Rapa Nui: On the heels of Hotu Matu’a

March 2016

At dawn on day 15 out of the Galápagos, the outline of Rapa Nui—Easter Island—etched the horizon and the scent of flora lingered in the air. The craggy outline grew larger as the sun climbed to its zenith and then ducked behind a mass of heavy, leaden clouds. The vista exceeded images we’d conjured up in our imaginations. At the eastern and western extremes of the Rapa Nui stood two dormant volcanoes. The island was draped in  vegetation, made vivid by afternoon drizzle. We could not contain the sense of satisfaction and relief we felt to see Rapa Nui loom larger than life before us. The Red Thread had carried her prior owners, the Maddoxes, to this island twice. For her, this was old hat. For us, it was a milestone unlike any we’d achieved as mariners. On the eve of Easter Sunday, we stripped naked in the cockpit and scrubbed from our skin two challenging weeks of sea salt, sweat, and tears.#Passage_Q flag hoistOur jubilance and relief to have arrived was not without apprehensiveness. We’d read more than one account of boats who sailed thousands of lonely sea miles to reach the island, only to continue for thousands without stopping more due to foul conditions. Southerly and southeasterly swells were approaching three meters at Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui’s main settlement and only clearance port, and the forecast projected them to build to 4 meters within 36 hours. We hailed the Chilean Armada to request special dispensation to seek refuge in the northern anchorage of Anakena, rather than continuing to Hanga Roa. The Armada obliged our request, more concerned about our safety than our legal status in the country, and encouraged us to remain in Anakena until conditions improved.

The anchorage at Anakena
We sailed eastward along the base of Maunga Terevaka, the island’s loftiest peak. Waves slammed into the volcanic coastal bluffs again and again, jetting ocean spray stories into the air in an interminable process of erosion. As we approached the anchorage at Anakena, we were surprised to find four boats hailing from four different nations! We added our American flag to the fleet of Swedish-, Dutch-, French-, and British-flagged vessels. Given that the island receives so few vessels, five boats may as well have been 50! From the anchorage, we could see Rapa Nui’s largest sand beach stretching golden below Ahu Nau Nau, where seven moai keep secrets of the island’s mysterious past. Boasting the most protected anchorage (at least in southerly conditions) and charming landscape, Anakena turned out to be our favorite of the three anchorages we would visit during our 18-day sojourn.

We toasted our arrival with a rum cocktail but drank most of it in silence; almost in stupor. At some hour before the sky had even blackened, we were both fast asleep, happy to be sharing a bed for the first time in 14 days.

A full night of sleep, and we were two people renewed. I pumped up or standup paddle board and Neil launched our remaining kayak (one had been ripped from the stanchions during our passage). We paddled ashore, eager to explore and feel earth beneath our feet. The water was chilly but remarkably clear. We realized almost immediately that the reputation of the island’s mysterious statues overshadows the splendor of its landscape. The water was pristine, and we could see the outline of coral heads 50 feet below the surface. The sand was golden and outlined by healthy grasses and volcanic boulders. It was gorgeous.rapa-nui_anakena_anchorageWe negotiated a bit of surf and beached our crafts. What we didn’t realize at that moment was that our feet were sinking into the piece of earth where the first Polynesian explorers, led by Hotu Motu’a, are believed to have first landed their primitive but ingenious crafts. Overlooking the anchorage, we ate our first of several dozen Rapa Nui seafood empanadas (no exaggeration…they are that good) and marveled at the moai atop Ahu Nau Nau that stand watch above the overgrown bumps of earth where a village once stood.rapa-nui_ahu-nau-nau1We weren’t in a hurry to go anywhere, so we joined a few dozen beachgoers at the sea’s edge. Neil cavorted in the waves and body surfed, happy to be the biggest kid at play. I watched a naked toddler roll gleefully in the sand and giggle as he bobbled and played in his mother’s arms. We had been moving ceaselessly for weeks, and it felt cathartic to stop—literally and figuratively—and take in the sensations of our destination.

That evening, 11 sailors convened around a picnic table for an Easter Sunday barbeque of international proportions. We were among the few boaters who had chosen to sail the path less traveled across the Pacific this season. Seeds of friendship were sown that evening, but little did we know just how strong our bond would become with the crew of one boat, in particular.rapa-nui_cruisers-easter-bbqCalamity Jess and the road less traveled
The next day dawned with blue skies that stretched from horizon-to-horizon. We boarded our little crafts and tied them to the trunk of a palm tree to prevent the incoming tide from stealing them. We set off on a hike, determined to trek the northeastern section of the island between Anakena and Tongariki.easter_island_map2arapa-nui_trekking-jessieThe hike wasn’t particularly difficult, but it felt like an adventure. There were no roads or maintained trails along the coast. There were simply tracks trodden by the wild horses that have their run of the northern coast of the island. We trekked up and down the hills to the music of savage waves that strike the tiny island stronghold after barreling unobstructed for thousands of miles of open ocean.rapa-nui_northern-horses rapa-nui_chimango-caracaraA mile into the hike, while walking along a precipice, I managed to trip over my own feet and impale my knee upon the shards of the rubble-strewn trail. Naturally, I sacrificed my knee for the preservation of our precious camera, which was unscathed.

