Woken by a flock of chooks up a tree, you get out of bed, slip on some jandals and and make your way outside. It’s not cold, but not hot either, you hear waves crashing into rocks in the distance. Crossing the road to a field scattered with canoes, you are greeted by a couple of dogs, not strays, but they appear to be free. They just want to keep you company. Looking for the ocean, you can hear it calling, but all you can see is a giant moai staring back at you.
Often regarded as both the most remote and mysterious island in the world, Rapa Nui lives up to it’s reputation. At the eastern-most tip of Polynesia, it is just as close to South America as it is to its closest Polynesian neighbour. From building massive monolithic statues, through civil wars, slave traders and catastrophic epidemics, to a time where the island’s rulers were decided by an annual athletic challenge. A local once told me, people don’t live on Rapa Nui, people survive on Rapa Nui.
Rapa Nui is one of very few (if not only) Polynesian cultures to have a written language to record their own history and stories. Unfortunately, almost all texts were destroyed by missionaries, so historians can only estimate and theorise the island’s past.
Polynesians arrived around 300-400 AD. The island’s first ruler, Hotu-Matua led a fleet of two canoes from the land of Hiva and landed at Anakena beach. Hiva is likely located in Te Henua ‘Enana, where the word Hiva is used in several island names, although many belive Hiva to be mythological. Some believe there was some early contact with the Incas, or that the Incas inhabited the island at some point. There is some architectural evidence on the island to suggest Incan technology was used.
Early Rapa Nui culture is synonymous with the moai, monolithic stone structures carved out of the volcanic heart of the country and transported to the outer reaches of the island. They were built atop of the bones of the deceased and were extremely tapu (sacred). The era of the moai ended in what many believe to be a very sudden civil war. Moai were often a target for attack. Many were toppled, and often the bones were dug up. Tangata manu (bird man) was soon developed as a cult and a form of election.
Dutchman, Jacob Roggeveen arrived at Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday 1722, naming the island Paasch-Eyland. It’s modern translation (Easter Island, Isla de Pascua etc) is used throughout the world, but the locals still call it Rapa Nui. Originally friendly to visitors, the islanders became extremely hostile in the 1800s, starting with an American ship kidnapping 22 locals to hunt seals in the Juan Fernández Islands, followed by successful landings of British and Russian warships.
Soon after, Peruvian slave traders took approx 1000 of Rapa Nui’s fittest and best educated people, including the King and his son. This lasted for a few years until France put political pressure on Peru. France rescued about 100 Rapa Nui slaves, but only 15 made it back home. They were carrying smallpox. By 1875 there were only 111 natives left.
In 1888, Rapa Nui was annexed into Chile. There are some who dispute the validity of this treaty and a separatist movement has developed over the last few decades.
Rapa Nui Legend – Tangata Manu
A swam of sooty terns migrating across the Pacific is the sign for a new tournament, and a new leadership. The athletes have been in training for months, and for some, years for their chance. Each athlete, one from each clan, chosen by his village elders holds the hope of tribal power for his people, and he will be rewarded greatly for his efforts. As the birds perch on Moto Nui, a small island just over 1km off the western tip off Rapa Nui, the competitions begins.
Six months ago, a young girl is chosen and is taken to cave, two thirds the way down a bluff at Poike, Sitting there alone, no company, no exercise, no direct sunlight. She must remain relaxed, well rested, sunburn-free and most importantly a virgin. Her rations delivered by dangling ropes from above is the only human contact she will have until a new leader is found.
A herd of warriors race towards race towards the cliff. With an almost vertical drop of 250 meters, battered, bruised and bleeding warriors entered the shark infested waters with the grace of a landslide. Battling the ocean currents the warriors swam the long 1km+ course to the rocky shores of Moto Nui. Swooping birds protecting their nest, that fist egg laid this year can only be found under the most aggressively defensive terns. Once captured, the fragile egg needs safe delivery back to the islands elders on shore. He swims the egg back to shore, scales the 250 meter cliff he only just tumbled down, fighting currents, swooping terns and sharks along the way.
The prize? He is now Tangata Manu, the Birdman, a god amongst mortals. His chief and tribe now hold the political power over all Rapa Nui. He is now tapu. He will now live the next year in exile with his new virgin wife.
Things to Do
The biggest drawcard of Rapa Nui is the moai. Several can be seen in Hanga Roa, the only town, however you want to be sure to see as many different moai as possible. It is incredible to see the different styles of moai, theories on how they moved them and seeing the half-built moai in the islands Quarries. Rano Raraku is the main quarry and is where you can replicate the most famous photos. Look out for the world’s biggest moai (it’s hiding in the mountain).
Take a hike around Ranu Kao crater. The views you get here are spectacular, at one point you can see every coastline of the island. This hike will take you to Orongo village where you will learn about Tangata Manu.
Poike is the lesser travelled part of the island, most tours bypass it. Here you will find some of the most ancient moai. You can also visit the virgin caves (you will probably need a guide to help you). Virgins needed to be lowered into her cave with ropes, so unless you are a pro rock climber, you will most likely visit her guard’s cave.
Moto Nui is off limits as it is a protected area, so although you can’t go on the island, you can get extremely close. It is a popular spot for diving and snorkelling. You will be amazed at how blue the water is, it’s cartoonishly blue!
Spend an afternoon at Anakena beach. It’s the islands only sandy beach and a great place to spend time with the locals. The beach has a couple of restaurants serving fresh seafood, some juice stands and a collection of moai (yep, these things a re everywhere!).
Tour buses will take you to all the major sites, but don’t just bus it everywhere. Many of the sites are accessible via horseback or mountain bike. There are a lot of interesting spots hiking distance from Hanga Roa (don’t be surprised if a dog follows you, you might want to learn a few commands in Spanish or Rapa Nui).
Save the museum in Hanga Roa for your last day. It is a great way of rounding up your trip and recapping all of your experiences.