The 5,800 current inhabitants reside mostly in the small capital city of Hanga Roa and they call their land Te Pito o TeHenua “the navel of the world.”
Our next stop was Easter Island, located in the South Pacific Ocean 2,300 miles west of Chile, 2,500 miles southeast of Tahiti, 4,300 miles south of Hawaii, and 3,700 miles north of Antarctica, it is one of the world’s most isolated inhabited islands. This triangular shaped island is made mostly of volcanic rock and it has more mystery and speculation about its history and existence than most other prehistoric places on Earth. Today, Easter Island is dominantly archaeological sites with half of the 887 massive ancient relic stone monuments (moai) left unfinished. Most of the moai reside in the Rano Raraku quarry, and from archeologists surveys, they predict most of them were carved there between 1250-1500 AD. We were very fortunate to have Patricia Vargas as our guide for our 3 full days on the island. Patricia was one of the key leaders of the archeological team from the University of Chile who, between 1992-1996, completed the reconstruction project of ahu Tongariki, the largest and most impressive ceremonial center on Easter Island. Patricia and co-leader Claudio Cristino, both archeology professors at the University of Chile had extensive knowledge of the island, as they spent from 1977 to 1996 recording more than 20,000 archeological sites and features on the island.
The 5,800 current inhabitants reside mostly in the small capital city of Hanga Roa and they call their land Te Pito o TeHenua “the navel of the world.”
The first site we visited located closest to Hanga Roa is called Ahu Tahai. The area felt like a hollowed out bowl, leading you toward the statues and the ocean. It is believed the moai statues were carved by the Polynesian colonizers of the island and were claimed to represent deceased ancestors. The moai were erected on an ahu, the platform, to face the chief’s village and were claimed to be the embodiment of the powerful living or former chiefs and represented important lineage status symbols. Archeologists today believe the larger the statue placed upon an ahu, the more mana the chief who commissioned it had. It is also speculated by a team of archaeologists that the hemispherical or deep elliptical eye sockets were designed to hold coral eyes with either black obsidian or red scoria pupils. Here at Ahu Tahai one of the re-erected tuff moai was restored with the topknot and replica eyes. It is the only location on the island where a restored moai has coral eyes. It is also a mystery that the number of eyes expected has not been found anywhere else on the island.
We next visited Rano Raraku, the main quarry where the moai were carved and then transported to set on various ahu ceremonial platforms around the island’s perimeter. Today, approximately half of all the moai still remain in the quarry. Visitors to the site follow a path that leads past many moai that are half buried and up to the rock quarry itself, where you can see a statue left in the stone, unfinished. It isn’t until we walked through this land of tall, unfinished statues that we come to realize just how strange the island’s history is – what was it that caused these people to just drop everything and leave their years of hard work sitting at the quarry?
In the more recent history of the island (19th century), the birdman was the political figurehead for the islanders for his term: one year. Each year a contest was held to determine who the birdman would be, for which each tribe on the island put forward one member to compete. The participants would descend a 1000-foot cliff drop into the ocean from Orongo, swim across a narrow channel where they awaited the coming of the birds, and the first participant to bring an egg back, would either be declared birdman, or his chief would be. At the top of the cliff are many reconstructed houses, where the important members from each tribe would stay during the contest. We visited these small houses and the cliffside, and were very glad that we neither had to live inside them, nor scale that cliff. On the other side of the site is the Rano Kau crater, which was just as stunning a view as the open ocean behind us.
It was the next site that is the largest restoration site of moai on the island. Ahu Tongariki measures nearly 720 feet long, with a central platform measuring 325 feet and a wing on either side. A total of fifteen statues weigh 40 to 90 tons once stood on that platform. The tallest moai erected, called Paro, was almost 10 meters (33 ft) high and weighed 82 tons. The reconstruction took 4 years and a team of 50 people, most of them where islanders themselves. Each rock segment was studied, drawn and redesigned with a computer using historic photographs and maps to ensure the reconstruction was done as representative as possible. This project was said to give the locals a greater appreciation for what their ancestors did and their sense of pride was enormous.
One afternoon we visited one of two white sandy beaches on the island, Anakena. Located on Anakena are two ahu’s; one which has a single moai and the other Ahu Nao Nao which has seven. It was a fun afternoon as we were able to swim in the nice beautiful ocean while enjoying the view of these mysterious statues.
All but one of the restored moai statues face inland toward the villages and reside close to the cliffs of the ocean. The one exception is Anu Akivi, a particularly sacred place on Easter Island is inland and faces the Pacific Ocean. The site has seven moai, all of relatively equal shape and size. Another unique aspect of this sacred site is how astronomically precise the celestial feature is. Only at this location on the island; the seven identical moai statues face sunset during the Spring Equinox and have their backs to the sunrise during the Autumn Equinox.
