I decided to hike to Orongo, feeling motivated after my successful attempts to visit the moai sites of Rapa Nui. As the ritual site representing the cult that came to be, following the doom of Easter Island’s moai-building social order, Orongo is the only must-see site of Easter Island that is not related to moai.

Easter Island was always doomed, of course. It is well-known that the island will not be around for always. I mean literally, because the island sits on the Nazca geologic plate. It moves east towards South America, sinking beneath the continental plate, which raises the famous Altiplano of the Andes.

Easter Island would one day simply sink beneath the ocean, just as it had risen from it long ago. 

But of course, moving at just centimetres each year, this would not happen for a while yet, and it was not why the Rapa Nui civilisation collapsed. 

The cult of the Birdman

The Rapa Nui had governed themselves with the same political accord for hundreds of years, ever since the chief Hotu Matu’a arrived with the first Polynesian canoes on the island. The island was divided between the tribes, each with their own chief. A king had authority over the whole island. Called the Ariki Mau, he was always chosen from the tribe who descended from Hotu Matu’a, i.e. the Miru. 

But discontent between the tribes came to a head eventually. A period of resource scarcity pushed it over the edge. The tribes began to war with each other. Rival tribes toppled each other’s moai in order to weaken their enemies.

Eventually, they reached a truce of sorts. With it came the agreement to choose the Ariki in a new way, so that all the tribes had a chance to win the role. They chose to tie it to the religious ceremony honouring the creator god, Make Make, which involved collecting the first egg laid by the sacred Manutara bird that nested on the islets off of Rapa Nui.

In this new competition, each chief would appoint a champion to attempt the dangerous task. The chief with the winning champion would be declared Tangata Manu (= birdman) and would be made Ariki for a period of time. Yep! the champion does not get crowned Tangata Manu… His boss does! 

It was the last significant religious period of the Rapa Nui, before the Peruvian slavers came, and before the first European missionaries. 

Tangata Manu birdman glyph

The Tangata Manu Ceremonial Village at Orongo

But I was ignorant of this ritual when I arrived. It was only later in the week that I realised the significance of the birdlike motifs and statuary that greeted me at the airport. 

Consequently, when I came very close to Orongo on the day I visited Tahai, I did not know to ask Napoleon to make a stop for me there. 

My next clue was the way Orongo was marked on the Rapa Nui National Park map that I received upon purchasing a ticket at the airport. Despite not being a moai site, it was marked in the same size font as the likes of Anakena and Rano Raraku quarry

But the map information did not explain what was in Orongo that elevated it to this level. 

When I finally found out, I could have kicked myself! I could have gone at any time, since it was so near!

I decided to hike to Orongo

It was nearing the end of my stay on Easter Island. I resolved to make my way back to Rano Kau and Orongo, and I was going to do it right! I would hike it, along the very same route taken by the Tangata Manu procession to the ceremonial village of Orongo. Along the way, I was going to stop by the minor sites too – I was pumped! 

Of course, that was before I sprained my ankle.

Not while hiking along the archaeological sites, oh no. Nothing as glamorous as that. Just while walking about the town in Hanga Roa. I somehow tripped on a kerb and twisted it. 

I took a long time thinking about whether I should proceed. It was not a bad sprain, and I took some anti-inflammatories to keep the swelling down. Luckily I had at least seen all of the moai sites by this time.

But on the other hand, I still had some way to go on my round-the-world trip. What if there are must-do hikes at my next stop, Atacama Desert? I couldn’t risk making the sprain worse, and ruining the rest of my journey. 

It was late when I came to a decision. I decided I would still attempt Orongo, but I would go very slowly.

The universe had been more than generous so far, when I trusted it. I’ll leave things up to it. If I make it, I make it.

Polynesian ground hut thatched with palm in the reserve area of Rano Kau
Polynesian traditional hut

Regrets on Easter Island

One of the things I would have done, if I somehow had even more time on Easter Island than I did, was explore the caves.

Once I worked out that ‘ana’ means ‘cave’, I noticed references to caves around the island. If you can move faster because you’ve hired a car, exploring cave sites might be an interesting addition to your itinerary. 

In my case, I decided that I would have to prioritise. I couldn’t see the major sites, have some slow time on the island, and pick up all the caves too. 

Ana Kai Tangata

Well, maybe I could do one. Ana Kai Tangata is marked on the National Park map, and it is just on the way to Orongo.

The meaning of the cave’s name is yet another of Easter Island’s many enigmas. Linguistically – and tantalisingly – Ana Kai Tangata could mean ‘man eating cave’, i.e. the cave of cannibals. (Not to be mistaken with the Malay legend of batu belah batu bertangkup, featuring a sentient cave that literally ate people. But I digress.)

It seemed an easy enough stop, even with my hurt ankle. As my Airbnb was on the south part of Hanga Roa, this cave would not take long to reach. 

