Rapa Nui Moai Saga: My Unexpected Way to Tahai
My first morning in Rapa Nui* broke with rain. The incandescent sky of the previous day had been quickly overtaken by storm clouds fetched by the fleet Pacific winds. Overnight, the wind howled over the roof tiles, making me feel glad that I didn’t ditch my outdoor jacket with its peeling pockets in the Netherlands after all. If I had to make my way to Tahai in that kind of weather, I would need the gear.
Travel pro tip: Never, ever, discard all-weather gear, no matter what condition they’re in, until you have a replacement. (Or you reach home.)
Lulled by the rain, I spent some time reviewing the map that I received when I bought the admission ticket to Rapa Nui National Park at the airport (54,000 Chilean pesos or about $80). A UNESCO Heritage Site, the Park pretty much covers the whole island (ok not really, but close enough).
- Easter Island was one of my earliest bucket list destinations
- The scenery along the way to Tahai
- The cemetery near Tahai
- The crater lake of Rano Kau
- There are fruit trees on Easter Island
- Arriving at Tahai Archaeological Complex
- Carbon offset information to Easter Island
Easter Island was one of my earliest bucket list destinations
I was on Easter Island for my birthday because in 2017 I decided I was going to do my travel list backwards. That year I decided I would flip my way of thinking, and see what happens. I would do the places that were at the bottom of my list because they seemed difficult, first.
It drove me to Nepal and India, and the solo travel experience prepared me to go even further – to South America and the far edge of the Pacific.
To Rapa Nui.
Easter Island had been on my bucket list since childhood, because of my fascination with the mysterious giant statues on an empty island. That I actually reached it, was a feeling too surreal to describe.
There was more to Easter Island than I expected.
There was just one problem: how to visit all the moai sites.
Just yesterday, wandering to the Hanga Roa quayside, I saw one – Ahu Tautira. There are a lot of sites. There were more than I had anticipated, even if you just counted the main ones. And they were also more spread out than I assumed.
On top of that, Rapa Nui is not a flat island, nor even flattish. It undulates, rising to a few peaks. And that’s because Rapa Nui was formed by three volcanoes which roughly make the points of the island’s roughly triangular shape. All three are now ecological rehabilitation zones: Maunga Terevaka, its highest point; Rano Kau, an old ritual site in the period following the moai era; and Poike, totally off-limits at the time of my visit.
My finger traced the way to Tahai, the nearest restored moai platform. Then the route to Tongariki and Anakena – they were on the other side of the island. Then the quarries and the ahu in the middle, Ahu Ariki. And that’s not even counting the crater lakes and post-moai era relics.
I felt a wave of FOMO rising. I was on Easter Island for just a week, because it was the time bound by available flight windows if I wanted be on the island for my birthday – this was not negotiable. At first, I thought I’d have to be inventive to fill up the time. Now I began to worry it was not enough time.
If I rented a car, I could do it all. But I did not want to rent a car. It was expensive, and the least sustainable option. Surely, one week is still a luxury to have – how could I justify the shortcut?
But without one, how could I see everything?
Begin the odyssey with a single step.
The morning was getting late, and the rain abated. I had a week, and I told myself I couldn’t while it away in the kitchen. There was no point agonising about how I would see everything, and more useful to just begin by seeing one thing.
A walk to Ahu Tahai should be quite manageable for the day, and along the way there were many moai sites I could pick up. I figured I’d also get a better feel for walkable distances on Easter Island.
I made an exploratory phone call for a local guide to see the further moai sites, was told I’d get a call back, and then I forced myself out the door to make my way to Tahai.
Perhaps the universe would sort out the rest. After all, the universe upgraded this Easter Island trip into a round-the-world trip!
The scenery along the way to Tahai
I decided to take the long way to Tahai. Meaning to say, I chose the streets that curved and hugged the contours of the coast, rather than the straighter roads cutting across the only town on Easter Island. I reckoned it would be a more scenic route to Ahu Tahai.
Rapa Nui was different from all other islands I had visited before. It is almost completely denuded of vegetation – which I kind of expected, given its eco-suicide legend. Its coastline is jagged, black, and rocky, attesting to volcanic origins. For the most part, the landscape is grassy, with no forest to speak of. It is said that the strong winds and rains of the Pacific had stripped away the soil once the forest cover was lost, and now the island struggles to restore its ecology.
