I lied. I said that the last post was going to be the final one from Rapa Nui, but here’s another. The fact is that to go to Rapa Nui and not to be mesmerised by its skies is 100% proof that one has, to quote from former Italy goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, “A dustbin in lieu of the heart”.
Storm coming down.
From Orongo, looking east. 3,500 km in that direction is Chile. A bit closer for some rain. Storm Coming Down, to quote from the great Norse band The Devil and the Almighty Blues.
William Ashcroft endorses this view.
A late Victorian artist, William Ashcroft, painted his name into history with a series of sketches of Chelsea at sunset, the skies unusually glowing red thanks to the ashes blown worldwide by Krakatoa volcano in 1883. I somehow suspect that he’d have loved this view.
This is what Rapa Nui sunrises look like when looking in the opposite direction of the one where the main action is. It was in those moment that I caught myself thinking at the Akivi Seven, at the sunrises they must’ve witnessed in their voyage into the unknown.
Aged 5 I learned, from a nursery rhyme, that crabs walk sideways. 27 years later I found myself copying them – and, let me tell you, it wasn’t easy – on a rocky path running along the north coast of Rapa Nui. I did it because this was the view just off to our right.
One last sunset.
This was it. A Mahina beer, some music in the background, a light breeze and the end of the last day.
There’s only a beach on Easter Island: as it’s to be expected, it comes with a bit of tourist infrastructure. But stop that image that’s forming in your mind, the one with all-inclusive resorts and a W Hotel with unz-unz-unz music blaring out of the lobby. Ditch the banana boat too. What is there are a couple of shacks with potato sacks as sun screens, Mahina beer by the bottle and heavenly pescado del dia cooked in coconut milk. Coffee is available too, but only mocaccino flavoured Nespresso. “No llevaran en el avión” is the smiling answer when you enquire about a normal flavour pod. Still, there’s instant coffee to be had while chickens and cats stomp around in a strange feathered-feline alliance. And Rapa Nui’s answer to Jack Johnson schmoozes out of the speakers. Intermittently, Anakena beach is lashed by rain showers that chase the few sun-bathers away.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Sunsets are a heart-warming spectacle everywhere on the island, but Ahu Tahai is the hotspot. A selected few – even a dozen makes a crowd here – come to witness the event, including two Rapa Nui chatting in their aboriginal language and another couple playing music. Not even two stray dogs having a very public romp can break the idyll. But what about sunrises, we wonder?
We drive through the night on the coastal road, swerving to avoid pothole and the occasional sleepless equine. A soft mist hugs the low bushes, a salty mist that can only be made of sea spray.
Photos taken – obviously – during the day, but you get idea. Just think it’s dark and you have a 10-watt torch in lieu of headlamps
I’ll cut to the chase. Sunrise at Tongariki is a failure. Besides Poiké mountain lying unhelpfully between Tongariki and the sun, the place is swarmed by noisy campers who never got the “silent contemplation of nature’s beauty” memo. Yet what happened before will forever remain in our hearts and there only because, unfortunately, I’m too ignorant to photograph it properly.
It was still dark when we parked some way off the entrance to the moai. There’s only one light around us, oozing from the gatekeeper’s lodge. A beacon flashes intermittently from a small lighthouse; besides that, it’s dark. Yet we can see where we’re going.
The Milky Way is above us, arching from horizon to horizon. The sky is dotted with stars, twinkling planets and slow-moving satellites; then there’s that massive white band, a streak of iridescent white caviar stacked against that absolutely dark dinner plate that is the sky. I’ve never seen such a spectacle. Standing against the spare wheel of our washing machine on wheels I had my own Pale Blue Dot moment. I’m not looking back in but, even from the other way round, I can just begin to understand the enormity of what’s out there. Cast against such a backdrop everything I know and see – the low rock wall, the silhouettes of the moai, the crashing waves – is irrelevant like a bee’s fart in a hurricane. It all matters shit and it’s such as refreshing thought: you, me, Trump, China, the Mueller report… it all equates to precisely the square root of diddly squat. Ah, it’s so nice.
We give up on Tongariki and drive on in the aurora. Te Pito Kura – once the tallest moai – appears like an unhoped-for saviour. We’re alone but for a few horses we can hear huffing nearby. The sun paints sky and clouds red before the rotating horizon reveals it, us and a swaying palm as the only witnesses. The wind smells of yellow-flowered bushes whose name I don’t know, and of eucalyptus. Today we will be leaving and there’s regret at that notion, but there’s also undeniable satisfaction. Satisfaction for having made it here and for the big trunk of experiences and memories we’ll be bringing back home. Thank you Te Pito o Te Henua, the Navel of the World.
The north coast is the remote corner of an island that’s already way out of the way. The further away from Hanga Roa the least passable the road gets, until it becomes little more than a rock-strewn goat path patrolled by munching horses lost in thought.
Waves and the rustling of leaves are the sole soundtrack of our trek. There’s another couple of hikers out, and we play a silent relay where no one reaches the other. We walk speaking quietly, completely forgetful of our own worries from out there. This island has the same effect of drinking from the river Lethe of the ancient Greeks.
Only a wooden sign and a low stone wall mark the village of Te Peu. A rock-strewn meadow where the flotsam of human activity is still very much visible: the foundations of a long house, stones aligned in neat lines, drill-holes filled with rainwater; a manavai mulch garden; the ruins of an ahu platform.
