If, like me, you wonder about the explorers who discovered Easter Island, you have to go to Ahu Akivi.

It was my fifth day on Easter Island. So far, I had gone to Tahai for the sunset, and Tongariki for the sunrise. And from Tongariki, it was not difficult to pop over to Rano Raraku, and pick up Anakena on the way back. In five days, without renting a car, I somehow still managed to see a lot of moai sites on Easter Island.

But then there was Ahu Akivi, which was near the centre part of the island, and up a hill. I had no idea how – or if – I was going to get there. It was just far enough to be a time-consuming walk, but I had decided earlier not to rent a car on Easter Island.

It seemed silly now, to rent a car for just the one day. Should I suck it up and bike it? Or should I really spend my remaining time exploring other things instead? After all, did I really have to see every moai site on Rapa Nui?

Having no other ideas, I did exactly the latter in the morning, exploring the craft market and sitting in the little park by the Rapa Nui church, listening to Polynesian mass.

The Catholic church on Easter Island
Rapa Nui church

How I got to Ahu Akivi after all

But once again, I did succeed in getting to Ahu Akivi after all! And it happened, because I had gone on a date

I was asked by a well-mannered, dimpled Chilean who dreamt of owning his own restaurant one day, but was working two jobs on the island because it was better money than on the mainland. His English was quite good, since he had gone to Australia to learn, so we took to chatting. Upon learning that I was interested in stargazing, he offered to bring me to a spot on the island with the best visibility.

It was an interesting date, in its own bizarre way. I learned more than I expected about garbage collection on Rapa Nui because of his restaurant job chores. I discovered how uncomfortably windy Easter Island can get at night, out in the open. And incidentally, I discovered that it doesn’t take much for a Latin American to be inspired to move to Malaysia and open a Chilean-Malaysian restaurant… I can see how Latin American guys got their impetuous reputation!

Chancing upon the stone artist again

But it wasn’t my admirer who took me to Ahu Akivi.

It’s because I stopped by his other job after my morning at the craft market. And who should be passing by, honking his car horn at me, but Napoleon – the artist who took me to Tahai

“What are you doing today?” Napoleon asked from inside the car. 

“I don’t know!” I replied, coming over to his open window. “But I am trying to find a way to go to Ahu Akivi.”

“I have a barbecue at my family home*, come join us,” he invited. “Afterwards I will take you to Ahu Akivi.”

I hesitated. I don’t eat meat while travelling, but did not want to be rude. Besides, it’s something special when a local islander invites you for a home meal! I asked if perhaps the barbecue included fish.

It did. So once again, I trusted in the universe, and got in the car. 

Hibiscus growing in the lawn of a Rapa Nui family home
Hibiscus in a local garden

Language barriers at the barbecue

We drove south, beyond Hanga Roa. Up a slight rise was a sort of farmhouse that looked like it was partially under construction, with a smaller building nearby. Napoleon explained that his family was renovating, making the home larger.

We climbed a few short wooden steps onto the verandah, and he introduced me to his extended family. 

There didn’t seem to be any obvious signs of a barbecue. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, most of the food had been polished off by his family. There were still snacks and soft drinks though, and I sat for a bit while Napoleon conversed with them. 

But while Napoleon could speak enough English to communicate with me, my Spanish was not anywhere enough to bridge the gap with his family. A couple of relatives asked me where I was from, but I was not able to explain a country that they did not know. 

After a while, Napoleon made his excuses, and told me he would take me to Ahu Akivi.

Ahu Akivi: The scouts who discovered Easter Island

I first heard about this site just before my trip to Easter Island. My colleague in the Netherlands had mentioned it, and that was when I learned something special about Ahu Akivi. It is the only moai altar on the island where the moai faced the sea, rather than inland.

According to legend, scouts were sent to find Rapa Nui by the Polynesian chief, Hotu Matu’a, after his priest was inspired by a dream in which the king’s spirit discovered the island across the ocean. Having found the island, most of the scouts returned. But seven stayed behind, and waited on Rapa Nui for the arrival of the king and his settlers. Thus the seven moai of Ahu Akivi were erected within the king’s own territory, and face the ocean in their honour. 