But the inhabited portions of the island were, by contrast, quite normal. There were flowers and trees in the lawns, hedges and shrubs by the roadside. The human desire for vegetation was evident.
The coastal sculptures of Easter Island
The late morning was warm, and there was enough of a breeze to take off the edge of the heat. Skirting the coastline, I passed homes and resorts with enviable seaward views. The Chilean navy, omnipresent on the horizon, brought back my days in the navy reserves with a sudden flood of nostalgia.
Passing through the town, I discovered a street with an extremely long mural which depicted many scenes, including a mountain range and scenes of continental lands. Mainland Chile, perhaps.
But past that, upon the grassy clifftops overlooking the open sea, I came upon art that seemed more native. Great big sculptures in iron-rich stone suggesting a warmth of embers, carved in a style unlike any I had previously seen. And it struck me like a flash of light: I was in Polynesia.
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Hitu Merahi sculpture
That stonecrafting culture is still alive on Rapa Nui was evident from the next set of sculptures just before reaching Tahai. Apparently the Hitu Merahi was originally not constructed by an islander, and was originally made of metal.
As someone from a coastal race where the air is supremely humid, I could imagine what might have happened to the metal, since the statues that I came upon in 2017 were stone. They were a curious mix of western and Polynesian aesthetic, which I guess is reflective of the modern-day Rapa Nui, who have largely become Christian. No matter; the most important aspect of the installation survived – its message of peace and love.
English wasn’t the first language of the Rapa Nui nor the original sculptor. I wondered if ‘energy’ would be better translated as ‘light’? I could see how light or enlightenment would bring you to humility. Harmony – balance? My eye caught on the third line.
Humility – submission? – is peace. In different words that they might not know: Islam is salam. I stood there for seconds that stretched to minutes, ruminating. My distant Polynesian cousins are cousins not just by race.
The cemetery near Tahai
Next to the Hitu Merahi sculptures was the burial ground of Easter Island. Vibrant and colourfully decorated, it drew me in with a kind of wistful melancholy.
How old are these graves, I wondered. My eyes ran over the profusion of yellow flowers, and the artwork just as profuse – hewn in stone and wood, woven from palm fronds. Was it pre-Christian, or only after?
The graves felt strikingly familiar, and gradually it dawned on me. Malay graves look exactly the same, the white and wooden crosses notwithstanding. The same, in the way we insist on marking the dig with a line of stones, in the way that we feel compelled to plant shrubs right on top of the grave. In the need to place little vases of flowers or foliage. The same profusion of colour and mess, in its tussle between orderly rows and the chaos of personalisation.
We are definitely cousins, the Malay and the Polynesian. Your neat, uniform rows of understated markers on flat grass lawn, your imposing ancestor headstones – these are not for us. Just wait for glazed tiles to come into fashion, you’ll see!
The furthest Polynesians
I looked back to the sea, conscious suddenly of the distance to everything. Why, the nearest island was Tahiti, a long sail away. To this day, Tahiti is one of Rapa Nui’s closest ties.
What was it like, to effectively have no fellows? I could not imagine, not having travellers and trade pass through your lands. Not having any neighbours close enough to casually visit, or to bicker with. I’m an introvert, and yet my archipelagic, crowded, Asian heritage betrayed me then. The wave of loneliness that swept over me brought tears to my eyes.
Rest in peace, my cousins.
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It was my first evening outside on Easter Island. The previous one had whistled with rain. The western shore was black with volcanic rock and as I watched the foaming waves roll back and forth I was suddenly aware of how far this island is from … everywhere. A lonely little thing, without even other little islands around to make an archipelago. A wave of isolation suddenly washed over me. I wondered what it would have been like to settle here, in ancient times. With everywhere so difficult to reach, would you have to be prepared to turn your back to the world? #exploration #colony #remoteisland #marscolonization #isolation #onthehorizon #endsoftheearth #polynesian #rapanui #easterisland #roundtheworld #jelajahdunia #traveldeeper #solotravel #globelletravels #seascape #seaview #sea_sky_nature #worldtravel #smallworld #aroundtheglobe #travelthoughts #traveldiary #worldtravelbook #travelingthroughtheworld
Napoleon, the stone artist
A voice called out to me. I started, quickly checking if my eyes were too moist for society.