Moai lie face-down in the grass. A head, decapitated in the process, has been rolled up and now eyes the back of the platform on which it once stood, hollow eyes still obstinately refusing to even cast a sideway glance at the sea.
It’s funny how moai, this island’s alleged party-piece, are the last hook in the longline of attraction that has fished me out of the sea and has landed me here, unwilling to leave. They’re Rapa Nui’s biggest attraction yet I think I’d still love this place even without them. Still, they puzzle me and if there’s a place where to sit down and ask oneself why, then Te Peu it is. Not really to ask why they were built – why did we erect the Parthenon, the Pantheon, Taj Mahal, Süleymaniye Mosque? – but why they were torn down. Uzbeks toppled Lenin from Tashkent’s main square for a reason; Iraqis did the same with Saddam’s statues: their time was up. Was it the same for Rapa Nui? I look around for answers but there’s only a cow beside us and she’s sworn to bovine secrecy.
Up until the 1960s no moai stood on the island; they all lied face down in the grass. Now a handful of sites have their moai back up, a move that would perhaps cause horror amongst archaeologists – who, now, thinks that painting Knossos’ palace was a good idea? – but that, personally, I’ve no problems with.
Akivi is the closest such place to Te Peu and, perhaps, the most peculiar of all. Seven moai stand to attention in a neat row between a thicket of eucalyptus and a ploughed field, the lawn on which they stand descending gently towards the blue sea. The Akivi seven are the only ones facing that direction.
Legend has it that these are the seven original explorers, the seven men that king Hotu Matu’a sent on the voyage of exploration that culminated in the discovery of Rapa Nui. As we amble about the place I try to conceive a journey of thousands of kilometres into the unknown, the excitement of discovery, the return and then doing it all again. In an age with no compass, no maps, no GPS. In a sea with no natural features but the stars at night and the sun. Finding an island a tenth of the size of London in a stretch of ocean vaster than Latin America. These guys have all the rights to be as smug and proud as the Mercury astros in that famous picture. Funnily enough, those Mercury astronauts were seven too.
The Akivi seven are all different. Some are tall and slender; others are short and bulkier, though all seem to be caressing a beer gut with more than a hint of satisfaction. One of them has a head so much bigger than the rest of his body that I’m sure he inspired Peter Adolph, Subbuteo’s original designer.
The moai are depiction of real people, I tell myself as we leave Akivi. They aren’t idealised representations such as those Roman generals that all had a six pack, plump Crassus included. Tongariki, where fifteen of them (moai, not Roman generals) stand, backs to the sea, reinforces that idea.
You can see Tongariki from far away; precisely from the slopes of Rano Raraku. The old quarry, littered as it is with broken, half-done or complete moai is a perfect view point and a puzzling experience at the same time. Imagine you’re entering a car assembly line, expecting people to be working, robots to be buzzing, the noise and smell of production. But there’s no one. The assembly line is empty: half-finished vehicles lie abandoned, tools and equipment left where the workers – on strike, perhaps – have dropped them. This is what it felt to enter Rano Raraku. Moais ready for shipment stood at odd angles; other lied on their backs, evidently broken in transport. Some still were embedded in the mother rock, signs of chisels all around them in the soft tuff. What happened? Did the work crews really down tools, sung a Rapa Nui version of Inti Illimani’s “El pueblo unido jamás vencido” and left the bosses scratching their heads? As a cherry on this cake of oddity a lady walked a pig on a leash.
Click on any of the photos above to start the slideshow.
I got side-tracked. I was planning to talk about Tongariki. For a few, blissful minutes on an overcast afternoon, we are alone there with the two rangers. The Fifteen sit in the shadow, the kr-umph of waves chatting amicably behind them. We sit in front of them thinking of how lucky we are in being there. Spiritual people might be thanking some higher being.
Click on any of the photos above to start the slideshow.
I rummage in my backpack and fish out a photocopied number of Rapa Nui Journal. In it is the translation of the poem He Moai by David Menezes Salvo, winner of the second place of a 1991 poetry contest.
Moai, when will you tell us the truth?
How many stories do you have to tell us?
Moai, where are you looking at?
The Tongariki Fifteen remain silent. Two more tourists arrive. From far away the wind carries the barks of a dog.
Some trips are born in the heat of the moment. Others come from way back, originating from yellowing books, B&W films or stories told by elder relatives a lifetime ago. This is one of them. But yet again, it shouldn’t be a surprise: I doubt that many people arrive at Rapa Nui by accident. You don’t fly here on a whim.
On paper there are enough reasons to be disappointed with this island. It’s not a beach destination: in fact, there’s only one stretch of sand in the whole place. There’s also a distinct lack of other tropical must-haves: a coral reef, blue lagoon or cinematographic views that would command a place on the cover of Condé Nast magazine. On top of that there’s only one luxury hotel, itself at the centre of an ugly spat – but more on that later.
Yet, despite all this, many come, as I did; many also long to return, as I do. We stayed as long as we could and it wasn’t enough. I wished it was for longer. I wish I was still there.
Why is that? What makes this place so captivating that so many, from King Hotu Matu’a to the French man who owns our hostal, arrive and don’t ever leave?
