The stench of horse dung greets photographer Matjaz Krivic and I as we leave Easter Island's tiny Mataveri air terminal. Dozens of neatly groomed and saddled steeds stand in the sizzling-hot airport car park, waiting to carry home locals returning to the world's most remote inhabited island. The closest neighbour to this 117-square-kilometre dot in the sea is Pitcairn Island, 1,800 kilometres away; the nearest mainland is Chile, 3,700 kilometres to the east.
We climb aboard a pickup truck and are soon heading towards the island's capital, a cloud of rust-coloured volcanic dust billowing in our wake. On first impression, the beautiful volcanic landscape is even more mystical and enchanting than we'd expected. Gently rolling hills and slopes are irregularly punctuated by volcanic cones, and sprinkled all about are the ever-present moai, the legendary stone statues.
Hanga Roa, the capital of Rapa Nui, the Polynesian name for the island and its people, is really just a small village. Nationalist slogans are scrawled on fences around town--the Rapa Nui want their island back, stolen, they say, by the Chilean government.
Down on the pier, we meet fisherman Hugo. "We're doing much better now," he says, when we ask about the current state of the islanders. "I thank Kevin for a lot of it." In 1993, Kevin Costner arrived to produce Rapa Nui, a love story set in the 17th century. For six months, virtually all of the island's 3,000 inhabitants were hired as extras, drivers, caterers and costume makers. It gave them a badly needed economic boost. "We got money to buy refrigerators, new tools, modern fishing equipment, TVs and CD players. We became a part of the rest of the world," says Hugo.
The island's biggest step towards the rest of the world took place in 1967, when it became a refuelling stop for the commercial airlink between Santiago and Tahiti. Today, it relies to a large extent on imported goods, so life revolves around the two weekly flights from Santiago. There were very few visitors before the air traffic started, due to the fact that the island has no natural harbours. Not that it was a very tempting stopover for passing ships, with its sharp lava rocks and vertical cliffs guarding a barren land of treeless hills.
But more than 1,200 years ago, when the first islanders arrived, the place was thick with lush palm forests and a plethora of tasty seabirds--heaven for seafarers who must have travelled for months, whichever direction they carne from. The palm trees were perfect for making boats and houses, and the plants the seafarers brought with them did well in the rich volcanic soil. The people thrived on the island they called Te Pito o Te Henua--the navel of the World--and by 1550 AD, the population had hit a high of around 8,000. Three hundred years later, it was down to 111 sick and starved islanders, and the trees were all gone. The story of the rise and fall of this amazing civilisation is one of epic human achievement mixed with terrible folly. To some it is the story of the whole of human history.
Rivalry between two clans initiated the tragedy. Both had formed cults around the construction of statues--commemorative images of the chiefs of the various lineages within the clans. Tree trunks were used to more the moai to their platforms, of ahu, along the coastline. As trees became scarcer, the islanders' existence was threatened. They tried to please the gods by building more and bigger moai. As the forests were depleted, the land began to erode. Topsoil was washed into the sea, crops failed and the clans turned on one another in a battle for the scarce resources. The moai, symbols of power and success, were toppled.
The violence escalated--it's said the victors would eat their dead foes to gain strength, and bones found on the island show evidence of this cannibalism. The island was a shambles, villages and crops destroyed. There wasn't even any wood left to build escape boats. …