Rapa Nui – the ‘Navel of the World’ – lies in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Just under 3800km / 2,375mi from the mainland and a good 4200km / 2,625mi from Tahiti, Easter Island is the furthest away from any other inhabited place on earth. For a long time isolated from the rest of the world, this island of not even 25km/16mi in length or breadth nevertheless has a rich heritage of history, art and culture. The island has a triangular shape, with the cone of an extinct volcano in each of its three island points. Due to its small size and the wealth of its culture, the entire island can seem like an open-air museum, with its approx. 1000 moai (statues), cult sites and ancient cave dwellings that are open to the public. These days, a large part of Easter Island is a national park and also listed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List.
Easter Island emerged about 3 million years ago, and was formed by three underwater volcanoes that erupted beneath the Nazca Plate and whose lava streams flowed together to form the triangular island jutting out of the sea. Further eruptions in the centre of the triangle filled it in, to create a proper island. The highest mountain on the island is the „Terevaka“, which, with its 501m/1,644ft might only be considered a hill, except that the section below sea level measures 3000m / 9,843ft. The present landscape of Easter Island is characterised by its many extinct volcanic craters. There are no streams or rivers on Easter Island, although there are three rainwater lakes in the craters. Drinking water comes from groundwater that is regularly replenished by the abundant rainfall throughout the year. Temperatures are subtropical and with no changing seasons, a journey to the island is worthwhile throughout the year. The months of May to October are slightly cooler than the months between November and April, and the most rainfall occurs in April and May.
According to legend, the Polynesian King Hotu Matua set off for the island with several hundred followers in around 700 BC. The reason for the departure from the home territory varies according to different versions of legend: some claim it was due to an argument with the king’s brother, others claim it was a row with another king. Researchers believe overpopulation of the original homeland was the most likely reason for the migration. The new arrivals lived in caves and survived on fishing, as well as by keeping chickens and cultivating potatoes, sugar cane and bananas they had brought with them. The arrival of the first island inhabitants is remembered with a big festival every year, at the end of January.
A unique culture developed in the isolation of Easter Island. Over the course of generations, various clans and a hierarchical class system developed among Hotu Matua’s descendants. Between the 5th century and the 19th century, so-called ahus were built, which were large stone platforms that contained burial sites beneath them. The famous moai figures – representations of their wise ancestors – were erected on top of these platforms. In addition to the ahus, each clan had a communal house. A crisis emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries, however, when the original vegetation had completely disappeared due to deforestation. Still today, the island is characterised by a grassy landscape. The production of ever more elaborate moai had used up many resources, and food for the constantly increasing population had become scarce. The result was war among the clans and all moais were toppled. This is the condition that most of them can still be found in today, for only a few have been repositioned. The era of crisis produced a special worship of fertility, from which the Birdman Cult emerged. When the Dutch became the first Europeans to discover the island on Easter Monday, in 1722, they simply named it Easter Island. It has officially belonged to Chile since 1888.
Hanga Roa is both the capital of Easter Island and the only town anywhere on the island. Almost all of the island’s 3500 inhabitants live there. Hanga Roa is a tranquil rural tourist town. Life revolves in and around the market hall. The church is especially noteworthy, where artistic wood carvings mix Catholic and native elements. Three restored ahus complete with upstanding moais can be found by Tahai („Where the sun hides“). On one of them stands Ko Te Riku – the only ‘seeing’ statue on the entire island, with eyes of white coral and black obsidian.
The ceremonial site of Orongo with its small stone houses lies right by the crater of the Ranu Kau volcano. The crater’s edge is 324m/1,063ft high and the crater itself has a diameter of 1.5km/1mi. The summit offers a spectacular view over the sea and the three motus. These small islands were the destination for the chosen young men during the Birdman Cult activities that took place at Orongo. One man per clan was sent to swim and climb the motus to steal the first tern’s egg of the year. The chief of the victorious clan then became king of all Rapa Nui for one year.
The Moai workshop is probably the most interesting sight on Easter Island and lies by the Ranu Raraku volcano. It is here, in the quarry, that the moais were carved from the massive rock. The hillsides of the volcano are still littered with these giant figures, ready for transportation that never happened. Higher up the volcano, more moais can be found in various stages of completion, some still connected to the rock, as if work on them was abandoned from one day to the next. Ascending to the edge of the crater is worthwhile, because there are more moais to be seen lying inside it and the view across the crater lake is beautiful, especially at sunset. Not far from the volcano lies the Ahu Tongariki which is possibly the most beautiful of all the ahus. 15 restored moai throne upright here and gaze across their island with the Pacific Ocean behind them.
Anakena beach where King Hotu Matua came ashore with the first settlers lies at the northern end of Easter Island. The sand is white and coconut palms planted there live up to every tourist’s vision of a tropical beach. Anakena is the only beach on the island suitable for swimming. No wonder the royal families lived here and only permitted other islanders to set foot on the beach during special occasions. A little further to the east of Anakena lies the Ahu Te Pito Kura. This is where the Te Pito Kura („The Red Navel“) is located: a large, round smooth stone that is said to have magic powers. According to legend, King Hotu Matua himself brought the stone with him. At a height of 10m / 32ft , the tallest moai ever erected stands on the Ahu Te Pito Kura.