The best explanation I’ve been able to give is that Rapa Nui has something. There’s something here, however resembling of Kurt Russell’s The Thing this phrase sounds. A colleague at work defined it nicely: it’s an answer. An answer to a question you haven’t yet figured out how to pose.
You’ve arrived at the end of the road and it really feels that. According to some theories on human migrations Rapa Nui was one of the last outposts where Homo Sapiens arrived, everything else having already been conquered by our ancestors. Every now and then this idea hits you and when it doesn’t the distances do: it’s 2,500 km to the next inhabited island (Pitcairn, population 50); a further 1,000 for Chile. All there’s around is sea, sea so open and multi-coloured that it’s easy to think to be on an ocean-going vessel.
And yet you aren’t. This is an island, an island with a quaint little town called Hanga Roa: bumpy roads and trees, churches and tourist shops, flowers and small supermarkets with notices for the arrival of fresh milk and salads kept in refrigerators.
Liking Hanga Roa comes surprisingly easy; getting in tune with its rhythm requires even less effort. Give it a day and you’ll find yourself driving slowly into town, windows down, head bobbing to the reggae tunes aired by Radio Rapa Nui. Unconsciously you’ll copy the attire of those you’re meeting on the street: shoes splattered with the red mud of this island. Utilitarian trousers. A well-washed T-shirt. Let your hair be coiffured by the wind, get suntanned, don’t shave. Just listen to the music and wonder what all the tropical places listened to before Marley. A crooner from the 1950s come on. Perhaps that.
Not everything is hakuna matata here. Rapa Nui’s Chilean government is enlightened enough in letting a Parliament of sorts exist on a clearing not far from City Hall, a Parliament proclaiming the right to self-determination. I’ve a feeling that the French would be a lot less permissive in Polynesia. Yet the Carabineros were a lot less laissez faire in the way they cleared the Eco Village occupation a few years ago.
There’s a road, Apina I believe, running between the two small ports of Hanga Roa. Along it are the Navy barracks, a number of commercial exercises – a bank, a couple of restaurants – and, then, a fenced building with a démodé sci-fi look, something out of Space 1999. It’s the luxury hotel I mentioned earlier. The views there would be splendid if only one was willing to ignore the dark banners fluttering from poles and the many sheets of corrugated metal. Whoever managed to turn modern minimalism in Genghis-Khan-meets-Mad-Max is a visual genius.
It doesn’t take much to figure out the reasons for such a powerful protest. The signs say it all: a case of alleged land-grab perpetrated with the connivance of the government. The squatting occupation that ensued was ended with excessive vigour from the Carabineros, who used pellet guns and rubber bullets to evict the protesters, wounding many.
Better to turn to the sea. Here the Pacific’s long waves are crashing on the rocks under the stoic eyes of a horse whilst two dogs decide to follow us. We walk through the small port where a class of teenagers is learning how to paddle canoes under the eyes of teachers and of the local fishing community. The colours are bright to a level never seen in London.
If there was a way to condense Rapa Nui’s irresistible pull then the trail leading to the top of Rano Kau’s caldera would be it. It sneaks through tropical gardens, palms are bordered by white rocks, before climbing uphill through a lush scenery of thick bushes yellow with flowers visited by slender, industrious bees. We sweat professionally, the sun and red earth bringing back echoes of Dee Dee Bridgewater’s eponymous song. A stop for water is an occasion to look down on Hanga Roa and the north coast, with the four little freighters moored offshore. A gentle breeze is enough to wash the sweat away.
Woods, here as elsewhere in the island, are mostly made of eucalyptus. Botanical purists might gasp in horror at the choice but there, under their shadow, smelling their delicate fragrance, it was pure bliss. A little further uphill and we’re on the rim of the caldera, looking down to a perfect circle of swamps and a team of three stray dogs who have taken it upon themselves to escort us to Orongo.
We arrive at Orongo, the village whence the yearly Tangata Manu challenge took place, and the weather had changed again. Gone are the Bermuda vibes, wiped away by a cold wind and clouds that are more reminiscent of the Isle of Skye. A few steps away from us the coast falls precipitously towards a graphite sea; surf breaks on Motu Nui islet where the young clan champions had to go to fetch the eggs of the first migratory manutaras.
Today no one braves the rocks and waves to capture an egg. We walk sombrely around the village while, above us, three birds are playing in the riot of thermals that must be swirling, unseen, above our heads. A Kyuss song, evidently written for places and moments like this, bubbles to my mind.
I’m standing alone on the cliffs of the world No one ever tends to me Sitting alone, covered in rays Some things are so my mind can breath
Back in my university days there was a book that passed hands with the same speed as No-Global leaflets, only with more enthusiastic reviews. It was Collapse, by American geographer and historian Jared Diamond, author of that Guns, Germs and Steel that our faculty’s dean said we all had to read if we wanted any hope of understanding the world.
Guns, Germs and Steel grappled with the age-old question of why certain nations achieve prominence on the world’s stage; Collapse, instead, tried to explain why others didn’t, finishing discarded in the great dustbin of history. Chief amongst the many soundbites that peppered the book was the notion of “ecocide”. Ecological Suicide, in Diamond’s view, was the fact of destroying one’s habitat through carelessness or sheer mismanagement with results that were more or less always catastrophic for the society in question. One such community, he maintained, was Easter Island’s. By cutting all the trees, the Rapa Nui effectively ended their megalithic civilisation and descended in a hellish situation of starvation, famine, warfare and cannibalism.
