By: Burton A. Falk
IN HIGH PLACES - EASTER ISLAND (RAPA NUI)
By Burton “Remote and Unusual” Falk
The Internet is a wonderful tool for those of us who attempt to arrange climbs in remote and unusual places around the world.
Take Easter Island, for instance, that lonely speck of land, 2,294 miles off the west coast of South America and 2,517 miles east of Tahiti, claimed to be the most isolated populated island on earth. (Indeed, Pitcairn Island, 1100 miles to the west, is its closet inhabited neighbor).
Three months before my wife, Jo, and I were scheduled to arrive at the island on the cruise ship m/ s Amsterdam, I e-mailed an island tour company (rapanuitours.com) in regards to hiring a car and a guide, in order to make an attempt on Maunga Terevaka, the island’s 1,663’ high point.
Shortly thereafter, I received the following reply: “There is no problem, whichever tourists go to do tour and if they wish guide in ingles, German, frances or Spanish in order to offer a package to him. Thank you Francisco Vigouroux.”
Well, in our ongoing correspondence—and in spite of even more curious syntax—Sr. Vigouroux and I eventually struck a deal (car, driver and guide— $ 150/day cash; credit card, $10 extra), leaving me only to hope against hope that my guide’s “ingles” would be more understandable than the good seńor’s.
Imagine my surprise then, when stepping off the first tender of the morning (Easter Island’s only harbor at Hanga Roa is much too small to dock a large cruise ship), to find that my guide-to-be was a 22-year old native of Rapa Nui, Sabrina, who spoke English perfectly, and that my driver-to-be was Claudia, also in her twenties, the Chilean wife of the director of the local anthropological museum. Although Claudia claimed that her English could stand a lot of improvement, it soon became apparent that she could keep up with Sabrina’s comments, and that, in fact, she often contributed useful remarks on her own.
But before we begin our grueling climb—mix yourself a mai tai, grab a platter of pupus—let’s review a few salient facts about Easter Island.
1. The island holds claim to several appellations. Because the Dutch Admiral Jacob Roggeveen “discovered” it on Easter Sunday, 1722, its most common name is Easter Island in English, isla de Pascua in Spanish, Osterinsel in German, etc. The Polynesians, who truly first discovered the island and settled there circa 400-800 A.D., called it Te Pito o Te Henua, i.e., “The Navel of the World.” Today, most Polynesians refer to the island as Rapa Nui.
2. Rapa Nui is the eastern-most outpost of Polynesia, that gigantic cultural triangle set in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with corners at New Zealand in the south, Hawaii in the north and Rapa Nui at the east. The island, too, is triangular, 15 miles long, 7.5 miles wide, and 45 sq. miles in area, and was created by the convergence of lava flowing from three volcanoes, with Maunga Terevaka, the largest and loftiest of the ancient vents, positioned at the northwestern corner.
3. Winds and the cool Humbolt Current strongly influence Rapa Nui’s subtropical climate. The hottest months are January and February; the coolest, July and August. The average maximum temperature is 71 F.
4. At its peak, the island’s population may have numbered as many as 20,000. By the time Admiral Roggeveen arrived in 1722, however, that figure had dropped to about 4,000. Fifty-two years later, in 1774, when Captain James Cook called, he found only a few hundred inhabitants, and they were so impoverished that they could barely afford to part with just a few sweet potatoes.
No one knows for sure why the population dropped so precipitously, but the most recent speculation is that the islanders became involved in a series of bloody civil wars during the intervening period.
In 1862, Rapa Nui’s population was further diminished, when blackbirders kidnapped as many as 1,400 islanders, forcing them into slave labor in the cane fields and the guano islands of Peru. Three or four years later, French Catholic missionaries began to proselytize the Rapanui (the people of Rapa Nui), encouraging them to move to their mission in Mangareva in the Gambier Islands, even while French plantation owners offered the islanders jobs as laborers on their Tahitian holdings. By 1879, following a siege of leprosy, the population had sunk toamere 110.
