Today was my last full day on Easter Island, and I had a choice between two self-guide tours. The first visited the Rano kau volcano and birdman festival village of Orongo, and the second visited the Moais on the island's interior and the topknot quarry. Since it would have required hiring a car again, and I saw more Moais than I could count yesterday, I decided to give the second tour a miss and start my day by heading to the volcano.
It turned out that despite the volcano not looking very far from my hotel, I needed to get to the base by a rather convoluted method which bypassed the airport’s runway. This took half an hour in itself, but on the way I got to take in some nice views along the coast, and stopped in a park right by the ocean. When I reached the base, the signage confused me somewhat, with signs pointing to Orongo, but not the Rano Kau crater, which is what I was looking for. I later found out these are both in the exact same direction, but at that moment I decided to continue along the road and look for a Rano Kau sign. The sign never turned up, and I was soon walking along the dirt road which is meant exclusively for cars and not hikers. Fortunately, some people in a passing car must have sensed I was lost, and stopped to offer me a lift to the top. I happily accepted, and was very grateful within a few minutes of finding out how long the road I had attempted to walk was.
Once at the top, I said my muchos gracias’ and completed the trip to the crater from the car park. The small photo in the guidebook was unable to prepare me for the sight I was about to see. The first time I saw the crater I was awestruck at the size and perfect sphericalness of it. It more or less fulfilled all my stereotypes of what a volcano crater might look like. Apparently the volcano erupted from the ocean floor around two and a half million years ago, and it first had a conical top. This eventually collapsed, leaving the crater I saw today. The crater is approximately 1km across and comprises a 10m deep lake, with various floating mats of freshwater reeds. The lake was originally used as a water source by the people living up here, and various fruits were planted there in the 1950s, supported by the crater’s unique microclimate. At the side of the crater backing onto the ocean there is a noticeable dip in the height of the wall, and this is due to weather erosion at the base of the cliffs below.
From the crater it was only a short hike across the rim to the entrance of the Orongo ruins. Orongo was a strictly ceremonial village, where the islander’s stayed for just a few months a year during the birdman festival. The birdman cult was the religious order which followed the decline of Moai worshipping beliefs. When islanders lost faith in the Moai they began warring, and the warrior class took over society. The annual birdman competition was a way for these new warrior-led tribes to decide who was the strongest, since the competition relied on brawn over brains. The competition saw a representative from each tribe attempt to scale the cliffs by Orongo and swim out to the Moto Nui islet, 3km off the coast. This islet was a popular nesting ground for a bird called the ‘sooty tern’, and whoever could bring back the first egg of the spring was declared the winner. The winner’s tribe then received unique access to the severely depleted resources for the next year. Apparently we only know all this due to handwritten accounts taken from a visitor to the island in the early 1900s, who actually spoke first hand to those who had witnessed the final competitions in the 1860s.
As for the village itself, it was painstakingly restored in 1974. Due to the ridiculously strong winds here on the crater’s edge (I couldn’t even get the guidebook or map out at the time), the houses only had tiny doorways, and acted primarily as protection from the elements. I had a wander round, and also saw some of the petroglyphs (engravings) at the priest’s house in the most prominent position at the tip of the crater.
After leaving Orongo, I managed to find the hiking path to get back down the volcano - safely avoiding the road in the process. The hike down took me through the forested slopes of the volcano, and past some botanical gardens, which feature samples of the island’s plant life. By this time the tropical weather was in full swing, with the humidity and unblocked sun making it feel much hotter than the forecasted 25 degrees. Either way I shouldn’t complain given it is supposed to be winter down here! The rest of the day was spent watching the Olympic closing ceremony, and having dinner in Hanga Roa.
Tomorrow morning I am going to wrap up with a final visit to Hanga Roa in order to get my passport stamped and check out a few gift shops. After that I’ll be flying back to Santiago in time to meet back up with Marc on Tuesday.
Photos of the day: my first glimpse of the crater at Rano Kau, the Moto Nui islet (do you think you could swim out to it?!), and a typical Orongan house.