Or did they?
To quote freely from Mark Twain’s response to his own obituary, today we think that news of Rapa Nui’s descent into cannibalism are exaggerated. They rely on assumptions that are being challenged by modern researchers drawing from the notes of those who first visited the island as well as from science. This post wants to be a summary of the state of the art of research, a brief foray into academia: don’t worry, travelogue and nonsense will return soon.
A peaceful society.
Central to the concept of ecocide is war. Once resources grew scarce, Rapa Nui clans turned one against each other in a bloody civil war that left only one “long ear” alive. This is dramatically in contrast with the diaries of the three expeditions that, first, brought Europeans in contact with the island.
When he arrived on Easter Day 1722, Dutch explored Jacob Roggeveen made no mention of weapons. Forty-eight years later in 1770, Don Felipe González claimed the island for Spain (who subsequently forgot they had it, much like – true story – Silvio Berlusconi forgot to have bought a yacht in the Bahamas); a bit of a buddying anthropologist, González’s chief pilot Don Francisco Antonio de Aguera y Infanzon – who, for brevity, I shall call Don Pancho – gave a bow, arrow, knife and cutlass to a Rapa Nui that had swam to his ship. The Rapa Nui, who bore a scar that Don Pancho thought was the result of a war wound, turned to be comically unaware of the purpose of these weapons: he wore the bow on his head and neck as a jewel and held the cutting tools by their blades and not, as it’d be normal, by the handle.
Rapa Nui society was seemingly made of peaceful people who were wholeheartedly enthusiastic of their unexpected visitors. For instance, flint blades, until considered as weapons, have been found by Hawaii’s Bishop Museum researchers to be used to cut fibrous plants such as potatoes and taro. The only problem mentioned by the first visitors was Rapa Nui’s nonchalant attitude to liberating their property: a Dutch sailor in Roggeveen’s landing party shot a few locals that seemed keen on nicking his arquebus. Captain Cook, who visited in 1774, remarked sadly that, although “friendly and hospitable”, people were also “addicted to pilfering”. Hats in particular seemed all the rage and disappeared quicker than cheap TVs on a Black Friday sale.
Abundance of food.
All three explorers left descriptions of the Rapa Nui that, it can be argued, don’t quite fit with the ideal type of a starving person. “Tall, well-built and proportioned in their limbs” was Don Pancho’s one-liner. Cook wrote in his journal that they had “Not disagreeable countenances” which is as passionate as upper-class Brits will ever get, even today. Roggeveen must’ve had a knack for dentistry for he remarked that the Rapa Nui had “pearly white teeth so strong that could crack nuts”.
It doesn’t end there. The Dutch remarked that agriculture was widely practiced with bananas, yam and potatoes, whilst chickens roamed around. Another Spaniard in Don Felipe’s crew, Don Juan Hervé, walked the length of the island and saw plenty of crops which his crew took extra care not to ruin. Modern-day analysis of Rapa Nui skeletal remains highlighted a fairly rich and diverse diet where seafood was surprisingly present, covering 35% of their diet and up to 50% of their protein intake. But wasn’t deforestation meant to be causing erosion and depletion of the topsoil? How did the Rapa Nui manage not to starve?
The answer lies in the concept of “lithic enhancement”. Much unlike our fields where every pebble and stone has been eliminated, Rapa Nui’s are littered with black volcanic rocks. The rocks were used to replenish those mineral nutrients, such as nitrogen, that were depleted by successive crops, thus keeping yields high. Additionally, every village had one or more manavai or “mulch gardens”, a ring of rocks surrounding and protecting crops from wind and excessive sun whilst at the same time retaining moisture. As a result, estimates now put the maximum potential population of the island between 3 and 29 thousand souls, with 17,500 as being the most likely option.
Who cut all the trees then?
It’s undeniable that deforestation took place and, as a result, life changed on Rapa Nui. It’s also undeniable that deforestation happened relatively quickly, in a matter of a few centuries from the arrival of king Hotu Matu’a from the Marquesas. Yet, it mightn’t have been all down to humans.
According to Oregon University archaeologist Terry Hunt, Hotu Matu’a’s fleet carried some stowaways under the form of rats. As the men and women arrived at Anakena beach so did the pests which found a virgin environment without so much as a predator. It must’ve been rat heaven and the results did not wait to arrive: estimates put the peak mice population to be numbering in the low millions, all gorging themselves on the rich forest around them. Palm nuts showing rat gnaws have been found all throughout the island, showing that humans had a four-legged helper in the destruction of the primeval tree cover.
And what about the moai?
Today we see most moai standing on top of their ahu platform. However, until the 1960s all of them had been knocked down, many in bits. The vulgata tells stories of tit-for-tat vandalism in the framework of a civil war that is very hard to imagine (Bishop Museum’s researchers found that only 2% of skeletons showed signs of a violent death). Additionally, it goes against the observations of our explorers.
Roggeveen saw the moai all standing on their ahu and witnessed clear signs of devotion from the islanders. He mentions how people lit fires in front of the statues and venerated the megaliths by crouching before them and by moving hands up and down in adoration. Don Pancho agrees in defining the moai as objects of worship.
