Ahu Tongariki: Sunrise over the Easter Island ‘Heads’
The taxi arrived in the darkness, as promised. I scrambled to gather my things, and struggled briefly with the fidgety lock on the door. I was going to see the famous Easter Island heads at the Rano Raraku quarry today. But we had to leave before dawn, because Ahu Tongariki was close by, and one does not fly to the most remote place on earth and fail to catch the most epic Easter Island sunrise.
The door mechanism gave, and I sped up the drive and into the car, greeting Alex with a quick ‘buenos dias’.
- 1 Tongariki, Anakena, and the Easter Island heads
- 2 Reaching Ahu Tongariki for the Sunrise
- 3 Rano a Raraku: The Easter Island Heads
- 4 Carbon offset information to Easter Island
Tongariki, Anakena, and the Easter Island heads
The main attractions of the UNESCO Heritage Site of Rapa Nui National Park are dispersed across the triangle-shaped island.
On the southwest corner lie Rano Kau and Orongo, with Ahu Tahai nearby for the signature Easter Island sunset. Ahu Akivi, the only ahu site where the moai face seaward, and the quarry of Puna Pau, are along a separate road running past the island’s high point, Maunga Terevaka.
But on the northeast are no less than three sites you could do together – the largest ahu at Tongariki, the original ahu at Anakena, and Rano Raraku, the site of the mysterious Easter Island heads half buried into the hill that captured the world’s imagination.
Morning over the Rapa Nui east coast
The day began to kindle as the taxi came upon the road running along the east coastline of Easter Island. The sky seemed reasonably clear of clouds, save for a low bank on the horizon and smoky puffs suspended over the water. That’s lucky. I did not summon all my willpower to get moving this early, for a disappointing sunrise!
The horizon began to radiate orange, shading to yellow and coral. I watched the cloud puffs slowly stretch out with the ocean wind. They seemed to me as horses, in slow gallop across the sky.
I was glad I found Alex. This early in the day, it was good to be taken to Tongariki, rather than having to do it of my own volition.
What is the most sustainable way to go to Ahu Tongariki?
The northeast sites are just far enough that it’s not practical to walk to them. So I had carefully considered my options from the moment I settled into my Airbnb.
The easy way was to rent a car. My host had recommended Oceanic for the fairest prices on the island. But, while the most convenient, it was still quite expensive and the least sustainable.
Another option were the bike rentals. I could bike it? Hahahahaha as if. Easter Island actually gets quite hot in the daytime in November. Besides, bike touring recalls unpleasant memories. Plus, in order to reach Ahu Tongariki for the sunrise, not only would I have to wake well before sunrise, I would need additional willpower to bike all the way too. Let’s be realistic, girl. You’re not a morning person in the best of times**.
While I’m not super keen on tour companies, I could hire a local Rapa Nui guide. It might not be cheap, but it would be more sustainable in the sense of direct islander employment and heritage elements. My host had left the contact details of a registered female guide who could do a tour in English. And that had been my #1 option… except I never got a call back despite trying many times.
I had half-hoped that the stone artist would offer to take me to Tongariki. But while N–n recommended Ahu Tongariki highly, he did not offer to take me for the sunrise.
Alex the taxi driver
In the end, I got to Tongariki and all the other northeast sites with none of these options, because… I went diving!
A dive schedule opportunity forced me to change my plans for the day. I needed to return to my Airbnb quickly to get suited up for a dive, and return to the quay pronto. So I flagged down a taxi, when I normally would have walked the distance. And before I left him, the friendly Alex Cataldo handed me his card, which cited taxi tour services.
It was a lightbulb moment. I was not interested in the itineraries on the card. But would he do more of a customised day hire arrangement? I told him what I wanted to see – the sunrise was key. He gave me a price, and I did not haggle*.
Reaching Ahu Tongariki for the Sunrise
We arrived at Tongariki well before sunrise. The park complex was gated, and was not yet open – I had not expected that. I could see a few other people who had likewise arrived early, milling about. It was the off season on Rapa Nui; there were not so very many. Just within, I could make out the solar-powered ranger’s office, thatched in the Polynesian style, and another low hut to the side of it.