Turning around, I saw a man of late middle age. He looked local, dressed casually in the indifferent islander fashion. He wore a shirt with the Polynesian floral pattern – but he wore it like normal clothes, not like a tourist. I don’t know how to explain this distinction; it’s just one of those things that you instinctively know if your people have cultural clothing that’s still normally worn today, but which are also tourist souvenirs.
He introduced himself as Napoleon. It was a distinctly un-Polynesian name. He was there to visit the grave of his brother, which he indicated with his hand. A local sculptor, he had made the carving on his brother’s grave himself. His English was good enough to sustain a conversation, which is more than I can say for my Spanish.
“It’s a beautiful graveyard isn’t it?” he asked conversationally. I assented.
He went on to say that he liked coming there. Some people find cemeteries distressing, but not him – he found it peaceful. He told me that, unlike many islanders, he was not a Christian. He took a deep breath, and spread his arms wide. It’s the energy, he said. He believed in energy.
The even more scenic way to Tahai
Curious, Napoleon asked where I was from. (The islanders, Rapa Nui and Chilean, noticed that I was not like the usual tourists they receive. But I was obviously also not one of them. Oh if only I had come with better Spanish!)
I told him, and explained where Malaysia was. He asked me my name. When I gave it to him, his eyes lit up.
“Nuirangi!” he repeated, transliterating it to Rapa Nui. “In Rapanui, it means open sky**.” He paused for a moment, to recall the English word. “Universe!”
Excellent! I thought with pleasure. Another cool meaning in yet another language for my name!
After a while, he told me that he intended to go to Rano Kau. He needed some obsidian to make the eyes for a sculpture he was working on. “I can take you up to Rano Kau,” he invited, meaning the crater lake.
But Rano Kau was all the way back where I came from, and then some. Whereas Tahai was already close. Although it was still early for the sunset, I thought I would spend the intervening time in the museum, which seemed nearby on the map. So I told him, “Actually, I am headed to Ahu Tahai today, for the sunset.”
“Oh, I am coming back here afterwards. I will drop you off at Tahai, and it will be in time for sunset,” the artist replied assuringly.
I considered the offer. Was it safe? I had never gone hitchhiking with a stranger before.
On the other hand, this could be interesting. And more importantly, Annapurna had taught me to sense the kindling of inspiration. Do not ignore the NPC side quest. There was something to this meeting.
All right, universe. It’s not really on the way to Tahai. In fact, I’ll be literally going the wrong way. But, we’ll do this your way.
Perhaps I can pick up the museum another day.
The crater lake of Rano Kau
It’s windy up here, I thought. Very windy. In pretty much all the photos at the rim of this crater, I look like a medusa, my hair lifted wild around and over my head. It dies in brief lulls, then picks up speed, blowing the heat of the day away. I felt glad for my windbreaking jacket.
Napoleon had driven straight up to the top of Rano Kau, stopping at the crater lake. It reminded me a little bit of the crater lakes I’d seen before in the Philippines, specifically Taal and Pinatubo. Unlike those lakes, though, Rano Kau looked kind of marshy, with lichens and swampy vegetation. Perhaps, since the other two volcanoes are still active, the sulphurous fumes made their lakes unfriendly to life.
It was just as well, too. This wetland area is among the final spots sheltered enough that the indigenous Rapa Nui ecology survived. A sign by the rim warns the visitor against descending into the crater, to protect the precious, sensitive plant life.
Ultimo refugio de la biodiversidad de Rapa Nui
The last haven for biodiversity in Rapa Nui
From all the way up there, the view was amazing. Hanga Roa sprawled back from the coastline on the other side of a hedge of trees nurtured within the restoration zone. Because of the barren nature of the island, you could see all the way to the other two peaks, and all the hills along the way.
There are fruit trees on Easter Island
I was satisfied. It was getting a bit too cold anyway, being constantly buffeted by wind. So we got back into Napoleon’s jeep and drove back down the hill.
Partway down, he stopped by the side of the road and got out of the car, fishing about on the ground. I assumed – correctly – that he was looking for obsidian chips.
Having found what he wanted, he spied a tall shrub and clambered up the rise to it. He returned with some fruit that had a green and slightly wrinkled skin. We got back in the jeep and continued down the hill.
