This is almost the remotest place on earth. 1500 miles of empty Pacific Ocean between here and, well, anywhere. Tristan da Cunha is the number one for isolation – it doesn’t even have an airport.
We flew in overnight from Papeete, arriving in the early morning, and I knew at once it was going to be like nowhere else I have ever visited. We stayed in a tiny but lovely – in a primitive way – b&b overlooking the huge rollers tumbling with surfers, rented a 4×4 and started exploring.
Easter Island is a World Heritage site, and not exactly unvisited even though it’s hard to get to and hugely expensive once you have managed the journey. So the tour minibuses roll up and disgorge visitors to photograph the maoi on their sacred ahu platforms – we followed suit and the first set of giant stone figures I saw, silhouetted against bare, low green hills, gave me that Mona Lisa moment. As when you stand in front of the real thing, having seen it a thousand times before in reproductions, and say to yourself, Uh, yep, that’s it. It’s satisfying, but it’s hard to ignore a niggle of anti-climax.
Briefly, then, the very best day we had was when we headed away from the buses and the archaeologically restored sites to follow a faint track around the island’s deserted north coast, from the bay of Anakena where the two canoes from an unknown Polynesian destination arrived about 1300 years ago and human colonisation of Rapa Nui began. It’s fifteen miles from Anakena back to Hanga Roa, the island’s only ‘town’. Town has electricity and piped water – nowhere else does. Apart, probably, from the extremely upmarket ‘adventure’ destination of Explora, hidden somewhere inland, catering for very rich people who don’t want their feet to touch the ground.
In a whole day’s walking we saw no one, and only one remote farm building, apparently deserted. The sense of wilderness was absolute. The bleached bones of wild horses lie where they had fallen. The sea is navy blue, the cliffs busy with seabirds. And everywhere we walked we were stepping over ruined villages. Sometime in the eighteenth century, the Rapanui civilisation catastrophically fell apart. For centuries these isolated tribes had dedicated their lives to ancestor worship, carving and erecting immense statues of their dead, but the natural resources of their paradise were running out and they had come to the brink of starvation. As far as scientists can tell, tribal warfare broke out and the hundreds of maoi that had stood watch over the villages were all pushed over, so their eyes blinded by earth instead of gazing to the horizon. In time, the surviving people were carried off in Peruvian slave ships. Only fifteen ever came back.
European explorers arrived, of course, and eventually the archaeologists and anthropologists trailing their theories. As a teenager I read and was fascinated by Thor Heyerdal’s persuasive stories. Some of the maoi were pieced together, bodies and heads and their proud red rock hats or topknots, and were hoisted once again on to the ahu altars. The villages were partly excavated and restored so visitors can marvel at the long-gone boat-shaped houses, even their underground chicken coops. It’s all intriguing and impressive, but our walk through the untouched ruins of the windswept north coast outstripped all this.
We passed upturned faces, seeming to smile at the sky. We stepped around decapitated torsos and giant heads, and great topknots that had rolled away to rest in thickets of grass. There were the neat cobbled platforms, with wild horses roaming across them, and the heaps of stones that had once sheltered tribal chiefs. To me, the lost people felt much closer and more real than in the tidy display sites.
Once the Rapanui had an elegant script that has still not been deciphered, and a sophisticated society and belief system. Above all they had the ability to quarry rock and carve statues of breathtaking size and mysterious power, and then to transport the huge finished pieces across the island and to set them upright. On another day we visited the quarry at Rano Raraku where all the soft rock for the statues was excavated. The statues were carved on their backs, faces first, and chipped away from the sides until they rested on a keel. When the fronts were complete the keel was broken and the statue tipped upright to stand in a pit so the back detailing could be completed. Then somehow they were hoisted and trundled to their village standing point. The quarry still contains nearly 400 maoi, partly completed, as if the work just stopped…one day…and completely abandoned. All this was achieved without metal – the island is volcanic – without the wheel, even without pottery. It defies comprehension, really. My breath is still taken away.
The day of the Anakena walk happened to be my birthday.
It won’t be forgotten.