come in by ship. Not only has the island’s population doubled in the last decades, but the annual visitor count has skyrocketed from 22,000 in 2003 to more than 100,000 per year.
That puts an immense strain on the island’s resources. To minimise electricity usage, clocks have been permanently brought forward, which means that in winter the sun doesn’t rise until 8am. Waste disposal is also an issue. More than 20 tonnes of trash are produced each day, but the island has only one rubbish dump and one recycling facility; much of the rubbish is crushed, stacked and shipped to Chile, the country which governs the island. And if that wasn’t enough bad news, there have been reports of tourists damaging the statues by climbing on top of them. That adds humans to a long list of threats that includes coastal erosion and lichen, which is eating away at the stone faces.
Despite the many problems associated with tourism, locals are still welcoming visitors – at least, those who have a genuine interest in the destination and are looking for more than a selfie opportunity. The island’s history and culture are fascinating, not least because so much of it is still being fiercely debated.
We know it was Polynesian settlers who erected the mighty moai, although it is unclear when the first settlers reached this remote island – many experts think it may have been about 400CE. We know that they had a complex society; they were the only Polynesians to develop a written language, and they dedicated immense resources to erecting the moai.
We know that teams of carvers worked at the Rano Raraku quarry, where several uncompleted statues can still be seen. One impressive specimen, known as El Gigante, would have stood more than 21 metres long when completed, and weighed about 170 tonnes. It seems likely that the locals realised at some stage that the moai was going to be too heavy to move. The Rapa Nui had only rudimentary technology, and how they moved the statues is yet another fiercely debated topic, although a combination of wooden sledges, log rollers and ropes is currently the most popular suggestion.
There is much more that we don’t know. We don’t know why the moai were first erected – the common theory is they represented revered ancestors who were believed to watch over the island – or why the islanders stopped building them. What is clear, however, is that the island’s “discovery” by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen in 1722 was a disaster for the locals. Over the next century, slave raids and epidemics decimated the population and wiped out the literate elite – also erasing much of the island’s history. By the time the late 1800s, the local population had been reduced to a pitiful 111 survivors.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that local activists succeeded in winning a measure of autonomy for the islanders, including basic rights such as the freedom to vote and the freedom to live where they chose. Today, local pride in Rapa Nui culture is evident. The guides who lead me around the islands are all locals, and they take great pleasure in sharing the history of their people. Some of the sites are spectacularly beautiful: the crater lake of Rano Kau, housed inside an extinct volcano, is one of the most exquisite.
Some of the most fascinating sites are hidden from plain sight. Beneath the surface of Rapa Nui lies an intricate network of underground caves and tunnels formed aeons ago by superheated lava. The caves hold an important place in Rapa Nui culture: according to local legend, when the first settler, King Hotu Matu’a, arrived on the island, he chose a cave near Anakena beach as his first home.
Many of the caves had ritual significance, some were used as birthing chambers, others as burial places. Where tunnel roofs had collapsed to let in the sun, the islanders used the sheltered spots as greenhouses, planting sweet potato, bananas and taro that can still be seen today.
Many of these caves and tunnels can be visited, and the most popular is Ana Kakenga, known as the cave with two windows. You will need a guide to find the entry point, which is essentially a hole in the ground; the first section is narrow but the tunnel soon widens out into two chambers, each of which ends in a “window” where the lava poured into the sea below. The views out onto the ocean are dazzling.
Also worth seeing is Ana Te Pahu, part of an intricate network of caverns and galleries that was used as temporary housing in times of strife. A natural reservoir fills with rainwater that provided islanders with water; they also erected small walls for defence and built stone ovens.
Equally intriguing are the stone houses at the clifftop site of Orongo, which is also known as the Birdman village. After they ceased making moai, the Rapa Nui developed new customs, of which the annual Birdman competition – to choose the island’s leader – is the best known.
Competitors had to climb down the 200-metre-high cliff face to the sea and swim out to a large rock called Motu Nui, the nesting place for hundreds of sooty terns. They had to retrieve one of the birds’ eggs, swim back and scale the cliff again – all while keeping the egg intact. More than a few competitors fell to their deaths or were attacked by sharks, but apparently that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the local males.
Perhaps my favourite site is Ahu Tongariki, where 15 moai stand on a platform by the coast, their backs to the sea. Each of these statues was erected by one of the island’s clans, and each one is clearly differentiated from its neighbours. Some are tall, some short; some have broad noses, others have noses that tilt upwards. One of them carries a striking red stone atop his head, depicting the way that powerful chiefs would decorate their top knots with red mud.
These moai did not always stand so proud. Back in the 1960s, a powerful tsunami washed them off their platform and across the island. It was a Japanese business tycoon who funded the mammoth effort to have the statues restored to their perch, an eye-wateringly expensive exercise which involved shipping in a giant crane to lift the statues into place.
Did you know
The name “Easter Island” came courtesy of Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who arrived on Easter Sunday in 1722.
Take me there
Fly: The only airline that flies to Rapa Nui is LATAM. LATAM offers direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Santiago, with onward connections to Rapa Nui. Return flights from $2035. See latam.com
Stay: Explora Rapa Nui is hands-down the best place to stay. This environmentally friendly resort (made with recycled wood and using natural air flow rather than air conditioning) offers a wide range of activities designed around cultural and natural immersion, from hikes and bike trips to snorkelling. Activities as well as excellent meals – and accompanying Chilean wines – are included the rate. From about $720 per person, per night. See explora.com
Drink: Easter Island has its own brewery, Cerveza Mahina. See facebook.com/mahinarapanui
Explore more: chile.travel/en/where-to-go/rapa-nui