Travel due west from Easter Island, dodge a Tahitian Island or two, and you’ll come ashore in the northern Brisbane suburbs. Head east and you’re in Chile. Sail south to Antarctica? The forbidding Cape Herlacher on the Amundsen Sea. Set out northbound – a long, long way – and you’ll land on the tip of Baja California.
Easter Island, brochure-writers say, is the most remote inhabited spot on the planet. That’s not really true, and all the islands are remote out here. For example, Easter Island’s nearest inhabited neighbor, Pitcairn Island, is 1300 miles west and home to 42.
There is a spot in the Indian Ocean more remote than either of these mere motes, a place claimed by France called Kerguelen Island, but it has no permanent residents, only scientists.
In fact, the remotest inhabited island in the world is Tristan da Cunha, a surely inbred place with a population of about 270, in the South Atlantic Ocean, 1,750 miles from South Africa. Supply boats from South Africa sail there less than once a month. In bountiful contrast, cruises stop at Easter Island and there are daily flights.
Since there is no airport at Tristan de Cunha, Easter Island claims the prize for most remote airport in the world. Mataveri Airport is 2,336 miles from Santiago, from which there are scheduled flights, and 1,617 miles from Mangareva in the Gambier Islands, where there are none.
The flight out takes about 3-1/2 hours. The airport at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station commands a crossroads by comparison, a mere 842 miles from Williams Field, which serves the U.S. McMurdo Station and New Zealand’s Scott Base in Antarctica.
Stand down by the shore in Miraflores, the fancy shopping suburb of Lima, Peru, and look west. Amid the children and the frisbees and the noise, and coastal Peru’s bewildering garúa and the unmuffled engines, it is hard to get an idea what the remoteness of Easter Island feels like. How the isolation seeps into your thinking. How it makes you different. It is a fundamental feature of Rapa Nui.
The more I learn, the more I understand Easter Island really is a mysterious place, having confounded just about everybody since 1722, the date of the first known non-Polynesian contact. Everybody has theories about Rapa Nui, and nobody really knows, so you might as well develop your own theories too. Why not?
There are multiple mysteries. First the huge statues, called moai. How and why did the islanders move them from quarry to perch?
There is the question of the society’s apparent collapse. Some would have us believe the islanders were dim enough to cut down their very last tree, but I am skeptical. Or was it European contact and the diseases that unleashed?
At least the question of how Rapa Nui was originally colonized seems to have been answered. Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl pointed to the Incas and Spaniards via Peru. The Swiss author Erich von Daniken put it all down to spacemen. That nutty old Daily Mail even fingered the diabolical sweet potato.
Clearer heads traced the larger colonization patterns of Polynesia, sometimes via pottery, back to today’s Papua New Guinea via the Solomon Islands. The distance between the Solomon Islands and Easter Island, though, is some 6000 miles. How long did it take? Even learned guesses range across more than five hundred years.
A British archaeologist who lived on the island in 1914-15 named Katherine Routledge wrote that it “bears no resemblance to the ideal lotus-eating lands of the Pacific; rather, with its bleak, grass grown surface, its wild rocks and restless ocean, it recalls some of the Scilly Islands or the coast of Cornwall. It is not a beautiful country or even a striking one, but it has a fascination of its own.”
In the end, it’s hard to get a non-academic feel for the place from home. Unless you go, it’s all just words in books. They say the tallest moai weighed 82 tons and the heaviest weighed 86. My horse-trailer-pulling Ford F-250 weighs a mere three. How can you tell what you think about how they hauled those things around until you stand under one and look it in the eye?
This is why you go, of course, because it is a singular place on earth. As much as it would like to be, it is not like the rest of Polynesia. It may recall the coast of Cornwall. It surely is nothing like its Chilean suzerain.
So you just have to go out there to see.