Travelmag Banner

The Moai Mystery of Easter Island

Easter Island, or Isla de Pascua, is so named because the original explorer who found it did so at Easter. The native name for the island is Rapa Nui. The mystique of the moais has always fascinated me and it truly was a paradise, a land that time has forgotten. Serviced by old, one storey, early resort-style hotels it was not so much paradise lost as paradise not quite arrived.

We wandered about a kilometer into the town of Hanga Roa. Located in the southern part of the island’s west coast it’s not one of the towns on the island it’s the only town of any significant size on the island. 87% of the island’s approximate 3,500 population live in Hanga Roa. The rest of the island is inhabited by a large population of sheep.

Early the next morning from our hotel we were taken a short distance to Tahai. Here stand five moais in various stages of wear and tear and destruction. As we were to learn throughout the next two days, originally the island had 12,000 inhabitants made up of many families. Each family had an ahu, or platform, on which stood their moais. The statues are all meant to be human, not god-like. They usually look and face toward the settlement protecting it from all outside forces.

The real mystery of the island is how these behemoths were moved up to six kilometres from the quarry. Some are as large as 10 metres in height and weigh 80 tons. There are theories, one being that they were rolled on logs made from the surrounding trees. This explanation seems to be the most plausible as it would also help explain how the island became devoid of all trees. That and the devastation caused by Spanish pirates searching for hidden gold that is not and never was there has resulted in what today would be referred to as an eco-disaster. Of course you also have to entertain the possibility that these gargantuan sculptures were transported from the quarry by aliens from outer space.

Moai, Easter Island

A little north and inland to the east stands Ahu Akivi, the archaeological centre of the Roihi sector. It is a ceremonial space of particular interest for the legends that surround the seven moais there. The legend says they are the sons of a Moai sorcerer and they were sent to look for King Hotu Matua. It is amazing to accept that they left the island in search of the king, found him and gave him accurate directions back to Rapa Nui in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Really now, that would be a difficult task at best even with today’s finest GPS equipment.

We walked into town to a nearby pub for dinner and took a seat in the café outside. It was a busy little town even in the winter off season. People-watching consists of the locals driving by, the tourists walking by and the multitude of dogs filling in the gaps. The dogs are so friendly and they seem to be totally free here. Someone obviously feeds them and cares for them because they all appear to be in good health, but they were on the streets on their own all the time; just cruising around with their friends. If you were out walking at home and a pack of 8 or 10 dogs approached you’d crap your drawers but here it’s normal and it’s cool.

To diminish the power of opposing families and to destroy their temples the statues were pushed over until only one remained standing on the island during the civil war of 200 years ago. It was not until 1993 that the Japanese came to their rescue with their machinery and engineering and began restoring and standing upright some of the moais. As a result, today there are 15 statues standing at Ahu Tongariki reflecting the Rapa Nui pride and culture of days gone by.

Moai, Easter Island

The volcano of Rano Raraku is the vision of Easter Island I had before I came here; this is the spot where the moais were carved from the rock. Here over 1000 statues, some complete, some incomplete, some buried in the ground so only the head is visible were never transported and I’m sure never will be – after all no one knows how to do it. Modern methods would not be able to traverse the mountainous terrain.

Our final stop on Easter Island was Anakena Beach. Even though we suspected that it might be a little cold we decided that we absolutely had to swim in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the navel of the world. It was a beautiful, warm, 72 degrees F day, the sun was shining, there were people in the water, now how bad could it be? Well, it was freezing cold! After mere seconds my feet were beginning to numb and gave me the sensation that this wasn’t so bad after all. Complete hypothermia could not be far behind.

Moai, Easter Island

A return to Tahai concluded my island visit. As I followed the path I realized I was going to be far from alone watching the sunset. It was quite obviously a prime location for this activity and I took my seat on the ground in front of the moais. The sun would very conveniently set in a kaleidoscope of colour behind these stunning silhouettes. I could not have orchestrated a better end to our visit to Easter Island. It quickly began to look like a drive-in movie as more and more people arrived. Men, women, children and dogs all arrived to partake of nature’s ultimate spectacle. No one left disappointed.

More from this author at

Moai, Easter Island

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines
Asia Pacific