Easter Island

December 5, 2006
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When you contemplate a place that you have read about your whole life, that is part of the world’s mythology of mystery and beauty, and somehow you expect it to be full of signs and overrun with other similar rapt pilgrims and individuals. That anxiety can kill your hopes, and so you might procrastinate, fearing that the place might be another Stratford-upon-Avon with Willy Shakespeare souvenirs, or another Great Wall of China packed with tour buses. Instead of risking disappointment, isn’t it better to stay away?

“Let’s go to Martha’s Vineyard instead,” you might say. “It’s half the size of Easter Island, and it has even more stony faces.”

But Easter Island is worth the long trip. It is still itself, a barren rock in the middle of nowhere, littered with hundreds of masterpieces of stone carving, blown by the wind, covered in grass, and haunted by the lonely cries of seabirds. It is not as you imagine it, but much stranger, darker, more complex, eerier. And perhaps, because it is so distant and infertile an island, it was always strange.


It was too dark for me to see anything, even at seven in the morning, when I arrived on Easter Island, but there were the insinuating smells of muddy roads and damp dog fur, wet grass, briny air, and the sounds of barking and cockcrows, the crash of surf, and people speaking in Spanish and Polynesian. The customs inspector had been drinking. He was Chilean, as is Easter Island. Someone muttered borrachito” – “tipsy.”

On winter days on Easter Island the sun rises at eight in the morning, and by 5:30 in the afternoon the light has grown so crepuscular there is not enough to read by, not that anyone reads much on this lost island of damaged souls. Long before sundown the horses are tethered (there are few vehicles); the motorboats are moored (there are no canoes and haven’t been for a hundred years); and anyone with money for a bottle of pisco – hooch – is quietly becoming borrachito.

The island goes cold and dark, and except for dogs barking and the sound of the wind in the low bushes, there is silence. There are not many trees. There is only one town – a small one, Hanga Roa – and as for the moai, the stone statues, no one goes near them after dark. They are associated with akuaku – spirits – and are the repository of the island’s secrets. Many, many secrets, you have to conclude, because there are hundreds of stone heads on the island – upright and staring, lying down and eyeless, shattered and broken, some with russet topknots, others noseless or brained – more than 800 altogether. They are also known as aringa ora, “living faces.”


The rest of the island is yellowing meadows with thick, wind-flattened grass, and low hills and the weedy slopes of volcanoes. But never mind that, or the fleeting thought that its landscape looks in some places like the coast of Wales, and in others like Patagonia. It is totally itself, a place penetrated by gloom. And a spooky place, too. Te Pito o Te Henua, “navel of the world,” early inhabitants called their island, and more recently Rapa Nui. Easter Island was the name Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen gave it when he first saw it on Easter Day 1722.

The Easter Island Museum is one mute room on a hillside at the edge of town. There are some carvings, and some dusty skulls with drawings scratched on the craniums, and artifacts, but no dates have been assigned to anything in the room. Old photographs depict melancholy islanders and hearty missionaries. There is a collection of ill-assorted implements – axes, clubs, knives. One exhibit shows how some moai had carefully fitted, goggling eyes – the sclera of the eye made of white coral, the iris of red scoria, and the pupil a disc of obsidian, which gave the statues a great staring gaze. Many of the moai had been ritually blinded by the islanders themselves.

One day I ran into an island woman who was secretary of the Rapa Nui Corporation for the Preservation of Culture, known locally as Mata Nui o Hotu Matu’a o Kahu Kahu o Hera, “The Ancestral Group of Hotu Matu’a of the Obscure Land.” She confirmed various stories that I had read about the island. Hotu Matu’a had been the leader of the first migration to Easter Island, she told me. Descended from ancestral gods, this first king had mana, great spiritual power, and is credited with the founding of this civilization. Much of the early history is conjecture – there are so-called wooden rongo-rongo tablets, with strange figurative script incised on them, but no one has ever been able to decipher them. In spite of this, most of the stories regarding Hotu Matu’a agree on the salient points: That he sailed from an island in the west (Marae-renga, perhaps Rapa, in southeast French Polynesia) commanding two 90-foot canoes. That he brought with him “hundreds and hundreds” of people. That some of these people were ariki, or nobles and others maori, skilled men and women – warriors, planters, carvers – and still others commoners. That the captain of the second canoe was a noble named Tuu-ko-ihu. That on board these canoes they had “the fowl, the cat, the turtle, the dog, the banana plant, the paper mulberry, the hibiscus, the ti, the sandalwood, the gourd, the yam,” and five more varieties of banana plant. (Later generations also gave Hotu Matu’a credit for introducing animals that early explorers introduced, such as pigs and chickens.)