Things were evolving when Cook passed, four years after the Spaniards. On the east side of the island he saw three ahu which, originally, hosted 4 moai each. Two ahu had no moai standing and, as for the last one, one moai had already been toppled. He also mentioned that, based on his experience, the statues weren’t object of devotion “however it might’ve been in the days of the Dutch”. He rather thought that the moai were being used as burying places as he saw a skeleton lying beneath one.
It’s anyone’s guess why the Rapa Nui decided to topple their statues. It was done with a certain degree of care, for most have been put face down and most of their faces – long noses included – haven’t been damaged. But what led them to do this? I like to think that the moai had been built for a purpose or that they were expression of a belief and that, when the Europeans arrived, either that purpose had been accomplished or the belief had been proved fundamentally wrong. Imagine if we somehow had irrefutable proof of the existence of God, but also that he’s neither Allah or Jehovah: would we still need mosques, churches or synagogues?
The real catastrophe.
All evidence, both historic and scientific, seem to point towards an island that had changed drastically but whose civilisation managed to evolve and to keep its vitality by the time of European contact. What happened after the first, relatively benign visits was, however, much worse.
Ships began kidnapping Rapa Nui, culminating in the devastating 1862 Peruvian slaving raid where approximately 2,500 islanders were captured and led to the continent where they succumbed to forced labour and illnesses. The entire clan leadership was wiped out; then a missionary descended on the few, wretched, survivors. Eugène Eyraud, a French priest, came to Rapa Nui to carry out the proselytism that many of his kind were already doing throughout the Pacific. In doing so he helped wiping out a culture that existed for centuries. A sheep and cattle station was established soon afterwards, being discontinued only in the 1950s.
Can Rapa Nui still teach us a lesson?
Absolutely yes. Whilst we can’t fully buy the ecocide narrative, it’d be wrong not to take heed from Rapa Nui’s deforestation. Without trees the islanders couldn’t manufacture ropes or use wood and, therefore, had to give up on their megalithic industry almost overnight, as the Rano Raraku quarry seems to show.
Our civilisation is in the same situation with many materials that are rare or in short supply. I’m talking about yttrium, coltan, lithium and many others: without them we don’t have LEDs, mobile phones or Toyota Priuses and, right now, it seems to me that there isn’t a lot of care on how we manage this finite stock of resources.
Another important lesson is our approach to aboriginal – or uncontacted – civilisations but, alas, I’m afraid that we’ve well and truly missed that train now.
1. João Vicente Ganzarolli de Oliveira, Culture and Isolation in Easter Island, in Rapa Nui Journal Vol. II N. 4, December 1997
2. Whitney Dangerfield, The Mystery of Easter Island, in The Smithsonian 31/03/2007
3. Jago Cooper, Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World, BBC4
4. L. Jarman, T. Larsen, T. Hunt et al, Diet of the Prehistoric Population of Rapa Nui Shows Environmental Adaptation and Resilience in American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2017; 164 343-361
5. Cedric O. Puleston et al, Rain, Sun, Soil and Sweat: A Consideration of Population Limits on Rapa Nui Before European Contact, in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, July 2017, vol. 5, article 69
6. Ship Log of 1770 voyage of Captain Don Felipe González, retrieved easterisland.travel
7. Ship Log of 1774 voyage of Captain James Cook, retrieved easterisland.travel
8. Herbert von Saher, Some Details of the Journal of Jacob Roggeveen, in Rapa Nui Journal Vol IV N. 3, Fall 1990
9. Zuzanna Jakubowska-Vorbrich, Chilean Report on Easter Island, 1870: From Science to Politics and Prejudice, Institute of Iberian and Ibero-American Studies, University of Warsaw, 2018
10. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin, 2011
The sun is setting on a scene I’ve waited 26 years to see. There’s people around me; for some, this is one of many such sunsets; for others it’s as new as it is for me. But I doubt that many more are feeling that same sense of satisfaction, of wholeness, of meeting your childhood hero and discovering that he’s every bit as great as you thought he’d be.
The sun sets to a remote West where it’s already tomorrow. The sun sets, the wind picks up and I’m reminded of a song from The War on Drugs.
And I’m thinking of a place
And it feels so very real
There are countless articles singing the virtues of this or that stretch of road, claiming it to be “the best in the UK/Europe/world” (delete as applicable). So what’s the point in writing another one? What’s the use of increasing the count of Best road to ∞+1? The reason is that I’ve really found the best road, at least for me and, since I’m not a selfish bastard, here it is: the ring formed around the Icelandic Snæfellsnes peninsula by routes 54, 574 and 56.
The recipe for the perfect road isn’t really hard to ace; all you need are the right ingredients. Once you’ve bagged them it’s “all over but the shouting” as Frank Borman famously said on the Apollo 8 return trip.
The first key ingredient to be tossed in the cauldron is the road. It must have a balanced blend of straights, ups, downs and corners. In fact, it must have all the types of corners under the sun. Fast ones, switchbacks and those large, swooping ones – yeah, you know the kind – that make you smile, put an elbow on the window frame and invite you to take in the views.
The views, then. They are as fundamental as the road, if not more. To me, they are the real deal-breaker: no road can be truly enjoyed if all you can see around are flatbed trucks or industrial estates.