As he drove, he offered the fruit to me. He told me the name, but I do not remember. Holding them on my lap, I wondered if I was supposed to peel it. I told him, I did not know how to eat the fruit.
“Bite into it,” he said. I examined the fruit sceptically, hoping it was not horrid or hard, and tentatively bit into one. It yielded easily, and the inside turned out to be a pretty coral-pink. It had a mild taste, and the texture was sort of like a fig.
“It’s good!” I told him, and ate a second one.
Arriving at Tahai Archaeological Complex
As Napoleon predicted, we arrived at Ahu Tahai well before sunset. He parked his jeep and we walked together onto the lawn that fell towards the coast. In the distance I could see the line of five partially intact moai that forms Ahu Vai Uri*** – the headline image of the Easter Island sunset. They stood upon a long ahu, the Rapa Nui ceremonial altar. A now-absent sixth moai is suggested by the vacant plinth on the left.
A stray black dog greeted us, and insisted on remaining close by. It looked healthy, and unlike the one that guarded a house near my Airbnb, it was friendly and seemed to understand the concept of personal space (even if its concept of the boundary was a lot smaller than mine). I don’t really get dogs’ earnest friendliness to random strangers, but as in Annapurna, I could tolerate this one.
The landscape around the ahu seemed constructed. The ground had been terraced and sculpted back in parts behind embankments of stone. In the middle, it slopes down towards a channel that was left to flow down to the beach. A canoe berth, perhaps.
In the late afternoon groups of people were already settling themselves on the lawn, enjoying the sunny day and waiting for the sunset. I left Napoleon sitting on the lawn, and stepped down the canal slipway to examine the embankments from below.
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Walking to Hanga Kio’e from Tahai
I looked up to see the sun nowhere near the horizon yet. There was still plenty of time. Enough time, I decided, to make a short hike north to the nearby moai site of Hanga Kio’e.
So I hiked back up the slopes, and wandered on. It was not far; I could see Hanga Kio’e beyond Ahu Ko Te Riku, which was nearer. The black dog appeared by my side. I sighed. It seemed I must have a companion on this hike.
The Hanga Kio’e archaeological complex is not as intact as Tahai. The stone supports of the ahu peeked out of the ground as knobs among the grass. The top had been lost, the soils eroded, and its form became as a natural slope. The moai within this complex, while still standing, showed signs of great elemental weathering. The details of the moai features were mostly obscured by the pitting and wear.
I turned back to rejoin Napoleon for the sunset, the dog cheerfully remaining by. Along the way, trotting across the plains in the distance, was an incongruous sight – a herd of horses, herded by a lone rider. I did not stop, but my head trailed around in bemused wonder as I hiked.
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Wild horses were an unexpected thing on Easter Island; nobody had ever mentioned them anywhere online. But they do run wild on Rapa Nui, in the same way that cows go as they please in India. Presumably brought over from South America, the whimsy of seeing them roaming about a little island in the middle of the Pacific amused me. I suppose, as in India, some of them actually have owners.
The epic sunset at Ahu Vai Uri
Napoleon was still where I had left him. The dog went over to him happily, and I sat, waiting. Waiting for the famous Easter Island image.
The sky began to glow with the colours of a Southern Hemisphere sunset (I swear they’re something special). As the sun dropped toward the horizon, the mutable clouds spread and shifted, scattering and filtering the sunlight.
Glowing, blazing, and catching fire.
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.
*Rapa Nui: This is the name that the native islanders give to the island, and also the name they call themselves. For this reason, I use it frequently in my Easter Island articles, but I still use Easter Island a lot because it is the name by which most of the world knows this place. (BTW, its Spanish name is Isla de Pascua, and this is what you would see on the airport screens).
**Nui rangi: I later worked out that they two words literally translate to ‘big + sky’.
***The famous Tahai sunset silhouette is actually Ahu Vai Uri, but people often refer to it as ‘Ahu Tahai’, after the place, and so I use this term as well because this is what people will search for on search engines. To confuse matters further, there is an Ahu Tahai in this complex, which is a solo moai next to the famous line-up!
Inspiration is something to re-read, so pin for later! And check out Part 2 for how I got to Ahu Tongariki!