South America: Easter Island

If you rotate a world globe, there's one point when all that is visible is the Pacific Ocean. Look for a dot of land in the middle of the most empty expanse of water and you'll find Easter Island.

No place on earth is further from its neighbours than Easter Island. From Hanga Roa, the island's only town, you'll travel more than 2000 km before you hit the closest land - and that's far-from-cosmopolitan Pitcairn Island where the "Bounty" mutineers lived undisturbed and undiscovered for decades. Politically Easter Island is part of Chile, 3600 km away; culturally it's Polynesian.

Despite its remoteness, everyone has heard of Easter Island because of its giant statues that have been used to hang theories as diverse as alien construction works (Eric von Daniken) or South America's influence in Polynesia (Thor Heyerdahl). Even Kevin Costner recently used its history as a parable for global ecological destruction in "Rapa Nui".

Easter Island is the perfect subject for such conjecture because when the first Europeans arrived the population had been already decimated by civil war and all the statues had fallen (or had been pushed) down. Today, there are about 2500 people living on the island, nearly all along the dusty streets of Hanga Roa township, adjacent to the airstrip. Few are descendants of the original inhabitants and most of the island's oral history is lost. It has been fertile territory for academics and theorists who can propound any bizarre theory without fear of contradiction.

Over the years, I've read "Chariots of the Gods" and "Kon-Tiki" and seen some television documentaries about Easter Island but, like most of the world, I avoided "Rapa Nui" without regret. Even so, I arrived with no clear conception of what the island would be like.

The first surprise was the airstrip: the runway is four kilometres long and in perfect condition - for it's an emergency landing strip for the US Space Shuttle. However, its perfection leads to a bedraggled passenger terminal indistinguishable from others around the Pacific.

Another development from NASA's interest in the island is advanced telecommunications that enabled me to download e-mail from our $30 per night guest house. Such technology stands out in a place where, until three months ago, television news was flown in from Santiago on videotape and shown one week old. Most of the 2000 islanders didn't notice or care.

Anyone who has visited Fiji or any other Polynesian island will immediately feel at home on Easter Island. In fact, Polynesia and Spanish "mañana" come together here, resulting in an atmosphere even more laid-back than sleepy Samoa or tranquil Tonga. It would be a worthwhile holiday destination if there weren't any statues. However, even by the standards of travel literature hyperbole, its original Polynesian name of Rapa Nui meaning "navel of the earth" is pitching its pre-eminence rather too strongly. Then again, its residents would have only had rare visitors to let them know that this tiny island wasn't the only inhabited dry land on the planet. Even in the mid 1950's there was no airport and the island was resupplied from Chile just once a year.

Easter Island is roughly triangular, with a volcano in each corner. It's a fertile, subtropical island about 24 km long by 12 km wide that once supported about 7000 inhabitants. After civil war took its toll in the 18th century, Peruvian slave traders moved in and captured a large proportion of the survivors. The few slaves who later returned home introduced syphilis and other diseases and the decimation of the population continued. By 1910 there were only 131 Easter Islanders left.

No matter where you go on the island, you'll see the statues (more correctly called "moai" while the platforms they stand on are "ahus"). There are some 600 figures scattered around the coast, many partially hidden in long grass. Until now, visitors have had to be content to view shattered remains lying below the platforms on which they once stood, a few rather sterile reconstructions made in the 60s, or the figures abandoned in the quarries where they were being carved - drifting soil has covered their torsos and given them the appearance of disembodied heads leaning together in eternal discourse.

However, after three years of Japanese-funded work, a most impressive row of 15 statues has been almost completed by the sea at Tongariki. Only the red stone hats lie to one side awaiting the money needed to put them back in place. Some researchers believe these "hats" may really be hair pieces. That's big hair indeed - some topknots weigh up to eight tonnes apiece. It's worth the effort to come to the island, just to see this single collection of giant figures, the tallest of which is more than 10 metres high.

These carvings represent various chief's notable ancestors so they don't all look alike and only a few resemble Malcolm Fraser. Indeed, I saw a shorter one with a passing resemblance to John Howard. Sadly, earnest investigation revealed no Whitlams, Keatings or Hawkes. And, despite the islanders' past fascination with extended ears, Billy McMahon was one recent Australian liberal Prime Minister not on display.

As every visitors seems to get one free shot at guessing what the statues all mean, here's mine. It's an extreme example of the "farm holiday syndrome". You know, when you stay on a friend's farm for a week to get away from it all but after a few days of each others' company you're so bored that you start building kites or commence major excavations to dam the creek.

The people who settled Easter Island succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams in getting away from it all. The island was fertile enough to provide an easy living so there was time for a remarkably complex society to arise. Carving giant statues at a single inland quarry and rolling them many kilometres down to platforms by the sea would certainly have filled in the days and provided a rock-solid basis for inter-family rivalry. Too bad the island was eventually denuded of trees (they were used as rollers). Then when the noble families finally ran out of money, the carvers simply downed tools, leaving the last figures standing or lying in the quarry. This is known as The Nursery and it's one of the strangest places in the world, where giant eye sockets peek at you through the grass, broken stone bodies litter the slopes, and every rock ledge reveals partial carving of the features of heads, hands and belly.

When the statue culture had run its course, the locals simply concentrated on the birdman culture practised elsewhere in Polynesia. Once a year, everyone would gather at the cliffs at the southernmost tip of the island and a champion from each clan would take part in a race to clamber down to the sea, swim across to one of three tiny offshore islets and return with the egg of a sooty tern. The chief of the winning clan became supreme chief of the island for the year. Visitors can still see intricate mortarless stone houses at the site and the rocky cliffs are covered in petroglyphs, strange symbolic drawings that reveal the same active imagination as the moai.

The first Europeans to visit the island observed that every house had wooden tablets covered in a strange hieroglyphic script known as "rongo-rongo". "En masse" the quaint rounded figures look rather like an orgy of gecko lizards. Few tablets now survive and no-one ever found out what they meant or how they could be read.

Easter Island is a destination that visitors leave with more questions than answers. Since mid-1996 Air New Zealand has offers direct services, so we can expect the island's popularity to grow for visitors from this side of the Pacific. It's an affordable destination with a good climate, hospitable local people, and grand volcanic scenery. On top of that , it is one of the world's most enigmatic places where one can simply sit and watch the sun set over giant stone figures and wonder what really went on here over the past few hundred years?

Facts

Air New Zealand flies from Sydney to Easter Island (via Auckland and Papeete) every Friday. The service is operated by Lan Chile from Tahiti and continues to Santiago, returning the following Thursday. Make sure your onward flight is confirmed for Lan Chile is notorious for overbooking its Easter Island services.

Except in peak season (December-February) one is best advised not to pre-book accommodation. Every lodge owner comes down to meet each flight and will offer a nightly rate far below the net rate they offer Australian travel companies. The few hotels on the island are basic and overpriced: much better value are the 'residentials' or lodges. We stayed at Maria Goretti Lodge on the edge of town which cost $US30 per night for a large room that was clean, had an ensuite bathroom with unlimited hot water, and a verandah leading into a beautiful garden. Ask for Maria when you get to the airport or call her on 223-459.

There's no public transport so you must take an organised tour, hire a Suzuki 4WD for $90 per day, or a 200cc motorcycle for $40 per day. Your lodge can arrange any of these - or there are several hire companies operating along the main street.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd