Rapa Nui: Moai, misfortune, and a mysterious cult
March & April 2016
After four days of exploring and tackling projects aboard Red Thread (and s/v Prince Diamond) in Rapa Nui’s northernmost anchorage, swell conditions improved, and our small cruising fleet sailed from Anakena to Hanga Roa to officially clear into the country.
We buried our 45-pound delta anchor in the sandy seabed 90 feet below our hull—the deepest anchorage we may ever experience—and dumped 250 feet of 3/8” chain along with it. Two hours later, the Chilean Armada sped from the island and retrieved El Capitan in a panga. The swell had tempered, but it was still too massive for them to simply tie up to the Red Thread. The entourage bobbed around and completed clearance procedures. We celebrated that night by opening a bottle of wine from friend, Randall, one of our dockmates back at Elliott Bay Marina, that we’d saved for a special occasion since leaving Seattle. The only way ashore is to race your dinghy between sets of breaking waves to the dog-leg turn that opens to the safety of a small fishing harbor. It is a hair-raising experience to say the least, but we subjected ourselves to it day-after-day as a price to pay to explore the island and learn more about its history. The exit proved particularly dicey most days. One couple had their dinghy flipped by the breaking surf! We experienced the sensation of flight on more than one occasion, literally launching 200 pounds of dinghy and outboard motor, along with our anxious bodies, from the crest of waves as we raced their breaks!History and mystery
The history of Rapa Nui is fraught with mystery, and one of its more prominent legends—Thor Heyerdahl’s theory that it was settled by South Americans—is known to be inaccurate. Although Heyerdahl demonstrated the feasibility of such a route by sailing from Peru aboard a balsa raft in the 1940s (see Kon Tiki), archeological evidence has failed to support his claim. Linguistic and genetic evidence has demonstrated that the Rapa Nui people descended from Polynesians who likely arrived from modern-day French Polynesia around 400 AD.Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, was the first European to land on Rapa Nui. On Easter Sunday 1722, his crew murdered a dozen or so inhabitants and sailed away. Visits by explorers and whalers thereafter were sporadic until 1962, when Peruvian blackbirders kidnapped 1,400 Rapa Nui and enslaved them on sugar plantations in Peru. A meager 15 survivors were eventually returned to Rapa Nui, but with them came small pox acquired on the mainland. By the 1870s, a tragic 100 or so Rapa Nui people survived. French Catholic missionaries converted survivors, providing faith for a devastated people but further fragmenting the culture. In a mere two generations, the ability to decipher the Rongorongo tablets—Oceania’s lone indigenous script—disappeared, as did cultural information that would have otherwise been passed between generations.
Rapa Nui was the first island of many we visited where global ambitions of explorers and missionaries annihilated populations and forever altered cultures through the introduction of disease and Christian moral codes. Alfred Metraux, a French ethnographer, described it as “one of the most hideous atrocities committed by white men in the South Seas.” Rapa Nui was eventually annexed by Chile, and much of the governing is driven by decisions made 2,000 miles away in the mainland. Rapa Nui people continue to struggle for land rights and autonomy.
We visited the Museo Antropologico with Carol from s/v Prince Diamond and were astonished to learn that 887 moai have been documented on the island. Each statue is believed to have been carved in the likeness of an ancestor. All share similar features but no two are the same. Some are tall and slender; others have rotund bellies. Some wear red stone topknots carved from the Puna Pau quarry. Fewer than 10 immortalize women, underscoring the patriarchal nature of the society. Recent archeologic endeavors have found evidence of human remains near the base of some moai, indicating burial grounds. The modest archeological museum was large enough to teach us a great deal and small enough to be explored in an hour. We exited the building into the warmth of the afternoon sun, having enjoyed the exhibits but also feeling a bit sobered by what we’d learned. The megalith statues are just a part of Rapa Nui’s complex, tragic history. We walked passed the moai at Tahaa, beneath the warm afternoon sun, toward Hanga Roa and afternoon cocktails. Tattoos and time well-spent
The days blurred together, and we tried to cram in as many fun activities as possible, while also girding up our loins for another long passage ahead. Hanga Roa had more infrastructure than we anticipated, which was due in large part to the airport that was built several decades ago. Access by air has exploded the tourism industry on the island and although Hanga Roa was touristy, we enjoyed the town!