Interestingly, this ahu is apparently also the most astronomically precise. It faces the sunset exactly at the spring equinox, with their backs to the sunrise for the autumn equinox. 

Entrance sign at Ahu Akivi, Rapa Nui National Park, with the moai platform in the distance
Arriving at Ahu Akivi

Bilingual dichotomy to the question: ‘who discovered Easter Island?’

One of the life experiences that I can’t recommend enough, is being bilingual. I don’t mean, ‘being able to speak enough of another language to communicate’. I mean, being so fluent in at least one other language, that you consume literature and media in both languages across your life. 

The reason is that it gives you hints about your linguistic blind spots, in the ways you accept information, classify and prioritise it, and consequently how you generate your worldview. Just by toggling a phrase or query from one language to another, you can compare how one answer works in the first language and totally makes no sense in the other.

Now here’s something interesting. If I were to translate the question ‘who discovered Easter Island’ into my native language Malay (siapa yang menemui Pulau Easter), my instinctive answer would be: ‘the Easter Islanders’. I would be thinking about the first humans to settle the island. It would not make sense to understand such a general question otherwise. ‘Who’ would encompass any human. To enquire about specific categories of humans to reach Easter Island, the question is typically qualified (e.g. ‘Who was the first European to discover Easter Island?’). 

The curious thing is, if I asked myself the same question in English, my instinct is to answer: ‘that Dutch explorer’! I’d automatically be thinking of the first European who reached the island! When using my Anglo brain, ‘who’ only encompasses Caucasians!

I’m not sure why. Perhaps, when I store a fact in both languages, my memory preferentially pulls it up from the English worldview, when asked a question in English, and vice versa. And in the English worldview, the ‘discoverer’ of Easter Island always tacitly means, the first European who reached it. 

Seven moai of Ahu Akivi representing the scouts left on Rapa Nui awaiting Hotu Motu'a and his settlers
Seven brave scouts

Leaving Ahu Akivi for Puna Pau

There wasn’t much more to see at Ahu Akivi, so I re-joined Napoleon who had been hanging out at the ranger’s office while I explored. He told me that I needed to see Puna Pau next. 

This day was getting better and better!

I had actually given up on reaching Rapa Nui’s second quarry site, since it was up on a different hill than Ahu Akivi. I thought, even if I hiked all the way to Ahu Akivi, surely I wouldn’t have time to hike all the way up another hill.

We drove along the slightly meandering roads in the middle of the island. The terrain was bare, but every so often there were isolated houses and small farms. It was mid-afternoon, that time of day when heat fairly radiated from the ground. 

By the side of the road was a lone female hiker, signing to hitch a ride. Napoleon stopped. Laura was Spanish, but also spoke English. Travelling solo, she had come to Ahu Akivi before us. He asked if she would like to join us to Puna Pau, and she quickly agreed. 

The topknot quarry of Easter Island

The stone artist turned up the hill to the quarry site of Puna Pau. Once again, he hung back at the national park office, motioning for the two of us to go in and explore. 

Puna Pao is a sprawling landscape of hills. Several points on the trail gave great landscape views of the surrounding countryside. It reminded me of the English midlands, or perhaps, the area around Auckland’s volcanic hills. The tourist trails meander around them, passing close to a few locations where stout, generally identical cylindrical blocks of stone lay on the grass.

Puna Pau was where the Rapa Nui quarried the pukao**, blocks of stone that were placed on top of the moai; Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena still have theirs on. 

There doesn’t seem to be certainty on whether the blocks represented hats (and variations such as headdresses and turbans) or topknots. Indeed, in Spanish, the pukao is referred to as sombreros. But, from looking at the original dress of the Rapa Nui from a magazine given to me by an artist in Hanga Roa, I feel like topknot may be the more likely interpretation. 

Pukao stone topknots on the ground at quarry site Puna Pau, Easter Island
The Easter Island statues have topknots!

