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Easter Island: sculptures by the sea


The only thing I knew about Easter Island, was the moai.

You know, the big head statues, that were sometimes standing up all in a row, or surging out of a grassy slope. My ignorance also led me to assume that the moai places were more or less nearby.

That was the first shock – they weren’t. They couldn’t be, you see. The island had been divided between different Rapa Nui clans, and each clan erected their own moai platforms, or ahu.

I also assumed that Easter Island was small. As in, walkable small. It kind of looked like a manageable speck in the Pacific Ocean, and there was only one town.

But the paved roads and the many cars zipping up and down them was my first hint that the island may not be as walkable as I believed.

I considered the situation. I figured I was too broke to rent a car. Yet, I would quite like to visit all the platforms – or at least the ones with a row of moai rather than just one statue.

Never mind, I had a week. I could start exploring with a simple coastal walk towards the nearest archaeological site, Tahai.

Easter Island Moai

The Scenic Route towards Tahai

My Airbnb sits south of the only town on Easter Island, Hanga Roa. I would pass by it again, on the way to Tahai.

I had ventured into town already the previous day, to orient myself. So for the second time around, I decided to avoid the high street, taking the meandering roads that hugged the rocky shoreline.

The sea was fitful, dashing itself with speed repeatedly against the jagged black rocks. The rim of the coastline foamed and eddied ceaselessly in between the volcanic rubble. But the sky was a clear blue, the grass cheerfully green, and the wild horses nosed in the garbage cans and cropped the verges.

The sun was bright and blazing overhead. Nonetheless, I could not quite part with my all-weather jacket. It was windy on Easter Island. Not all the time, but the wind was cool enough to make me shiver without.

It was confusing to a child of the equator such as myself. It was a hot day! The wind shouldn’t be that much cooler than the air!

The unsustainable eco-hotel

En route I passed home lots overlooking the sea, and in the distance saw a sort of ceremony. It looked official. Perhaps some kind of local function, or visiting dignitary.

All I knew about Easter Island was that the people had driven themselves extinct, by cutting down all of their trees, then presumably outgrew their island to tragic ends. Indeed, the island is in fact unusually barren.

But actually, the descendants of the moai builders are still there. The Rapa Nui are not all gone.

Walking on, I spied in the distance a series of low buildings. Crouched into the earth, they looked almost like mounds, hardly distinguishable from the ground. Grassed on top, and blending into the topography, I wondered if it was a form of sustainable architecture. I would bet that it had features such as rainwater capture and incredible insulation. How wonderful!

There were banners and flags along its perimeter. Curious, I wondered if it had just opened.

But as I drew closer I noticed something odd about the flags. They all seemed to be the same colour. Black – not really a festive choice. The banners were protest banners. Even with my limited Spanish, I could work out the complaint. The hotel was an ‘intruder’.

I later met a Rapa Nui artist, and thought to ask what was going on. He said that the hotel was German-owned, that it was approved by the Chilean government. But the fact that it was neither Rapa Nui owned nor even Chilean, was not accepted by the islanders.

Ahu Mata Ote Vaikava: the bonus moai

Ahu Tautira is a solo moai that presided over the cove of Hanga Roa, where the jetties (and dive shops) are. It was close to the high street, and consequently the first one I came upon. I knew I would pass by it again, since I was keeping close to the coast.

But I had not come upon the town yet, and here was a moai, erect upon its crumbling platform. Its shining white eyes were bright against the sunny day, the pupils like pinpricks. Ahu Mata Ote Vaikava, the sign helpfully informed me.

This one was not on the tourist map!

Easter Island Ahu Vaikava Moai

The Rapa Nui works in stone

I passed by Ahu Tautira again. Nearby was a WiFi hotspot, and I stopped to assure my mother that indeed, I am still alive.

Moving on, the road veered away from the coast. Unburdened by a car, I wondered if I could simply cut across the land all the way to Tahai. It seemed like it might be a pleasant ramble, despite the rising heat of the day. The ground rose to a low cliff towards the sea, carpeted by lush lawn.

At the far edge I noticed a silhouette of rock, unnaturally shaped and standing.

I bounded across the grass, and it soon resolved itself into a sculpture. The stone was a kind of dark rusty colour, pitted and eroded and flayed by the weather. The aesthetic was Polynesian, a sort I had never seen before. Perhaps the closest are the figures that Mah Meri aborigines of my country imagines into wood; limbs and body parts exaggerated, contorted and intertwined.

I turned to look along the coastline, and realised it was not just one sculpture. There were more.

So the Rapa Nui no longer construct moai, but they still worked in stone.

That settles it. Whether the way was unimpeded all the way through to Tahai or not, I was going to hike up along the cliffs.

Easter Island sculpture

Ahu O’rongo – the one with the hat

I was not sure whether I would see more moai on this route. The zoomed-in box on the map marked some spots as ahu, but this did not necessarily mean that there were intact moai on the platform. It all depends on the extent of archaeological restoration that had taken place.

But I found two moai statues at Ahu O’rongo. I’m not actually clear which of them is Ahu O’rongo, but I’d like to guess that it’s the one with the hat.

Although less famous than the more photographed ‘hatted’ moai at Anakena, it was the first moai-with-a-hat that I personally came across, and there was a giant anchor stabbed into the ground nearby!

Far in the distance a herd of horses trotted by across the grassland, driven by a man on horseback. It was the most bizarre sight, horses herded across an island far out in the Pacific. I would never have called it, yet there it was.

Presumably the South Americans had brought them over. I suppose since the island had lost its forests, and there was only grass, it now suited horses. Although, to be honest, sheep or goats seemed like they would have been more useful.

Easter Island Moai

Contemporary Rapa Nui sculptures by the sea

Arrayed in a semi-circle, as if in council, the next set of sculptures were different. Hitu Merahi, it was called.

For one thing, the seven sculptures seemed new. The lines of its design were still clear and sharp. For another, the stone was different – more grey, and no reddish cast to it at all. The aesthetic was different too – there was European influence to it, in the human faces and lines of the body. But it was not wholly European – the whorls and twists of Polynesian totemic art give it a sort of hybrid look.

This was a contemporary installation. So Rapa Nui’s modern artists make new creations in stone.

From the name plaques at the base of the sculptures, I surmised that the statues represented archangels. A stone tablet to the side explained in English:

Love is Energy. Energy is Humility. Humility is Peace. Peace is Harmony. Harmony is Beauty. Beauty is Fullness. Fullness is Love.

I thought to wonder then, if the seven deadly sins are but snares to block this flow.

Easter Island sculptures

The rewards of leaving the path

The paved road would truly leave the coastline soon, disappearing behind the hillocks and civilisation. I had initially meant to follow it all the way since the museum was en route.

But not having a car, and forced to traverse the land at a much slower pace, led me to treasures I might have missed otherwise. A simple coastal walk, and already I learned I was wrong on multiple counts, that my imagination had been insufficient.

To be surprised – is that not the inspiration of travel?

I turned my back to the distant road, and rambled on the way that was without a trail. Still headed to Tahai, but the walk was no longer about reaching Tahai.

Easter Island bay

Much more by this author on her own website, Teja on the Horizon. Check it out.

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