Sunday, April 29, 2018

First Impressions: Easter Island

[Kyle]After having spent twenty days to get there, our next challenge was getting ashore. There is much written about how treacherous the approach to the main harbor at Hanga Roa can be. Most of the people we have met that have actually been there insisted the only way to get in was with an inflatable equipped with a powerful enough motor to get it to plane. The entrance often has surf breaking across it and it is critical to shoot in quickly during a gap.

Our Portland Pudgy/Torqueedo combo is marvelously efficient and durable, but it’s not fast. It was suggested that our best option would be to either flag down a local fisherman in a panga or hope another boat is in the anchorage who wouldn’t mind letting us tag along.

There were four other sailboats anchored off Hanga Roa when we arrived. Three of them seemed to be a sealed unit of friends that had been sailing together since at least mainland Ecuador. The fourth, called Nemo, were deep into a tricky engine repair and hadn’t even had the time to start thinking about inflating their dinghy yet. The officials who came out to perform our agricultural clearance were vague about it, but said something to the effect that they didn’t think the pangas did pickups any more.

Luckily for us, it was unusually calm and the swells were not too bad, so we decided to give the Pudgy a try. It turned out to be completely doable for us. Thinking about it later after a few round trips, I realized the “You MUST have a dinghy capable of going twenty knots” advice suffered from a kind of confirmation bias. People with dinghies that fast use them to go fast and have probably never tried a low-speed entry. It was hairy for them, so they incorrectly assumed their speed was the only thing that saved them. The pangas do it, too, probably because that’s how they were originally taught and how they’ve done it ever since.

Plus, it IS faster. They bounce stories off of each other and in short order, everyone agrees a fifty horsepower engine is the minimum needed and then it enters into common knowledge.

Now, I’m not arguing that there aren’t times when that is completely true, but the proportion of those times to the total has probably been artificially inflated, the way some people think a mile is too far to walk because they always hop into their car if they have to go that far.

We essentially used the same technique they did of timing the waves and using strategic bursts of speed to minimize their impact. We just had to go through three waves each time instead of one, which is also exactly what the surfers and va’as (outrigger canoes) did. When arriving, we would match our speed to the breaker and surf in. Leaving, as one approached, we would stop, let it break under us and then speed to the next one.

Some of the sights on route from the harbor to the crater

Setting foot ashore for the first time, we were not given any sort of a buffer as we wandered in search of the real Easter Island. Looming over the harbor was our first Moai, gazing beneficently over the green hills with a look of proud peace. The rest of the adjacent area had the pleasant air of a laid back tourist town. There were dive shops, souvenir stores, backpackers hospedajes and several surprisingly appealing restaurants, but they were all support structure that seemed superfluous to the real thing; the Moai. Nothing is more archetypal to Easter than these enormous ancient statues. Standing in its shadow, one cannot feel like they are anywhere else. After a lifetime of seeing it on documentaries portrayed as an amazing and remote place, we were finally here. It certainly made it feel like many of the compromises we had made over the years had ultimately been worth it, even though it was often hard to tell at the time. The kid deep within me was thrilled. We had made it to the ancestral home of the Easter Bunny.

After the requisite visit to the Armada to confirm our presence out their window, we started to explore the local area. This started as a brief familiarization with the village of Hanga Roa but, in the way these things do, it quickly morphed into much more.

Much of the blame was on the weather. The wind was forecast to shift in the middle of the night and Hanga Roa was not going to be safe. We needed to move to the leeward side of the island and we needed to do it today. I calculated backwards from the latest time I wanted to be dropping the anchor and came up with something like six hours for us to explore. This meant we had to make some hard choices to delay seeing some of the things we wanted until a later day, which carried the risk of turning into never if the weather didn’t cooperate. The thing we decided we just had to try to see was the ‘Orongo volcano. From the harbor, we could see a trail snaking its way up the flank to the rim. We decided we should at least try to get to the top.

It was a bit of a slog. The slope was about forty degrees, which gets a little tedious very quickly. This is not helped by the fact that Easter is still a low tree environment (the island was deforested during the Moai era). The morning sun was just about perpendicular to the slope and we were baking in a big solar oven. Stopping eased the muscle burn, but did not allow us to cool off.