The more interesting question is, why were they placed on the moai separately? Why not carve them as part of the moai? After all, no other parts of the moai were separately assembled. Why quarry, carve, transport, and assemble this one piece separately?

It’s because the stone from Puna Pau is a different colour. It is iron-rich, like the stone used in the seaside sculptures on the west coast, and so it has a red cast to it. 

This is important, because legend has it that Hotu Matu’a was… a redhead

The red-headed chief who founded Rapa Nui

I overheard a tour guide mention this to her group on my second visit to Rano Kau. Hotu Matu’a, the legendary Polynesian chief credited by the Rapa Nui themselves with the discovery of Easter Island, had one highly distinguishing feature. Although Polynesians are generally dark-haired, he was a redhead.

Supposedly, it then became the fashion among his followers to dye their (presumably not red) hair with reddish earth to emulate him. And that’s why all of the moai, carved to represent elders in Rapa Nui society, were fitted with red stone pukao

Tourist path in the archaeological site Puna Pau quarry, Rapa Nui National Park
Leading to the pukao stones

Later, I discovered that there are myth tales across the Pacific, in which Polynesians settling new islands sometimes found a prior race already inhabiting its interior forests. This race is invariably fair-skinned, and red-haired. It is also said that reddish hair is associated with rulership and rank in Polynesian culture, although I don’t know whether these two things are related. That didn’t stop others (mainly in white nationalist circles) from speculating over whether Hotu Matu’a was truly Polynesian by ethnicity.

It is fun to imagine Vikings (or perhaps Celts, given the myths always find them in forests) making their way around the world to reach the Pacific. After all, Vikings did make their way to the Middle East in the European Dark Ages, and trade routes from there did reach the edge of Melanesia at the time. Who’s to say that an intrepid group might not have quietly gone further east, unnoticed by mainland historians?

Wallahua’lam. Only God knows. But even if it were true, national identity and belonging – before the age of partisan nationalism – was never only by ethnic lineage.***

Invited to an artist’s home

Napoleon insisted on showing us his own home afterwards. Laura and I accepted, and we headed to one of the Hanga Roa neighbourhoods. 

His home was like you would expect an artist’s home to be. A lush garden, both productive and decorative, lay verdant and rambling out front. Hung strategically on display upon various branches were petrified wood in interesting shapes – some of them carved. The house was painted a bright blue. Its main pillars were wooden and carved with totem faces. 

Within was simple, but spacious. Leaving us among the indifferent clutter of various household and creative projects-in-progress, he went to get us bananas. He insisted on entire bunches, but I reminded him that I would be leaving in a couple days, so we took a more sensible amount. 

Close to sunset, we decided to go to Tahai again. As we walked out to the car, we were greeted with a treat. A huge rainbow stretched across the sky, with another, fainter one above. It was the biggest, most perfect rainbow I had ever seen. It was just like how a child would stereotypically draw it, which I had always assumed to be an idealised version. 

But it is not, and I saw the proof with my own eyes. The Southern hemisphere was laying its charm on me. 

Double rainbow in the Easter Island sky over a residential neighbourhood
Looking up at the double rainbow

Rapa Nui’s final concert

Back in Tahai, we walked to the shoreline. I went exploring down at the beach again, peering at lichen between rocks, and discovering a kind of small isopod on the rocks. But there was not much more to see compared to my first visit, and after a while we went back to find a spot to sit on the lawn. 

The Tahai sky was cloudier the second time around. But really all that does around here, is create a differently dramatic evening. Light spilled down onto the sea from a window in the cloud, turning the scene into a sacred painting. 

Closer to sunset, the clouds closed, and yet the sun still sent broad yellow beams as though breathing fire upon the Pacific. We watched, until it sank completely below the horizon.

Twilight began, turning a pastel pink cast to the clouds, reminiscent of a Renaissance painting. And the people on the lawn applauded, as if it had been a performance. 

Evening sun over the silhouette of moai of Ahu Vai Uri
Nature’s performance art

The universe is the best tour guide

I reflected, then, on my incredible luck. The feeling of surreality returned. I had indeed gone to see all the major sites of Easter Island – and then some. And how!

