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December 13

December 13, 2008

I had a very solid night of sleep in the tent after carefully holding off from rest on and after yesterday’s flight. Even though my self-deflating mattress was as flat as a teatowel by morning, on I dozed until well after nine o’clock. When we did rise, it was quite lovely to stick our heads out of the tentflap and see the mighty, endless Pacific Ocean sweeping away to the horizon.

Three coffees and a mixed bowl of ChocoForties and Carrefour-branded corn flakes under the large square sunshelter at Camping Mihinoa were deemed an adequate fuel stop for the day ahead, and off we walked to the inner streets of Hanga Roa, where we had an appointment to pick up a motorcycle. The only real settlement on Easter Island is a rustic place, and does not look as wealthy as I’d expected – some part of me had anticipated cleaving to the cheapest holds of a manicured tourist theme park with everything hideously overpriced, but in fact things are reasonable enough, there aren’t too many tourists, and the overall vibe is country town, not scam zone. There are palm trees, banana trees. I don’t know Polynesia, so I’m going to call the vibe Caribbean. The locals are all barefoot, bare shouldered, in shorts and tattered tank tops, with baseball caps and surfboards. The break for surfers off Hanga Roa is impressive, although the jagged volcanic rocks they’re surfing towards might give some cause for concern.

We arrived on time for our moto booking and picked up a silver, slightly scuffed thing called a Yamaha F8, practically a clone of Max’s Bug Espresso from Canberra in design, with continuously varying transmission and an engine size somewhere around the 125cc mark. This type of scooter is easier to ride than a pushbike, but since it was only the second powered vehicle I’d controlled since April – last time I steered anything was Christian the paraglider’s 4WD in Panajachel, Guatemala – and Max was on the back, and we didn’t have helmets, I was taking all due care.

We set off to Hanga Roa’s east along the south coast of the island, bickering a little about an appropriate speed for the bike. At Ahu Vinapu we had our first moai sighting of the day, a rocky promontory with several of the large heads recumbent on a ruined platform. The Easter Island landscape was bright and picturesque in the sunlight, amongst rolling green hills and sharp rocks. It is a bare place with a marked lack of diversity in its plant life.

The moai are always described as “inexplicable” and popularly associated with alien landings and so forth, but it seems widely accepted in the literature on the island that they were part of an ancestor cult in which large family groups competed to erect the most impressive monuments to their forebears. Where the figures have toppled, it is speculated that their collapse was the result of inter-family skirmishes in which “ancestor tipping” played an important role, demoralising and humiliating the opposition. The cult itself is defunct, having been replaced by a series of rituals based around the “birdman” event in later centuries, which are also now defunct.

The moai have a dispassionate, gentle but stern look to them in the present day, grey and eroded by time, eyeless, perhaps with some of the melancholy demeanour of the old black and white Frankenstein. But in their heyday they were painted, and had large cylindrical stone “topknots” perched on top of their flat heads, and white granite eye-pieces complete with pupils, which would have given them a much fiercer, more cartoonish outlook. It is easy to confuse the bare, monochromatic elegance of a ruin with the aesthetic character of the days in which it was originally constructed, as we have found with other sites such a Chichen Itza.

We continued along the coast road, stopping off frequently to walk around the foreshore and inspect more of the remnant moai. It was warm and a fresh breeze was blowing, and I was really enjoying being back on a motorcycle, which is quite a liberating feeling when you’ve been relying almost exclusively on transportation controlled by other drivers for months.

Further around the south coast and some way inland is the crater of Rano Raraku, which we reached after an hour or two of moai-hopping. Aside from being one of two huge volcanic calderas on Easter Island, Rano Raraku was the site at which the hard volcanic rock used in the construction of moai was mined. Here we saw the finest Easter Island Heads yet, their main pieces nearly perfectly preserved, still buried up to the shoulder in solid earth. Max accordingly interrupted our wandering to take some silly perspective shortening photographs of my oversized head next to a moai.

