A week on the most isolated island in the world
Easter Island is a long way from everywhere. On planes, I like to look at the map to see which part of the world I'm flying over. But on the journey to Easter Island, the map was empty. Just sea, for two and a half thousand miles from Santiago to the island.
The flight had been overbooked and this had led to me being upgraded to business class. This was very nice, but it meant that I was the first person off the plane, and the airport was small and ramshackle. It was not obvious which building was the terminal building, and I had a moment's fear that 300 people were going to follow me into a storage shed or something. I was extremely relieved when I picked the right one.
So once my four friends who I was travelling with had found their way off the plane from back in normal class, we headed straight out to see some moai. In Santiago it had barely rained since October but here it was humid and drizzling when we got to Ahu Akivi.
It's always strange going to places that are so famous. Everyone's seen thousands of images of the moai and it makes it feel like a weird kind of déjà vu to actually be there in front of some of them. And somehow they weren't as incredible or mindblowing as I thought they would be. The island has such a mythology about it that I suppose you feel like you're going to be blown away the moment you see a moai, and it's hard for anything to live up to that kind of expectation.
We drove up to Rano Kau. The rain had cleared and it was hot and sunny. From up here you could see pretty much the whole island. Rano Kau is supposedly long extinct but there's a photo from 100 years ago showing steam coming out of a hole in the crater wall, so the magma can't be too far below the surface. Today it was all quiet, no steam, and no people up there except for us.
We drove up the east coast of the island. All along the shore there are groups of moai but most of them are unrestored. All of the standing moai on the island have been put back up - every single statue on the island was toppled for reasons unknown after the Europeans arrived. I thought the toppled moai were pretty poignant. Some of them were unbroken, which surely must mean they were put down carefully rather than pushed over. Others were broken into pieces. When they were standing, apparently all the moai had red topknots carved from different stone. At the toppled moai, their topknots were lying scattered on the ground.
We got up at 5am one morning to go to Tongariki, the largest group of moai on the island. The sun rises behind the moai here so it's a popular place to go at dawn. There were 8 or 10 carloads of people here along with us to see the sun come up.
For the first few days I'd been a bit underwhelmed with Easter Island. It didn't seem to quite live up to its hype. But as time went by I was getting more and more enchanted with the place, and here at Tongariki came the mindblowing moment I'd been expecting. As the clouds began to light up with the approach of dawn, the silhouettes of the 15 massive statues looked incredible. I realised that this really was a spectacular and special place.
We decided to climb Maunga Terevaka, the highest point on the island. My four friends went on horseback, but having never been on a horse in my life, and having a somewhat delicate back 10 months after having fragments of a ruptured spinal disc removed, I decided I'd walk up. So I drove to Ahu Akivi, found the start of the trail, and headed up. It was a hot sunny day but there weren't many people around. In the end, the only people I saw on the trail were my friends coming down - they'd reached the top quite a bit before me.
The summit was amazing. The entire horizon was sea, Pacific Ocean in every direction with no other land except the bit I was on. I couldn't imagine living on such a tiny speck of land. I felt oppressed by how small it was already and I'd only been here for 4 days.
I watched the sun set from Maunga Terevaka, and then headed back down the trail. By the time I got back to Ahu Akivi it was getting dark and the stars were coming out. There was no-one else there. I hung around for a while to take some photos.
In the darkness, the moai were quite spooky. I felt like it was somehow slightly sacrilegious to shine my torch on them in the night, but I had to keep checking that they hadn't moved. It seemed totally possible that they might, and it began to feel like at the very least they were watching me disapprovingly.
But I braved their disapproval to take some photos of the stars shining over them. And then I quickly packed up my things and headed back to Hanga Roa before they could come to life and chase me away.
We went to see Rano Raraku, where moai were born. They were carved out of volcanic rock at this quarry, and then depending on who you believe they were either rolled across the island on tree trunks, or brought to life by shamanic magic so that they could walk to whichever ahu they were heading for. I liked the shamanic magic theory. It was pretty stunning to see hundreds of moai dotted across the hillside, half out of the ground as if the magic had run out too soon.
On my last night on the island, I went to Ahu Tahai to see the sun set. Tongariki is the spot for sunrise watching, and Tahai is the spot for sunset. It was a good time of year to be here - the sun set directly behind the statues if you were standing in front of them. It was another amazing sight. It had taken me a while to really feel the magic of Easter Island, but by the end of the trip I was sure I would be back.