Our few days on Easter Island, were hot and full of archeological history, but we had a great few days (although we missed the cold of Antarctica) and look forward to our next (short) adventure in Peru!
Antarctica Experience in 7 Words or Less...
Ann: Love it when life Exceeds my Expectations
Taylor: Astounding… Stunning… There just aren’t enough superlatives.
Most Memorable Moment
Ann: I expected the penguins, I expected the albatross, I hoped for the whales, enjoyed the dolphins and I knew there would be ice, but I never thought the ice would have such an impact on me. It was incredibly beautiful. All the different formations, the variations of blues, the size of the glaciers and free floating icebergs - Incredible, breathtaking and like nothing else I have ever enjoyed.
Taylor: This entire 3 weeks was an experience that was almost wholly unanticipated due to the mystery surrounding the continent. Every moment where there could have been an expectation, the reality was so much greater. Because of this, nearly everything we saw was a memorable moment. Although, to pick just one moment... On Jason Steeple in the Falkland Islands, I wore a penguin suit under my parka, and when the timing was just right I dumped my outer layer and ran around trying to become a penguin for about a half hour. I'd say that was pretty memorable, not only for me, but for the other guests on board who happened upon the scene as well.
Visiting Antarctica was one of those once in a lifetime experiences and it not only lived up that standard, but it far exceeded it. It was our 7th continent, which was a highlight amongst itself. The classification of this trip being called an expedition was so appropriate. Our course and landings were dependent on the weather and the ice so it made each and every day an adventure. We were lucky enough to be able to explore off the ship in the zodiacs all of the days we were not at sea, because the weather and the ice cooperated the best we could have asked for. The animals and the beauty of the landscape is something we will remember for a lifetime. We also need to give a special note to the luxurious accommodations and excellent hoteling and restaurant staff, a wonderful chef, a superb expedition leader and excellently skilled and fun photography team from Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. It was truly top notch customer service each and every day. Although there were 100 other guests on board, the team made us feel like this experience was all ours. We would also be remiss if we didn’t comment on the other wonderful guests - we met a lot of wonderful well traveled and interesting people. It was a super experience from start to finish.
Day 19: New Island
January 15th, 2015
“King Weather is the tyrant of these latitudes, and he rules with ruthless despotism.”
– Frank Hurley, Shackleton’s Argonauts
Our very last land excursion (on this expedition) was today. We woke up early to go ashore on New Island to visit another colony of black-browed albatross and rockhoppers on the cliff lined shore of the island. It was only a mile-long hike across the island, but we all seemed to savor it, as we know we’re heading back out to open ocean this afternoon. The first thing you notice when you make it to the cliffs? The wind. It was so powerful; we had to brace ourselves against rocks in a few places, just to stay upright. Then you notice the cliff's drop and can’t help but to marvel at the fact that a colony of flightless birds (those funny little rockhoppers) scale these cliffs on a daily basis. The albatross are slightly less impressive… But taking off in these winds can't be easy either. It’s amazing how the albatross and the penguins nest so closely together and don’t seem to bother each other at all. We hung out on the side of the cliffs for awhile, snapping pictures of the birds before heading back to the boat – (sort of, but not quite) ready to take on the end of the journey.
Days 20 & 21: At Sea – Estrecho de Le Maire, the Beagle Channel, and Ushuaia
January 16th-17th, 2015
“An Antarctic expedition is the worst way to have the best time of your life.”
-Apsley Cherry-Garrard (Member of Scott’s 1910-13 Expedition)
Our last full day at sea, and the Drake Passage (finally) began to live up to our expectations. The waves weren’t even close to the foretold 10 meters, but we had some fun in the constant 5-6 meter waves as we waited to come within viewing distance of Argentina. Once land was in sight, we started feeling the now quite familiar feelings of an adventure coming to an end. Even though this particular adventure was only 3 weeks long, it was just as exciting as our longer stays elsewhere. But we’re not really done, because before we get to our next (and last) volunteer assignment, we still have a few days on Easter Island and a week in Peru!
Day 17: Stanley, Falkland Islands
January 13th, 2015
“We thought there would be a bit of a scrap on the beach, then we would all go have
a glass of sherry and I’d tell them to go away and jolly well not come back.”
– Governor Rex Hunt on the Argentine invasion
After two and a half days at sea, we arrived in Stanley this afternoon. We were so excited to explore civilization that we chose to walk the mile to town through the pouring rain. By the time we had made it into town, we were so tired of rain; we walked into the first open door we found – a pub. Over a beer, we joked that we should find the rest of the pubs in the city and go on a Stanley pub crawl. We found them all right. The trouble was that everyone was cash only and we only had credit cards, so we headed back to the first pub, the Globe Tavern for another beer in civilization before heading back to the boat, and on to less civilized lands – West Falkland.