Alex indicated that I had to wait for a little while until the ranger arrived to open the park. No matter. The point was that I was not late for the sunrise, and it would not be extinguished by rain.
Alex waited by the car while I walked about in the dim lustre of dawn, glad for the solitude. I do like the dawn, you see. But it’s simply not very often that I would get all the way through to wakefulness at that time of day. The grass smelled wet with evaporating dew, and began to glow verdant at the approach of the magic hour. A lone tree thrown into sharp silhouette against the rising light. On the other side of Tongariki bay, the volcanic headland of Poike rose as a steep bank of wall, its edges dusted with vapour and mist.
Through it all, Alex left me be.
This is the number one reason why I might take an individual guide, but think 10x before taking a tour. It is a rare tour that will let you buy this empty space, to buy the silent time that allows you to drink deep from the magnificence you came to savour in the first place.
Finally, the ranger arrived.
Tongariki: The largest ceremonial altar on Rapa Nui
I knew very little about the moai, before I came to Rapa Nui. All I knew was that the people who wrote articles about these statues marvelled over these things, calling them ‘mysteries’. And a faraway, enigmatic location, is exactly what a bucket list destination looks like for me.
Rapa Nui captured my imagination mainly from pictures. I knew that the islanders were somehow able to carve out these massive standing statues, and that some of them lie buried in hills, i.e. the ‘Easter Island heads’. I knew that the island’s ecology had been lost, leading to the loss of the civilisation. But I did not know why.
It was on Rapa Nui itself that I learned that the moai were part of the local religion of ancestor reverence. That they represented the elders of the clan, and were erected on ceremonial platforms called ahu, and they presided over the daily lives of their clan.
Then, because the Rapa Nui are human, at the height of the civilisation competition, envy, and showing off mixed in with the co-operation that an isolated existence demanded. Wars followed, during which tribes tried to weaken each other by toppling rival moai, so that they would lose the mana protection of their ancestors.
If that were so, with 15 moai still standing, the tribe that held Tongariki must have been powerful. I don’t know if it had always been the clan with the largest ahu, but it’s certainly the largest one left.
Tips for optimal viewing of the Tongariki sunrise
The sun woke slowly, peeling open its resplendent rays little by little. The clouds gathered overhead, but stayed high.
I prefer this, actually, compared to a perfect clear sky. There is more drama when the rays of the sun interact with cloud and vapour. And when the clouds move, the whole sky changes. As a result, you get many sunsets or sunrises in a single day, rather than just one with a clean sky.
As the horizon began to brighten, casting the moai into sharp relief, predictably the tourists moved towards the platform, crowding close. Waiting for that close-up sunrise shot. But inevitably, that means having to wait and jostle for position, because a lot of other people are doing exactly the same in the same sort of space. There’s only so near you can go, because there is a guide line beyond which tourists are not allowed, to better preserve the heritage site.
It’s the universal issue with a world-class star attraction – everyone wants to come close.
It’s worth while to step back and think. I mean, literally, step back. Because unless you’re actually a professional travel blogger with a specific fantasy shot lined up for your media, some destinations are far more satisfying from a distance. More angles, more options – and more room for everyone.
And don’t worry about the lighting. The magic hour is indeed magical and forgiving. No filters required.
Sunrise illuminates the mystery of the moai
When I told my colleagues in the Netherlands where I was headed to next, there was much envy. Friendly envy, that is.
Richard remarked about the mysterious Easter Island heads, and the moai platforms. There was a documentary or something that he had seen, remarking on how all of the moai on the platforms had their backs to the sea. All, except Ahu Ariki. The facing direction of the moai was a great mystery.
“Quite odd for an island culture,” he had said. It was probably what the show had concluded. “Apparently, the theory goes that the islanders turned their backs to the sea and became an insular culture when they arrived, and so the moai had their backs to the sea.” And then, supposedly when the westerners arrived, they turned outward again, and that explains Ahu Ariki.
