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