After sailing for two months in the open sea, the voyagers came upon the island and sailed completely around it, looking for a place to land. After their tropical home, this windy treeless island must have seemed a forbidding place: then, as now, black cliffs beaten by surf. They found the island’s only bay, its only sandy beach. They went ashore there and named the bay Anakena, their word for the month of August. They found an island of seabirds and grass. There were no mammals. The craters of the volcanoes were filled with totora reeds.

Shortly after the first canoe reached the shore of the island, one of Hotu Matu’a’s wives, named Vakai, gave birth to a baby boy, Tuu-ma-heke, who became the island’s second king.

Looking for a place to launch the kayak I had brought with me, I walked down the main road of the town, a dirt track called in the local language Navel of the World Street, past grubby little bungalows (they had the shape and dimensions of sheds – flat roofs, single walls) to Hanga Roa harbor.


It was not like any harbor I had ever seen – narrower and more surf-ridden – and it explained why if you totaled the time all the early explorers spent ashore on Easter Island, it would amount to very little. Few of the 19th-century explorers “stayed on the island for more than a few minutes,” writes anthropologist Alfred Metraux in his comprehensive ethnology of Easter Island. Some of the explorers, having made the 2,500-mile run from Tahiti (and it was nearly as far from South America) were unable to go ashore. It was too windy, too dangerous.

I saw that I would be able to paddle out through the surf zone. But getting in would be more difficult. The most ominous sight for a potential kayaker was that of Rapa Nui boys surfing into the harbor on big waves that broke onlarge rocks at the entrance. This surfing, locally known as ngaru, has been a sport here since the earliest times, the only game that has survived all these years.

The waves finally convinced me that this was not a good area to paddle from. I walked along the shore to another rocky bay and watched the breakers there for about 20 minutes. Studying it closely, I saw that paddling would be tricky here, too, because of big rollers. They tumbled in from the deep sea without anything to stop or modify them.

I walked another mile of coastline to Anakai Tangata, the ominously named “Cave Where Men are Eaten.” Below this place were sea cliffs, and beyond was the volcano Rano Kau. In the sky here were hawks, cara-cara, which the Chileans had introduced to rid the island of rats. The hawks were numerous and highly competitive. They flew close to the ground; they perched fearlessly; they swept down on anything that moved; they were fearless raptors.

I followed the dirt road that wound through groves of thin, peeling eucalyptus trees rattling in the wind on the lower slopes of the volcano. I saw no one, only hawks. At the top I had a lovely view of the crater, and because this volcano was at the edge of the sea, beyond the crater’s rim was the blue ocean. In the depths of the steep-walled crater was a lake, with totora reeds and papyrus thickets, and in the most protected part of the crater – the lower edge, out of the wind – grew banana trees and an orange grove.

Orongo, the site of the birdman cult that goes back 700 years, was at the lip at the far side of the crater, high above the sea. That was another mile walk, and on the way I ran into a Rapa Nui man, Eran Figueroa Riroroko.

Riroroko was about 30, a handsome, stocky man who lived in a hut near Orongo and passed the time carving hardwood into animal shapes. In halting Spanish he explained the birdman cult – how in the ancient times the men gathered on the cliffs here every September, the austral spring. At a given signal they went out to an island, Motu Nui, about a mile offshore. It was not far, but the water was notorious for sharks.

“They went in canoes?”

“Nadando, swimming.”

These hopu, candidates for the title birdman, had to bring food back with them. They scrambled up the ledges of Motu Nui to wait for the first sooty tern egg of the season. When it was laid and seized, the lucky man who held it called out his victory, and then tied it to his head in a little basket and swam to shore. He had no fear of sharks or waves, for the egg contained powerful mana. For a year he was the birdman. He had great authority, he lived in a special house, gifts were brought to him, and with this sudden assumption of power he settled any old scores. For now, with this mana, he had warriors on his side who would do as he bid.

Birdman petroglyphs – showing a beaked creature of grotesque strength – were incised in boulders and cliff faces all over Orongo, along with depictions of vulvas, and portraits of the great god Makemake, who was for Easter Islanders what Tiki or Atua was elsewhere in Polynesia.