Today, the island, which is part of the Fifth Region of Chile, has a population of approximately 3,000, three-quarters of whom are either Rapanui or Rapanui-related.
5. Once covered with lush forests of palms and conifers, Rapa Nui was gradually but completely deforested. Today, the island’s landscape is characterized by rolling grassy hills and scattered groves of exotic trees, mainly eucalyptus.
6. Most anthropologists agree that the Rapanui are of Polynesian descent, and that their ancestors probably emigrated from the Marquesas Islands 1,200 to 1,600 years ago. There is some evidence, however—specifically the presence of sweet potatoes on the island—that there was some early contact between Rapa Nui and South America. This presumed intercourse, as you may recall, was the theory proposed by the late Thor Heyerdahl—the Norwegian explorer who sailed the balsa log raft, Kon Tiki, from Peru to Polynesia to prove his point.
7. Another enigma presented by Easter Island involves the moai, those gigantic statues sculpted out of hard volcanic tuff. Exactly why they were built (and there are hundreds of them), how they were moved from the quarry to various parts of the island, and the manner in which they were subsequently erected can only be guessed at.
But even though Easter Island’s archeological relics are truly mysterious and wonderful, J0 and I had visited them two years earlier, and I was returning specifically to bag its highpoint.
The problem was, however, that my only clue to climbing Maunga Terevaka consisted of a map in a guidebook showing an approximate 2-1/2 mile trail extending from one of the island’s few main roads, northwesterly, toward the summit.
So, my second surprise of the morning came when, rather than driving out of Hanga Roa northeast on the road toward the anticipated trailhead, Claudia headed our 4-door pick up truck north, toward the cluster of moai—the only group on the island facing the sea—Ahu Akivi. Leaving the pavement behind there, we began weaving our way up a series of dirt roads, gradually ascending the southern slopes of Maunga Terevaka. When I inquired as to where we were going, Sabrina and Claudia confessed that they had reconnoitered the route the day before, and that they had found that it was possible to drive to within a few feet of the summit.
I, of course, was delighted at the prospect of bagging such an easy highpoint—but also a bit chagrined at being so uninformed. Still, since I was no longer responsible for route finding, I sat back and began to enjoy the grand views—lush green pastures; the deep blue ocean, stretching off in all directions; brilliant white waves crashing against rocky cliffs; localized rain squalls scudding over the landscape. It occurred to me that this was all very reminiscent of yet another island, also emerald. Yep, you guessed it—Ireland.
Perhaps three miles into the drive, we came to a steep section of road, which an earlier shower had rendered too slippery for our two-wheel drive vehicle to negotiate. We stopped, got out, and climbed some 300 yards to the top of a grassy hill— Rapa Nui’s unmarked summit. And it was only 10 a.m.
While taking appropriate summit photos, another squall passed over, and although we all were drenched, I was still able to take pleasure in one of those delicious highpoint highs.
Heading back toward Hanga Roa, we first visited the “reversed” moai site, Ahu Akivi, and then we explored Ana Te Pahu, a series of underground tubes in which lava once flowed. These caves were formerly employed as dwellings, and the intervening sunken pits, protected from the wind, were (and still are) used as gardens.
We arrived back at the harbor at Hanga Roa precisely at noon, just as Jo was stepping off an incoming tender. Perfect timing.
After delicately explaining Sabrina and Claudia’s presence, Jo and I decided that getting to know the two islanders would be even more interesting than sightseeing, so we invited them to join us at lunch at a new restaurant in town, the Hanga Roa Grill, where, seated on the terrace, we enjoyed an excellent meal—cerveche for Sabrina and Claudia, mouthwatering grilled fresh mahi-mahi for Jo and me, topped off with a bottle of a really nice Chilean chardonnay.
During lunch, Sabrina explained that she had become proficient in English while spending a portion of her high school years in the States. In fact, when the teen-ager arrived to stay with relatives in Muskegon, Michigan in mid-January, she was faced not only with learning a totally unfamiliar language, but also coping with a vastly harsher climate. Although related to virtually every Rapanui on the island, Sabrina hoped to continue her education in New Zealand, and then live abroad for at least a few years.
