Hiking for Moai

HM Basalt landscape

It’s about kilometre 8 of my hike across the basalt-strewn slopes of northern Rapa Nui when we come across the fallen moai at Hanga Omohi. This is one of the smallest moai and, according to our guide, one of the key pieces of archaeological evidence showing the evolution of these cultural icons. Through the marvels of science, it is now known that the first moai were small obelisks with some rudimentary carvings, placed on a flat layer of stones known as the ahu, or altar. Over time these evolved, with the carvings becoming more confident and bolder, in both design and execution, and the ahu becoming larger to bear the weight of the increasingly large moai. Early in that sequence of events was the moai at Hanga Omohi, which immediately struck me as looking like an owl, although such birds are not found here.

HM Hanga Omohi
Hanga Omohi

It’s a hard place to get to, Hanga Omohi. The car picks you up at 0630 and takes you to Ariki, where you pass through the park gate before dawn – this early in the morning there’s nobody there to check your park pass. The long narrow lane is guarded by a bull, whom we sidestep cautiously – I’m glad it’s still dark, as otherwise my red baseball hat would be a real concern. An old pick-up truck rattles down past us, the farmer on his way to market. I’m told we’re surrounded by fields of pineapple, but I have to take the guide’s word for that. We continue up the slopes of Maunga Terevaka, at 511 metres the high point of the island. We don’t make the summit, though, instead angling to the west and then dropping down towards the Pacific.

There are only two of us on this hike, plus the guide – apparently not too many people decide to leave their hire cars behind. Although it’s a technically simple hike (keep the ocean to your left, don’t go too near the cliff edge, walk for 16 kilometres) you’re not allowed to do it on your own. This is partially for protection, for the hikers in case of injury and of the cultural assets of the island in case of theft, and partially to provide employment in a small community. All three reasons seem reasonable to me.

We passed a number of what are locally known as ‘Rapa Nui greenhouses’, basically walls of basalt stones piled around a small depression, known as a lava tube cave, so that soil is accumulated, the winds don’t pass through, and the temperature is moderated a little. Here are bananas, lemon grass, sometimes sweet potato or taro.

HM greenhouse
Rapa Nui Greenhouse

The added benefit of the walls is that they keep the feral horses away from the leaves and young shoots, providing a bit more protection. As James Cook noted during his visit, “there is little potable water on the Island, and the natives seem starved of fresh foods”. Things haven’t changed much, with a sea lift provided by the Chilean Navy for dry goods, and fresh food brought in on the daily plane.

We saw numerous different stone structures on this northern hike. There is the ahu, of course, the altar-like platform on which the moai was traditionally stood. These are usually built much like a drystone wall, with rocks laid next to each other and varying in size and angle. Some, however, are large slabs, cut and lain horizontally, edges carefully chiselled to form an interlocking bond. These, apparently, reminded Thor Heyerdahl of the Inca platforms he had seen in Peru, adding fuel to his theories of South America being the origin of most Polynesian peoples.

Unlike Heyerdahl’s theories, the oral histories of the Rapa Nui talk of the first canoes landing at Anakena Bay. Archaeologically this has been dated to three hundred years before the turn of the first millennium, around 700 AD. These two canoes were led by a Polynesian chief, Hotu Motu’a, and crewed by his sons. They brought with them families, and chickens, and some seeds, all of which proceeded to multiply. Each son was given an area of the Island to rule as his own and did so for many generations. It was only after the Europeans came, with their trade goods and their missionaries, that a more mercenary system of life evolved, one that eventually resulted in the civil wars that led to the deforestation of the Island and the toppling of the moai.

The ahus conceal underground crypts, where originally the bones of dead kings were lain. In more recent times a single bone of a person might be laid there as well, in the belief that the spirit of the person would live on in the moai. The body itself, however, would be cremated, and near to (usually behind) each ahu is found a crematorium.

What surprised me was that the moai faced inland, away from the sea, and instead looked out over – and gave protection to – the village. It was by looking in those areas that the archaeologists found examples of fire pits, the stone foundations of boat houses, flakes of obsidian left from the making of tools, and other examples of human life. On the edges of one community we saw the remains of a birthing house, estimated from the foundation to be a small round structure with a ceremonial red lava stone bowl at the door, in which the placenta would be placed and, later, burned.

HM Birthing house
Birthing House

The archaeologists also found caves, deeper hollows naturally formed in the lava flows and cunningly concealed by piles of stones. Here the women and children were hidden whenever a strange ship sailed into view, leading many an explorer to wonder at how they found an island populated only by men. The entry to one showed that those who sought sanctuary there were much less rotund than a late-middle-aged Canadian male.

HM refuge cave
Refuge Cave

There were petroglyphs, including one which clearly depicted the tuna, a favourite fish of any ocean-going people. Within the body of the fish were carved stories symbolizing that of the Birdman, who will be the subject of another blog, and other objects of importance. It was at such times that the guide was essential, deciphering the various carved images and linking together the history of the Island.

HM petraglyph

Although not many examples remain, we were fortunate to see an observatory. This conical building, constructed of stones and yet open at the top, contained on the floor of the chamber a large stone which had been carved to the shape of a shallow bowl. The stone was filled with water and the shaman, sitting in the small cramped space, would watch the reflections of the stars and the constellations and use this knowledge to foretell the weather, a forthcoming eclipse, and other astronomical events. Far more common were the chicken coops – long narrow piles of stones, roofed with slabs, with one key-hole stone that could be removed to let the chickens in – and out again.

After 10 or a dozen kilometres I started to fade, my legs and knees showing their outrage at the abuse I was giving them. We had seen few living things – a few frigate birds sailed past, one solitary Boobie which reminded me of a gannet and, I was amazed to learn, is called a Gannay in Rapa Nuian. There were herds of semi-feral horses, a falcon or two, but no other humans. The sun was hot, and I wished I had brought one less camera lens and one more litre of water. There was no shade. Gilbert, my fellow hiker, a Brazilian-Canadian of Italian heritage now living in Germany but missing his Uruguayan girlfriend, kept talking and kept me going. Normally I would have preferred the silence and solitude of the hills, but his incessant chirping served to keep me awake and focused on the path.

HM feral horses

It was just after kilometre 15 that we plodded up the final rise, stands of coconut and banana and flame tree starting to show that we were re-entering the settled world. Gilbert and the guide started comparing family histories and discovered that each had been born a few months apart, in 1973. I felt ridiculously pleased with myself that I had given them a 20-year start, and yet we still arrived together at the end of our trek.

As we crested the hill, we saw the white sandy beach of Anakena Bay, fringed with coconut palms and guarded by a row of moai. Waves lapped up on the shore, and through half-closed eyes I faded out the tourists frolicking in the surf and saw instead the canoes of Hotu Motu’a, months in the journeying, gliding in on the long Pacific swells, and beginning life in the navel of the world.

HM Anakena Bay

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