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Wild, weird Easter Island

History, mystery abound on this isolated Pacific wonderland

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Fifteen moai stand watch at Tongariki on Easter Island. The largest moai on the 219-metre-long platform weighs 98 tonnes. The site was restored between 1992 and 1996 at a cost of over US$2 million, paid for by the Japanese government.

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Fifteen moai stand watch at Tongariki on Easter Island. The largest moai on the 219-metre-long platform weighs 98 tonnes. The site was restored between 1992 and 1996 at a cost of over US$2 million, paid for by the Japanese government.

Wild horses graze on the grass nearby as I finish up an invigorating hike on Easter Island -- officially known today as Rapa Nui in the local Polynesian dialect. I'm transfixed by the site before me.

It's called Ahu Akivi, and this 38-metre-long stone platform with 4.3-metre-tall moai (carved-stone human figures) has captured my imagination. Representing seven young Polynesian explorers who travelled to Easter Island sometime before AD 900, Ahu Akivi is the only place where these iconic statues gaze enigmatically toward the Pacific Ocean rather than inland.

Why? Well, they're not saying.

During my week-long stay, I discovered that the world's most isolated inhabited island is one of the wildest, weirdest places an active visitor could ever desire. Questions and surprises abound on Easter Island, originally named by Dutch sea captain Jacob Roggeveen, who spotted it on Easter Sunday in 1722.

The triangle-shaped, volcanic island was annexed by Chile in 1888, and before 1951, there were no flights to Easter Island, which lies 3,600 kilometres from the Chilean coast. But today? I arrived on a huge Boeing 767-300 on Mataveri Airport's 3.3-kilometre-long runway, designed to accommodate a potential emergency NASA space shuttle landing.

Accommodations have improved drastically at this UNESCO World Heritage Site since Thor Heyerdahl's day. The famous Norwegian ethnographer, who spearheaded the restoration of fallen moai in the mid-1950s, had to camp with his men on Anakena Beach. Now, the late Heyerdahl's adventures may have been immortalized in the new Oscar-nominated movie Kon-Tiki, but perhaps he would have traded a little immortality for some creature comforts at Explora Rapa Nui, the island's finest hotel.

My room at the 2007-built, hillside eco-lodge had smooth stone floors and light wood walls, and a huge window overlooked the swimming pool, shaded by eucalyptus trees. Every night, I slept in a king-size bed after relaxing in my jetted bathtub. Efficient lighting, on-site recycling and waste treatment, and even biodegradable slippers were among the green-friendly features.

The Explora Rapa Nui dining room provided outstandingly flavourful fuel for my daily adventures. One day, lunch might feature ceviche, duck maigret with saut©ed vegetables and a mixed salad with citrus vinaigrette. The next day, it could include tuna empanadas and locally caught fish served with pineapple, carrots and zucchini.

After filling up my reusable water bottle with in-house purified drinking water, I'd gather with other guests from Canada, the U.S., France and Chile in the airy lobby to get briefed on the excursions I chose each morning and afternoon.

Driving to Rano Raraku, the stark volcanic crater that served as the principal moai quarry circa AD 1000 to AD 1600, was the ideal kickoff.

Our air-conditioned Chevy minivan had to halt once when a mare and her foal trotted blithely across the paved road in front of us, while another horse rolled in the mud. (Some estimate there are upwards of 6,000 horses on the island, many owned by locals but roaming free.)

Still, we made it there safely in about half an hour. Suddenly, dozens of moai loomed on the side of the green peak, some standing but more fallen. It was just as epic as spotting Machu Picchu or the Roman Colosseum for the first time.

Close to 400 statues made of yellow-brown volcanic tuff are located here, and there are between 800 and 1,000 moai in total on Easter Island, depending on whether only full statues are counted or fragments, too. "If we knew everything about this island, it wouldn't be as mysterious or intriguing," said Chilean-born guide Carlos Peralta in fluent English.

Rano Raraku was a sacred, taboo place. According to Carlos, it took at least 30 people from a designated clan over three months to carve a moai. It paid homage to the dead ancestor on top of whose bones it would be erected. Theories vary on how the moai were transported to different sites on this hilly, 165-square-kilometre island. Some believe logs were used as rollers, while local oral traditions indicate they were moved standing up. Either way, it was a monumental task.

The following day, I learned two totally different lessons about how Easter Island can humble any ego. Climbing an enormous, oceanside hill in 23 C weather amid low guava trees and volcanic rocks, native guide Roberto Teao told me how Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose visited at the height of his 1990s fame. Axl got off the plane, saw people waiting with signs, figured they were crazed fans and started dashing for safety.

Moments later, he realized they were just picking up other travellers at the airport. Oops!

At the summit, we cut through evergreen trees and emerged at the edge of an even larger volcanic crater than Rano Raraku. Rano Kau resembled a scene out of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, with a diameter of 1.5 kilometres. You couldn't have felt much smaller.

In solitude and silence, we sat sipping mango juice in this vast cathedral of nature. Figs, bananas and medicinal plants grew in the greenery-laden crater.

We hiked around the perimeter to the cliffside village of Orongo, overlooking the ocean, where the Birdman cult flourished for nearly 200 years, starting in the late 17th century. A great crisis -- involving war, famine and disease -- caused natives to lose faith in the moai, and this cult took over.

The key annual ritual was the Birdman competition. Participants dressed like birds would aim to climb down the cliffs, swim over to nearby rocky islands, grab a fresh-laid sooty tern's egg,and climb back up the cliffs with their prize intact. It was anything goes, including killing your rivals. The winner got to allocate the island's resources for his clan's benefit for a year and also got a bride from the Cave of the Virgins (they weren't very progressive).

 

Today, more than 50 dwellings with stone walls remain here, along with Birdman-themed petroglyphs. The competition ended in 1866 due to the intervention of Catholic missionaries. But as we left the grounds, I overheard Roberto speaking Rapa Nui with a local woman and realized the native culture is still alive.

"There are only 2,000 speakers of Rapa Nui," said Nune Hucke, the great-granddaughter of the mayor of Easter Island when Thor Heyerdahl visited. "The young people know it's very important to learn it, and they use it in their daily lives."

I wasn't about to get fluent in Rapa Nui, but I wanted a taste of the culture.

One night in the 5,000-strong town of Hanga Roa, I soaked up the Kari Kari traditional dance show, with hips swivelling ferociously in beaded skirts amid full-on percussion.

I learned a few Rapa Nui words like "maito" (surgeonfish) when I went on a snorkelling expedition out of the Mike Rapu Diving Centre, enjoying extraordinarily clear water that revealed dramatic coral formations more than 12 metres down.

I clambered into natural lava tube caves, some of which led to precipitous, mid-cliff views of the ocean. I went horseback riding with local horsemaster Pantu Tepano, glorying in the expanse of green plains from atop the hill of Maunga Hiva Hiva. And I hopped on a mountain bike at Explora Rapa Nui and pedalled madly along a coastal road to Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island's biggest stone platform with 15 restored moai.

As I parked my bike, watching a brilliant rainbow appear next to Rano Raraku after a sudden shower, I realized there was much more to experience on this wild, weird, fragile island than I'd anticipated.

Yet somehow, my mind strayed back to Ahu Akivi, where seven solemn stone statues stare out to sea. I hope they find what they're looking for someday.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 E9

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