A Traveller in an Antique Land

It takes five hours on a LATAM Chile Dreamliner to get to Easter Island from Santiago. It’s mostly full of Easter Islanders and their extended families, who use it like a bus into town to stock up on provisions. Judging from the cargo they carefully stow in the overhead bins, the most valuable mainland commodity is Costco-size boxes of Dunkin Donuts that permeate the plane like a massive coffee break.

The single runway at Isla de Pascua airport is more than 10,000 feet long, which is pretty much overkill on most days unless it is pressed into its alternate job as an emergency landing site for the U.S. Space Shuttle. I am pleased to report our flight landed with ample room to spare. It seems odd to travel in twenty-first century luxury back in time to a mysterious island in the furthest flung corner of Polynesia. But that’s exactly what we’ve done.

I departed for Easter Island, but I arrive on Rapa Nui, the birth name of the speck of land first colonized by south Pacific nomads sometime in the vicinity of 1000 AD. You could easily walk from the airport to the centre of the town of Hanga Roa, where most of the 3,500 human inhabitants hang out. But there is no need to walk. Our guesthouse proprietor is one of several locals assembled to greet the plane. I think they know we are tourists by our lack of donut luggage. We squeeze ourselves into a rusty Jeep upholstered with scratchy blankets recently vacated by a dog or three. Dogs on Rapa Nui are as languidly free range as cows in India: they nap in the middle of the road, expect to be fed at any door and are in equal parts adored and ignored.

Although there is a sparkling new “eco-lodge” on the island that will run you about $1,000 a night, we leave that for the likes of Elon Musk. Instead, our accommodation is more in line with something that should aspire to a beer budget but has overreached to a $30 bottle of wine. But it’s tidy and you can barely see the mildew in the shower because it’s hidden by the trail of tiny ants that move tirelessly up and down the wall, clearly doing something industrious but I don’t really want to know what. If you’ve come to Rapa Nui expecting high thread-count linen or fine dining, TripAdvisor has steered you seriously wrong. You come to meet the moai.

We’ve hired a private guide who pulls up the next morning in the evil twin of the Jeep that met us at the airport. He is as gruff as a police officer who has caught you speeding in a school zone. He introduces himself as James and says, “You guys better have good walking shoes and don’t even think I’m handing out drinking water”. This is where I wonder whether believing reviews on the internet is the best idea. But James turns out to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing and his studious commentary throughout our tour is as reverent and nuanced as a National Geographic television special.

Roads maybe too generous a term for how you circumnavigate the island. The surface is so bumpy I’m pretty sure if the car actually had a suspension it wouldn’t make a difference. And if there are any beaten paths, James knows none of them. For most of the day, we are the only humans in sight. We are alone with the salty wind and the feral horses trying to extract a molecule of nutrition from the scrubby beach grass and the roosters that have gone boldly beyond where any fowl has gone before. And more importantly, we are alone with the ancient stone statues. We are way, way deep into the deafening silence of Rapa Nui.

Almost everyone has seen the photos of disembodied heads lurching down a barren slope, chiseled noses leading the way. Their iconic profile is as stalwart a part of pop culture as a Campbell’s soup can, whether dispensing tissues from a nostril or guarding a California tiki bar. But it turns out the heads are just the heads. When excised from centuries of silt, they’re all proud owners of a torso, with the whole thing standing upwards of 13 feet. Substantial archeological effort has gone towards restoring some of the artifacts to their original sites around the island. These installations are the reason the word awesome was invented.

I didn’t know the statues are literally headstones, commemorating the death of tribal leaders. In their recreated incarnation, they are arranged side by side, like soldiers standing at attention, on a platform called an ahu, each one added to the next over time, building a row of lineage that ironically becomes more imposing as longevity dwindles. The fat disks of basalt that crown their heads are stained rusty red, like the spilled blood that brought them here. The effigies say nothing and everything. I thought they would face out to sea, on high alert for pirates and plunderers, but instead they set their stony gaze inland, where their obsidian eyes blankly survey lost empires. They are the very invocation of Shelley’s famous poem: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”.

Our final stop is the quarry, the birthplace of the statues and ground zero of an enigma with many theories but no definitive fact. How did each instance of 14 tons of rock transport itself to a final resting place at least 15 miles away as the crow flies? The collective brain power of the global Easter Island academic industry that meets once a year to ponder this question does not show signs of going out of business any time soon.

Because it’s the site of the ubiquitous statue headshots, the quarry is also the tourist epicenter. The hush of history collapses into a sparse crowd of selfie seekers. The twenty-first century returns to smack us in the head as twenty-somethings, wearing their best idea of the right type of carefully curated outfit required to trek around antiquity, make duck-faces into their phones. The moai do not look amused and neither does James, who scolds them out of the don’t-even-think-about-it protected area and picks up their Coke cans with weary indignance. Like the bulk of the island’s trees, which long ago went up in cooking smoke or became canoes lost at sea or were murdered by jealous neighbours, the continued well-being of the statues’ habitat is precarious.

We left only our footprints. We took only a do-it-yourself passport stamp you score at the shoebox that holds the post office in what passes for downtown Hanga Roa. It operates on island time but no worries. Just step over the dogs lounging on the doorstep.

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