Orongo is perched precipitously on the rim of the large volcanic crater Rano Kau. The site has a 1,000 m vertical drop to the sea on one side and a steep slope into the crater on the other side. It was about 7 km south from Hanga Roa (the only town on the island) along a twisting, winding, dirt road with lots of potholes, but a very scenic drive on our motor scooter.
We looked down at the crater's lake surface covered with mats of freshwater reeds. The vista in the other direction brought the blue expanse of the Pacific up past 3 small islets called motus. Moto Nui, the largest, was the arena for the "Birdman Competition". The tribes of Easter Island had been warring amongst themselves (1770-1838), with moai (statues) being toppled all over the island. It is believed that the Birdman Competition was started after this destructive period, giving the winning tribe leadership for the year - which was gained through physical prowess rather than status and rank.
Moto Nui in the far background
The Orongo village was only inhabited during the month long Birdman celebration and tough competition for which competitors may have prepared for all year long. We took photos directly in front of the stone "row" houses that people involved with the ceremonies used, not knowing that it is a definite no-no to get off the path and up close. Pictures are allowed but no one is allowed to be this close as the park ranger informed us when he pointed out the signs. These houses were only used for sleeping or a respite from bad weather, and cooking, etc. was all done outdoors. Some of the houses had indoor passages between them.
1 of 54 village houses restored from 1974 to 1976
The Orongo site was used previously for religious ceremonies but construction of the village made it the most important center across the whole island for rituals. The stone village houses were oriented to face out to the 3 islets.
Upon a signal, the competitors would scale down the steep cliffs, swim 3 km on a pora (a reed surfboard) with a few supplies to 1 of the islets called Moto Nui (big islet) where they would camp in caves, anxiously waiting...
And the first to claim the newly laid egg of a Sooty Tern bird, that turned up annually to nest, would be the winner. But then he would also have to swim back, climb back up the cliff and return to Orongo, without breaking his claimed egg which he would carry in a pouch tied to his head. This was considered a very big honour for the competitor, even if he was performing for his Chief who would then be named as the official Birdman of the year. The last competition was held in 1866 when it was discouraged by Catholic missionaries as the event involved worshipping of false gods.
Unfortunately, the 1 statue that bridges both the moai and Birdman periods was removed from one of the stone houses in 1868 and is now located in the British Museum in London. It was made of basalt which was not the usual material for statues, has notable carvings on its back, and was probably used in the coronation of the Birdman. We never saw any moai at Orongo and only the remains of 1 ahu (statue platform).
Vinapu - After a very self-informative afternoon at Orongo (only 1 descriptive sign and no pamphlets), we left and headed to the SW corner of the island to the nearby site called Vinapu. Vinapu displays 2 of the stone platforms called ahu and several toppled moai with their faces in the dirt. But what is so unusual about the ahu at this site is the perfectly carved tight fitted stone blocks, up to 6 tons in weight, with no cracks or holes between them, reminiscent of the Incas in the Cuzco Valley of Peru.
Precision work on Vinapu 1 (also called Tahira)
Also here is a red statue made entirely from red scoria that is believed to be a female moai. Firstly, very few female moai have ever been found, and secondly, red scoria was used to carve the topknots and eye pupils - not the statues themselves. The topknots are the large crowning of the moai and sort of look like hats to me!
We then returned to Sea Turtle whereupon a returning fisherman asked us if we wanted some fish. Of course we graciously accepted; he then scaled 2 fish and gave us his recipe. We figured if it comes from a seasoned fisherman, it must be good - it was delicious!
Have a pan of water (large enough to contain the fish) heating to a boil while you remove scales and discard innards of fish. Do not cut off head, tail, etc. Cut diagonal slices into each side of the fish. Sprinkle with a seasoning salt on both sides of the fish, into the slices you made, and into the gut cavity. Fry the fish for only a couple of minutes on each side. Then place the quickly fried fish into the boiling water. Boil for 5 minutes and then thoroughly enjoy the delectable, moist taste.
Scaled, cleaned, and sliced
We got into our dinghy and noticed how dirty it had become. While we were gone, kids had climbed in with their muddy little bare feet and paddled around the harbour. They had earlier asked when we first left the dinghy by the stairs and we said no as we were worried about the safety of both the dinghy and the kids. They took it out anyways unapologetically! We guessed it's the way here.
Later that evening, we came back to town to watch a 1993 movie that is shown 3 nights/week at the Hotel Manavai called Rapa Nui (Polynesian for Easter Island). While watching the movie, I tasted my first Pisco Sour, a very delicious and well known alcoholic beverage throughout Chile. The movie was filmed on Easter Island and produced by Kevin Costner. It has great scenes of Easter Island and the love story is about the Birdman Competition. If you can find a copy, rent it! The events depicted in the film are pretty much as it was, anthropologically speaking.
After a long and exhausting but fulfilling day, we fell asleep very quickly as we anticipated what tomorrow would bring.