(It felt a bit longer, though. Mainly because it was also pissing with rain when I began my hike. This particular excursion was proving quite a bit more challenging compared with how easy it had been to pick up the main Rapa Nui sitesSighhhhh…)

Cannibalism on Easter Island

There was indeed a period of cannibalism in Rapa Nui history after the moai-building period. Oral history has it that the victors of the Tangata Manu competition would feast… and the feasts may have included the competition losers. 

Sensational legends aside, the cave was supposed to be one of the rock art sites of the island. Petroglyphs on its walls depict imagery linked to the birdman ritual. They were said to be similar to the ones found in the houses within Orongo ceremonial village. 

I didn’t see them personally, though. Peeking down the steep algae-covered steps leading into the grotto, I spied a modern use of the cave – a dating location! There was already a young couple exploring the cave and the rocky shoreline before it. That, combined with the potential slipperiness of the steps in the rain, made me err on the side of caution.

Steps leading down to Ana Kai Tangata cave with petroglyph rock art on Easter Island
Steps leading down to Ana Kai Tangata

The trail of the Birdman procession to Orongo

Before long, I came to the sign marking the Te Ara O Te Au hiking trail to Orongo. This trail follows the old route that the Rapa Nui clans took to reach Orongo for the ritual of Tangata Manu. The ritual participants would gather near Mataveri at the start of the trail, before climbing up the volcano in procession. 

Today, the trail begins inside the National Park precinct, which is also a biodiversity conservation zone. Circular stone ‘garden’ enclosures shelter shrubs and saplings across green grass. I passed by areas where saplings had grown to form a thicket. Bizarrely, amongst the slender trees, lurked cows! 

I wondered then, thinking back to the incongruous wild horses of the island, whether the reason that Easter Island is so grassy and green now (i.e. fertilised), is the same as for Sibu Island in Malaysia. Sibu Island also has lots of free-roaming, lawless livestock wandering about like they owned the place! 

Wild cattle on the hiking trail to Orongo
Is that… cattle??

How easy is the hike to Orongo?

The hiking trail up to Rano Kau slopes upward only gently. The way is smooth, passing by mostly open ground fringed by orange flowers.

Nonetheless, I found myself favouring my sprained ankle more and more. 

After a while, I came upon flat ground again, where the trees were larger but spaced further apart. Their roots slither close beneath the ground surface, fusing together at parts. Looking back, the elevation was high enough that you could see across Hanga Roa towards Maunga Terevaka. 

There was a bench here under one of the trees. I gratefully sat for a little while, giving my ankle a rest. 

Fused tree roots at ground level along the hiking path to Rano Kau
Tree roots fused together

Returning to Rano Kau

It took almost another hour for me to finally reach the crater lake of Rano Kau, what with being forced to go so slowly. 

It was still windy up there, just like the first time. I could definitely see why some researchers believe that, once Easter Island lost its forest cover, the strong winds that were now unimpeded had stripped away the topsoil, making it harder for the forest to return. After all, it is something that happens even for rainforests, what more a compact island like this. 

But the sky was fairly clear, turning the dark water a glassy obsidian in the midst of the odd moss-looking spread of plant life on its surface.

How deep did the lake go? I thought of what my host had said, when I asked her where the water supply of the island came from. She said, the main supply was from this very lake. 

It didn’t look like it was very much at all. 

The decline of the Rapa Nui civilisation

One of the enigmas of Rapa Nui is its fall. It’s all but certain that the decline of the Rapa Nui civilisation had something or other to do with resource scarcity. The traditional narrative paints it as a cautionary tale of resource over-use.

It didn’t decline right away, of course. It would make no sense that such a tiny island could sustain a high civilisation for hundreds of years if they didn’t know how to manage their resources. That’s not a thing that happens. They did not simply cut down all their trees because they didn’t know any better, and then got marooned on their own island because they couldn’t make boats to leave. (I’ve heard this version, which is the most unrealistic one). 

Instead, the resource over-extraction supposedly began when the civilisation was at its peak. The different tribes began to compete with each other to build more and more moai, more elaborate and grand. It took a lot of resources to make these – the labour who must be fed, materials to support carving and moving about the stone, etc. etc. 

You might say, how silly to risk the sustainability of limited island resources, just for vanity projects! But then again, right now in our own era, the richest 10% of humanity produce half of all carbon emissions in the world

And what, if not present day versions of vanity, does the top 10% spend this extra, unsustainable share of resources on? 

Silhouette of a tree against the calm water of the Pacific Ocean
The next habitable speck of land is far away

Living on the edge

They probably even believed the activity was sustainable. After all, ask any forestry manager or fisheries expert. Are they not always asked by non-scientists how much the resource can be extracted, how close can we get to the limit, without killing the golden goose? Hey, how much can we push our luck – can you use your knowledge to tell us how far we can go? No, no, I don’t want to hear the caveats. Is it ok or not ok? Aren’t you the expert? Don’t you know?

But the problem with this mindset is, it makes the situation extremely fragile. A single thing going wrong that the expert couldn’t predict, or thought too unlikely, can ruin everything.

Rats proliferated in the new open landscape, and ate the shoots and roots of the palm trees, preventing the forest from regenerating. 