We visited the cemetery where graves are elaborately adorned with mementos to the dead that provide a glimpse into the things the deceased held dear (i.e., “Rock Berto” was clearly a rocker), we nearly adopted more than one dog, and we ate empanadas every single day.
Since long before we cut our dock lines, Neil dreamed of getting a Polynesia tattoo during our voyage. The idea of a single tattoo morphed into the concept of a progressive piece of art that would evolve as we sailed from one island chain to the next. Easter Island, being our first and most-remote stop in the Polynesian triangle, was the right place for him to begin. Ironically enough, the tattooist Soane Tauataina, was from Wallis Island several thousand miles away on the northwestern fringe of Polynesia. The style that spoke to him most was derived from Marquesan tradition, and he worked with Soane to select meaningful symbols that would wrap around his forearm.
Rental car road trip!
Carol decided to rent a car one day and invited us to join her in a tour around the island. We enjoy Carol’s company and we welcomed the offer (our legs only move so quickly!). We set out midmorning and drove along the east coast of the island toward Rano Raraku, the volcanic quarry where the moai were carved.
Along the way, we stopped at Ahu Akahanga, where several moai lay toppled along the seashore. Most of the moai we had seen previously had been resurrected to an upright position, and it was evocative to see the ancestral idols crumbling and abandoned.
My heart felt heavy, and I experienced an aching sense of empathy for the Rapa Nui people. I felt tears well up in my eyes, as I thought about the ways their society had been broken by both internal and external forces. I realized that, like me, most of the world has seen photos of the moai, but few know anything at all about the island’s tragic history.
With the midday sun hot overhead, we parked the car at Rano Raraku. The idea that nearly 900 moai were born in the quarry by the hands of Rapa Nui laborers is an immense thought to consider; to see the quarry in the flesh is nothing short of grand. Roughly 400 moai remain entombed at Rano Raraku. Over 100 are completely carved but partially buried, a discovery made in the 1950s that continues to mystify people around the globe. We know when moai were nearly complete, they were transported by aliens or log sleds or magic (depending on your theory of choice) to an ahu, where their eyes were carved in greater detail and coral and obsidian were placed in the sockets. This is why the moai in the quarry appear to have sharper facial features than those who rest upon ahu. We will never know if the completed moai that remain interred at Rano Raraku were intended to remain at their birthplace indefinitely or if were they awaiting transportation to a final resting place. Hundreds of moai were abandoned in various stages of completion for reasons that will never be understood. Rapa Nui was ecologically decimated through deforestation and the burden of an increasing population likely threw the island into a state of catstrophic imbalance. Was the exploitation so severe that the work of finishing and moving the moai was impossible? Did war, disease, or starvation cause the work to come to a halt? Is the abandonment an attestation of an abrupt shift from ancestor worship to another paradigm? We will never know…
Orongo and the Birdman Cult
For as little as we about why moai carving came to an end, we do know that after ancestral worship dissolved, a new belief system emerged. The Birdman Cult is believed to have been Rapa Nui’s prominent ideology during the 16th and 17th centuries. Whereas arikis (kings) had been revered historically, Make-Make, the God of fertility, became superior and warriors were venerated. Neil and I had never so much as heard of the Birdman Cult, so Orongo piqued our curiosity to a lesser degree than the various ahu. Fortunately, we embraced an invitation from Rich, a fellow cruiser, to hike there. It only took 90 minutes to reach the summit of Rano Kau, the volcano at the south cape of Rapa Nui, but there we found one of Rapa Nui’s lesser-known treasures: Orongo.Orongo is a ceremonial village that was occupied during the Birdman Cult’s important festivals. It is comprised of 47 basalt slab dwellings that line the clifftop. The most significant festival revolved around the manutara (sooty tern) who nest in the rugged, rock islands south of Rapa Nui. Each September, a race was held in which warriors scrambled down the treacherous cliffs, swam one mile to the outermost island of Motu Nui, and remained until the manutara arrived to lay their eggs. The first warrior to retrieve an egg, swim back across the shark-infested channel, scale the sheer 300-meter-tall sea cliffs, and deliver the unbroken egg to Orongo would be exalted to near deity status. Perhaps it was the pristine blue sky and the scent of earth and salt that mingled in the air. Perhaps it was the wildly beautiful sea vista or the simple sense of accomplishment we felt having hiked from the harbor to the summit. Perhaps that it was indeed that the village is a holy place. Either way, there was an aura of magic that lingered around Orongo. The last festival took place in 1866.Roll, roll, roll my boat…