I reserved comment at the time, but was sceptical. It was a nice theory, but it does not explain why the culture went through the trouble of making the moai in the first place.
The lesson taught by Scooby Doo: The truth is probably banal.
Besides, not knowing the purpose of something before trying to explain it makes you prone to conjecture based on nothing but projection and stereotyping. Very often, the academic invests an elaborate and esoteric reason for things that are done by cultures they perceive as lesser and foreign, when the actual reason is simple and practical.
Indeed, once I learned what the moai represented (which is actually very similar to ancestor revering cultures in Asia), it was not mysterious at all – merely common sense. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the Rapa Nui’s rejection of the sea, or exploration, or any such philosophical existential reasons.
If the moai were supposed to preside over their descendants and receive ritual dedications, then obviously the facing side of the moai has to be towards the worshipper. Where the coastal moai are placed, are obvious locations to achieve this outcome.
Of course, I myself am not immune to this projection tendency. As Alex drove me around the coastline, I noticed neat little mounds at intervals at the edges of the low cliffs. They seemed carefully constructed, not tourist rock stacking or indifferent piles.
I jumped to the conclusion. Were they shrines?
So I asked Alex what they were. They were just shore markers, to help canoes at sea fix a guide point for coming back in.
Rano a Raraku: The Easter Island Heads
Very near to Tongariki is the quarry site of Rano Raraku. The images you have probably seen before of the ‘Easter Island heads’ usually came from this very site. And the reason why there are so many moai heads all over the place is made plain once you learn that this is the main quarry site of the Rapa Nui. It is also the stone carving workshop, where they carve out the moai before they go to their respective platforms all over the island.
The Maunga Eo escarpment juts out of the ground prominently – it’s clear where the stone supply comes from. We arrived before the site’s opening times, and had to wait again. The morning sun was just beginning its summer glare. At the feet of the escarpment I could make out the famed Easter Island heads sticking out of the grassy slopes.
The moai quarry of the Rapa Nui
When the ranger finally opened the gate, he stamped my entrance ticket to Rapa Nui National Park (obtained at the airport). This is one of only two locations where the ranger stamped my ticket. (The other was at Te Pito Kura). I assume it means that you only have one chance to visit Rano Raraku per visit to Easter Island.
The moai quarry of the lost civilisation is obviously a heritage site of sensitivity and importance.
Once inside, there are extremely clear signage requesting visitors to only keep to the assigned paths, and never crossing over the guide ropes. How clear, you ask? Well, it comes with a series of ‘shame fame’ images of past tourists posing irresponsibly and sometimes disrespectfully, with red arrows pointing out their sins.
Why are they so picky? You might say, it’s just a little touch. But the cumulative impact of those touches by thousands of tourists, speeds up the wear upon the stones. The long term result is heritage destruction.
That’s not to mention the disrespectful posing. While the Rapa Nui are no longer ancestor worshippers, nonetheless they respect the beliefs of their forefathers and that the statues were intended to represent elders of their people.
The evolving art styles of moai-making
I had assumed that the Easter Island statues were all the same style. Maybe there are individual slight differences, to represent different ancestors. But as far as I knew, the overall style was consistent.
This is not so. At the quarry, I learned that the styles evolve. Over time, different ‘looks’ came into fashion. The kneeling one was especially interesting, and apparently rare. I didn’t really see the thin one around the island either; but I guess that style would have easily smashed to pieces in the moai-toppling era.
The surprise ‘Easter Island heads’ discovery that isn’t really a surprise
A big thing that people tend to associate with Easter Island, is the ‘Easter Island heads’. The term gives the impression that these were moai ‘busts’ – head and shoulder carvings – lying around the quarry. Consequently, it was a ‘surprise’ when UCLA archaeologists ‘discovered’ that actually they weren’t heads at all. They were complete moai, but the bodies have been buried into the ground by soil erosion over time.
If this is true, I want to smack them.
None of the standing or fallen moai all over the island were constructed by putting together pieces of stone body parts. They were all carved from a single block of stone. Therefore, it stands to reason that the only moai quarry site on the island, would also have whole moai, just at various stages of completion.