The eggs, and petroglyphs, and the equinox, all suggested that the cult was associated with sexuality and fertility. On the bluff at Orongo there were also small stone dwellings built into the cliffs – dry-stone burrows and pillbox-like structures with crawl-in openings – in which people had lived when the birdman cult flourished.

“Do you get frightened at night up here by the akuaku, the ghosts?”

“Yes,” Riroroko said. “There could be akuaku here. Devils, I mean”

“Have you traveled away from the island?”

“I have been to Tahiti. To Santiago. To Venezuela.”

“Were you tempted to stay at any of those places?”

“No. Tahiti was tremenda-menda caro, unbelievably expensive,” he said. “But I was just looking. I would never live in those places. Santiago is full of people, traffic, and bad air. I needed to come back here, where the air is clean.”

“What language did you speak in Tahiti?”

“I spoke Rapa Nui, and people understood me. Tahitian is very similar, close enough so that they can understand. I liked the people.”

I walked down the volcano, taking a shortcut through the eucalyptus trees, but on the outskirts of Hanga-Roa I was footsore, and now from every roadside hut crazy hostile dogs ran at me.

I went to bed early and listened to my short-wave radio in the dark. The news was of floods in south China, which had drowned 2,000 people. That was the entire native population of Rapa Nui.

The West Coast seemed as unpromising for paddling as the south coast. There was a heavy swell, and high surf dumping on black, bouldery shores. The islands marked on my chart were not islands at all but, like Motu Nui in the south, slick black rocks washed by foaming breakers.

I hiked along a road that narrowed to a path, which degenerated and lost itself among the grass on the high cliffs. Half a mile from town there was an ahu, a ceremonial altar, with a lineup of five heads. I knew this was Tahai because of the paddling chart I had with me. Farther on there were more moai, carved from brownish volcanic stone and averaging five or six tons apiece. Some had topknots or hats carved from red scoria. Some, with eyes reinserted, had been reconstructed by archaeologists. They were staring inland. In fact, all the statues on the island had their backs turned to the sea.

Their size would have been overwhelming enough, even if they had been badly carved. But these were brilliantly executed, with long sloping noses, pursed lips, and sharp chins. Their ears were elongated, and the hands clasping the body had long fingers, the sort you see on certain elegant Buddhas. Some of the statues had a mass of intricate detail on their backs. And although there were similarities among the statues’ profiles, each one had a distinctly different face.

When the first Europeans came to this island in the 18th century all these “living faces” were upright. The first chronicler, Carl Behrens, who was on Roggeveen’s ship wrote, “In the early morning we looked out and could see from some distance that [the islanders] had prostrated themselves towards the rising sun and had kindled some hundreds of fires, which probably betockened some morning oblation to their gods¿.” This veneration might also have been related to the fact that the islanders had just had their first look at a Dutch ship and a mass of pale sailors.

A little more than 50 years later Capt. James Cook recorded that many of the statues had been knocked over. And by 1863 all the statues were flat on the ground and broken – a result of island warfare, competition, and an iconoclastic frenzy that periodically possessed the islanders.

Stranger than the towering statues that stood and stared were the enormous fragments of broken heads and faces, tumbled here and there on the cliffs, just lying there among the tussocky grass.

I walked along the high cliffs of the west coast to Motu Tautara and the nearby caves in which lepers had once lived, and beyond to where the island’s highest volcano, Mount Terevaka, sloped to the sea. There were moai on this northwest coast, too – isolated heads, some of them fallen and broken, appearing complete and final, but so far from any habitation that they had the empty gaze of Ozymandias.

I marveled at the emptiness of the island and lamented the decline of its ancient culture. It is not as though it was swept away. The material culture was so substantial that now, more than 1,300 years after the first moai were carved (Tahai I, just down this coast, was dated to around a.d. 690), the heads still look terrifying, their expressions sneering, “Look on you mighty and despair.”

I rented a jeep and drove with my tent and collapsible boat to the top of the island, to Anakena, where Hotu Matua and the first canoes had arrived, where the first true Rapa Nui person had been born. It was a lovely, protected bay, with a sandy beach, and just above the beach stood seven moai, some with cylindrical topknots, others decapitated. It was relatively easy to launch the boat here, and I paddled out.

