Friday, March 27, 2009


  “Hey buddy,” I said to the large brown horse standing only two feet outside my open window. “Can you get me a cup of coffee?” For a second, as he bobbed his head slightly, I thought he might actually do it. I reached out into the morning air to pet him, but at the last second, he pulled away and trotted off into the meadow.
It was already shaping up to be a glorious day. The deep blue sky was dramatically punctuated with a few random puffball clouds and the soft island breeze now drifting in was invigorating.
  I quickly showered and dressed, grabbed my gear and headed to the main lodge.
  I had used up my breakfast time sleeping, but I thought it was a fair tradeoff. I peeked into the dining area, nonetheless, hoping maybe they could give me something to go. I needed body fuel if I was going to be hiking all over the island all day!
  To my stomach’s delight, I found a very long table adorned with every kind of muffin, scone, cookie, fruit, bread and cereal product I could imagine. The chefs, I was told, were also taking orders for omelettes and such, but being short on time, I just scarfed up what I could carry. Let me tell you, those Islanders know how to make a giant oatmeal raisin breakfast-cookie.

  I was teamed with Charlie and the gang again, and our van ride to the eastern tip of the island took about fifteen minutes. Along the way, there was a little discussion with our guide about the reforestation of the island and how some areas seemed to be particularly flourishing. She wasn’t as talkative or personable as our previous guide, Nicolas, but she obviously knew her island.
  By the time we got to our destination at the bottom of Katiki, the second tallest mountain on the island, though, a little dissention was brewing. There was a bit of griping from some of our party about our guide’s lack of enthusiasm. Rather than address the problem in a constructive way or try to engage her, a giant bitch-fest of passive aggressive comments started flying from the back seat. Suffice it to say, I was only too happy to climb out of that van, shoulder my backpack and get headed up the side of that slope. I chalked it up to “morning grump” and put it out of my mind and ears.
  The weather this second day was dazzlingly hot. The sweatband of my hat became saturated somewhere around the fifteen minute mark, and I then realized that I hadn’t brought along any water. There had been bottles of the stuff on that breakfast table back at the lodge, but eagerness got the better of practicality.
I had carved myself a nice quiet swath of space between fellow hikers, and the only thing in my ears was the strange song of a few birds and the cooling, welcome stirring of the air.
  The angle of climb became surprisingly steep as we trekked on, but with every step, the view became even more glorious. Halfway up the hillside, I stopped among a group of thistle-type blooms and turned to look back. The black coastline stretched out far below, meeting the water in a turbulent line of white. Beyond, the crystal blue clarity of the ocean opened out to a horizon as sharp as a razor.
  After zig-zagging up a few switchbacks, we stopped for an extended break in the saddle of the mountain east of the summit. It was here that we saw one of the island’s oldest carved faces, now almost unrecognizable, in the side of a short cliff face. Had it not been pointed out, it’s doubtless we would all have missed it.
  Continuing on, the group spread further out as fatigue and heat began to slow most of them down. I found a comfortable pace third from front, but later split off and chose a route I felt was more appropriate for making the summit.
  On the way, I stopped to snap a picture of an odd sort of “mini-moai.” This round-bellied figure stood alone on the grassy hillside; no platform, no pomp. It almost looked as if it had been rendered in a completely different style from the rest. Giving in to temptation, I reached out and touched the stone, wondering whose hands had forged it into this shape, when, and for what purpose. There’s something electrifying about history staring you physically in the eyes.
  Less than ten minutes later, I had the summit of Katiki in sight. I passed a curiously red stretch of dirt and boulders, took two or three giant steps and found myself standing on the rim of the long-dormant volcano.
  I climbed on top of a large, chunky rock and took in the view. From this point, looking west, I could see both coasts of the island at once. My hoped-for 360 degree view of the island was spoiled, though, by a thick grove of trees shooting up out of the center of Katiki’s caldera. As the rest of the party began to arrive, I walked down off the rim and headed into that grove to explore.
  I was immediately swallowed by jungle and wondered if this is what the island had looked like before the first people had obliterated it of trees. It was a stark contrast to the open, rolling hills seen most everywhere else. Here there were dense, solid trees covered in deep bark mingled with lighter colored, twisty, leafy varieties that bore some resemblance to rubber trees. The forest floor was a carpet of rounded volcanic gravel matted with mulch. As I climbed along the length of a massive deadfall, I heard someone call out my name.
  Now that everyone had arrived and were taking a few minutes to relax, our guide had opened a tub of fresh pineapple slices. I’m not sure if these were grown on the island or if they were infused with some sort of bliss-inducing chemical, but I’d like to think they were the most delicious variety I had ever tasted. It was probably a combination of good mood, hunger and thirst.
  On the next leg of the hike, I found myself paired up with Goulding, and we had easy conversation. Half the fun of travelling to far away places is meeting people and hearing about their lives, whether they’re locals or fellow travelers.
On the backside of the mountain, we came across a small weather station and I made an exclamation. Taking a picture, I then explained to Goulding that I had a link to data from this very weather station on my blog. I didn’t expect to see precisely where that data had been coming from!
  The next couple of hours took us down the western slope of Katiki into a lush green valley. I swapped hiking partners several times over, and really got the chance to know some of the group better. During the last stretch, as we crossed into a ranch area, I was joined by Charlie and once again found myself thoroughly enjoying his posh-Englishness. At one point, while walking down an old, wallowed out two-track, he turned and said to his friend, as only he could, “Oh, Arthur, I’m in a rut.” You have to love that dry wit.
  Our van was waiting for us on the other side of a double corral of horses and cows. Three Rapa Nui cowboys were saddled up and preparing to ride out. One of them spotted my cowboy hat and smiled, gesturing to an empty horse nearby. “Cowboy! Cowboy! You come?” “Mañana!” I said, and waved to them.
  We packed our gear into the van, chugged down copious amounts of bottled water and headed south toward the coast.

