“NINE o’clock, bike to quarry” doesn’t sound like the most promising excursion on the first day of a holiday, but on Rapa Nui – or Easter Island – it’s a journey to the island’s spiritual heart and to the source of all its troubles. The bike ride wasn’t bad, either.
Despite mist on the hills and drizzle blown in on an untypical easterly, the even terrain, mellow landscape and fresh air made for a pleasant morning.
After a rainy spring, the grass was almost lime-green in colour, and we were never far from the wild-looking, rocky coastline.
I was following Thomas Tuki, island-born and a guide at the Explora Posada de Mike Rapu hotel – an architecturally and ecologically sensitive property that is tucked into a hillside and about as isolated as you can get on such a small island.
That said, the name Rapa Nui actually means “Big Rapa”, because the island is similar in shape to Rapa in the Bass Islands of French Polynesia.
Thomas also called the island Te Pito o Te Henua, which means “navel of the world” and is unpronounceable when you’re pedalling 10 to the dozen with a mouth full of rain.
I asked him when I might see one of the moai – the human figures carved in rock for which the island is known.
“They are all over,” he said, as we cycled along an empty coast road. “Many have been restored and stood up, but there are lots of fallen moai, unfinished moai, broken moai.”
The first we came across was face down, beside a trail that led from the quarry. Thomas explained it had been abandoned.
“The ancestors believed the moai were moved by a magical spirit, so if the magic stopped working for a particular moai, that meant it was no good and fell down.”
This magic, or mana, resided in the spirits of past chiefs and respected ancestors, whose bones were buried in platforms beneath the moai. I asked him how the huge, heavy-browed head had really been moved.
“They dragged it along the ground,” he said. “See how the track behind it is worn down?” Were they dragged, walked with ropes, rolled on logs? Thomas didn’t know. No one does, really.
Farther on we came to one of Rapa Nui’s most photographed spots: Ahu Tongariki, where 15 moai stand looking towards the quarry.
The moai always face inland. “They protected the villages,” said Thomas. “That’s why they don’t look out to sea.
“Bizarrely, we weren’t going to visit the quarry on this particular morning – it was too big a diversion, he said.
As we rode on, I saw thousands of large stones, mainly of the black, porous pyrite type common to volcanic islands. Thomas said these were the remains of houses, burial grounds, chicken coops, winter gardens.
We also passed Catholic shrines, including a large cross decorated with carved fish.
I asked Thomas what his religion was and he pointed at the looming figures behind us. “That’s my religion.” He’d spent some time in Santiago, the Chilean capital, studying to be a guide, he said, but hated it.
“What was I to do there? Look around,” he said, waving at the bare landscape, the stones, the sea beyond.
More and more Santiaguinos and mainland Chileans are settling in Rapa Nui, drawn by the increase in visitor numbers and the opportunity to develop tourism-related businesses. Hundreds have arrived in the past decade.
The island is only 22.5km long and half that wide, and has a population of about 5800, half of whom are Rapa Nui.
To the chagrin of native-born islanders, the incomers insist on calling their home Isla de Pascua (Easter Island) – the name given to the island by Dutch mariner Jacob Roggeveen in 1722 because he made landfall on Easter Sunday.
My bike ride ended at a pretty beach called Anakena. The rain had, if anything, got worse, but I went for a swim in the warm waters. There was a platform of five more or less complete moai, and two fragments on the dunes above the beach, and a single, particularly wide figure, standing in a loftier spot. All had their backs to me.
After a night at the stylish Explora hotel, I moved to Hanga Roa, the main town, and into a newly refurbished hotel, also called Hanga Roa. The hotel has been the subject of some controversy, as it was built on sacred land many islanders believe should never have been sold to outside investors.
The island now attracts about 70000 visitors a year, compared with 12000 in 1993.
They come for the mysteries. In Hanga Roa’s small museum, several were explored: UFO and New Age nonsense, the still undeciphered language of the Rapa Nui, the so-called birdman cult that replaced the moai at the end of the 17th century.
But of course it is the monolithic moai themselves – lonely-seeming, elegant and aloof, ancient but modernistic in form – that pull in the tourists. The moai have been studied from every angle, including underground, yet remain enigmatic and other-worldly. © The Telegraph