There are also other elements in my recipe – let’s consider them those extra toppings at the bottom of the menu – such as smooth tarmac, no traffic, a radio station alternating Creedence and DJ Krush, but my best road needn’t a fancy car in order to be appreciated. Sure, there might be a bit of a fox-and-grapes complex lurking around here but my best road is egalitarian: whatever the car hire roulette has blurted out, you’ll enjoy it. How do I know? Well, I had a toffee-black Suzuki Vitara and I did. See if you can spot it in this video.
The start of my road, so I’ve decided, is at a landmark some 35km north of Borgarnes. As you drive north you’ll see, on your right, Eldborg crater. Its name and meaning (“Fortress of Fire”) will definitely appeal to the JRR Tolkien in you.
From there all you need to do is follow the road as it worms its way along the coast. It’s that easy: keep the wet bit on your left and, as they say, Bob’s your uncle.
It’s not as if this is only a road to be driven on, for there’s plenty to do in case you’re the kind of guy or gal who enjoys a break every now and then. There’s, for instance, a seal colony at Ytri-Tunga where you can admire our aquatic cousins perfecting the art of being fat. Or, but you need to be past the tip of the peninsula for that, you can hike to the top of Saxhóll volcano which, let me tell you, works better if you’re not risking frostbite. Add the occasional team of Icelandic horses to the mix.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Once you’re past the cape the road snakes around hills and mountains abutting to the fjord in a parade of vistas where water and stone and snow continuously trade places. This is where you can find little gems such as black beaches or, of course, Kirkjufell mountain (be aware of awe-struck tourists walking in your path, though).Grundarfjörður is nothing but a blip before you get back in a wonderland that feels dragged out of a saga and often is.
If I had to choose, this is where the road’s party piece is. Past a lava field is a junction: carry on forward for Stykkishólmur and the Westfjords, turn right to head back towards Reykjavík. That’s where we are headed.
In this part the road, now no. 56, will run over the mountains that make the spine of the peninsula: what awaits is a spectacular journey amongst meadows, often blanketed by thick snow, and interludes of utter serendipity when the view is almost 180 degrees wide.
It is, alas, brief, over before you can say Eyjafjallajökull: soon the familiar shape of Eldborg will appear, this time on your right, heralding the end of the road and the start of the return. You might be tempted to say no and to U-turn for another round; go on, I won’t judge: I might’ve done the same.
As far as names are concerned, few animals have had it as bad as the Orca. Popularly known as “killer whale” – a connotative appellative if ever there was one – they don’t fare much better from a scientific point of view either: Orcinus Orca, as they are indeed known, means “Of the Orcus”, the Roman god of the underworld, punisher of broken promises. Quite how it became the name for a marine mammal is something that only Linnaeus can answer.
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Olafsvík was in the midst of a snow-clearing campaign. Two tractors fitted with huge blades were pushing mountains of the stuff away from the thoroughfares and into the harbour so that the little port had, by the time we arrived, assumed a Siberian je-ne-sais-quoi. We were early for our tour and had little to do but to idle about on the pier, eyeing our fellow tourists and watching the crew shovelling the snow off the boat that, we surmised, was going to have the honours. Typically, it was the tiniest in the whole port.
No, it was neither of these two.
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Evidently not satisfied with just giving orcas a whole host of bad names, the western world never really managed to build a decent relationship with the animal. Pliny the Elder, the Roman commander and Attenborough precursor, began the smear campaign with lines dripping with vitriol, effectively calling them savage murderers. Fast forward to the modern age and orcas have alternatively been used for target practice or were kidnapped to toil away in our aquaparks.
– § –
The crew working on the boat was as Icelandic as a Sigur Rós album: nice, courteous, wool-hatted and completely no-nonsense. A name check was followed by the distribution of padded, waterproof overalls. Transformation into Michelin men completed the sailors corralled us, shuffling like beached penguins, onboard. Soon after we were chugging out of the harbour and into the deep, cold waters of the fjord.
Our sea-faring skills ranged quite a lot: we had the lonesome guy, Moby Dick tattooed on the knuckles, who drank builder’s tea out of a flask the size of a submarine as he stood on the top deck, oozing comfort and savoir-faire. On the other side were those sad bastards whose knees and stomachs had already started trading places. If you’re wondering on which end of the spectrum I was, well, I’ll have you know that when Maria the guide found me I was already cowering in the lower deck, doing my best impersonation of an abandoned puppy. With well concealed pity she suggested I headed to the stern of the boat, stood up and looked at the horizon. Thinking it the stupidest idea ever I complied.
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As years went by science managed to disprove the cliché of the evil and bloodthirsty orca that had held sway for so long. What Pliny described as a ruthless killer is now widely recognised as an incredibly intelligent animal with one of the most complex social life in the sea. Orcas have been found to live in a multi-layered social order run matriarchically, using a varied vocabulary that includes dialectal inflexions which they employ to organise some of the most astonishing hunting parties ever seen in the animal world.
Orcas have been observed teaching their calves a curriculum that includes both language and hunting skills: the pods living off Crozet Island in Argentina, for instance, coach their young on how to catch seals when they are wading through half a meter of water. Families in Antarctica would repeat attacks on Weddel seals – performed by triggering tidal waves that break the ice floes upon which the seals are resting – time and again until the calves can recite their part by heart.
