Easter Island

By Eckert, Fred J. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 10, 2001 | Go to article overview

Easter Island


Eckert, Fred J., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Byline: Fred J. Eckert

EASTER ISLAND - "You probably have seen many places that are a lot more interesting than this island," guide Yan Araki says. Not many, I tell him.

Mr. Araki knows I have roamed all over this wide world and is asking me questions about different places he thinks might be interesting.

The 28-year-old guide was educated in Britain and is a son of a Chilean doctor; his mother is from Easter Island.

"That's a pretty scene, isn't it? - those horses out in the field," he says as we head toward a spot called Ahu Akivi.

We are driving down a narrow road lined with stonewall borders and looking out at some splendid horses grazing on green-yellow fields among rolling hills. Except for the yellow hue, it seems more like a scene out of Ireland than the South Pacific.

It is a very different place from what I expected.

"You like Rapa Nui?" Mr. Araki asks. That's what Easter Island's Polynesian natives call their home. "Is it what you expected?"

I do like it - and it greatly exceeds my expectations.

This is the land of those mysterious stone giants; that's pretty much all I knew about Easter Island when I arrived. It's practically all that most of us know about it, vague impressions of the arcane that we have formed from the photographic images of those gigantic and strange stone statues known as moai.

What I had expected, as I tell Mr. Araki, was a small, remote, not particularly attractive island that happened to have these world-famous statues. I had not imagined it would be such an engaging and magically pleasant place.

"Well, it is small," he said.

About 64 square miles, it is only about 14 miles long and at no point more than seven miles wide.

"And it is remote."

Easter Island is the most remote inhabited island in the world. It sits in the South Pacific Ocean about 2,300 miles west of South America, 2,500 miles southeast of Tahiti, 4,300 miles south of Hawaii, 3,700 miles north of Antarctica. The closest other inhabited island is 1,260 miles away - tiny Pitcairn Island, the place where the mutineers of the HMS Bounty settled.

Its Polynesian settlers called this island Te Pito o Te Henua - the navel (center) of the world. A small round stone monument marks what they thought was the center of the world.

It may be remote, but it's easy to reach. Lan Chile, the national airline of Chile, flies Boeing 767 jets to Easter Island twice weekly; it's a 51/2-hour flight from Santiago, Chile's capital. The island has been a part of Chile since 1852.

The reason for such a first-rate landing strip here, though, is that the U.S. space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, upgraded it to serve as an emergency landing facility for the space shuttle.

The green-yellow fields with attractive horses and stone boundary markers are not all that make Easter Island different from the typical South Seas island. No coral reef surrounds it, which is unusual for a South Pacific island, and it has just two small white-sand beaches.

The coastline is rocky and rugged - here, too, the scenes are more like something out of Ireland than the South Pacific.

I find it surprising that little has been written about how physically appealing the island is. It may not be one of the most beautiful islands of the South Pacific, but it certainly is a pretty place.

SOLEMNITY, MYSTERY

What makes Easter Island so special is not just what you see here. It's also how you feel here.

Walking slowly along while looking up at the row of seven colossal moai at Ahu Akivi, I feel an elusive sense of solemnity and mystery. It lingers. It's the same sort of feeling one gets while visiting a holy site such as Jerusalem or a special place of worship or one of the great wonders of the world.

A particularly large ahu on the island - an ahu is the platform on which the moai sit - Ahu Akivi is an especially sacred place. …

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