The Rolling Stone Heads (Easter Island)

Easter Island is one of those places that’s on many travellers wish lists but is a hard one to get to being that its one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth. We’d heard about the ‘big stone heads’ and the island of mystery since we were kids but hadn’t given it much thought until we were married…for our wedding, we’d asked guests to give us destination challenges rather than toasters or dinner sets and one friend asked us to visit Easter Island! Even then, we hadn’t seriously considered it as part of this trip until we found out that it was free stop over on the way to NZ on our ticket. It was now or never later!


Even though Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth, it’s technically part of Chile and therefore the domestic flight was a breeze. We were allowed to take food, liquids over 100ml, dairy products and probably even sharp objects like nail clippers; security it seemed wasn’t a concern!


It was a five hour flight on a brand new plane so it was comfortable and we landed in the evening in darkness. We looked out of the window and could see a small building with people bustling around it. This was arrivals, departures, cargo, baggage collection and immigration all under one very, very small roof. In fact, the the departure lounge was in the garden with a small moai looking on. Not quite T5 Heathrow that’s for sure!


The doors hissed as they were opened and the warm balmy air filled the cabin. We descended the steps onto the tarmac and here we were, on Easter Island! Walking into the terminal the baggage belt was directly in front of us next to the exit and again there was no passport control or security – just a sniffer dog jumping around the belt sniffing around. There was lots of commotion with hotel owners greeting their new guests with traditional flower garlands and helping them with their bags. Once again, we’d been organised and booked ahead into a little guest house that had good reviews and was reasonable, yet the meeting desk was empty. Hmm. We waited a bit longer and the room gradually emptied until there was just us and another Polish girl who was staying at the same place left so we got a cab together. Not quite the warm traditional greeting we expected and Daryl was upset he didn’t get his flower garland.


The cab drove through town for a couple of minutes before turning into a bumpy muddy track with no street lights and we pulled up in front of two dark buildings. The driver got out and took our bags out of the boot and was about to drive away when we asked him to tell us which building was the guest house – he said they both were. Helpful. It was pitch black and all we could hear was waves crashing nearby as we stumbled down a steep, uneven path towards what appeared to be the ‘reception’.


There was the faint glow of a computer screen and the Polish girl called out ‘Hola’ and a load of other Spanish that we presume/hoped translated as ‘Hello, we’re the guests that you forgot, can you come and check us in please’. A woman with hair longer than Evie came out looking quite ill and seemed quite surprised to see the three of us. ‘Have you got reservations?’. Yes, we’d all emailed in the last few days and had received confirmation. She then proceeded to scroll through a few hundred spam emails to find our email, only to then open a spreadsheet that looked like a multicoloured patchwork quilt to try and find the booking in the ‘system’.


‘Ah, yes, sorry, er… we got mixed up with flights and didn’t realise one landed tonight’. There are only two flights a week and this one flew directly over her house less than an hour before – bad excuse. Anyway, she showed us to our room and we crashed out as it was hot, humid and relatively late. Tomorrow would be another day.


The next day we woke up to bright sunshine and the daylight revealed that we were actually on a hill overlooking the town and bay with the hills rising up behind. It was quite pretty. At breakfast the lady we’d met the previous night explained that she was actually the daughter of the owner and was helping out because her mum had just come back from hospital. On top of that, she was also pregnant, hence her not being well the previous night and the general chaos in the booking. She apologised but Daryl still didn’t get his flowers.


We were advised to take a short walk along the coast to the northern end of the town as there were many old stone carvings to see before visiting our first moai at Ahu Tahai and the coastal scenery was beautiful. As we walked along, we could see what people meant when they said the island was like a giant open air museum – they were dotted all along the coast and in the distance we could see the towering moai of our final destination.


The site Ahu Tahai consisted of three sets of ahu – the technical description of the platform and accompanying ‘big stone heads’ (moai). This was a great site as it had foundations of old buildings, a fallen moai and the ahu seemed to escalate in grandeur. The first one was quite a rough head which had seen better days but was still impressive and was exciting as it was what we had come to see – here was a moai right in front of us! A few hundred metres along was the next ahu and this one had FOUR moai, although one was simply a stump. Nearby was the last ahu which had the largest moai we had seen so far, a topknot on its head AND eyes! This was the most impressive as it had been restored as best it could to how it would have looked when it was first erected (in theory). The moody chiselled-jawed face stared inland as the waves crashed behind and the piercing eyes seemed to hold the secrets of the past. In the harsh sun, the contrast of the dark grey rock face and deep red topknot (hat) was striking; it was a sight we’d waited a long time to see and one worth waiting for.