Where the material for the moai had been extracted there was an oblong gash in the mountainside. A vast volume of rock had been carved out and taken away. They were carved in place, as could be told by two places where a nearly complete new moai lay still embedded in its rocky womb, waiting for finishing touches before it could be cut from the volcano. Bearing in mind that the first colonists of Rapa Nui had no metal tools, making even one of these huge statues would’ve been an incredible achievement. To make hundreds seems absurd.

Hawks were circling above Rano Raraku, occasionally alighting on the tops of the statues which made convenient landing points for them. We cast about for a while for a footpath up to the crater lip, but since some indeterminate time in the past many of the old paths have been closed to tourists, and frustratingly we weren’t able to get close enough for a look.

We gave up, retrieved our hire scooter from where we’d dumped it under the shade of some bushes in the car park below, and rode on. Stopping briefly to observe petroglyphs at Ahu Te Pito Kura – to be frank, I don’t find the cruder type of rock carving particularly impressive, especially when the examples are only six or seven hundred years old – we continued with all haste to Anakena, Easter Island’s only officially swimmable beach. We’d been out in the sun with no shade and no food for hours, and were starving, boiling and probably rapidly getting sunburnt despite all efforts with the last of our suncream.

As we approached the coast at Anakena, which is on the northern side of Rapa Nui, we could see at a glance that the water would be calm and relaxing. The bay was very sheltered, and the white beach marked out by a row of palm trees. On the right, an unattended lifeguard tower overlooked the water adjacent to a a small diving platform.

Before swimming, we made sure to buy some anticuchos at a mobile food stall, mixed kebab sticks with sausage and chicken. The local cuisine seems to be barbecued meat here. The food was pretty cheap, and pretty good. While Max wandered down to the waterside I strolled to a patch of sclerophyll beside a row of guardian moai and discreetly whipped my pants off in favour of my boardies.

The water was cold and clear, and we only stayed in for a few minutes. Not having brought a towel with me, I stretched myself out in exhaustion directly on the fine, resonant sand, which with my head down on my crossed arms was amplifying every conversation and footstep around us, turning the whole beach into a sound stage. I was able to listen in on some of the silly conversations that tourists have, basically the same kind of conversation that Max and I have all the time at the moment, revolving around food, lodging, travel arrangements and exchanges of limited knowledge about the local sights.

In the twenty minutes or so I had on the sand, I’m pretty sure I managed to pick up about half of the disastrous sunburn with which I finished the day. Claro que llegara el cancer. We walked a little along the beach, saw some sanctioned campers in a copse of tea-trees up on the hill, and walked back, where I needed a thorough second dunking to clean the sand off my face, arms, legs, chest and lips from where I’d been lying in it.

It was a fairly long ride back from Anakena to our campsite in Hanga Roa, although at least we were able to cut across the island on a sealed road instead of going back the entire way we’d come. In my tanktop from Macy’s in New York, with my shoulders still bared, I could palpably feel ultraviolet rays threading the hole in the ozone layer and killing the surface of my skin. I’m going to regret the amount of sun I’ve picked up in the next few days.

We walked back through town after dropping off the bike, and the moment we were back at the site, I realised I’d left my togs and my wet microfibre minitowel in the under-seat recess – so I had to walk twenty minutes straight back to the hire place to collect them, and then back again to the site. While I finished off the last of a “rooted in Celtic mythology” snoozefest called “The White Raven”, typical of its breed, and quite typically written by a Californian mediaeval history postgraduate (what is it with Californians and bad Arthurian adaptations?), Max concocted a rather interesting pasta with “mornay” from ravioli, cream sauce, and a tin of tuna. Another sublime and stunning Easter Island sunset occurred to our west as the day concluded, enormous white breakers throwing spray up almost into the campsite from the ocean twenty or thirty metres away, and we allowed the evening to slip away over one or two glasses of wine. Further down towards the shore, some of the numerous Japanese tourists at the campsite had set up a bonfire and were grilling tuna head on it enthusiastically.

We are almost at the end of the trip, and there is now an urge to somehow maximise the psychological benefit of what is left to us, to suck up some of the extra quiet in the quiet moments. In two days, we’ll be on one of a series of aircraft that will eventually get us to Australia.

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