I'm almost ashamed to admit that it was the altogether incredible author, Erich von Daniken, who fired my fascination with far-off and mysterious lands.
When Chariots of the Gods burst onto TV screens in the early '70s, I was but a naïve, goggle-eyed youngster all too ready to consume these wild theories. But quite apart from perpetrating outlandish notions of alien interference, the charlatanic von Daniken did introduce me to some of the little known mysteries of the ancient world.
The magnificent and mysterious realm of the Mayas of Central America, the perplexing and complex Nazca lines of Peru and the huge, stony-faced inhabitants of Easter Island intrigued me to the point of near-fanaticism. It was then that I resolved to visit each of these fascinating locations and discover for myself the wonders within.
Now, some thirty years later and with a modicum of wisdom in tow, I am beginning to cross these enigmatic sites off my very short list. Each visit duly dispels any rumours of extraterrestrial involvement, but rekindles anew my childlike enthrallment with the persistent mysteries.
En route to South America, I arranged a stopover on the tiny Isla de Pascua, more commonly known as Easter Island thanks to the Dutchman, Jacob Roggeveen, who rediscovered it in 1722. This improbable little speck in the Pacific is officially the most remote habitation on the planet and for several centuries the indigenous Rapa Nui people lived in splendid isolation. Just how and from where they arrived has long been a raging debate amongst anthropologists and archaeologists. An enigma made all the more intriguing by the fact that almost all of the oral history is hopelessly garbled and the skills required to read their ancient tablets was lost to Peruvian slave traders in the 19th century.
However, the high drama and animated discussion of academic dinner party debates is now growing silent. Modern geneticists, particularly the Norwegian Erika Hagelberg, have determined that the ancient Rapa Nui were "unambiguously" Polynesians. Easter Island was, therefore, the absolute eastern limit of their Pacific colonisation, probably founded around the middle of the first millennium. Perhaps, as legend has it, by the exiled chief, Hotu Matua and his minions. This fable is supported by the fact that the only moai (statues) to face out to sea do so on the western coast at Ahu Akivi. Of course, if Thor Heyerdahl had had the benefit of modern DNA testing, he could have saved himself a lot of trouble sailing that Kon-Tiki thing and trying to prove the settlers came from the other way.
Further research by others like the author, John Flenley, goes on to document the catastrophic ecological disaster brought about by the inhabitants' unfettered exploitation of their very limited resources. In his exhaustive work, "Easter Island Earth Island", Flenley parallels the Rapa Nui's descent into bloody anarchy and, ultimately, self-destruction with our planet as a whole. Greed, selfishness and covetousness, Flenley contends, may satisfy short-term goals, but left unchecked, leads to collapse and extinction. Not exactly your classic bed-time story and a long way removed from von Danniken's fanciful alien theories!
Today the "navel of the world" is a delightfully relaxed Chilean outpost, over 3500 kms from Santiago and pleasantly devoid of the modern, vulgar trappings of international tourism. Unfortunately the island of about 4,000 inhabitants is also almost completely devoid of indigenous Rapa Nui thanks to the intervention of slavers, missionaries and the inevitable diseases that travel with white men. 20,000 tourists however come and go each year and the convoluted LanChile airline schedules are such that a three or four day stay is almost mandatory.
Flying to Easter Island is an adventure in itself. Your first clue comes when the aircraft begins to descend into what appears to be a completely featureless ocean. No telltale atolls, lagoons or reefs to signal the impending destination. Craning for some clue, I caught sight of a few forlorn Moai along the west coast immediately before flight LA834 touched down on the ample runway. The huge strip at Mataveri is actually the longest in Chile and was upgraded by NASA to serve as an emergency strip for the space shuttle.
A gaggle of excited hosts congregate expectantly at the airport exit, craning for a view of their guest - or prospect as the case may be. "Senõr! Senõr!" came the chorus at the first glimpses of passengers. But this was no rabble. Instead, our host, the diminutive and effervescent Senõr Rodriguez, quickly drafted us from the small throng and ushered us to our waiting vehicle.
Our accommodation in downtown Hanga Roa, the only settlement, was compact and homely. The Rano Aroi Guesthouse, much like a granny flat on stilts at the rear of the Rodriguez residence, was a trifling US$50 per night with breakfast. Such "home-hosting" is common in the little port town of Hanga Roa and is an affordable and charming alternative to the couple of modest hotels.
The affable and meticulous Senõr Rodriguez deftly conjured a tiny Suzuki 4WD for me to beetle about the island in, and with a couple of hastily gathered passengers, set out to explore all I could of the scant 117 square kilometres.
Our objectives were straightforward enough; the key moai platforms at Tongariki and Ahu Akivi, the famous quarry at Rano Raraku, the ceremonial village of Orongo and anything that took our fancy along the way. Here my irrepressible, native curiosity rebounded in all its youthful vigour. Apparently some eight hundred moai lie scattered around the almost treeless island in various states of uprightness and downrightness. We must have visited nearly half of them, at times meandering along barely discernable tracks, sometimes nearly running over their petrified corpses hidden in the long grass as we exhausted the extent of the scant road network.
It's hard to imagine that Easter Island was possibly once the world's largest bird colony, replete with terns, albatross and petrels in apparently boundless plenty. The landscape, now merely lush pastures dotted with imported eucalypts ripe for sheep and livestock, was once an impenetrable palm jungle, all laid waste for the glory and gratification of the stony ancestor gods who later stood silently by while their world crumbled into mayhem. Their mute complicity however did not go unpunished and the emaciated, battle-weary villagers turned on their uncaring idols, beheading them, toppling them and thrusting their uncaring faces into the mud.
Nowadays there is something of a resurgence in indigenous nationalism, sparked ironically by Kevin Costner's all-too-forgettable 1994 flopbuster, Rapa Nui. Ancient customs and traditions like the local Tapati Rapa Nui (Festival) are being revived amongst the remaining populace with native connections. The February celebrations are a colourful highlight of any visit, mainly because they are the island's only cultural event.
My own Rapa Nui experience lasted a mere three days and as I strolled out to the waiting aircraft laden with little mini-moai souvenirs, I felt there was still more to explore. All the wanderings amongst the giant mute moai, the caves, the petroglyths and the long list of theories and postulations still manage to raise questions faster than I can find answers. To my mind, Easter Island should keep at least some of its secrets intact to intrigue and entice mystery-hunters and preserve its hard won enigmatic appeal. The lessons likely to be revealed by more energetic study will almost certainly add to the already unpalatable morals derived from self-worship and aggrandisement. Let sleeping moai lie, I say.
Although cruise ships occasionally make visits to Easter Island, air travel is the only realistic option. The route to Mataveri Airport is serviced exclusively by LanChile, now known simply as Lan. Most Australian visitors will engineer a stopover on Easter Island as part of a wider South American package, which entails transiting through Tahiti. Ask your favourite travel agent about options.
The local food is a boisterous mix of vegetables and seafood, particularly crayfish and tuna. We found a charming little cantina in the main street and ate there each night, although I was not tempted by the "Chicken with something" sandwich that beckoned from the menu board.