Standing in the sunshine on the grassy slope of a volcano, among big-nosed stone heads, sniffing the heather, I had had no real idea of what an intimidating island this could seem. There were cows and meadows and huts and smashed statuary – bleary-eyed and rather grubby Polynesians, and Chileans from the hinterland. From my boat, though, the island seemed truly awful and majestic, a collection of grassy volcanoes, beaten by surf and surrounded by more than 1,000 miles of open water. It was not like any other island I had seen in Oceania. Tanna had been rocky, Guadalcanal had been dense and jungly, the Marquesas had been forbidding, with deep valleys, full of shadows. But Rapa Nui looked terrifying.

After I had chosen a spot and set up camp, I saw that I was only a half a mile from the famous moai quarry at the volcano Rano Raraku. I walked there and spent the rest of the day wandering among the stone heads. From a distance the heads look like the stumps of enormous trees, but walking closer you see how distinct they are. Most of them were two or three times my height. I counted 30, then walked a bit farther and counted a dozen more. There are over a hundred of them on the slope of the volcano from which they were carved. They have enigmatic faces, highly stylized, like the characters in old Virgil Partch cartoons, or like attenuated Greeks, or gigantic chess pieces.

On these slopes they are standing, or lying on their faces or their backs. Some are broken or seemingly walking down the slope. Some have a whole trunk, a thick upper body attached to them buried underground. The inside of the crater had a number of them. And outside, some lie half-sculptured, horizontal in a niche in the side of the volcanic rock. One of these was 40 feet long, its head and body lying like an unfinished mummy. Another was a kneeling figure. Yet another upright moai had a three-masted schooner carved on its chest.

There were no other people at the site, which made the experience eerie and pleasant. It was without any doubt one of the strangest places I had ever been. From the heights of the volcano, I could look south and see more figures, 20 or 30, strung out along the meadows, as though making their way toward Hanga-Roa.

The questions are obvious. Why and how were they carved? Who are they? How were they moved? Why were so many destroyed?

The long Norwegian shadow of Thor Heyerdahl falls across every archaeological question on Easter Island. Even the simplest people I met on the island had an opinion about their history, and they all had views on Thor Heyerdahl. In his view Peruvian voyagers brought their culture – their stonework, their gods, their sweet potato, and their reed boats – into the Pacific. Polynesians came later, he says, and brought these thriving cultures to an abrupt halt.

Anna, a young mother in a torn T-shirt, spoke a little English. We were near Rano Raraku, in view of the quarry, and I asked her about the moai. She said she had taken her little daughter to see them and that the little girl had wondered how they had been moved.

“What did you tell her?”

“Thor Heyerdahl says that the statues ¿walked’ – that the people used ropes and lines to move them, while the statues were upright. But the stone is very soft, and Tahai is 19 kilometers away. So they would never have made it. I think Heyerdahl is wrong. There were palm trees here at one time. They could have used those trunks as sleds. The people must have pulled them that way.”

In Easter Island: The Mystery Solved, Heyerdahl writes how a man telling him that “the statues walked” made perfect sense. (It was an island legend, this walking by means of the divine power of mana.) Of course, ropes must have been affixed to upright moai and the great things rocked back and forth, one set of ropes yanked, then the other. Heyerdahl experimented, moving one moai 12 feet. This is something less than 15 miles. The more convincing evidence to the contrary was put forth by Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who examined all the statues for “wear patterns” on the soft stone of the bases, or rope abrasions on the necks and upper torsos – and found none.

The mention of Heyerdahl’s name in academic circles produces embarrassment or anger, andthe Rapa Nui know they are the descendants of Polynesian voyagers. They regard themselves as the creators of the monumental figures, which they claim are representations of various prominent ancestors. The figures are not gods, but men.

Lovely Anakena was permeated by the past. Although it was a remote beach, the whole history of the island revolved around it. But it was whipped by wind, and I craved to paddle a long stretch of coast. So I folded my tent, packed my boat, and drove across the eastern peninsula to Hotu-Iti Bay, which was protected – the towering cliffs of the Poike Peninsula were its windbreak.

I wandered around this new bay, in the ruins of a settlement called Tongariki, and found a large broken ahu with 15 smashed stone heads. The moai, with tumbled red topknots, were lying every which way. They had been battered to pieces by a tidal wave that had engulfed the whole of Tongariki about 25 years before. There was also an ancient canoe ramp here, which had been in regular use for centuries, though it was last used, according to historians, a hundred years ago. I thought I would put it to use once again.

Where once there had been a village at the edge of the bay, there was now a tin shack, and when I approached it and called out, some people emerged – about six or seven girls and perhaps five older men. Several of the men were drunk. I asked whether I could camp nearby.

