Wed, May 03, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Rapture at the end of the world

The ruins of Pompeii and Machu Picchu, like most of anitquity, are frozen in time. On Easter Island, however, you can see the whole lifecycle of an ancient culture

By Edward Albee  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

A tourist inspects a moai in Rano Raraku, the main quarry of the moais statues of Easter Island.

PHOTOS: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Is it possible to get to Easter Island without traveling a very long distance? No; it is not. If you live in New York City you will fly to Santiago, Chile -- 11 1/2 hours -- rest a day, and then take another jet plane five hours into the Pacific to reach your goal. (And the planes go from Santiago only a couple of times a week.) The trip may be an hour shorter if you live in New Zealand, but don't count on it.

This tiny speck of South Pacific lava can be reached by boat, of course. That's how the Polynesians got there around 700AD, but it's a long, long trip by water. It's a long, long trip from anywhere by any means, but is it worth it? As they say in certain parts of the US Middle West -- "You bet!"

My five days on Easter Island have been one of the high points of my traveling life. I recommend it to anyone who's willing to spend the time on the island required for a full experience. A quick trip in and out (even if it could be arranged) would be such a waste. Cruise ships do drop by on rare occasions. One -- a round-the-world tour of Japanese travelers -- stayed two days while I was in residence, letting passengers off in small groups for a six-hour visit. It was barely enough time for them to photograph each other photographing the wonders.

Easter Island (16km by 24km) was formed eons ago by three massive volcanoes rising from the sea. These -- and lesser eruptions -- formed the island, which, except for a minor area fit for farming and living, is lava with a thin layer of infertile soil. Most of the island is strewn with stone, with jagged cliffs for a coastline. The island is also strewn with over 800 gigantic and breathtaking statues averaging over 6m high. Only a relative few of these are upright and in original placement, but many of the rest can be seen and visited, half buried or prone. The experience is very much like visiting a fiction we have not imagined.

The island was settled -- probably about 700AD; at least these are the newest estimates -- by Polynesians exploring eastward. One group went northeast and found the Hawaiian Islands (uninhabited, of course) and another group went southeast and ended up on an island bare of people but covered with huge palm trees, naming it Rapa Nui (it was later renamed Easter Island by the captain of a Dutch ship that arrived there on Easter Sunday in 1722). These two groups traveled in large canoe-like vessels -- double-hulled, perhaps -- along with their small animals and fowl, and grain and root vegetables. The landing at Easter Island was difficult as there are only two small congenial beach areas on the entire island. But it was accomplished, and while further journeys may have brought new settlers, no one ever left Easter Island. There was no way home.

Shawn McLaughlin's essential book, The Complete Guide to Easter Island (Easter Island Foundation, 2004), deals in great detail with the settlement, growth and eventual, almost complete depopulation of the island. As well, it tells of the shameful treatment of the natives by European explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries and the self-destruction of their culture by the natives before the European invasions. It is a sad history, and you should know it before you go. The book describes in clear and specific terms the construction and moving and placement of the statues (moai) to the vast ceremonial stands (ahu) around the island. It is the one guidebook you will need.

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