I had doubted. When I tried to plan it all, it seemed far-fetched without a car. But this new approach to new things, different from the way I used to approach things in life, seemed to be working even if I didn’t understand how. It simply involved embracing the thing that you have in your hand, instead of trying to plan for what you think you want. 

So I had started with Tahai, and met Napoleon, the stone artist. I did a dive, and met Alex, the taxi driver. With Alex, I picked up the entire northern coast, and even lesser known spots I wouldn’t have known on my own. I was reunited with Napoleon because I accepted a date with Francisco. And that completed the tour, coming full circle, back to Tahai. 

Life seems at times incongruously like a video game, in that the thing you’re given, right now, whether you like it or not, is always the right thing. If you commit and play along, you’ll encounter pieces that lead to the rest – and the end will be everything you could wish for. 

Rapa Nui landscape from the viewing point in Puna Pau
Discovering Rapa Nui


* Later, in Tonga, I learned that it is Polynesian culture to prepare a meal baking in a ground oven on Sundays while they attend church. Afterwards there would be a family feast.  

** Considering that the Austronesian languages are all related, it did cross my mind that this Rapa Nui word, pukao, might have an analogue in my own language. The word I thought of is pukau, which is a Malay word that means ‘to hypnotise’ or ‘mesmerise’. It seemed like it wouldn’t fit the context, so I thought it must only be a coincidence and thought no more about it.

But recently, it occurred to me that pukao might have come to mean a sign of charisma, which is a kind of fascination. And I couldn’t help but recall that there is a type of haberdashery in English culture that is literally called a ‘fascinator’. Please comment below if you know the possible meanings of the Rapa Nui word pukao, or know a similar word in another Austronesian language.

Ethnicity context before the Age of Exploration

*** I was curious, and tried looking this up on the internet. As far as I can tell, anthropologists do not seem to credit seriously the notion that redheaded Polynesians were actually racially European. But even giving the theory the benefit of the doubt, I don’t really see why white nationalists (let alone supremacists) would be excited. If such a migration had happened, it would have occurred early in the European Dark Ages.

Racial relations were quite different in that period of human history. For one thing, you could equally be enslaved as a white or black person, and equally be enslaved by a black or white nation. There was certainly a lot of conflict among nations. But white supremacy was not a thing. Philosophies assigning evolutionary hierarchy according to skin colour, and the notion of ‘white man’s burden‘, hadn’t been invented yet. 

Besides, supposing that some Norse explorers somehow reached Polynesia, they would be unusual for Europeans. When the Enlightened Europeans finally went exploring, it was to find resources for their home in Europe. But these hypothetical Norse explorers made their homes where they were. They would, therefore, have been true colonisers, unlike the later Europeans whose ‘colonisation’ in the Age of Exploration invented new meaning to the word: that you could ‘discover’ and ‘colonise’ a land that already has people in it. (Before that, everyone called this ‘conquest’). 

And most importantly, by all accounts these hypothetical Norsemen identified as Polynesian, not European. And clearly the Polynesians accepted them as Polynesian – not European. Considering the ethnic norms at the time of this hypothetical migration, it would puzzle them that their voyage should have any meaning to white nationalists, who they would consider as a completely unrelated people!

Reddish stone from Puna Pau quarry, intended to be pukao topknot for moai on Easter Island
Puna Pao’s red stones

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. 

Feel inspired by Rapa Nui to try out slow, independent travel? Pin for later! 

"The Moai of They Who Discovered Easter Island" travelogue on Teja on the Horizon slow travel blog | The moai of Ahu Akivi on Easter Island, Chile, looking out towards the sea

4 Responses

  1. This is such a beautiful story! I loved every word and makes me eager to follow your steps. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Karen says:

    Vikings in Easter Island… how would have thought it. Been a great series to read. kx

    • Teja says:

      It is a very tempting ‘what-if’ fantasy LOL Thanks, as a writer, I like it when I’m writing about the trips that end up having a kind of arc through them.

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