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Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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Easter Island: The eyes have it

| The Sunday Times online version | PDF version

 

I will never forget my first glimpse of Ahu Tongariki. We were driving the clifftop road on the eastern margins of Easter Island, near the Poike peninsula. The sun blazed, herds of wild horses roamed the headlands and, far below, big waves smashed against red rocks. Suddenly, a bend — then the statues, 15 colossal moai looming up along their panoramic platform, stony-faced soldiers on parade. This must be one of the wonders of the world — but that afternoon, we were the only people there.

Easter IslandOne thousand years ago, when they were raised, Easter Island’s stone sentries were less inscrutable. “The moais had eyes,” explained Beno, my guide that day. “The last thing our forefathers did when they erected a statue was to carve the eye sockets and insert the eyes they had already made from coral. This was a special moment, when the ancestor’s mana, his soul and spirit, leapt back to life.”

Easter Island! I have been longing to go there for half a century, ever since I picked up Thor Heyerdahl’s great travelogue Aku-Aku — his account of sailing a balsawood raft 3,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to the world’s most isolated chunk of rock — and couldn’t put it down. It poses fascinating questions. How did the islanders get here, and where was their home? How had their giant totems been carved? How did they grapple them into position? What did they signify? And, above all, why had a 1,000-year-old civilisation, capable of such artistic greatness, collapsed into a civil war so vicious that its people ended up eating each other? By the time Heyerdahl visited, not a single statue was left standing. Something had gone disastrously wrong.

Easter Island'How on earth did your people get the statues to the platforms?' I ask. Beno smiles. 'Maybe they walked on their own.' Since reading Aku-Aku I’ve travelled all over South America. I have seen Machu Picchu, the Galapagos, Patagonia, the Amazon rainforest. But Easter Island remained elusive. Then I read Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse, the opening chapter of which resembles a detective story.

It is all about the strange events at Easter Island, and how the gobbling up of scarce resources virtually destroyed a once flourishing society. Collapse has become a textbook for the environmental movement, and I longed to visit the scene of the crime — to investigate first-hand. Rapa Nui, the “Big Island” of the ancients, is a speck in an awful lot of sea. It’s a miracle that those prehistoric Polynesian canoeists found it in the first place.

Today, it has 4,500 residents, one bank and one petrol station. If there were a road encircling the coast, it would stretch just 40 miles. There isn’t. But you can ride, hike or explore by 4WD, and the team from the Chilean-owned Explora travel company devised a plan that went to the very heart of the island’s mysteries.

Perhaps the most striking thing about my stay was the passionate young men and women who showed me around — almost all can trace their families back to the island’s original 11 tribes. Beno, a descendant of tribal kings, leads me to Rano Raraku, the quarry where nearly all the moai were made. Nearly 400 unfinished monoliths sprout from their mother volcano here, a nursery in stone. We hunt for the largest moai ever carved — all 69ft of it. It doesn’t take much finding: the head alone is more than 20ft tall.

“How on earth,” I ask Beno as we sit on the hillside, gazing out to sea, “did your people get the statues to the platforms?”

He smiles. “Maybe the moai walked to the platform on their own, using the mana.”

Nobody has really unlocked the secret of Easter Island. Did the islanders cut down trees to make rollers to move the stones? Did that cause the island’s deforestation? And did the loss of resources lead to clan conflict, even cannibalism? At one point, the population fell to a mere handful from a peak of 15,000 or more. Yet Rapanui such as Beno are proud of their heritage, and understandably reluctant to sign up to the Jared Diamond theory, which blames the islanders for their own demise.

On my last day, I visit Orongo, the ceremonial village where Rapa Nui’s birdman competition took place. After the disastrous upheavals of the past, the island’s elders decided on a new method of electing a king. Each year, they gathered at this clifftop village beside the crater of the Rano Kau volcano. Each tribe chose a champion. Eleven young men then swarmed down the cliffs, swam a mile out to the islet of Motu Nui and waited for the arrival of the sooty terns, which year after year migrate here in their thousands to nest.

The first to find a newly laid tern’s egg would race back through the waves and scale the rocks to the top of the crag, carrying the egg on his forehead in a special pouch. Once the presiding priest had certified that this was indeed a sooty tern’s egg, the chief of the victorious tribe was proclaimed king, a position he held for the next 12 months.

My guide this afternoon is Nicholas, a young Rapanui whose grandfather helped Thor Heyerdahl to raise upright one of the fallen moai.

“So the leader of the victorious tribe became king,” I say. “But what was the reward for the young champion who found the first egg?”

“Each tribe brings a virgin to Orongo before the competition,” Nicholas explains. “The winner gets to choose one of the virgins. As a matter of fact, he can have all the virgins, as long as he can find a way to keep them. That is his privilege.”

He speaks of this extraordinary ritual as if it happens still. Easter Island’s totems continued to be chiselled into the 17th century, almost to the time when the first Europeans arrived, bringing smallpox and slavery. The last birdman competition took place less than 150 years ago. And when my plane takes off for the mainland after three engrossing days and nights, I feel I have only scratched the surface of the place.

Stanley Johnson travelled as a guest of Journey Latin America and Abercrombie & Kent

 

Stanley Johnson will be talking about his travels to Easter Island and Chile at 4 Hamilton Place, London W1, on October 13 at 6.15pm. Tickets are free but limited; call Journey Latin America on 020 8747 8315 or email events@journeylatinamerica.co.uk

 

Getting there: LAN Airlines (0800 977 6100, lan.com) flies to Easter Island from Santiago or Tahiti (useful for round-the-world trips); return flights from Santiago start at £439. From January 22, 2012, LAN will launch a twice-weekly service from Lima; from £355. Flights from London to Easter Island start at £1,300, via Madrid and Santiago, with LAN and British Airways.

Where to stay: Explora (00 56 2 395 2800, explora.com), a Santiago-based operator, offers three- to eight-night guided programmes on the island, based at its slick new lodge, from £1,445pp, full-board, including transfers.

Tour operators: Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315, journeylatinamerica.co.uk) has four nights at the Explora from £3,891pp, full-board, including flights, transfers and excursions. A two-week trip — eight nights in Peru, visiting Lima, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and four on Easter Island, at Explora — starts at £4,899pp.

A 14-day itinerary marrying the island with four nights in Patagonia and four in the Atacama Desert starts at £4,985pp with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2121, abercrombiekent.co.uk). Or combine Easter Island and the Atacama with the Salar de Uyuni salt lake in Bolivia; from £4,245pp.

 

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