I stood on the peak of this island in the Pacific, the region called the ‘frontlines of climate change’. It’s difficult to ignore the parallels: we’re doing it again, and we have a Biodiversity Crisis today as a result. 

But there are no other islands to flee to, if we lost our island Earth. 

Orongo is closed!

But Orongo was still a little bit further beyond Rano Kau. The rest of the way was tarmac road. I continued on my way, wondering if I’d make it in time.

Ah well. Even if I didn’t, maybe I could wander the outside bits. What was the closing time, anyway? Was it 5pm? or 6? 

It was 6. I arrived just as the ranger closed the gate. 

The Rapa Nui National Park rangers are strict. They are on time, and are vigilant against infractions. So, there was no way I would be allowed into the Orongo complex after closing time.

They even lingered for a little while, until they were satisfied that I wasn’t going to jump the fence or something. 

I have to admit I was tempted. But it wouldn’t be right. I am not entitled to see it, if the host nation does not permit me, just because I came a long way. 

Rano Kau volcanic rim ledge where the ceremonial village of Orongo is located
Gazing towards Orongo. So near, yet so far.

The edge of the Polynesian Pacific

I retreated to the edge of the cliff near the fence of the complex, where I could view the ledge on which Orongo village lies. It was very windy, so I sat myself in the lee of a suitable boulder. 

It was an amazing feat, if you think about it. The Polynesian explorers getting all the way here, I mean. They were among the last of the great canoes exploring the Pacific. Due to their achievement, Rapa Nui became one edge of the Polynesian triangle, the other two being Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Hawai’i. 

Still more amazing, was the degree of culture they attained, despite being all alone, without close neighbours. 

But the story of the island turned enigmatic, because what followed the golden age was loss upon loss. Weakened by the shrinking resources, the culture that faced the slavers who arrived from Peru*, and later the Europeans, was not at its peak

The beginning of my Pacific Odyssey

Yet, despite the many secrets and mysteries associated with Rapa Nui, there was also a familiar feel to it. There were things that spoke of an old relatedness between Polynesia and the Malay archipelago. Things like plants and language. It reminded me of when I visited New Zealand for the first time; a Maori tour guide happily sought to compare words with me, because they were ancient words we still share. 

Our cousins… yet we don’t visit.

I was never interested to venture eastwards into Polynesia before. I had reasoned, they have islands and we have islands. What was there to see that my region didn’t have?

But being there, and receiving the response of the locals – their curiosity over me as a rare non-white visitor – I realised there was a reason after all for me to visit the Pacific islands, though they were so similar to my own region. The people.

We have some common roots, and should have kept in touch. 

Walking away from Orongo

Steeling myself to hike all the way back, I finally recovered my luck. A carful of cheerful LATAM flight attendants passed by, pausing to ask if I needed a lift. Yeah I do! Jammed between them, I found that they were off duty, waiting for their next shift on an incoming flight.

It wasn’t their first time to have downtime on Easter Island. They drove up to Orongo just for fun. I told them I was continuing on to Calama, and then to San Pedro de Atacama.

They were impressed – solo?  How brave! One of the stewardesses warned me about the cocaine addicts in San Pedro. She paused, and continued, Lots of cocaine there, and good quality too. 

I guess… I’ll keep that in mind? I tried not to think about whether San Pedro was going to be as lawless as they implied. I’ll see for myself soon enough. 


*the slavery kidnapping that occurred in the Pacific around this time is called ‘blackbirding‘, and not only practiced by Peruvians. Demand for cheap labour from both sides of the Pacific, i.e. Australia to the west and North & South America to the east, provided the motivation for this phenomenon. Targeted people were indigenous Polynesians and Aboriginal peoples of Australia.

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. 

Hope you have better luck than I did, getting to Orongo! Save this trail and put in some time to see the site of the post-moai ritual of Tangata Manu!

'Launching My Pacific Odyssey on the Trail to Orongo' travel story on slow travel blog Teja on the Horizon | The rim of Rano Kau volcano crater lake looking out to the Pacific Ocean

4 Responses

  1. Penny says:

    I find it so intriguing that one man worked for another man’s honor. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the chief to be the one who embarked on the dangerous task? Oddly, if you take a look at the world today, you can see the same scenario repeated time and time again. Not all leaders are laudable. Far from that in fact. When you look at war, the world leaders send others to do their dirty work. How many have been on foot and faced the carnage with their own eyes? Maybe if they did, there would be less wars, less unrest and greater hope for peace.

    • Teja says:

      It does raise your eyebrows, doesn’t it? That said, it’s probably not terrible. For one, the chief might usually be quite a bit older than the most athletic rep the tribe can muster. For another, a good king may not be the same as a good getter-of-seabird-egg! But surely the champion should get some kind of perk for all his trouble?? Right?

  2. Madhu says:

    Wow this looks incredible and mystic.i never knew much about this part of the world.thanks so much for sharing.hope to visit someday

    • Teja says:

      Yeah, this was when I realised pretty much the same thing. Easter Island definitely requires some commitment, since it’s so out of the way. You’ve gotta want to do it on purpose!

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