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AS cultural images go, the giant stone statues of Easter Island take some beating.

Just about everyone has seen them at one time or another on TV or, if they're lucky, in person.

Yet they remain one of the great mysteries of the planet.

Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited places on earth - a tiny volcanic island in the middle of the South Pacific. So who were the people who travelled such great distances to get here hundreds of years ago? How did they survive?

And what was the significance of the statues - known as moai - which were erected on stone platforms all over the island?

One of the least likely theories is that these monolithic giants were planted on the island by aliens.

Let's face it, it's not particularly likely.

We wanted to find out for sure, hence our trek to the island, which took us via Santiago in Chile.

Dutch Admiral Roggeveen was the first European to visit the island. He came upon it on Easter Day in 1722 - and not surprisingly named it Easter Island. For modern travellers, visiting the island has been possible only relatively recently.

The airstrip was completed in the 1960s and since that time a small but steady stream of visitors has come to learn more about this extraordinary place, which is still shrouded in mystery.

We were met at Mataveri airport on Hanga Roa - the island's only village - by Ramon, whose family guest house is THE place to stay, if not the only place to stay.

He offered us a typical Pacific islanders' welcome - a garland of fresh scented flowers - before we set off for the place that would be home for the next five days.

Ramon and his wife Josie know more about the island than most - Josie's grandfather was archaeologist William Mulloy, who restored the first moai in the 1960s.

And Ramon's grandfather wasEdmunds, the island's 'manager' when Norwegian archaeologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl first visited the statues in 1955.

After an enormous breakfast we would set out for a day of walking, exploring and listening to fascinating tales of life on the island, many pieced together from oral history and years of archaeological research.

Most of the island's 3,000 inhabitants live in and around Hanga Roa itself where there are schools, a few shops and several restaurants, as well as a little Catholic church which boasts wonderful wood carvings.

Not surprisingly, owing to the island's connection with European and later Chilean colonials, Easter is a particularly special time to be here.

The roads outside the village are best tackled with a good 4x4 or by horse. We opted for wheels and set off across the island to see one of our first sites - Ahu Akivi - where seven great monoliths, their backs to the sea, were re-erected by Mulloy.

Nothing can prepare you for their impact.

The sheer size of them is awesome and the more you look, the more incredible they appear. …