Warm blood trickles down my shin, tracing streaks of crimson around and down my calf. The gouge in my knee is deep and littered with gritty volcanic rubble. rapa-nui_bleeding-kneeI’m quite aware that my fall may yield one of my grislier scars, but I’m not sure whether to congratulate myself or to kick myself for being clumsy. Sure, I’ll have a rotten-looking knee, but I also just earned myself a good battle scar, while trekking the rugged coasts of one of the Earth’s most remote, inhabited islands. ~Jessie

We continued on, negotiating several steep edges that required us to cling to rocks to avoid the shallow surf below. We discovered a pretty beach, decaying cattle carcasses, and ancient sites not mentioned in our guidebook.rapa-nui_trekking-neilWild horses trotted beneath an increasingly somber sky, along crumbling stone fences, upon a damp carpet of green. Our eyes were the only ones there at that moment to stare at the Navel of the World, an ancient stone believed to have been brought to the island by Hotu Matu’a, the legendary explorer who sailed east from either the Gambiers and Marquesas, now part of French Polynesia. Lore professes that all life sprung from the immaculate stone, that even today sends compasses spinning wildly in confusion. rapa-nui_navel-of-the-worldSome monuments must be appreciated in their abstract alone, as their reality is less than spectacular. We stared at Te Pito Kura underwhelmed—in an impending downpour, no less—wishing that we felt as moved by the island’s largest moai as those who literally “moved” it. Te Pito Kura toppled who knows when. At his zenith, Te Pito Kura commanded more than 10 meters in stature.rapa-nui_te-pito-kura-neilWhile many moais on the island were resurrected, I couldn’t help but wonder whether allowing him to remain fallen was more symbolically powerful than hoisting him again with a multimillion-dollar crane.

We walked on.rapa-nui_road-less-traveledrapa-nui_papa-vaka1At Papa Vaka (i.e., stone canoe), we stood on our toes and bent at the knees to identify petroglyphs that tell tales of sharks and fish and boats and life. Rain seeped from the clouds, and we welcomed a response from our outreached thumbs from a young couple vacationing from the Chilean mainland. We told our story; they theirs. And we hugged the long, paved corners that arc from the northern coast of the island to its eastern wing.

We climbed out at Tonariki, the island’s gem. A monument so tremendous—so remarkable we returned again a few days later—that our jaws dangled from the strings of our hearts as we explored it. Tongariki is the largest of any of the island’s ahu (i.e., long platforms on which moai are placed). It stretches for over 200 meters along the sea just south of the Poike Peninsula.rapa-nui_tongariki1rapa-nui_tongariki2rapa-nui_tongariki_neil1rapa-nui_tongariki3Each of Rapa Nui’s ahus once overlooked a village; the moai are believed to be ancestors standing watch. A 1960 tsunami caused horrendous damage to Tongariki, the island’s most majestic monument. A multimillion-dollar joint effort between Chile and Japan resurrected the statues—some weighing as much as 86 tons—to their vertical glory. The 15 larger-than-life monuments, each unique in their own way, are still shrouded in mystery as colossal as their stature. Real. Raw. Uncertain. Unbelievable. Tangible. Touching. Unlike anything we’d ever imagined. Natural phenomena make us feel small, but manmade artifacts rarely have such an effect. Tongariki is different. Rapa Nui is different.rapa-nui_tongariki4rapa-nui_crews-of-red-threadWe departed the monument reluctantly, but well-aware that we had a long way to walk before dark and uncertain prospects for hitchhiking. Less than a quarter mile from Tongariki, just past an alter to the mother of Christ, however, red tail lights braked and invited us into the cabin of a dusty pickup that belonged to a modern-day Rapa Nui man. The contrast of religious history and colonization—history and modernity—could not have been more striking. We sped down the two-lane paved road, toward the dusty two-track that leads to the beach at Anakena, where our boat (and first aid kit to bandage my still-bleeding knee) awaited us.rapa-nui_mother-at-the-sea-break

7 thoughts on “Rapa Nui: On the heels of Hotu Matu’a

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