The talking heads of Easter Island

    Easter Island’s monumental moai have a bizarre story to tell. Our correspondent listens to the stones

    When I was a student, I dressed badly and looked wrong. While everyone else was wearing flares, I wore drainpipes. When drainpipes came in, I took up flares. I just couldn’t get it right. This same inability to fit in with my times was a feature of my holiday choices. Come the summer, everyone seemed to want to go somewhere different from me. In those days, the preferred destination for the decadent student mind was Kathmandu or Frisco or Istanbul. Those were the happening places. But I was an unhappening sort of guy, so I wasn’t desperate to see any of them. I wanted to go to Easter Island.

    Then, as now, it was famous for one thing only: its statues. Faded black-and-white pictures of these mysterious stone giants would turn up in old art books, and the angle of their eyeline always made it seem as if they were gazing over your shoulder at eternity. I should add that I was listening to lots of Leonard Cohen at the time. I liked deep and dark. That was why I wanted to go to Easter Island.

    Alas, I never made it. Easter Island is, officially, the most remote inhabited spot on earth. Chile, to the east, is more than 2,000 miles away, as is Tahiti, to the west. The only way to get here in the old days was aboard a Chilean naval vessel. So, this lonely spot, with its crazy story line and its mind-boggling coastal ring of towering statues, was forced to remain a mystery until the Reagan era, when the Americans persuaded the Chileans to allow them to build a runway here big enough for the space shuttle to land in an emergency.

    That runway is now the longest in Polynesia, and the adventurous traveller has duly discovered Easter Island. Not that getting there is easy. I went via Chile, and finally arrived at the ancient locus of my student dreams after 18 hours of international air battering – only to discover that the lost kingdom of the Pacific manages, initially, to feel like Cornwall. There are hardly any trees. The weather, though subtropical in theory, strikes you, in practice, as rather British. The wind whistles through at a lick. Rain is always a possibility.

    But as your eyes grow accustomed to the light, these seemingly familiar moods and sights begin mutating. And grow strange. The weather, for instance, turns out to be downright unworldly, let alone unCornish. The mad winds that pelt across the island push up stuff into the skies that you’ve never seen before. Within moments, a sunny day becomes pitch-black and hellish. The mists close in. Visibility stops… until a blazing Pacific sun emerges from nowhere, just as abruptly, and reveals that what you took to be cows grazing in the distance are, in fact, horses, huge herds of which roam the island, chomping hungrily at the grasses.

    The only town, Hanga Roa, has also managed to hang on to much of its frontier feel. The main street is busy with souvenir shops, but to reach them you need to leap across life-threatening storm drains and dodge the galloping cowboys who ride in at dusk. Nature turns the lights out early here – at six o’clock – so soon I was tucked up in bed at the comfortable Hotel Otai with the new love of my life: Shawn McLaughlin’s indispensable Complete Guide to Easter Island.

    There are, apparently, 15,000 archeological sites on the island, scattered about a territory that is only eight miles wide and 16 miles long. It’s a miraculous concentration. They range from prehistoric stone chicken coops to impractical-looking ancient houses shaped like canoes. You get painted caves. Deserted altars. Standing stones. Mysterious rock carvings. But most notably, and most excitingly, you get the moai, the giant stone watchers with the sunken eyes and the jutting chins who ignore us mortals so grandly as they silently guard the coastline.

    Our guide, Josephine, turned out to be the granddaughter of the late William Molloy, the American archeologist who did more than any other westerner to safeguard and understand the moai. Most of what he learnt, Josephine now knows. We began at the quarry in which the moai were carved, an extinct volcano called Rano Raraku, on the eastern tip of the island. All the moai came from here, and the mountain is still littered with statues in various stages of completion. Some already stand upright. Others are mere indications in the rocks. But what this place confirms instantly and spectacularly is the sheer madness of the undertaking. This is not art. This is obsession.

    There are about a thousand moai altogether on the island, with an average weight of 12½ tons. The initial carving was done high up on the rock face, so that the moai’s own weight would slide it down the hill. At the bottom, they were levered up to a standing position and finished. Then came the hard part – transporting them to their final destinations. The biggest of the unfinished monsters still lying prostrate in the quarry, “El Gigante”, is 65ft long and weighs an estimated 500 tons. How did a primitive society, which had not yet discovered metal, move these colossi up and down hills and across the island? We’re not sure. But we know it involved wood – lots and lots of wood – as rollers, scaffolding, levers.

    Local legend has it that the statues “walked” to their destinations. And recent archeological research suggests they may indeed have been transported upright, with a clever variation on the sort of rocking you employ to move a fridge.

    The moai are said to represent the spirits supposed to do – improve the future, atone for the islanders’ sins – they obviously weren’t doing it well enough. Because when the first westerners arrived on the island, they found every single statue toppled and broken. Having put so much into their creation, the islanders had suddenly turned against them. Why?

    At the other end of the island from Rano Raraku is another extinct volcano, Rano Kao, a particularly eerie place with an exceptionally active microclimate: in the hour I was up there, the weather changed five or six times. The crater has now filled up with dark black water and become a lake perched high above the ocean, ringed with mysterious vegetation. This was where the new religion that took over from the statue-worshippers – the Birdman cult – had its ceremonial centre.

    If you’ve seen Kevin Costner’s awful movie Rapa Nui (it plays in town a few nights each week), you will already know the absurd story of the Birdmen. A mile out to sea from Rano Kao, there’s a rocky islet on which a small black sea bird, the sooty tern, lays its eggs in the spring. The Birdmen worshipped this harbinger of spring, and decreed that the first man to swim to the rock through the shark-infested seas and return with a tern’s egg would rule Easter Island until the following year. All around the volcano’s rim are the low stone houses in which the Birdmen sheltered before their deadly adventure. The surrounding rocks are carved with their ugly amalgams of man and bird.

    Why did the Birdmen overthrow the moai-worshippers? Because of the disappearance of the trees, it seems. The more statues were being carved, the more wood was needed for their transportation. As the trees were cut down, however, so the islanders were left with nothing from which to make canoes. Unable to fish, unable to escape, they found themselves trapped on their barren Pacific island. We’re still in the Stone Age. But already we’ve successfully engineered the world’s first ecological disaster.