TONGARIKI, EASTER ISLAND – The hour of 7 a.m. is still a nasty rumour. To the east, in a distant sky, the sun is rising over a deserted Pacific Ocean.
I’m carefully making my way through a thick field of grass wedged with bits of lava rock, my iPhone flashlight helping point the way in the pre-dawn darkness. Horses that appear to come from a nearby ranch nibble noiselessly in the black morning. I get too close to what looks like a chestnut-coloured colt and it bounds skittishly to its mother a few metres away.
The horses aren’t aware of what they’re about to witness. But I am. It’s the daily ritual of watching the sun come up behind the 15 Easter Island statues (called moai) that stand on a long pedestal a few feet above the earth, their backs to the ocean and their frozen stone faces gazing at the mountain from which they were carved hundreds of years ago.
Finally the dark gives way to a blurry, vague notion of light. The silhouettes of the moai begin to emerge; massive rock renderings pockmarked by eons of unimaginable time and wind and rain and salt water. I clamber up on a small rock for a better vantage point and join my fellow photographers in clicking away at one of the majestic sights one can find on earth.
There are hundreds of moai scattered around this isolated island locals call Rapa Nui and that their Chilean government calls Isla Pascua. I find out on one of my tours that the moai are believed to be likenesses of deceased relatives, in some cases complete with red-stone “top knots” that mimic the way natives piled their hair on their heads in ancient days. The best guess is that the statues were carved sometime after the island was settled by roving Polynesians, possibly from the Marquesas Islands and likely between 800 and 1,200 AD.
When Dutch explorers first came here in 1722, they apparently found the statues standing. But they were later pushed over, possibly as part of tribal warfare. Some have been restored to the platforms they were designed to rest on. The moai that stand at attention at Tongariki, on the southeast coast of the island, were put back up by a few decades ago.
The moai that have been restored to their standing positions, mostly near the sea, make great places to watch the sun rise or set. But I was taken more with my two walks around the Rano Raraku quarry, located on the side of an extinct crater near the Tongariki site and littered with a few hundred moai.
What you mostly see on a tour of the quarry are the top thirds or maybe top halves of finished statues, which measured up to four metres in height and weighed 14 tons or more. My guide tells me they likely were finished and put in a standing position but then abandoned. Over time, landslides and silt have filled in the holes around them, leaving mysterious heads poking out of the deep green grass on the crater’s hillside. If you walk high up the hill you can find moai that were three-quarters finished when the job was called off. Why, we’ll probably never know.
As overwhelming as the moai are, there’s far more to this island than mystical statues. The hiking is world-class, with routes that snake along towering cliffs hundreds of metres above the roaring ocean, which sends massive waves north from Antarctica to plunge into Easter Island with a reckless, “what are you doing in my way” abandon.
Roberto, a guide from Explora Rapa Nui, one of the world’s top luxury lodges, takes a friend and I on a tour of the island’s underground caves and explains how his grandfather taught him legends about how their ancestors fled a land that became covered by water. One cave formed of lava tubes shoots two tunnels out to the Pacific, with small openings several dozen metres above the furious, foaming ocean.
As much as anything I’m struck by the quiet of Easter Island. This is one of the most remote islands on the planet and you can sense the distance and the blissful isolation.
There are only two beaches, one of which is barely big enough to toss a football on. But the cycling is wonderful given the lack of traffic. I take a bike out from the Explora folks late one morning and make the 8 km ride towards Anakena Beach.
I pass a small collection of houses where someone is flying the red-and-white Rapa Nui native flag, which looks like a curled-up canoe, and pass through thick forests of eucalyptus where shy horses gather. I’d been to the beach earlier on my trip, so instead of hitting the sand and checking out the moai that guard the bay I cycle out a dirt road that leads to a quiet bluff. I trudge up a rock-strewn hill and find myself gazing down at a beautiful, crescent shaped bay far below my feet and pure aquamarine and deep blue waters. To the east, the ocean shimmers in the mid-day sun and the eastern end of the island rises towards puffy white clouds.
I can’t see the moai from here, but I feel them all around me.
ARRIVING: Easter Island is a roughly five-hour flight from Santiago, Chile. Some flights stop here on the way from Santiago to Tahiti. Try flying with LAN Airlines.
SLEEPING: Explora Lodge is a fantastic, all-inclusive property with first-world cuisine; including the freshest seafood around and all the wine and liquor you can drink. There’s a small pool and massage services are available. They’ll provide 20 free guided hikes and trips around the island. Rooms from about $85O US per person, per night. There are a half-dozen inexpensive hostels to choose from in the only town on the island, adorably old-time Hanga Roa. There also are several small hotels with reasonable rates, often under $200 a night.
DEAL OF THE WEEK Until the end of the year Eurail is offering customers 20 per cent off the regular price of Eurail Global and Select Passes, and one free extra travel day for travelers who purchase a Eurail Regional or One Country Pass. Applicable for the full suite of Eurail Pass types, the promotional Passes are available until December 31, 2015. I met my wife on a train in Europe, not that I’m promising you’ll do the same.¬¬
DESTINATION OF THE WEEK Niagara on the Lake is one of Canada’s truly great destinations, with superb theatre, good food, great inns and world-beating wines. You can try high-class hotels such as the Prince of Wales. I had a great stay a couple years back at an Italian themed B & B called La Toscana di Carlotta. The couple who runs the inn also own Il Gelato di Carlotta in town, where they serve wonderful, organic gelato and other treats. The nearby village of St. David is home to Ravine Vineyard, where they mix rich, tasty wines with great food.
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