Day 18: Steeple Jason and Carcass Islands
January 14th, 2015
“But if it’s peace and quiet you are after, rugged windswept beauty, with ever-changing light,
superb farmhouse teas with cream, the most wonderful wildlife and fishing, a few
duty-free bargains, then you’ll find them all in abundance in the Falklands.”
– Falkland Islands Government “Information Notes” 1973
Because we gained an extra half day, we were able to visit the northwestern-most island in the Falklands, Steeple Jason, this morning. The island is home to a few penguin colonies: gentoo, magellenic, and rockhoppers, and one of the largest colonies of nesting pairs of black-browed albatross. We hiked across the island and down through tussock grass that grew well over our heads in order to see the massive colony (and all the fluffy babies). With the amount of wind in the area, there were birds swooping over our heads constantly, accompanying the sound of shutters from 100+ cameras clicking away furiously. On our walk back to the ship, we found a very special and very large penguin attempting to fit into the Gentoo colony. They didn’t accept her (how rude), so we took her back to the ship with us for lunch. This afternoon, we stopped for tea at a family’s home on Carcass Island. On our way into shore we paused in our pursuit of proper British tea, to zoom around in the zodiacs with a pod of Commerson’s Dolphins for nearly an hour. The faster we went, the happier they seemed to be, surfing in the wake of the small boat. After making it to our intended stop, we walked to the family’s home and enjoyed some hot tea in the cool afternoon.
Day 12: Elsehul & Prion Island
January 8th, 2015
“Above all else we wish that the name of South Georgia will forever represent an icy paradise,
a place where nature is still mostly robust and the way of life of millions of birds, penguins, and seals
goes on almost unaltered by the peripheral presence of humans. A clean, pure spring
of icy water in our collective consciousness, a soothing, refreshing balm amid the
upheavals wrought upon the earth. A precious place to cherish.”
– Pauline and Tim Carr, Antarctic Oasis
Today was a day for the birds. Or, at least for the birders. We began with a zodiac cruise around Elsehul looking up at the albatross and petrel nests dotting the cliffs by the coast and a small accumulation of macaroni penguins jumping in and out of the water onto the rocky coast. We of course saw seals playing in the surf, and a beach lined with king penguins, but most of our time was spent amongst these giant birds in the water. Our favorite part? Watching the massive birds try to take off from the water – they managed to succeed, but the beginning attempts were pretty funny. At lunch, we heard about the morning adventures of the guests who chose to hike up the tussock to try to get a better view of the nests, and instead of nests they found lots of mud, which claimed a few cameras and tried to keep a few boots… So we were pretty happy about our choice to cruise around. In the afternoon we got to walk up the boardwalk on Prion Island to get a closer look at the nests of the wandering albatross, one of the largest birds in the world with a wingspan of up to 11.5 feet. These large birds spend their first 5 years after fledging flying around the Southern Ocean before coming back to land. We were pretty lucky to find a nest not even 10 feet from the top of the boardwalk, which gave us an even better view of this massive creature – it’s not hard to understand the long flights they can take when you can see them up close. Even though we’re not birders, we couldn’t help but to stand in awe at the massive size of these birds and their nests.
Day 13: Salisbury Plain, Fortuna Bay, & Stromness
January 9th, 2015
“I go exploring because I like it and it’s my job.”
– Sir Ernest Shackleton
Salisbury Plain is the flattest section of land on the entirety of South Georgia and where we spent our morning today. Last night it snowed, which left a gorgeous dusting on the nearby mountain ranges and provided a beautiful backdrop while we visited another large king penguin colony on a beach littered with fur seals and their pups. The flat section of land provided the colony and seals a beautiful expanse of grass and a slight hill behind the beach on which they could relax and spread out. It was just a little bit quieter at Salisbury Plain, despite being home to more penguins and seals. We spent our time watching the kings trudge through the mud to get from their hill to the water and the molting juveniles watching in envy as their older friends got to swim. Things we learned at Salisbury Plain: do not put your nose where a king penguin can reach it. In the afternoon we sailed to Fortuna Bay, the location Shackleton mistook for Stromness in his 36-hour trek across South Georgia. 58 passengers got off the NG Orion and set off to take the last few hours of that hike. Shackleton and his men would’ve found the “trail” in fall rather than summer, when it would’ve been snow-covered and all the water frozen over, so we tackled the loose shale and 1000ft elevation in slightly more favorable conditions. The climb down was pretty steep, but we all made it across with no injuries! Once we’d crossed to Stromness, we found an abandoned whaling station, now populated by fur seals and… our boat! We spent most of our time by the whaling station oohing over the fur seal pups, who were using the discarded propellers as jungle gyms and were having fun hamming it up for their visitors. It was a pretty interesting day, especially because we had the chance to (literally) follow in Shackleton’s footsteps, which (like our stops on Elephant Island) gave us an incredible appreciation for his entire journey.