One of the girls said, “I’ll ask my father.”

The man next to her looked up from his fish heads and sweet potato, and he muttered in Rapa Nui.

“Of course,” the girl said.

Later, I heard the others – the girls, the men, laughter – but did not see them, and so I ate alone, boiling some noodles, and eating them with bread and cheese and a can of fish. Another feast in Oceania. I slept, waking every so often to the breaking waves and the surge of the sea.

At dawn the men were mending nets, but they stopped when I began assembling my boat.

“That’s not a boat,” one of them said to me in Spanish. “That’s a canoe.”

“What is your word for it? A waga?”

“Not waga, but vahka. How do you know this Rapa Nui word? We don’t use this word anymore.”

I did not tell him that there was a similar word in the Trobriands, on the Queensland coast, in Vanuatu and Tonga.

Inside the bay there was high surf, but I skirted it, heading out to sea and then angling back when I got past the surf zone. I was now several miles from shore, and heading toward one of the more notable offshore islands two miles away. Old stories described how attackers went out to this motu, Maro-Tiri in canoes, and captured the people who had fled there, how they were hacked to pieces and brought back to shore to be eaten – for cannibalism was common here.

I was listening to my Walkman, and with Vivaldi’s Oboe Concerto in C playing, I paddled under the cliffs of the Poike Peninsula, onward toward the island, very happy that I had brought my boat, feeling a total freedom of movement. Seabirds flew from cliff to cliff, as I made my way to a rock pillar that was like a gigantic grain silo. Made of granite, with perfectly vertical sides, it was so steep that there was no way I could get out of my boat and climb it. The sea-facing side was dashed by waves, and behind the stack of rock, the swell continually lifted and dropped me. I touched it with my paddle, adding it to the list of 40-something islands I had visited in Oceania.

On the way back to Tongariki, in the failing light, I was startled by a sudden thump against my boat. I stopped and turned to see whether I had hit a submerged rock, but there was nothing except black water. There was always the possibility of a shark, and sharks were said to be stirred by thrashing paddles. Here is a panicky creature that is afraid of me, the shark reasons instinctively. I think I will eat it. So I made an effort to paddle fairly evenly, without any fuss. And when I got to shore I asked Carlos, one of the fishermen, whether he had encountered any sharks in these waters.

“There are lots of sharks,” he told me in Spanish. “Big ones, too. Six or seven feet long. They surround us when we catch a fish.”

It seemed a little late in the day for me to start worrying about shark attacks, and so I told myself that perhaps a turtle had bumped me.

The patriarch of this fishing camp turned out to be a dignified old gent named Andres, who spent most of the day pulling nails out of wooden planks and cutting pieces of driftwood to manageable size. These he lovingly stacked near the tin shed, to be made into articles of furniture. He was planning a table, he told me. Every early European traveler had remarked on the absence of trees on Easter Island, and the great value placed on wood by the islanders: “They made their most precious ornaments of wood. Even today the islanders do not despise the least plank.”

“This wood would cost a lot,” Andres said, and he mentioned the peso equivalent of $1.50 for a small piece. “All wood is expensive here, because we have no trees. The Chileans prefer to sell their wood to the Japanese, who have more money.”

Some days, traveling in an odd place, there is nowhere else I would rather be. I felt it every day on Easter Island. I wondered why. The island seemed haunted. The people were unpredictable and inbred, which made them by turns both giggly and gloomy. It was a difficult and dangerous place to paddle a kayak. Some of this strangeness added to its attraction. But it was also because of the smallness of the islands, and its empty hinterland, the symmetry of the volcanoes, the extravagant beauty of the stone carvings, the warm days and cool nights, the tenacity of the people, and all the island’s mystery, still unsolved.

Above the bay at Tongariki there was an unusual ditch that seemed to cut across the peninsula. One of the island’s more colorful stories concerned a long-ago battle that took place here between two distinct groups of islanders, the Long Ears and the Short Ears, in which the Short Ears had been victorious. But the battle seemed no more based on fact than the arrival – also here at Tongariki – of Tangaroa, who had taken on a useful incarnation of a seal, and swam from Mangareva to this very spot, where he revealed himself as the God of the Sea.

There was also something wonderful about waking up in a tent, on a beautiful morning, with great masked noddies hovering and swooping overhead, as I looked over the bluff at the ancient canoe ramp at Tongariki and five miles up the island to the cape and thinking: I will paddle there today.

