Fall under the magical spell of Easter Island

Travel Editor David McGonigal explores this remote and mystical island - one of the most isolated places on earth.

If you rotate a world globe, there's one point when just about all that is visible is the Pacific Ocean. When you look for a dot of land towards the middle of this expanse you'll find Easter Island.

No place is further from its neighbours than Easter Island. From Hanga Roa, the island's only town, you'll travel more than 2000 km before you hit the closest land - and that's Pitcairn Island where the bounty mutineers lived undisturbed for decades. Politically Easter Island is part of Chile, 3600 km away; culturally it is Polynesian.

Easter -island -rocks -wyza -com -au
The island has many subterranean caves with corridors that extend deep into mountains of volcanic rock

Why is it called Easter island?

It was named by the first European visitor, Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch explorer, who arrived on Easter Sunday 1722. Well, he named it Paasch-Eyland that means the same thing – as does Isla de Pascua, the Chilean Spanish-language name for the island.

Despite its remoteness, everyone has heard of Easter Island because of its enigmatic giant statues that have been used to hang theories as diverse as alien construction works (Eric von Daniken) or South America's influence in Polynesia (Thor Heyerdahl). Even Kevin Costner used its history as a parable for global ecological destruction in his badly-reviewed 1994 movie "Rapa Nui”.

Easter Island is perfect for such conjecture because when the first European ships arrived the population was already decimated by civil war and the statues had fallen (or had been pushed) down.

Today, there are about 4000 people living on the island, 3300 of them in the town of Hanga Roa adjacent to the airstrip. Few are descendants of the original inhabitants and most of the oral history has been lost. This has been fertile territory for academics and theorists who can propound any bizarre idea or theory without fear of contradiction.


The beautiful and mysterious Easter Island

How to get there

The first surprise is how easy it is to get to Easter Island. There are daily Lan Chile flights from Santiago and weekly through flights from Tahiti. The second was the airstrip. The runway is four kilometres long and it was built as an emergency landing strip for the space shuttle. However, it leads to a bedraggled passenger terminal building indistinguishable from others around the Pacific.

Anyone who has visited Fiji or any other Polynesian island will immediately feel at home on Easter Island. In fact, Polynesia and Spanish mañana come together here, resulting in an atmosphere even more laid-back than Samoa or Tonga. It would be a worthwhile holiday destination, even without its statues.

Easter -island -rano -kau -volcano -wyza -com -au
Rano Kau volcano provides a spectacular scenery

Easter Island is roughly triangular, with a volcano in each corner. It's a fertile, subtropical island that once supported about 7000 inhabitants. But after civil war took its toll Peruvian slave traders moved in and captured a large proportion of the survivors. The few slaves who later returned introduced syphilis and other diseases and the decimation of the population continued. By early last century only 140 Easter Islanders survived.

Amazing statues and sculptures

No matter where you go on the island, you'll see statues. There are some 900 of them mainly scattered around the coast, many partially hidden in long grass.

Easter -island -moai -statue
Do you think these Moai statues on Easter Island should be one of the wonders of the world?

Until now, visitors have had to be content to view shattered remains lying below the platforms on which they once stood, a few rather sterile reconstructions made in the 60s, and those that were abandoned in the quarries where they were being carved. Drifting soil has given these the appearance of disembodied heads leaning together in eternal discourse.

However, an impressive row of 15 statues has been restored by the waterfront at Tongariki. It's worth the effort to come to the island, just to see this collection of figures, the tallest of which is more than 10 metres high.

Easter -island -ahu -Tongariki -wyza -com -au
The statue Ahu Tongariki is the largest ahu on Easter Island

These carvings represent the various island chief's notable ancestors so they don't all look alike. 

Easter -island -statues -wyza -com -au
Scholars are unable to explain the meaning and use of the moai statues

The people who settled Easter Island had succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams in getting away from it all. The island was fertile enough to provide an easy living so there was time for a remarkably complex society to arise.

Carving giant statues at a single quarry and rolling them down to platforms by the sea would certainly have filled in the day and provided a rock-solid basis for inter-family rivalry. Too bad the island was eventually denuded of the trees that were used as rollers.

When the noble families finally ran out of money, the carvers simply downed tools, leaving the last figures standing or lying in the quarry. This is known as The Nursery and it's one of the strangest places in the world, where giant eye sockets peek at you through the grass and broken stone bodies litter the slopes.

When the statue culture had run its course, the locals simply switched to the birdman culture practised elsewhere in Polynesia. Once a year, all the people would gather at the cliffs at the southernmost tip of the island and a champion from each clan would take part in a race to clamber down to the sea, swim across to one of three tiny offshore islets and return with the egg of a sooty tern.

Easter -island -local -canoe -race -tj -photography -wyza -com -au
As part of an annual festival, locals have a canoe race (Photo: T Photography/Shutterstock)

The chief of the winning clan became supreme chief of the island for the year. Visitors can still see intricate mortarless stone houses at the site and the rocky cliffs are covered in petroglyphs, strange symbolic drawings that reveal the same active imagination as the ‘moai’.

With so many Australians now heading to South America and Antarctica, the potential to visit Easter Island has greatly increased. Once on the island, it’s easy to rent a 4WD, a motorbike or scooter or bicycle. You’ll need at least two very full days to explore the island so allow at least three or four nights.

Find out more

There are lots of tours on offer and you really need some local information to make sense of it all. Intrepid, Peregrine, World Expeditions and Chimu are some of the companies that offer holidays on Easter Island. While not an official site, easterislandtourism.com also has a lot of useful information.

What international destinations would you like to read about next? Join the conversation below.