Claudia, on the other hand, was perfectly content in Rapa Nui. She met her husband-to be, also a Chilean, while visiting the island on a diving tour a few years ago. Since then, by dint of her warm personality, she had become accepted in the island’s somewhat parochial society, and had no aspirations of returning to her hometown of La Serena, Chile.
And I, luxuriating in a postprandial glow, reflected upon my exceptional circumstances. There I was on the lanai of a fine restaurant in the middle of the South Pacific, in the company of three attractive, interesting women. I had bagged a rarely climbed highpoint and I had a half a glass of wine left to savor. Could life be any sweeter?
About 2:30 p.m., reluctantly dragging ourselves away from the table, we headed for Playa Anakena, one of the island’s two beaches, where Hotu Matu’a, Rapa Nui’s first ruler is said to have lived. Located next to a coconut palm shaded park and five beautifully carved moai, the strand of gleaming white coral sand is one of the most beautiful spots on the island.
Our final destination of the day was the Padre Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum in Hanga Roa, through which Claudia’s husband gave us a personally guided tour At 5:30 p.m., Jo and I boarded the last tender back to the ship, and, a half an hour later the rn/s Amsterdam was westwardbound for Pitcairn Island a two day voyage.
Whereas my plans to climb Easter Island’s highpoint worked out better than I anticipated, my scheme to bag Pitcairn Island’s highest, 1,099’ Pawala Valley Ridge, failed miserably.
Months prior to our trip, I e-mailed both Holland American Lines, operator of the rn/s Amsterdam, and Leon Salt, the Commissioner of Pitcairn Island, in regards to prospect of disembarking the ship, while it was standing off Pitcairn, in order to make an ascent of the island’s summit. Salt e-mailed back assuring me that there was no problem as far as he was concerned, and that the islanders (by the way, there are only 44 left, all presumably direct descendents of the HMS Bounty mutineers) would be happy to ferry me back and forth from the ship for a small fee. He warned me, however, that the Captain of the Amsterdam would be the one to make the decision, since landing on the island was often dangerous due to large swells.
Well, to make a long story short, the night before we were to arrive, Captain Edward Van Zanne sent me a formal typed letter denying me permission to go ashore the following morning.
Oh, boy! I snorted. I hissed. I fumed. I made a captain doll and stuck pins in it.
The next morning, though, I began to appreciate the good Captain’s wisdom. Positioned a half-mile off the small island—a British possession, by the way—it was apparent that the South Pacific was no longer quite so pacific. Indeed, low clouds and a strong wind were the order of the day, when, at 9 a.m., three longboats, pitching and rolling ominously, left the island, and began heading for the Amsterdam. Coming about on the lee side of the big ship, the islanders boarded, quickly spread out their goods (Tshirts, stamps, souvenirs fashioned of shells and wood, etc.), and settled in for a day of merchandising. Only an hour later, however, the Captain announced over the P.A. system that, because one of the Amsterdam’s crew had fallen ill (appendicitis, as it turned out), we would be leaving Pitcairn at noon rather than 3:30 p.m., and hightailing it as fast as possible to Papeete, Tahiti, where proper medical care was available.
The upshot was that, had I been able to leave the ship that morning, I would have been stranded on the island indefinitely. Jř would have continued on alone to Tahiti, Bora Bora and points west, contemplating various ways to murder her highpointcompulsive husband.
And that wasn’t the end of it. At a cocktail party the next evening, Captain Van Zanne took me aside to tell me that after leaving the ship, the islanders, due to the rough seas, had been unable to land for 18 hours. Think of it—eighteen hours of pitching and rolling in small open boats! In an awkward gesture of gratitude, I attempted to give the astounded officer a big hug, but managed only to wrinkle his crisply elegant white suit. I was, however, able to apologize for any sharp abdominal pains he may have recently experienced.
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