A Magical Day with the Moai

Day 44, Grand World Voyage 2020

Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020; Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Did the huge statues carved from volcanic ash walk across the island? How, on what appears to be a treeless island, could the creators roll the statues on logs? Would the weather and sea gods smile on the Amsterdam and allow our passengers to go ashore today?

The gods did smile on us at Rapa Nui, as its residents call Easter Island. With the help of the crew at the tender boarding platform, everyone who wanted to go ashore did. My sister and I spent the morning exploring this most isolated of islands and the afternoon contemplating nothing at all over beer and Pisco Sours, while watching crashing waves pelt the rocky coast in front of us.

Of course we came to Easter Island to see the moai – the tall carved statues that dot the island and leave us pondering just how the early Polynesians moved them great distances from their quarry. I had to see the moai in person to fully appreciate a culture that could even imagine such a challenge.

The statues are believed to honor early chieftains of the various tribes that settled Rapa Nui. They started life at a quarry at Rano Raraku, on one of the island’s volcanic hills. Artisans carved the moai in a horizontal position, leaving the detailed etching for later. They either put logs under each statue to roll it or built some kind of structure around it to tilt it back and forth to walk it to its desired position, likely many miles away.

We climbed the hill at the quarry, where scattered statues are buried to their chests in the ground. I started a few sketches there, as well as at other sites, but only had time to capture outlines before our group headed on.

My biggest challenge came in trying to sketch 15 moai during our 15-minute stop at Ahu Tongariki. These 15 are in a straight row and probably are the most famous grouping since they were restored in the 1990s. A tsunami in 1960 had carried them inland. Like all the moai, they face inland away from the sea.

In fact, all of the standing moai are restored – at some point all of them were toppled, either by warring tribes, explorers or earthquakes. They are in varying stages of erosion, with some having lost their angular jaws and pukao, or topknots. Now archeologists believe that the moai originally had white coral eyes with obsidian pupils, and one moai at Ahu Tahaiu illustrates the restored eyes.

Our last stop was at one of the island’s only beaches, where locals were quickly arriving for a sunny Sunday afternoon. The moai here had fallen into the sand, where they were more protected and now show more detailed carved features.

We traversed much of the island during our 4-hour tour, seeing smaller versions of the statues everywhere – backyards, storefronts, scattered about. Many of these are recreations, of course. But the ones in town near the tender pier make good backdrops for photos by passengers and crew who came ashore without tours.

All of the real moai are in a national park (by definition), which requires a US$80 pass to enter . So those who didn’t buy the pass or join a tour with it included were limited to walking through town.

In addition to the statues, we saw free ranging horses all over the island. There are about 5,000. Their owners have branded them, our guide said, but they roam freely. Our driver often had to slow down as the horses and some cattle ranged on the road.

As soon as our tour ended another group was ready to board the bus for an afternoon excursion. Rather than return for a late lunch on the ship, we walked to a nearby small bar and restaurant with a shaded porch in search of a local beer. Alas, the local beers were sold out, so we settled for a couple of Escudo Silvers, a Chilean beer. After all, Easter Island is part of Chile.

The fried cheese sticks and quesadillas were nothing to write home about, but the view couldn’t be beat. We watched the waves crash into the sharp rocky coastline below and wondered why the spray rose so high – was it the size of the swells, the shape of the rocks or the slant of the seabed? We had no idea.

I do know that Capt. Mercer called Easter Island his “nemesis,” based on the challenge he and other captains have faced in getting passengers ashore here. The ocean swells rock the tenders against the lowered platform, sometimes too violently to allow safe boarding. So this is one of those stops that is hit or miss.

Today the captain passed in flying colors. When we arrived before sunup and I watched one of the tenders bouncing against the platform, I was doubtful (but it was a pretty sunrise). Many passengers not on tour were in line as early as 3:30 a.m. to get the cherished tender passes, in case the captain had to stop the tender process early.

Yes, it was a rocky boarding, but four crewmembers stood ready to guide each passenger aboard the tender at just the right timing of the swells. The hotel manager Henk and guest services manager Cristal stood by at both ends of the tender journey to ensure we had safe transits. The process was slower than usual, but everyone who wanted to go ashore made it, greeted by local musicians and our first moai sighting.

It really was a magical day.