  Ahu Tongariki rests along the southeastern tip of Easter Island and features fifteen moai perched side by side on the largest ahu on the island. These moai were again victims of invading armies and civil strife and had lain toppled on the shore for many hundreds of years. At some point, most of the ahu had been destroyed as well, albeit due to a fierce tidal wave. It was as late as the 1990’s before the site was fully restored to the condition it which it is seen today. It also boasts the heaviest moai to be erected on the island, which weighs in at a staggering 86 tons.
  It was beautiful. The site was poised just slightly inland and had one of the most picturesque backgrounds of any of the ahu on the island. In the distance beyond, the green slopes of Katiki rolled gently down from the clouds before plunging sharply hundreds of feet into the foaming turquoise sea beside the islet of Moto Marotiri. It was very much the definition of picture-postcard perfect.
  Back at Explora, I dropped my gear off in my room and headed eagerly to the dining hall. I was famished, and I couldn’t wait to see what was on the menu.
  As soon as I arrived, I was spotted by my airport-running partner Fleur, who waved me over to join her party for a delicious lunch. These gals had gone to a different part of the island that morning, and we compared tales. Basically, they were on a flipped schedule from our group and would be climbing Katiki that afternoon. Fleur’s group had spent their morning at the quarry- the most famous site on the island- and she told me I was in for an amazing experience.
  I passed the next hour in my room with a very satisfied belly and a bit of rest. I also made sure all my batteries were charged and my photography gear was primed to go. The afternoon trip was going to take me to the very spot I had seen in National Geographic Magazine when I was a kid. That photo was the inspiration all my life to one day come here. Now, so many years later, here I was, and I was going to see it with my own eyes.

  About half an hour later, I stepped out of a van into the afternoon sun, slung my camera bag over my shoulder, and started onto a dusty trail heading north. This was the way to Rano Raraku, the stone quarry where all the island’s moai had been carved.
  At the head of the trail, one of the toppled stone giants lay unceremoniously on its face. It was one of many to come. The desire to see these monoliths righted once again into some form of dignity was understandably strong. There was no way to tell exactly how this particular moai came to rest this way, but the fact that it had come so far only to be disregarded was truly tragic.
  The trail continued on across the plains, passing along an enormous rock wall that seemed to go on for miles. Except for this and a few other feats of stone, the terrain was mostly unremarkable. It was only when we were within site of Rano Rarauku’s slopes that things got interesting.
  Because I had stopped to shoot portions of the wall, I fell behind the group, which was making good time over easy ground. Dropping down into a small valley, my view was suddenly cluttered by a thick grove of scrub trees. I was surprised to suddenly come across Goulding’s wife, Elizabeth, who didn’t seem to know where she was going or how she had fallen behind. I led us onward, up the other side of the valley and back out into the open, where we shortly caught up with the others. They had stopped next to a pair of fallen moai to take pictures.
  As I stood and listened to our guide Elena explain about the “fingers” carved into the sides of the statues, I abruptly noticed details in the hillside beyond. Just below the enormous dark cliffs of the mountain, the slopes were dotted everywhere with little black rectangles. Moai. Hundreds of them.
  As we continued, and I drew anxiously closer to the steep sides of Rano Raraku, I was able to make out dozens of large right-angled holes in the cliff face. The sheer scale of the scene was astonishing and I became a little impatient with how long it was taking the group to get there.
  This feeling was further exacerbated when we stopped at a small “rest area” on the trailhead out to the moai. Everybody wanted water, wanted to ease their feet, wanted to use the restroom. I was the only one who didn’t sit, choosing instead to pace back and forth like a caged animal. I ate some of the pineapple slices that were passed around, but I didn’t taste them.
  After about ten minutes going on ten years, we headed out on the curving, gently rising trail. I vaguely remember someone talking to me at certain points, but mostly I remember the sun, the clouds, the breeze, and the enormous, open view. I distinctly remember the energy in the air and the abruptness of the first group of moai, half buried in the dusty earth.
  They were there, solid and defiant in their features. Some sat with their shoulders exposed. Others were only half-heads; eyes peeking out above the grassline. Some reclined lazily, gazing skyward. They were dark, dramatic stone, common to each other and born of common artistry.
  It struck me almost immediately that these expressionless monoliths were, in fact, amazingly expressive. Each one, though rendered in similar style, had a unique feel to it- a vibe, if you will; almost as if you could sense what it might be thinking. It was easy to see the amount of genuine belief the early Rapa Nui people had imbued in these vessels. I was beginning to understand how they felt about the moai. It was a mass of will, determination, strength and most of all, faith that enabled these people to carve these massive figures and then drag them for miles across the island to stand watch over them.
  I shot photo after photo, desperately trying to capture the feel of the place, but accepting that I would ultimately fail. Some experiences just can’t be captured digitally, nor can they adequately be expressed in words.
  Among the swarms of moai, so very fortunate for the students of history, were some of these works in their incomplete form. At least three different carvings were left attached to the mountainside, never loosed from the surrounding rock. One was little more than a rough outline of the standard moai shape, but two others were nearly complete, laying in wait only for their backs to be chiseled free.
  Over the course of the next forty-five minutes, we rounded the side of the mountain, switched back onto a secondary trail, and headed back to the eastern slope. Charlie’s sweet wife had taken a bad tumble on one of the paths and headed back to the van with her husband and a couple other members of our party. I joined a much smaller group on another trail that would take us directly to the top of Rano Raraku.
  The hike was short and relatively steep, and we were rewarded with a beautiful crater lake at the top. After a few minutes enjoying the peace of the view, we turned to head back down and I experienced one of those great photographic tragedies I always dread.
  Low and indistinguishable at first, there came a rumbling. Just after I determined it wasn’t thunder, I looked up to the crater rim high above me and saw a herd of about thirty or forty horses running together. Their tails were bounding, their manes flowing as their powerful hooves pounded into the earth. The sunlight was behind them and caught their dust, lighting it with gorgeous golden tones. I grabbed for my camera, thumbed the switch and raised the viewfinder to my eye just in time to see them push over the ridge out of sight.
  I let out a disappointed breath and lowered my lens. The rest of the group was already halfway down the mountain. I was the only one who had witnessed that glorious scene. I smiled, took a mental picture and started down.