Conditions soured when a northeasterly wind made Hanga Roa a lee shore. We weighed anchor and motored the 10 nautical miles around the southern tip of the island to Rapa Nui’s most isolated anchorage. Vinapu, on the southeastern coast, is not the most glamorous anchorage. Our shore vista was comprised of rolling olive hills…and six monstrous diesel tanks. We traded a lee shore for heavy southerly swell that rolled us side-to-side for four long days. The swells were so large that we could not get ashore, and we acquired a severe case of crabbiness and cabin fever.In addition to Mike and Gill from s/v Romano, the British-flagged vessel we met at the Anakena Easter BBQ, a new boat arrived. Andreas, from s/v Kama, a German single-hander was a jolly fellow who had experienced a long, lonely sail from Ecuador. We invited him for dinner and enjoyed one belly laugh after the next as we muddled through a conversation that was a hodgepodge of English, German, and Spanish. When the swells tempered and winds shifted once more to the southeast, we returned to Hanga Roa to complete our check-out formalities and to provision for the 1,500-nautical mile journey ahead.
Our new friends on s/v Romano were setting sail for Pitcairn as well. They invited us aboard for a farewell dinner. The next evening, our two boats weighed anchor at dusk and sailed west.Cruising commentary
During our passage (see passage video here), we were all-too-aware of the gamble we were making to try and reach Easter Island at all. Tales abound of mariners who suffered the ache of sailing weeks off the beaten path to reach the extraordinary destination, only to find conditions untenable upon their arrival, with thousands of miles between them and their next landfall. We were gifted 18 remarkable days at one of the most spectacular and mysterious islands in the world, unquestionably one of the crown jewels in our voyage.Throughout our stay, the Chilean Armada proved themselves to be the most attentive officials we have met in our travels. They remained abreast of the locations of each vessel via VHF, warned us of impending weather changes, and urged us to shift between anchorages as necessary for safety. When we cleared out, they assessed whether we had adequate supplies of food and water aboard and provided us a printed weather forecast for the coming week of our passage. Though rolly nights were generally the rule rather than the exception and sometimes very uncomfortable, they were a small price to pay for the opportunity to immerse ourselves in one of the more awe-inspiring places on earth.
It’s worth noting that although historically boats were allowed into Hanga Piko Harbour, we were told that cruising boats are no longer allowed inside because several boats were gravely damaged by incoming tidal surge in recent years. That said, we later met sailors on a 26-foot sloop who were allowed in as they did not have sufficient anchor rode to set their hook in 90 feet of water in the main anchorage. Dock line chafe was a major issue for them as a result of the surge.
Anakena anchorage waypoint: 27°04’.227S 109°19’.459W (40 feet)
Hanga Roa anchorage waypoint: 27°08’.693S 109°26’.144W (90 feet)
Vinapu anchorage waypoint: 27°10′.509S 109°23′.829W (70 feet)
12 thoughts on “Rapa Nui: Moai, misfortune, and a mysterious cult”
Thank you for the wonderful account ….what an amazing journey for you both. Memories abound!! continued safe travels….
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Thanks, Jeff! Memories indeed. What a voyage this has been!
Beautiful post. Wot an amazing history and ruins
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Amazing story. It also is amazing what a Man can do to another Man. Enslavement, murder and the list rolls on. You both should feel very blessed to be out of our Countries political climate. Very sad how much I have seen happen in my short 54 years on this Earth. Its pure crazy town in the good old USA. Faith. Peace. Love. Be safe as you explore the big blue marble.
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It truly is – we’ve learned more than we expected about the dark aspects of history in this part of the world. Concerning the current political climate in the US, we are insulated in many ways by our remoteness, but nearly every person we meet from another country brings up fear and disbelief about what is happening in our country right now. We’ve done our best to try to stay atop of what is going on, and it’s disturbing to say the least. Please believe we submitted our absentee ballots. Thanks for your good wishes. ~Jessie & Neil
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