If only the heads seem visible, obviously the bodies are underground. Just because you didn’t personally see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t just as obvious.
I can understand having to wait a century to get together enough resources to find the body. But I cannot accept that this did not occur to people who are supposed to specialise in the subject, until 2017. I mean, are you kidding me. Having seen the moai platforms, and the various lesser sites around the island, the headline should have read ‘UCLA team finally confirms longstanding theory that moai bodies are buried underground at Rano Raraku’!
The moai mystery that actually deserves the name
Now let’s talk about the moai mystery that actually deserves to be called that. How did they move the giant statues over the rolling island landscape to the ceremonial platforms?
The Anthropological Easter Island Museum near Tahai is worth a visit just for this one question. Various theories came in and out of fashion, from logs to skids to ropes.
But according the islanders themselves, oral history has it that the moai simply walked to where they needed to be. For a long time, this was dismissed as the superstition of a less advanced culture. But the current theory in fashion is that the moai were pulled upright, and moved from side to side in a controlled fashion across the landscape. The moai would indeed seem to ‘walk’.
Of course, the most traditional accounts say that it is mana that made the moai walk to their positions. For my fellow Malay readers, this is basically the same as saying that the statues were moved with ‘tenaga batin’.
There was a trail connected to the web of tourist paths, but it led away from the slopes of buried moai. I couldn’t make out what the signs meant, but it seemed to indicate that something was at the end of the trail.
It was just an earth path, nondescript and running past some portions of shrubbery valiantly colonising the empty landscape. I followed it as it meandered around the hill and past a wire fence wrapping around stout timber posts. And yet there was no end to be seen.
Conscious of the sun and the rising heat of the day, I nevertheless pressed on. The land became even more barren than before, losing first the sparse shrubbery, and then even the grass-clad ground.
Then the earth path began to climb, looking less and less like a true path and more like a channel cut through the naked hill by repeated rains. The ochre soil began to stain my shoes, and I began having some misgivings that the way led anywhere. Perhaps I should re-read the signs.
I really ought to have downloaded the Spanish dictionary onto my translation app.
I topped the rise, and turned with the path. And there, glittering beyond the expanse of stripped earth, was a surprise.
An oasis lay before me. Reeds lined it, looking soft and fluffy. A breeze, crinkling the surface of the water opaque with ripples. Around it was a halo of green grass, bright to near-iridescence. It must be one of the precious conservation zones of Rapa Nui. In fact, it was Rano Raraku’s crater lake.
I ventured halfway, but stopped, suspecting fauna in the rushes. This miracle oasis was precious to this ravaged island. It might be too sensitive to be approached. I gazed at it for a while longer. Then, with a full heart, I backed away, and returned the way I came.
Carbon offset information to Easter Island
I went to Easter Island as part of a longer journey around the world. Had I gone close to my original plan, a return flight from Kuala Lumpur to Easter Island via Sydney and Santiago produces carbon emissions of approximately 17,414 lbs CO2e. It costs about $87 to offset this.
Are you intrigued by enigmas? Pin this travel story for your collection! Onward to Part 3, as Alex takes me to Anakena beach where the Rapa Nui settlers first landed!
*When slow travelling and in individual arrangements, I sometimes purposely do not haggle. I have found that when you agreed to ‘overpay’ for something, the other person’s own sense of fairness often tries to make up for it. He or she often has nothing more to sell than the product being offered, so he will often begin to offer from himself. Invaluable connections such as local secrets, personal insights, life stories, thoughts and favourite things are unlocked when you choose to be generous – and then wait.
**I seriously considered simply spending the night within the Tongariki complex, just so I would already be there for the sunrise. That’s how little of a morning person I am! Alas, it is strictly against park rules, and the local park rangers take their job seriously – something that Asia UNESCO Site guardians could emulate more. In fact, I was amused by how explicit and firm the English translation of the restrictions were on the tourist map, compared to the Spanish. We can guess which language group has issues with rules when abroad!