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.
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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.
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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.