Helping to keep us going were our companions. Like in Robinson Crusoe, we were adopted by not one, but two dogs who were determined to accompany us to the top. Not having our ability to perspire, they dealt with the heat by panting. They never gave up, though, and once even tried unsuccessfully to clear a small herd of cattle out of our path. By the time we were closing on the rim, Maryanne remarked that it sounded like we were being accompanied by two steam locomotives.

We were starting to doubt the wisdom of the whole enterprise ourselves when we crested the rim and saw the expanse of the Rano Kau crater. Filled with rain water, the 1km wide lake is Easter’s largest endemic flora reserve. The rim gave us a 360 degree view of the whole island.

We had intended to see the view and get back, but the trail continued just a little further (and up) the rim to what looked like some more cool stuff. We looked at our watches and decided we could probably just make it. Our locomotives wandered off to find other people to help and we felt strangely abandoned for two people who didn’t even have pets an hour and a half earlier. At the end of the trail was the ‘Orongo ceremonial village. Built of circular walls of stone, the village was the residence of the Island’s supreme ruler – the Bird Man, where he would spend the year in monastic isolation until replaced by the next Bird Man. The village was amazingly well preserved and quite extensive, having over 60 different buildings that were very robustly built to a very high standard. None of them were apparently ever occupied by anyone other than the Bird Man except briefly for ceremonies. It reminded us of other Neolithic sites we have seen in the Orkneys and Shetlands in the British Isles.

The Bird Man thing is nuts. It is essentially an athletic and daredevil competition that was held every year to pick the leader. It started at the village. Competitors then ran down the loose and steep slope of the volcano to the sea, where they would then swim to Motu Nui through treacherous currents. Once there, they would wait, sometimes for days if necessary, for the return of the Sooty Terns. The first one to gather an egg, swim back, climb the volcano and present their egg unbroken was declared Bird Man, whose prize was to spend the next year ruling while having as little contact with others as possible. Apparently, they still have the event every year and they still have a regular supply of competitors who think of the Ironman and the Eco Challenge as cute little warm-up events.

Crater and some of the village buildings and carvings

We lingered at the village just a little past our turn-around time and had to make a point of Bird Manning it down the trail to the harbor. When we got there, we ran into trouble with the dinghy. Because of the surge, the harbor is crisscrossed with heavy ropes. Boats tie a line to the wall and another to the ropes to keep from banging into the wall. We did the same, but in our absence, the tide fell about a meter. My knot around the big rope was too high for me to reach. It would be too late to leave in daylight if we waited for the tide to come back up, so I had to figure out how to get to our line. I thought about shimmying out, but then I realized I have probably reached an age where I only think I can do that. I eventually ended up climbing up on the bow of a panga and leaning way out to untie our line with my fingertips. I noticed people were starting to gather and I knew it was because they were hoping to see me fall in. If I had been a betting man, I would have sided with them. If asked, I would have given myself about a 30% chance of success. In a way, I was almost hoping I would go in. Losing my battle to stay dry and maintain my dignity would have freed me up to do a larger range of stupid things to get our line back, thus improving my odds. To everyone’s surprise, I was able to get our line untied and after a few long, wobbly seconds, managed to fall back into the panga, instead of over the rail.

Back at Begonia, we made quick work of getting the dinghy up and getting the anchor raised. Our route took us around the ‘Orongo volcano and past the Motu Iti and Motu Nui. I scanned the slope looking for some route down that was not obvious from the top, but all I could see was steep, loose scree all of the way from the top down to the water. It is the kind of terrain where if you slip, you won’t stop sliding until your body splashes into the sea.

We came around the corner and anchored at Vinapu, just off the opposite end of the island’s enormous runway from Hanga Roa. We had chosen it because it was only one subway stop from downtown, but it turns out the subway was still in the very early planning stages, so we got no help there. The anchorage was small and deep, requiring a huge kerfuffle of trip lines and chain floats. The swell broke over the rocks all around us and we could see no safe way to land the dinghy. In addition, our view of the island was dominated by two large, rusty oil tanks, which ruined the atmosphere of the place as ancient and unspoiled. We decided our Vinapu stop would be one night only.

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