The whole time we’d been walking along the coast, we’d been accompanied by a guide. He didn’t speak very good English, was terrible at pointing things out, insisted in being in most photos but he didn’t want a tip and we couldn’t get rid of him…’he’ was a friendly stray dog that just kept following us and one of many that we encountered over the next few days on the island.


The museum was a fascinating visit because on one hand the building was dedicated to facts, yet apart from the artefacts, most of the content was based on theories and guesswork. This was mainly due to the fact that the original civilisation had no written records, only verbal stories passed down the generations and when the trade routes and slavery were introduced, the holders of this knowledge died before they could pass it on and hence, so much is now a mystery.


Here’s a quick summary of the history of Easter Island according to us:

Guys from Polynesia get in a canoe and paddle east and find a small lush island in the middle of nowhere.

They decide to build giant statues to honour their families and clans by erecting them on the coast facing inland to watch over the communities.

They go into mass production and use a lot of trees.

A few moai get toppled by natural disasters etc.

Captain Cook et al pop in for a visit.

They realise that their lush island is now barren with the only tree in the village.

Someone gets the blame and they decide they need to re-brand.

‘Big stone heads’ become ‘Bird Man cult’ and now involves swimming to an island past sharks, stealing an egg from a cliff, swimming back, running up a mountain, being made Chief BirdMan and then being exiled for a year. Nice. Oh, and knock the rest of the heads down to be sure.

Many then get colds or are taken away for slavery and die, decimating the population.

Chile decides to take ownership.

Tourism booms with people wanting to see the mysterious ‘big stone heads’ and have no choice but to pay what’s asked.


This is (very) roughly how we interpreted it and obviously it took a few hundred years, but hopefully gives you an idea what it’s all about.


After the museum we went into the town and were pleased to see that it hadn’t been over developed and was still very ‘local’, not a garish tourist town with big name stores (i.e. McDonalds). Having said that, we went to a local café for a soft drink and nearly choked when we found the cost was over double what it was on the mainland. Even buying goods for self catering was only marginally cheaper than in a café so we decided to just go with it for four days – we figured this was karma for Antarctica!


We heard that there was a nice café in the harbour with great milkshakes and home-made ice cream so we went down to have a look. As we were sat there cooling off in the shade, trying to eat our cones quicker than they were melting, we noticed two looming moai overlooking us. We’d walked straight passed these ones that morning and hadn’t even noticed! It was taking some getting used to that these statues we were seeing were the real things and not some cheap concrete imitation like you’d find at your local garden centre.


That night we did something very touristy but necessary and went to a traditional cultural show. The show lasted for a couple of hours and was an amazing demonstration of traditional drumming, singing and dance. It was loud, hypnotic and involved a hell of a lot hip shaking from the women and the men. They even got Daryl up to have a go but his efforts were quite…well, Evie seemed to be grinning more at the topless, toned hip-shaking male dancers than she did at her husband. Apparently she videoed it but she hasn’t said if that was of Daryl or the dancers…


The island is tiny. It’s something like 24km long by 10km wide, has one main road in a loop around it and only one town. It must be the smallest town to have an international airport! However, to see all of the sites in the unforgiving heat with very little shade due to the barren landscape, you really need to either hire a car or go on a tour – where you’d be sharing each site with another 20 people. We decided to hire a car as for two people, the cost wasn’t that much more than a tour and at least we had the flexibility to do what we wanted. The only catch was that no one had insurance on the island so the parting words of advice once they’d swiped our credit card was ‘drive carefully’. We really didn’t want to buy a new Jeep.


We wont bore you naming every site we went to, nor describe each in detail as many of the un-restored sites were quite similar with several toppled moai and topknots scattered around. However, the restored sites were each quite unique.


Ranu Raraku is the biggest of all sites and is referred to as the birthplace of moai as this was the quarry from where they were carved. From a distance, it’s a towering volcano with black dots scattered all over the hillside. As you drive closer along the track though, you see broken moai near the roadside and those dots on the hill gradually take shape to become dark heads staring back at you.


