The Navel of the World
12.07.2009 19 °C
I was massively excited about coming to Rapa Nui (mostly as a result of reading the excellent Jared Diamond book Collapse). It's sort of like the Galapagos of anthropology, as well as (possibly) being a microcosm of the way we are treating the world. And, weird and isolated as the place is, it definitely hasn't disappointed.
I mean, this place is reeeally isolated. Chile is 3700km to the east; Tahiti in French Polynesia is 4000 km to the west. It's so isolated that we don't believe it was colonised until the first millennium after Christ; and even then once it was colonised we don't think that the islanders had much contact with anyone else until the European era. Which meant that, unfortunately, when they cut down the last tree on the island they were a bit screwed: no wood hence no fires, no canoes (for fishing), no ropes (for building/transport/fishing nets), no tree cover for birds to live in... oops. And nobody to trade with. Which led to a bit of an apocalypse-type scenario. Anyway, more on this later.
The island today is home to about 4000 people, roughly half of them of Rapa Nui stock. It's small enough to drive around in a day easily, but there is only one town (Hanga Roa), where 95% of the people on the island live. The rest of the island is devoted to rebuilt statues and ceremonial sites, ruined sites, and the ground up bones of former ceremonial sites which have been used for walls to pen livestock in. The whole place is like a giant open-air museum. With wild horses walking around everywhere. We had a guided tour around several of the sites, the most important being the quarry where the giant stone heads - called moai were produced. This place was one of the most amazing sites we've been to on the trip - everywhere you look giant heads are poking out of the ground in all states of disrepair. As the ecological catastrophe developed on the island, they (sensibly) took the step of producing more and more bigger and bigger heads - there are about 400 in various states at the quarry, compared with only 900 found on the island at large. Quite an inventory...
The next day we hired a quad bike and took off ourselves around the dirt tracks. The bike came with lots of helpful safety warnings, like
1 - DO NOT USE on public roads
2 - DO NOT USE with more than one person
which filled us with confidence as you can imagine. Turns out that they're a pretty efficient way to get around when the roads are poor, we managed to fill in most of the gaps on the island that we hadn't seen the day before, including the beautiful crater lake.
The building of the larger and larger heads unfortunately but inevitably coincided with the cutting down of the last trees, leading to the ecological collapse which in turn led to a fairly vicious civil war as the sustainable human population adjusted itself. There was also a shift in the belief system away from the moai (which were all toppled and broken during the war) towards awarding respect as part of the Birdman contest. This basically involved, once a year, all the dozen or so tribes nominating a champion from amongst their young men, for a test of strength, fearlessness, and all that good stuff. The young braves would have to climb down the (fairly sheer) cliff at the side of the Rana Koa crater (a 300m drop to the sea), get past the crashing surf into the sea, swim a couple of hundred metres out to the motus (a couple of offshore rocky crags), avoiding the sharks while they did so, not get dashed to pieces on the far side, climb up onto the rocky shore, and wait there (for up to a month) until the black terns migrated back and laid their first eggs. Then, they would take the egg that they have found, strap it to their foreheads in a load of padding, and reverse the process! Including the 300m cliff climb. The first guy to bring back an undamaged egg would be top dog for the year. Obviously, a little bit gutting if you get to the top of the cliff and you've smashed your egg...
We also managed to fit in a couple of days diving, which was c-o-l-d, but interesting to see the different endemic fish (fun fact - islands generally support isolated populations of fish as well as land fauna, as most fish just hang around reefs or areas of interest, not cruising the ocean at wide) and on the last day diving around one of the motus we had 60m visibility! Which was pretty amazing. On the penultimate night we had a traditional dinner/dance combo - normally something we would have run a mile from as there is nothing more depressing than a load of really depressed people doing a dance but this was great fun, everyone seemed to be really enjoying it (probably because they were professionals and had taken the dance around the world already!).
We also met a man in a yellow sleeping bag (see link to the right). More on him when I can figure out how to upload pictures to a Mac...