On Easter Island, there is a small and notably un-vocal independence movement, which is slowly and seemingly incredibly ineffectively fighting for freedom from the reign of terror bestowed upon it by notoriously oppressive Chile. So far, I’ve seen little evidence of it, save for a guy in a national park who lives in a hut with FREE RAPA NUI etched all over it in greyish chalk. In fact, I saw a more vocal movement for changing Easter Island’s lingua franca to French than for independence. Walking by the Rapa Nui Parliament earlier today, I wondered which side of these arguments the officials of the island fall on, and suddenly I realised something that I had been totally oblivious to for the past three days; this is not Isla de Pascua or Easter Island. This is Rapa Nui.
Once you leave Santiago, on the mainland, you will no longer hear the words ‘Isla de Pascua’, and everyone will revert to calling it by its traditional Polynesian name of Rapa Nui. Even Chileans who come here from the mainland call it that. I don’t feel like it’s a hint or even an acknowledgement of an independence movement, but I know for a fact that if I were a born-and-bred Islander, I would be pretty pissed at my parent country making up a new name when we already had one, so I guess it’s understandable. Obviously as an Englishman you may think this an incredibly hypocritical stance to take, but I of course sympathise with the territories whose names we changed as well.
I traversed the island today, from the south to the northwest, and I have to say, if there’s any call for independence around these parts, it should be for the north separating from the south. Hanga Roa, the ‘capital’ and only real town on the island – where I’m staying – is wedged down in the southwest of the island. Having spent the first two days of my stay here in the south, I was led to believe that the entire island is like the south; undulating hills, rocky beaches, dramatic cliff faces and remarkable humidity. In many ways, it has a beauty of its own, yet it may take a bit of time to get used to. For instance, last night I headed into town to watch some form of native ceremony to do with crowning a queen or… something, and I was halfway there when the most extreme tropical rainstorm came crashing down on us. It was a monsoon on steroids; within thirty seconds it felt like I had been in a bath while fully clothed. I stood and stared out at the sea, with the rain pounding against the faces of a few statues nearby, feeling like, if this is the most dramatic, exotic thing the island can offer me, then I guess I’ll take it. Heading north in a pickup truck today, however, we hit a dense forest on the way, winded around through that for a few minutes and then bang; out the other side.
So starts the northern half of the island; barren, dry, rugged and astonishingly beautiful. This is the checkpoint from which you can fully start to appreciate this little dot of land in the middle of nowhere. Massive long-extinct volcanoes rise out of the ground, dark grey basalt mountains sit alongside them and slope down to the most pristine white-sand beaches you’ve ever seen. As we drove past bizarre pitch-black volcanic rock formations and wide open meadows sandwiched between the tarmac of the road and the blindingly-blue sky, I realised why this is a tourist destination of such esteem. As I said in my last post, everyone here is Chilean; if they wanted decent beaches or mountains they’d just stay on the mainland. Rapa Nui has something very unique about it. Obviously we all know about the Ahu statues and the general ‘I’ve been there’ vibe you get from such a lonely little island, but this is a landscape the likes of which I’ve never really seen before. As some of you will know, my favourite country on Earth is unquestionably Iceland, and whenever I describe why I love it there so much, I usually start with ‘Well, the landscape makes you feel like you’re on Mars’. This island gives me a very similar feeling, except with brutal heat and humidity. It’s like Bizarro Iceland.
We ended up at Anakena, a tiny stretch of beach on the northern shore of the island. I stepped out of the car to the what I can only describe as the most perfect ‘island paradise’ beach you could ever imagine. It was straight out of a postcard. White sand, palm trees, little reed-roofed huts selling freshly squeezed pineapple juice, and seawater bluer than the sky. Well I mean it would’ve been the archetypal paradise beach if it weren’t for the creepy Ahu staring us down from the corner. I was hungry so I grabbed a camarón, a sort of deep-fried empanada filled with cheese and prawns (I know right?) and it was genuinely delicious. I sat on the floor and that’s when the two things that maybe made this not the perfect beach hit me. One is the cost. This island is excruciatingly expensive. A bottle of water will set you back £3, a can of beer £5, a burger £15. But I’m on holiday, so who cares. The other is that Rapa Nui is absolutely plagued with some form of red ant that, if you give it the chance, will crawl all over you and into your clothing and bite you to its little jaws’ content.
After alternating between picking melted cheese off my chin and trying to get a hoard of ants out of my swimming costume, I went for a swim, sat in a deckchair, then climbed a big hill adjacent to the beach, where at the top was a small cave with a perfect panoramic vantage point. I sat there for a while, trying to halt the sun’s attempts to turn me into a raisin, and I noticed something else. In my last post I was perhaps a little unfair on the island’s remoteness; I suggested it feels just like any island anywhere, and that the surrounding water looks the same as, say, the Channel.
Sat there, in this potentially millions-of-years-old cave, surrounded by these iconic pagan statues that date back to the 13th Century, I really got the sense that I was somewhere pretty special. Perhaps not just in a holiday-making sense, but in a geographical and historical sense. Although obviously you can just jump on a plane here these days, it hit me how this strange little place once must have seemed like the entire universe to someone. The entirety of their world would start at the beach at Anakena, and end at Orongo on the south coast. That’s all they would have had. At numerous points, people would have set out by boat and, I imagine, come back empty handed. There’s too much of nothing in every direction for that to be a viable option. But while obviously modern technology and the expansion of the travel industry has – in a relative sense – made Easter Island feel like a lonely little speck of dust, back then it must have felt like the centre of the universe – the only place that ever existed and ever will exist.
Driving back from the beach, I had a third epiphany; Rapa Nuians cannot drive. I’m not talking like southern-European-style nonchalance, overtaking on blind corners at 70mph on a mountain road with no barriers. I’m talking like it feels like everyone here has only just passed their driving test. Hands always at 10 and 2, never hitting 16mph, getting distracted and drifting out of lane, and perhaps the weirdest one; slowing to an absolute crawl when a car is coming in the opposite direction. There’s one kind of ‘major’ road that cuts through the island from north to south, and on our way back to Hanga Roa, every car heading back to Anakena would slow to an almost stop, and we’d then follow suit, and pass each other with a combined speed of about 4mph. There’s loads of space! I could drive better than this an I don’t drive! Heading back into the forest, we saw our first breakdown – a woman getting a jumpstart from a guy in a van. Five minutes later we saw our second – two vans stopped at the side of the road, bonnets open, one with steam pouring from it. Then about 100m further down the road, around a corner was a broken-down VW Beetle perched on a breakdown rescue truck, which itself had also broken down. So of the two mechanics in the truck, one was up top fixing the VW, the other was lying underneath his own truck, oil spilling past him out into the middle of the road. What a shitshow.
I’m currently sat on the beach back at Hanga Roa, watching the sun go down behind an impromptu fireworks display and drinking a bottle of Mahina Pia Rapa Nui, a porter brewed on the island, and I have to say, after everything I said yesterday, I’m going to have to admit I may have been a little hasty. I wasn’t even that negative, but once I explored more comprehensively, I’ve begun to understand things about this place are perhaps a little difficult to spot immediately. Wandering through the town centre late on a Sunday evening, when the swarm of loud American and Chinese tourists have gone back to their pampered palaces of inauthenticity, you can get a sense of what this island is really about; glorious nothing. It’s a lack of complexity, combined with a barren landscape and an empty horizon that gives this place a feeling of kind of bastardised paradise. It’s not the pretty, perfect tropical island retreat, it’s a little jagged runt that Pangea left behind all those millions of years ago, and I have to admit, I love it.