“What do you call that cape?” I asked Andres, pointing toward Cabo Roggeveen.


“Do you know the name Roggeveen?”


For my last long paddle I planned a trip past Maro-Tiri to the eastern tip of the island, beyond Cabo Roggeveen. I brought food and water, my chart, and my compass. I told Andres where I was going and that I would be back before evening. Since I had been about a third of the way along this coast a few days before, I knew that if something went badly wrong – tipping over and having to swim to shore, was about the worst – I could find a cave or a ledge somewhere in the rock wall of the Poike Peninsula. If I did not return, I assumed someone would look for me.

The Dylan tape Infidels was playing in my Walkman, as I paddled out of the bay. I watched for shark fins and made a mental note of the configuration of cliffs on the peninsula.

The sea caves beneath the 300-foot high cliffs were lashed by surf that engulfed the cave entrances. After a long pause, with squirts from cracks and blowholes, the same waves were spewed out, foaming. These waves made the front side of Maro-Tiri inaccessible. I thought it might be possible to climb to a ledge or a cave, and I made a feeble attempt to hoist myself out of my boat, but gave it up, afraid that I would tip over.

For the next hour and a half I paddled northeast, about a mile or less from the peninsula, sometimes in choppy water, sometimes in high swells. If I paddled too close to the shore I was the victim of reflected waves that tossed my boat about; but farther out I had to contend with a stronger wind and a swell. I found it simpler, but slower, to paddle into the face of waves than in the direction they were traveling. Going downwind there was always the possibility of the boat broaching, or of losing control surfing down a wave.

I was just confident enough in this water to have a quick cheese sandwich and a swig of water. Then I was again paddling to the beat of Dylan’s guitar riffs. Musically, this was a different and less uplifting experience than the baroque oboe concertos of a few days before, but there was no time to change the cassette.

It seemed to me that a mile past Cabo Roggeveen was as far as any sensible person would reasonably go in a choppy sea on a winter day off Easter Island. There were light winds behind the peninsula, but around the corner I could tell it would be blowing 20-odd knots.

The worst of it was the heavy surf, which resulted in reflected waves and a confused sea just offshore. I tried to find a middle ground to paddle in, between the chop and the deep blue sea. To take my mind off this, I marveled at the big waves breaking against the sea caves and spilling down the ledges – with the foam and the spray whitening the air at the base of the cliffs. It was a lovely and dramatic sight, the dumping sea and the whiteness of the waves.

All this to the sound of music.

And then I took the headphones off and heard the immense roar of waves and the screaming wind, and I became frightened. The music had drowned the sounds of the beating sea, but without music I felt only terror. My boat immediately became unstable. I paddled hard to give myself direction and stability, and I pushed onward, past the cape to the corner of the island – the edge, round which the wind was whistling. Unwillingly I was thrust out to sea, where I got a wonderful view – much better than I wanted – of Kavakava, Cabo Cumming. And then I turned and spun my boat over the crest of a wave and began surfing back to the lee of the island, with a big following sea.

I had to stay beyond the surf zone, which was especially dangerous on Easter Island because the waves broke on a rocky shore. Yet I was curious to see some of the moai from the sea. I paddled across the mouth of the bay in a southerly direction, to Punta Yama, where there was a smashed ahu. Half a mile farther down the coast there were deep sea caves. Rapa Nui people were fishing nearby, a family with some horses were camped on the grassy cliff not far away, and there were more fishermen (and more broken statuary) another mile on.

It was odd to be hovering here, between the surf zone and the moana, the deadly emptiness of the enormous ocean behind me, the fatal shore in front of me. Landing was impossible. But being here, bobbing in a small boat, demonstrated how resourceful these people had been. They had found ways in and out of the surf. They had made canoes by ingeniously sewing scraps of driftwood together in much the same way the Inuit had made kayaks in the arctic. They had incorporated every geographical feature of the island – caves, ledges, cliffs, hills – into their cosmology. And they had done much more than merely survive here. They had prevailed over this inhospitable place and shaped it, made altars and temple platforms and houses with its boulders, and carved from its volcanoes some of the greatest, most powerful statues the world has seen, artistic masterpieces as well as engineering marvels.

Still outside the surf zone, I paddled back. And when I got nearer to Tongariki I put in my tape of baroque oboe concertos and watched the island slip past me, and I felt joyous.


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