Simon Calder: Tents: nervous headache for eclipse chasers?
Saturday 09 May 2009
Christmas 2010 will arrive early for the people of Easter Island: 11 July, to be precise. The residents of this Jersey-sized fragment peeking out from the South Pacific have the cosmological good fortune to lie astride the line of totality for next year's solar eclipse.
"Astronomical" describes both the phenomenon of the moon completely obscuring the sun for a few precious minutes, and the prices charged for witnessing what could be a profound experience.
Camping, as you know, is supposed to be newly cool – a thrifty way to continue to travel despite the economic gloom. Yet thrift is hardly the word to describe the offer from the adventure operator, Explore. The nine-day trip to Easter Island, including three nights' camping (plus three nights in hotels in mainland Chile), weighs in at £4,295. Once you have paid for your meals and a couple of celebratory drinks, call it £500 a day or £20 an hour.
Even at these prices, there are plenty of takers for the sun's disappearing trick: "We've had a waiting list for over a year," says Jason Beevis, Explore's product manager.
Reaching Easter Island is always tricky. The isle constitutes a good definition of the word "remote". The nearest land, 1,300 miles away, is Pitcairn Island – population a few dozen. The only flights to Easter Island are on the Chilean airline, LAN, from Santiago and Tahiti.
Whichever approach you choose, there is one certainty: the Boeing 767 will arrive with plenty of fuel aboard: if, for any reason, the island's Mataveri airport is closed, the nearest alternates are in mainland South America and French Polynesia, each a further five hours away.
The rewards, though, are immense. You will know about the strange stone figures of Easter Island, their expressions as impassive as they are immobile. These moai, as they are called, have mysterious roots deep in the tangled community that lived on Easter Island in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. The prevailing wisdom is that these monumental sculptures were the artistic results of a power struggle among the five clans who jostled for control of the island.
While some of the human-like heads stand in neat rows, others are scattered randomly across the landscape, toppled during tribal fighting in the 18th century.
Less celebrated, but equally compelling, is the dramatic scenery of Easter Island. Rano Kau is a great gouge in the isle caused by a catastrophic eruption that tore through the Pacific Ocean; to perch on the lip of the crater, and peer down on the smouldering patchwork of water and rock is to feel on the edge of a disaster. Add in a pretty port, whose pastel fishing boats provide protein for the islanders, plus a sense of tranquility rare in South America, and Easter Island should be at the top of every travel wish-list.
Even when the heavens are not scheduled to lend a mystical dimension to the territory known officially as Isla Pascua, the lowest return ticket is around £1,200. I paid £2,000 for a round-the-world journey that included Easter Island.
Next July, fares will be far higher: "Flight costs alone are almost three times higher than normal," says Jason Beevis of Explore. Camping solves the problem that the island's limited supply of beds is already committed, as the islanders capitalise on their unique status.
The last eclipse I witnessed was 10 summers ago, when the line of totality swept over a corner of Cornwall – and the French port of Dieppe, where the Calder clan converged. At the appointed time, thick clouds rolled in. Disappointment was tempered by the excellent picnic my sisters provided, and the fact that the day-trip from Newhaven cost only £16. But according to Explore's rival eclipse chaser – confusingly named Explorers Tours – cloud is likely to spoil the view from Easter Island.
"We believe that the chance of decent weather on Easter Island is pretty poor, with a 60 per cent chance of cloud," says John Boughton, managing director of Explorers. "Tahiti offers by far the best chance of clear weather conditions along the eclipse path". (In contrast, Explore contends the chances of clear skies are the same in either location.)
Mr Boughton's company is chartering two aircraft to fly from Tahiti's main island (where the group will stay in a four-star hotel) to the French Polynesian atoll of Hao, which he claims offers better odds of success. A 10-night trip costs £3,999. Staying where, exactly? "We are in discussions with the mayor for an army barracks or a school. Worst case, we'll be camping."
Good luck to all who sign up with Explorers (01276 406877) and with Explore (0845 013 1539); pray to the gods of travel for clear skies.
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