Pamela Wade marvels at the massive sculpted moai of Easter Island - just one of its many surprises
Our guide on Easter Island, the dreadlocked Beno Atan, is a convincing character, so we're tempted to believe him when he tells us how the famous stone statues reached their resting places. "They walked."
We don't, of course. We haven't flown five hours from Santiago to this dot in the Pacific to be fobbed off with nonsense. We want a proper explanation involving tools, physics and know-how. Patiently, Beno indulges us with an account of the latest experiments in Hawaii, when a 4.4-tonne stone replica was moved 100m along a flat path by three small teams of people holding ropes, rocking the statue from side to side. We nod, satisfied: we've moved fridges like that.
Then Beno takes us to see our first moai, and we think again. These things are massive. On the coast, facing inwards, is a row of black shapes, all different, all huge, all neatly placed on high stone platforms. One of them has a red stone topknot on its head. There are questions raised here that can't be answered by ropes and rocking. Finally, Beno plays his trump card and takes us to the hillside quarry where the statues were carved. Here the slopes are littered with moai, many toppled, some on their backs, still joined to the underlying basalt. The biggest is 80 tonnes, 10m high. We look at the jumbled landscape where the erected statues, 900 of them, are scattered. Ropes and rocking?
"They walked," Beno repeats, and this time we don't argue.
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Easter Island is full of surprises. The first is that this tropical island looks more like New Zealand during a drought, its bare brown hills slashed by straight windbreaks. The original palm forests are long gone, burned and used for boats until not one tree was left. Then there are the horses, introduced by the Europeans in 1722, which wander freely all over the island. They're the only animals we see: even birds are few, thanks to rats and then the falcons introduced to hunt them.
Then there are the people: Polynesians who speak with a Spanish accent, the remnants of a society that has weathered famine, war, cannibalism, slavery, disease and now a constant invasion of tourists. Beno shows us with some pride the evidence of their ingenuity. There are habitations inside lava tubes, with fireplaces and even underground plantations from where they defended themselves against attack. There are henhouses like castles to protect the precious birds, almost the sole source of food after the last canoe disintegrated.
Beno leads us along the cliffs and up the extinct volcano Rano Kau, instructing us not to look up until he tells us. "Look now!" he says, and there before us is a spectacular view of a classic crater lake, 1.5km across. Out in the brilliant blue sea are islands of black rock, and across the crater is Orongo, another of Easter Island's mysteries.
From this village the pre-European Birdman cult dictated that one young man from each tribe should compete annually, braving the surf and jagged rocks to swim to an island and fetch the egg of a tern to bring back unbroken, climbing up the precipitous cliff. The winner's tribal chief was master for a year and presented with a virgin, but the details of the cult are lost, preserved only in a script no one can now decipher.
LAN Airlines flies six days weekly from Auckland to Santiago, Chile with onward connections to more than 80 South American destinations including Easter Island.
Stay at the Explora eco-lodge Posada de Mike Rapu on Easter Island.
* Pamela Wade was a guest of LAN Airlines.