From the car park at the base it is surreal to look up and see the ant-like people walking amongst the big heads and walking up the hillside, you get a real sense of the huge undertaking and effort used to create and transport these statues around the island.


Unlike at other sites, these moai are not on platforms, but are around you and you get a real perspective for just how large they are and the level of detail they contain. Some have detailed earlobes, some have carvings on their backs, some have breasts to represent females and one is shown to be kneeling – the rest are standing.


Everywhere you look on that hillside there are moai, many right next to each other; some almost completely uncovered, some fallen over, some falling over, some buried up to their noses but all looking out away from the mountain. The largest one that was started was still in the quarry and was over 21m in size. We heard a tour guide say that no one knows why so many completed ones are still here – maybe they were made at the same time for different people, maybe they were meant to stay there or maybe it was like a shop where people chose the one they liked?! Whatever the reason then, now it is a truly remarkable site which thoroughly deserves our attention.


There was another track that led to the top of the mountain and we followed this to get a view of the island from up there. When we got to the top, we were surprised to find that it was actually the crater of the volcano and there was a bright blue reed lake glistening up there. We were even more surprised to find even more moai staring at us from this side of the rim! Interestingly, these were all staring inwards. From the rim, we had a great view of the island and we could see just how rugged the terrain was that they would have had to move these statues over. We couldn’t help but wonder who would win in a Stonehenge vs Easter Island stone moving competition.


From Ranu Raraku we could see the next site that we would visit. This was the unmistakable Ahu Tongariki with its 15 moai standing in place. This site was restored a few years ago by the Japanese and is very striking for the sheer number of moai in place and really shows how unique each one is side by side. It’s also a site that’s highly recommended as a sunrise shot to get the silhouettes of the moai as the sun rises behind them, but rain was approaching on the day we were there so we have moody moai with the clouds swirling behind them.


Soon after, the torrential rain lashed down as we made our way back across the island. We parked up at the guest house and went to our room. Standing in the rain, Evie asked Daryl for the key. He checked one pocket, checked his second pocket and his face turned white as he frantically checked all his pockets. They were empty. He ran back and checked the Jeep, Evie checked the bag. No key. Oh dear.


We went to ‘reception’ and said we’d lost our key. We’d pay for a duplicate but could we have a spare. Her face turned white and she said she didn’t think she had one…she gave us a big bowl of assorted keys and came with us to the room. She told Daryl to start trying all of those keys…and then casually slid the window open and told Evie to climb in if she wanted anything. Nothing like island security.


None of the keys fitted and we were dreading being told that we’d need to buy a whole new lock at island prices but she came back and said she’d found a spare so we’d only had to pay for a duplicate. Phew! Daryl’s not allowed to look after keys any more.


The last moai site we saw was Anakena and this was one of our favourites because we saw it early in the morning before we gave our car back and the sun was shining brightly on the five moai. Unlike most of the other sites that were quite desolate, these moai were on a beach and looked quite proud. We got some nice pictures in the sunshine with dramatic shadows.


The very last historical site we saw was the village of Orongo which quite appropriately was based around the Bird Man cult that superseded the moai’s. This was a series of buildings at the top of a volcano where the annual competition was held to find the next chief. The stone carvings at the top were very impressive, but the natural deep crater with its reed lake far below was breathtaking.


On our last day Daryl went for a brief dip and made another friend – a stray Labrador that liked playing fetch in the surf. We’d seen this dog a few times, but because it was so friendly and so many people played with it, we thought it was a pet. This was true of many of the dogs on the island. In most countries, stray dogs are viewed as pests and shooed away, but here they were more like island pets and very sweet. Most shops and restaurants simply ignored them as they wandered in and lay down in the shade and people just stepped over them.


We ended our last night with some local seafood and a glorious sunset with a moai in the foreground, topped off with a clear sky and the Milky Way twinkling above.


For such a small, remote island, Rapa Nui as it should be known will always remain an island of mystery that will never be forgotten. There’s not many other reasons for anyone to visit other than ‘the big stone heads’ but they are reason enough. We probably won’t visit again but are glad that we have and most importantly…


…wedding challenge completed!


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