TRULY A MIRACLE! Scientists Believe Remote and Beautiful Easter Island Holds the Secret to Long Life -- and It's Certainly a Magical Place for a Holiday Adventure
Byline: by Victoria Ward
SOMEONE might have warned me of the link between Easter Island and the 'elixir of youth'. If this week's sensational news had emerged prior to my visit, I would have spent rather more time tracking down the miraculous chemical in the soil that apparently forms the basis of a new anti-aging pill - and my friends would not have kept asking: 'Isn't that a long way to go just to see a bunch of funnylooking stone heads?' As it happens, it is a very long way to go for anything. Easter Island is one of the most remote, inhabited spots on earth. It lies more than 2,000 miles from the coast of Chile, to the west.
But ever since laying eyes, aged eight, on the monumental stone moai (stone heads) in the British Museum, the story of the mysterious and decadent culture that all but wiped itself out with clan rivalry and over-enthusiastic tree-felling has fascinated me.
Easter Island is 9,000 miles and almost 24-hours flying time from London.
Frankly, I was resigned to never visiting, but then a company called Explora, which has made it its business to make accessible some of the most difficult landscapes in South America, opened a luxury, eco-hotel on the island.
But a word of warning: the Explora en Rapa Nui isn't your average all-inclusive. With televisions and mini-bars replaced by an intensive programme of hiking and island exploration, this is high-enlodging for the adventurous.
Built from the island's ubiquitous volcanic rock, Chilean pine and Brazilian slate, the hotel curves and curls organically from its hillside vantage point near the island's south coast. Thirty rooms with floorto-ceiling windows offer panoramic views across the Pacific.
Guided by Sami, a Rapanui, I set off on my first hike to Ranu Raraku - one of the three volcanoes that punctuate each corner of the triangular island.
It is here that the iconic megaliths, including the British Museum's Hoa Hakananai'a (yes, they all have names), were carved from soft volcanic rock from around AD1,000 until the second half of the 17th century.
As we pick our way through scrub, fields strewn with lava rock and guava orchards, the sound of rough waves crash against nearby cliffs, Sami tells the history of his ancestors and of the island's unique and intriguing past.
The story goes that the island was first settled between AD400 and 800 by Polynesian seamen. As the population grew, the families divided into clans, each carving the stone statues to honour their chieftains and standing them on ceremonial platforms, below which they buried their dead.
But as the fad for statue building exploded, the trees that were felled and used to transport them became scarce.
Without timber the islanders couldn't build canoes, fishing became difficult and finding a way off an island with dwindling resources became impossible. Clan warfare ensued, moai were toppled and destroyed and the island's population plummeted.
Further tragedy befell the island with the arrival of Peruvian slavers in the mid-19th century, who captured one-third of the island's remaining population.
As Sami continues his history lesson, we push on and then I see them. The moai. And they are are every bit as awe-inspiring as I had expected.
Casting their stern, serene gazes out across the rugged, grassy landscape, the wild sea breaking into noisy white froth in the distance and the ancient volcano rising abruptly behind, it is easy to see how people have suggested they were dropped from space by aliens.
In this unearthly nursery, there are almost 400 moai, almost half of those on the island. Some are half-carved, forever abandoned in the rock, others stumble at drunken angles down the volcanic slopes, otherworldly guardians of this exceptional environment.
Over the next few days, Sami and I hike for miles. We visit Ahu Akivi, home to the only moai that face the sea; Ahu Tongariki, with its 15 giant figures who stare towards the quarry where they were born, the site for what is surely one of the most magnificent sunrises on the planet; and postcard perfect Ahu Nau Nau, at palmy Anakena beach, where you'll find some of the island's better preserved moai. …