17.06.2008 - 19.06.2008
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We were greeted by the sight of old ladies making flower garlands and the smell of the tropics.
A couple of days earlier a group of four of us had decided that a quick - 7,400km - jaunt to Easter Island (known in the local language as Rapa Nui) might be in order. Thus, somewhat groggy after a 5 hour flight, we hopped off the plane and into the hazy Polynesian sunshine.
Almost immediately, I was forced to overcome two fairly major disappointments. First came the shocking revelation that the Easter Bunny does not actually live on Easter Island. Then, seemingly just to compound my misery, our taxi driver went on to shatter my childish hopes that the islanders would use Easter Eggs as currency. As one would expect, these devastating blows took time to get over. Eventually though, I came to terms with life, made my peace with the world and readied myself for some Polynesian fun times.
Having heard all about the reefs and crystal-clear waters off the coast, I made a bee-line for the Island´s dive centre. Given that I had no prior scuba experience, I thought that I would just do a little bit of snorkelling. Unfortunately, Diego, the owner, had other ideas. As soon as I asked him about snorkelling, he started to giggle and asked me in Spanish whether it was just because I was too scared to go on a dive. Obviously, he was right. Naturally, I denied this fact as vehemently as I could and made the arrangements to go on the next dive. I didn´t regret it - diving the reef was like swimming in the tropical tank in Southend Sea Life centre (aside from the regrettable absence of Peter Pan´s Playground)!
The following day came the island's main attraction - the moais. There are over 900 of these colossal heads, which measure up to 21m in length and weighing up to 80 tonnes. The heads themselves played an important role in the ancestral tradition of the tribespeople - it is speculated (although no-one can be sure, as the writing system used by the Rapa Nui civilisation has never been deciphered) that they served to represent the spirits of the dead. Moreover, as the islanders only had access to the most rudimentary tools and equipment, the construction, transportation and erection of the moais was virtually a full-time occupation. Somewhat unfortunately for the generations of tribesmen who spent their entire lives building moais, there was a civil war in the 16th century and virtually all of the heads were destroyed. Of the extant heads, the best preserved and most ornate is in the British Museum! Having said all this, the moais still make a breathtaking sight, especially when set against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean.
For me though, the most interesting part of the island was the so-called ´Birdman´ cult of Orongo. To cut a long story short, the cult´s purpose was to select a new chief for the island each year. In order for this to happen, young men from the island's various different tribal groups would jump off a 1000ft cliff and swim 2km out to sea to an islet where the sooty tern (a migratory bird) was known to nest. Once the athletes reached this islet, the aim of the game was to find an egg laid by a tern, collect it and swim (and climb) back to where the tribal elders were gathered. The first man to make it back to the elders with his egg intact - no mean feat in itself - would then nominate a tribal elder from his particular tribe to be the chief of the entire island.
Seems to me like politics was a heck of a lot more interesting in those days!