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Far from being stupid, Maria’s suggestion turned out to be a stroke of genius: as soon as I wrapped myself around a sturdy pole, breathing in the cold breeze (and occasional whiff of diesel exhausts) I felt immensely better. For starters, the weather was gorgeous: clouds sailed by, urged on by a lively breeze, so that sun and shade were trading places amiably and the whole world was either gold or dark blue. A fishing trawler bobbed in the sea and, on the northern horizon, the white cliffs of the Westfjords beckoned. “People think it’s Greenland” smiled a crew member.
The feeling of unease quickly washed away and I was getting used to the rhythmic rising and falling of our boat as we steamed out of the fjord, pointing east towards the open sea. In our wake were dozens and dozens of squawking seagulls: for a while I thought that we were following them in the hope to be guided towards the shoals of herring and the orcas, but then it became apparent that they were betting on us getting them to the fish. The whole thing was pretty ironic and even if it meant that we wouldn’t see any orcas I still felt good about being able to overcome my fears.
Precisely at that moment the blower came to life and Maria announced, “Good news everyone”.
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Throughout the world, Aboriginal cultures nurtured views of the orcas that differed from the beliefs of the West under every aspect, views that – as scientific research intensified – were vindicated however posthumously. The First Nations that inhabited the Pacific coast of America from Alaska down to Oregon called orcas “blackfish” and considered them to be the most powerful fish in the ocean, reincarnation of famous chiefs or of drowned people. Almost every tribe considered their appearance to be auspicious for human activities. Yupik people living on the Chukchi peninsula, where Siberia ends in the Bering strait, offered orcas gifts as a way to ensure their support during walrus hunts; whenever they found an orca carcass beached on the coast they’d celebrate a funeral in its honour.
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I remember the day – cold, wet and miserable – when I saw my first blue whale off the coast of Sri Lanka. I remember the feeling of sheer, unadulterated awe that swamped me as soon as the beast came to the surface not far from our boat, how it nullified the discomfort of that journey. I often wondered if I’d ever experience something like that again and what would cause it. The sight of an orca pod off the Snæfellsnes peninsula did it.
The pod was swimming west, commuting behind the shoals of herring that constitute their main staple, their fins – tall and straight were the males’, arced like scimitars the females’ – emerging at regular intervals. Often their heads would pop out too, perhaps checking out this boatload of excitable bipeds.
Click or tap on any photo to start the slideshow.
For the next two hours we were to accompany these beautiful animals in their meanderings. We were to encounter three pods and, our resident researchers said, a total of 30 orcas, each and every one of them recognisable because of the white patch behind their dorsal fin. We were to see them from afar and up close, from above and from below too when our boat was sinking in the through of a wave and they were riding its crest; we saw adults, juveniles and even calves. In one happy moment I caught a fleeting image that will remain with me forever: an orca’s silhouette, pectoral fins extended, the delicate interplay of blacks and whites running across her body perfectly visible, as she swam inside a wave of green water illuminated by the shining sun.
Click or tap on any photo to start the slideshow.
Some around us were cold, some were feeling sick and some hadn’t quite finished vomiting since we’d left the harbour but, thankfully, we didn’t. The sheer beauty of nature kept us warm, happy and sprightly as Duracell bunnies.
– § –
Years of activism have succeeded in turning the idea of capturing juvenile orcas to turn them into attractions as despicable as the act of selling cigarettes to eight-year olds. Far from being killers, researchers will point out that no fatal attacks on humans have ever been recorded. Stories such as the remarkable one captured by South African photographer Rainier Schimpf – of a mutilated orca, unable to fend for herself – being supported for years by her pod sisters are, instead, the new anecdotes being employed when describing these animals. If ever there was a species in need of a rebranding orcas are them. Perhaps we should call them blackfish.
– § –
Suddenly the ‘home time’ marker was upon us. It must’ve come as welcome news to the sickest amongst us; for me, though, it was a farewell that I wished I could postpone. We turned east as the orcas kept on swimming nobly to the east. Their future is fraught with danger – climate change, overfishing, pollution, plastics – but, at least, everywhere they’ll go people will now meet them with the same respect and awe that our aboriginal ancestors tribute to them.
Iceland doesn’t score very high in terms of cityscapes. Granted, there are corners of beauty peppered here and there in Reykjavik but there’s no denying that, besides those exceptions, towns and villages all around this island have a utilitarian air. They were built to answer a function, to solve a need, not to be admired.
The village of Grundarfjörður was, at least from the outset, not that different. There was no promenade by the shore but a harbour where pick-ups and fork-lifts manoeuvred in and out of warehouses. Homes and civic buildings all had a Spartan look; even the café-cum-library boasted a nude concrete floor which, we believed, must’ve been easier to clean than wood or tiles.
Yet Grundarfjörður had an undeniable allure. There was an air of frank no-nonsense, of affable helpfulness. No one, there, had neither time nor the interest for playing politics or to mess about. And there was the landscape. Honestly, you could plop any eyesore in such a location and I’d still stop, awe-struck, in contemplation.
We stayed at a small cluster of homes just outside of town. Our window opened on a panorama of mountains softened by the snow that kept on falling every night, but the real treat lied waiting just past the front door.