  That night, I strolled from my room showered and refreshed, and made for the dining hall. The clean evening air and my hunger were both fighting for my attention, so I settled for taking the long route.
  I passed through the large open doors of the lodge and found the room alive with people. Looking around, I saw Charlie and his group, Fleur and her family and friends, and a couple of new groups I didn’t recognize. I moved to a small two person table and sat down.
  Immediately, a hostess brought a basket of bread and I asked her for “Agua sin gas, por favor.” Before I could even open my menu, I caught a waving hand out of the corner of my eye. Across the room to my left, Ruby and Benita were smiling and signaling me to come over. I motioned to the hostess that I was moving tables and joined them.
   “We’ve been waving at you since you came in,” Ruby said. “Yeah, you got three good looking ladies over here waving at you and you don’t even notice?” Benita added. “I’m like that,” I said, and smiled across the table at an unfamiliar face. “Christine,” she said, and offered her hand. “Hi, I’m Brian,” I replied, and took it.
  A long and lovely evening followed with fantastic conversation about everything under the stars. We enjoyed a spectacular meal, good wine, and a lot of laughs. At one point, it almost seemed like a group interview, with the ladies barraging me with question after question. “You cook, too?!?” It became a little absurd.
  Ruby told me that I was the talk of the island all day; that mothers wanted to set me up with their daughters and single gals wanted to know my story. I had no idea I had become so popular, and I just laughed it off as talk. Apparently, they don’t get a lot of young, single men on these trips. Christine and her husband, as it turned out, live fairly close to me in the DC area. I learned that she works at a hospital with a lot of single “cutie” nurses she wanted to set me up with. I smiled and said, “Well, I do likes me some cuties.” This comment got huge laughs and became the phrase of the evening.
  As the night began to wind down and the hall emptied out, Charlie came over from his table, stepped up with no introduction, and dryly said, “You ladies really should keep better company.” They all cracked up at his unexpected chop-busting. Barely containing a wicked grin, he winked at me and made his exit.
  I filled the ladies in on Charlie’s story and how he had become one of my favorite people in the group. I then entertained them with an impression of Charlie’s English-accented “Oh, Arthur, I’m in a rut,” line from earlier in the day, which caused more hysterical laughter.
  I noticed then that Charlie was still making his way out of the room with his wife and their party and was wise to my impersonation. He returned to the table, talked with us goodnaturedly for a few minutes and then headed out once more.
   “Goodnight,” I called after him. “Goodnight, m’boy,” he returned, and waved over his shoulder. Just an all around class act. I loved him.
  At around 1:00 am, I dove for my bed and was asleep before I landed.

NEXT TIME, Day 3: Scuba diving and the island on horseback


  1. Bravo!
    Are you going to be posting a link to your pictures???

  2. I'm going to try to post the pics and hi-def footage I shot in some kind of format on here eventually. Some of it is really amazing.