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December 14

December 14, 2008

Having toured the east of the island yesterday, our plans for today were to check out the volcanic crater of Rano Kau to the south via a walking track looping around the bottom point of the island. Before long, we were on the road, walking out of town in what appeared to be the right direction. Still, we took a few strange turns before finding the walking trail proper leading off the road.

The sun was bright and shining, though graciously not beating down on us quite so strongly as yesterday, which gave our sensitised skin a bit of a break. The trail was of the dirt track variety, and led us first through a group of manavai that had been lovingly maintained by Conaf as a display garden. Manavai are circular walls built of stones that function as garden beds, making it easier for the people of Rapa Nui to monitor the soil and separate plantings. The manavai have been so effective that many of them survive today scattered around the island, and some endemic species still grow in them despite having disappeared from the wild.

After exiting the garden, the trail took a sharp upward turn as it started to ascend the volcano. The walk was not as long as expected, perhaps only an hour and a half or so, but we took it easy nonetheless, stopping occasionally to look back down the hill at the wonderful view of Hanga Roa and the surrounding coast. Soon enough we climbed over the lip of the hill on to a road, and on the other side was the crater.

The crater was wonderful- almost perfectly round and perhaps four hundred metres deep. The steeply sloping walls were black and green in places where a moss-like vegetation had managed to work its way into the scree, and the base was covered in countless small lagoons of clear, sweet water. The resulting effect was a blue a green patchwork protected by steep, green-tinged cliffs and painted yellow on top. Out to our left, and visible through a gap in the crater wall, was the endless blue Pacific. The islanders traditionally used the crater as a giant manavai, and there is one plant still growing there that is the only specimen of its type.

We trod over the long yellow grass on the crater lip, making our way around the top of the crater to find ourselves at the entrance to Orongo, a ceremonial village used by the islanders some time after the ancestor worship cult had given way. The village was the scene of the Birdman ritual, a tribute to the creator god Make-Make. After paying our dues to the polite guard in a little hut at the entrance, the path led us past a collection of round stone houses with low ceilings, which were cut into the hillside to protect from the strong winds on the cliff-top promontory. The uts were thick-walled and really very low, the doors being little more than holes to slide through on your stomach. The funerary towers at Sillastani had bigger entrances! A series of ritualistic dwellings and observation points later, we located the petroglyphs for which the site is known, and climbed onto the roof of a hut to look past them to the bright blue ocean and a collection of small islands. This place was the centre of the birdman ritual.

Once a year, a collection of the fittest and most ambitious men would gather at this spot to vie for the grandiose title of Birdman. Some were in it for themselves, and some participating on behalf of a tribe chief or wealthy aristocrat. The competition began with the men climbing down the cliffs- but standing where we did, looking down, I didn’t see how a person could survive. These cliffs were vertical and at least a few hundred metres deep, ending in sharp rocks and fierce waves at the base. The next task was to swim out to sea, heading toward Moto Nui, a small, rocky island some distance out, probably a kilometre or two, where the participants would need to find a way up. Once aboard the island, the men waited.

The object was to be the man to seize the first egg of the season from a nesting sooty tern, a seabird who called the island home. Once they had it, they needed to find their way back, where they would be met with fame, glory and a razor to spend a year eyebrowless in isolation in the house underneath the petroglyphs, revered as a messenger to the creator god. The last ceremony took place in 1867, which is surprisingly recent in the scheme of things.

The petroglyphs themselves were carved into the boulders at the cliff top and were in startlingly good condition for their exposed location. They depicted scenes from the ritual, as well as the seabirds and a number of other animals. By far the best petroglyphs I’ve seen on the trip, and well worth the entry fee.

The village, though spectacular, was small, and it wasn’t too long after taking our fill of it that we started back down the hill toward the campsite. It had been great to see such a beautiful place with such an amazing story behind it, and I spent most of the downward trek thinking about Birdmen. We ran into Ludwich from the hostel in Santiago on the way down the hill and stopped for a quick chat. We arrived back at the campsite around four o’clock (via a few shops to pick up some souvenirs), where I spent the evening diligently packing in the fading light while Tom… well, I don’t know really, he was somewhere, doing something. We kept our eyes out for our last of the brilliant island sunsets we’d come to look forward to at day’s end, and went to bed fairly early in preparation for our big days of flying coming up.

It was the last of our real holiday days today. From here, I think, the transition will be quick- only a day in the air to think about adjusting before we’re back to our normal lives.

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