Our stay was brief; yet, halfway through it, we’d already gotten the measures of the place: which brand of cheese we liked, how to get the coffee machine to work and, as it’s typical in villages, we begun recognising some of the villagers. The friendly bear-of-a-man who worked as the cashier in the store; the groovy café guy; the farm boys who drove snowmobiles every late afternoon.
Alas, we were to leave soon. On our last evening we stood outside the guesthouse as the sun sunk behind the horizon in an eternal crepuscule, hoping for some clear skies. Initially, though, that did not seem to be the case.
But then, at around midnight, a casual glance out of the window revealed a blanket of stars. We quickly tossed on some layers and braved the -8C armed with tripod and camera. Millions of stars twinkled above us and, before the camera’s lenses, they began their slow dance. A fishing trawler, meanwhile, chugged serenely into port, its mission evidently done.
In spite of being late in the season we had harboured hopes of witnessing the spectacle of the aurora borealis. It was our last night and, if ever it was going to happen, it had to be now. Suddenly and without noise, but for the quacking of two quarrelling ducks in the stream beneath us, a grey band materialised in the sky. It sneaked elegantly across the bay, describing an arc from Kirkjufell to the mountain range to our backs. It looked like a cloud, but stars shone through it. As we weighted options the band became two. And then three, four, like incomprehensibly large amoebas whose Petri dish was the entire celestial vault. As the grey bands went about their business we waited with baited breath.
Then it began. From behind Kirkjufell a faint green curtain appeared. Pulled by an invisible hand along an unseen railing, the curtain worked its way across the fjord and up our heads. There it remained, dancing into the night sky to a rhythm that no one on Earth could hear, for a good ten minutes before it disappeared as gently as it’d arrived. As far as auroras went, we would be told later, this was a pretty weak show and it only left the faintest glow on our photos. But, yet, the sense of child-like wonder, the shiver of excitement at the sight of such a mysterious phenomenon was the best parting gift that Grundarfjörður could give us.
The 9-18mm lenses I’ve just bought are, in the words of the photographer who won the chance of endorsing them, “perfect for panoramas”.
In a rare astronomical conjunction where marketing met reality and they both shook hands with user requirements a set of wide-angle lenses was precisely what I needed, for Snæfellsnes turned out to be panorama country.
Doubter are you? Master Yoga would say. If so, allow me to show you some examples that, hopefully, will explain. (Just remember can you can click/tap on any photo to see it in widescreen format).
A storm brewing across the fjord.
The day was blustery to the extreme, omen of the waves of snowstorm that were to lash the coast throughout the following 24 hours. We were driving along the Hvalfjörður as yet another squall rolled in from the howling sea. I remember thinking “What if we took bikes?” and shudder despite the heated seat.
It was a short drive from Lýsudalur – 3 houses, one stable, something looking like a school – to Búðir, one hotel and a chapel. Between the two places a volcano, now long gone, had left a trail of scoria: a tormented landscape of corrugated rocks twisted and turned by incomprehensible forces. A lava field.
A dance of snow and sun.
We were having to stop every half-hour or so to scrape the powdered ice that would inevitably plaster itself all over the car’s rear lights. As we did so the weather kept on turning like the mood swings of a spoilt brat: sun followed white-out and wind followed calm. Briefly, on the road between Hellissandur and Ólafsvík, we were able to witness that changing-of-the-guard moment.
The “most photographed mountain in Iceland”, or so some claimed, lived up to its fame on a rare moment where the crowds with whom we shared it trickled down to just a handful of visitors impregnable to the icy wind, as well as a dog apoplectic with joy at the sight of snow.
Within spitting (with wind in favour) distance from Hellissandur lies Ingjaldshóll. Once a farm; now a church, graveyard and not much more. As the story goes a young man wintered here after arriving at the nearby port of Rif on a ship from Bristol. During those long winter nights he came to learn more about the Vikings’ voyages west, to Greenland and further on to Vinland. That man was none other than Christopher Columbus.
On the beach.
Echoes of Neil Young would be welcome if only Ambulance Blues wasn’t so sombre. A beach just outside Grundarfjörður, deserted but for a man with a drone – thankfully far away. A black beach dotted with purple sea shells, flanked by white hills and covered, in places, by a thin water film over which the blue, golds and greys of the sky can run like a cinema screen.
Past Grundarfjörður is a road turning right, running over the mountains that make up the spine of Snæfellsnes. That road, sneaking as it does up an inviting mountain pass, is an utter joy. And it’s not just because of the driving pleasure: it’s also gifted by great, great views. More on that later on.
The medieval chronicler.
Not too far from the Laugarsbrekka farmstead that saw the birth of Guðríður Víðförla is a locality known as Staðarstaður. There’s a monolith there but, unlike that monolith, it hadn’t mysteriously appeared to make apes intelligent. Soiled as it was by a sacrilegious bird, the monolith is a monument to one Ari Þorgilsson, cleric and XII century chronicler. Author of Íslendigabók, Ari told the story of Iceland between the times where she was settled by Norse outcasts and the conversion to Christianity. I don’t know about you, but if, 1000 years from now, I could be remembered by a monument this grand in a place this supremely beautiful, it’ll be a great, great satisfaction.