We'd like our moai back, please

Making the effort to reach isolated Easter Island is worth it to see the ancient and mysterious stone heads. But be prepared for some strange requests, says Jamie Bowden

We had left the Chilean coastline five hours earlier. Having flown across a seemingly endless expanse of ocean, we were now making our final descent towards the most isolated inhabited place on the planet: Easter Island. This tiny speck of land is about the size of Jersey, yet more than 1,000 miles from its nearest neighbours: Pitcairn Island to the south, Tahiti to the west. Its isolation was confirmed by early inhabitants who referred to their home as Te Pito o Te Henua – Navel of the World.

We had left the Chilean coastline five hours earlier. Having flown across a seemingly endless expanse of ocean, we were now making our final descent towards the most isolated inhabited place on the planet: Easter Island. This tiny speck of land is about the size of Jersey, yet more than 1,000 miles from its nearest neighbours: Pitcairn Island to the south, Tahiti to the west. Its isolation was confirmed by early inhabitants who referred to their home as Te Pito o Te Henua – Navel of the World.

On arrival it seems no different from any other tropical island; hot and steamy, with an aromatic blend of frangipani and jet fuel to accompany the short walk across the tarmac to the tiny arrivals building. Airport formalities were over in a couple of minutes; although 2,500 miles away from the South American mainland, the island is still part of Chile. An enthusiastic crowd greeted us in the arrivals hall. All were loudly extolling the virtues of the residencias (family homes with rooms to let) they represented. It was late and I didn't inspect too many of the dog-eared flyers before settling for the Kona-Tua hostel, a five-minute walk from the airport.

The island's only town, Hanga Roa is a small, slightly unkempt affair, where the wooden houses with their rusting zinc roofs and peeling paint resemble the small villages squeezed between the fashionable resorts on islands such as Antigua or Barbados. There is just one sealed road around the island. Getting from Hanga Roa to the opposite end takes under 15 minutes. A leisurely circumnavigation can be achieved in less than an hour.

Despite Easter Island's location at the heart of the vast, sparse archipelago of Polynesia, an absence of designer hotels, hip restaurants and groovy beach resorts sets it apart from its distant neighbour, Tahiti.

One aspect of Easter Island's past attracts more attention than any other: the origin of the hundreds of moais, or stone heads, scattered all over the island. Most of these sculptures are raised on stone ahus, or platforms. They have baffled archaeologists and historians since their discovery by European explorers almost three centuries ago.

The island gained its modern name from the Dutch mariner Jacob Roggeven. He landed there on Easter Sunday, 1722. Yet the island had been populated sincead400 by Polynesians, who had developed a sophisticated culture in their isolation.

Set your alarm clock early to head to the island's easternmost point to witness the sun rising behind Ahu Tongariki, arguably the most spectacular ahu on the island with 15 moais standing in a line. Near to Tongariki is Rano Rarako, a dormant volcanic crater. Here, more than 800 heads were carved – its slopes are still littered with dozens in various stages of completion. Many stand staring out to the Pacific Ocean, as if on the lookout for invaders from the south.

Most statues measure 8ft-10ft tall; the largest, an unfinished giant of 65ft, still lies on its side at Rano Rarako. The heads were carved from compressed volcanic ash, or tuff, and polished to a fine finish.

Rapa Nui culture did not last, however. The over-exploitation of the island's scant natural resources led to famine and tensions between the rival clans. Towards the end of the 17th century, this exploded in an orgy of violent destruction. In just a few years, tribal warfare led to the toppling of virtually all of the standing statues. After almost a millennium, the whole system of stone carving came to a chaotic end.

The surviving islanders lived a meagre existence, with disease and slave trading affecting most of the island's families. Chile annexed the island in 1888; for the first half of the 20th century, most of the land was leased to a British company, Williamson & Balfour, which made handsome profits by breeding sheep to export merino wool to London.

Tourism began in earnest in 1967, when commercial air services were introduced from the Chilean capital, Santiago. A local historian and tour guide, Benito Rapahango, says: "Tourism is the only way forward for this island; we don't produce anything or grow anything anymore." But, he says, at present each visitor contributes an average of just $10. "To build a better visitor infrastructure for the island, I think it's reasonable for tourists to pay somewhere in the region of $100 each, just like they do in the Galapagos Islands."

At present none of the historic sites is protected. It is possible to wander freely among the stones, and should they ever get damaged there are no replacements.

I spent my final evening watching the sunset from the Pea restaurant, which is situated on a rock outcrop close to Hanga Roa's tiny harbour. A woman adorned with half a dozen coral necklaces wandered over from a neighbouring table and asked if I was from England. "Yes I am," I replied. "Have you enjoyed looking at all the moais?" she asked. "Yes I have," I said. She gave me a wry smile, leant forward and whispered: "Good, perhaps you could send us back the moai you still have in the British Museum."

The islanders have a strong emotional link to their unique past, and whatever reasons their forebears had for carving the moais, they left the world a legacy of breathtaking beauty.

Traveller's guide

Getting there: Lan Chile (0800 917 0572, www.lanchile.com) flies from Santiago to Easter Island, and onwards to Tahiti where you can connect to Australia; it is a feasible (though expensive) stop on a round-the-world itinerary. Bolt-on packages to South American trips are available; Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315) quotes £744 for three nights including flights from Santiago and B&B accommodation. South American Experience (020-7976 5511) offers three-night ground packages from £244, excluding flights.

More information: Chilean Tourist Board (020-7580 1023, www.visitchile.org).

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