Experiencing Easter Island

Photos by James Kraus

On a cloudy day, it’s easy to miss the little island. The vibrant rolling hills fade into the center of the Pacific. The triangular island and its satellite islets have always symbolized mystery to me; the answer to the origin and histories of the Rapa Nui people was right in front of us, if we only knew how to interpret it.

Our first morning on the island, we took our bikes along the eastern coast to Tongariki. There is nothing like rounding the far corner of the island at dawn to see the massive restored ahu, the jagged shore down below, and the cliffs of Rano Raraku behind us. The clouds had just cleared up and there was a rainbow framing the island.

Rano Raraku was the Moai quarry; the crater lake is one of the two freshwater sources of the island, surrounded by a jagged edge dotted with many stone figures that were apparently never transported to their destination, some of which were never fully carved out. On the outer edge of the south side, the largest of these still rests in the rock, staring out at the sky. Nearby, next to the trail, there’s a mysterious childlike statue, unlike the rest. In between Tongariki and Playa Anakena there’s an accessible site where there are carvings in the bedrock. Given how porous and prone to weathering the rock is, I guess these figures and carvings are relatively new, not more than 700 years in my estimate; many show little erosion despite constant exposure on the coast.

The second source of freshwater is the crater lake at Rano Kau; this is the town’s water supply. It has a strong mineral flavor. Most of the island is visible from Orongo, the ceremonial village built precariously between the edge of the crater and the steep coastal cliff. It’s accessible by car and a walking trail. The smell of volcanic soil is especially strong here. Flightless birds and several species of lizards hide in the low shrubs. The sun goes in and out but the intermittent showers are gentle and the water is soft. The brown Chimango Caracara flies quietly from rock to rock.

Few things I have done compare to the surreal experience of hiking the northwest coast of the island; our host drove us to Anakena beach early in the morning. Anakena is on the end of the island furthest from the town. Hiking or horseback riding the coast back to town is a less popular activity, but entirely worth it. It took us right around 9 hours at a steady pace. This side of the island is very rocky, dotted with unrestored ahu, several coastal caves and a subterranean room carved into the bedrock. Loose pumice stones make the hike tedious. Cow skulls sit here and there, cows and horses eat in silence. As we walked along what appeared to be an eroded crater, the distant clouds slowly made their way in, closing off the island as if we were in room. The ocean was perfectly still. Within a minute, a thick bank of fog covered everything, followed by soft rain.

After making our way slowly back to the town, we caught the sunset at Tahai, then sat star gazing for hours. The mixture of the almost perfect silence, the sky so clear you can see the Magellan Clouds, the rich smell of volcanic soil, and the realization you and a town of a few thousand are 2,000 miles removed from the rest of the world, is one of the most freeing feelings in the world.

Rapa Nui is just as surreal as I imagined it to be as a child. There’s a magnetism you can feel, and a sense of mystery that goes beyond the stern statues to the land itself. If you’re ever lucky enough to make it here, be quiet and listen closely.

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