Easter Island, Chile: Why 397 world-famous moai statues were left abandoned

"Just a few more steps," the guide tells me, as I slip and slide in the sticky mud.

It's a steep hill. The rain pours down. I'm in thongs. I can't keep my footing and I'm soaking wet. I did not think this through.

It's been like this for days, pelting rain and cool temperatures in this, one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world.

But the steps, each one tentative, are worth it. At the top of the hill, I look across the crater lake and I can see the statues, abandoned and still as they had been when the workers carving them downed tools and left the site. Some are partly under the earth, some left at odd angles.

You could feel that Rapa Nui, the islanders' name for their land and for themselves, is a special place, as well as one filled with the mystery of many unanswered and probably unanswerable questions.

This is the back of the moai factory, the Rano Raraku volcanic crater site on Easter Island where 397 moai – the giant, world-famous statues that dot the island – were left behind when production of the idols suddenly and inexplicably ceased, to be replaced by the annual Birdman ritual, where families put forward the fittest and fastest to swim to a nearby island to collect the first sooty-tern egg of the season, thus determining the island's king for a year.

How that came about is lost to history, albeit the subject of much conjecture.

At Rano Raraku, some moai were left because they were damaged in production and removal, some were imperfect and some were simply abandoned, as far as the experts of today can tell. One of them is a staggering 21.6 metres in height, and made from tuff stone present at the site. But he lays prostrate so the full force of his size is somewhat muted.

The average length of the moai is about four metres and weight roughly 12.5 tonnes. Oddly, it was when I stood behind them that I felt their majesty most. These were magnificent and imposing creations, and the remnant spirituality of them as a people's probable protector was almost palpable.

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In all, across the island, there are 887 known moai, 95 per cent of them made with Rano Raraku stone. Many have been restored and re-raised after having fallen and succumbing to the elements over time, or having been toppled during periods of tribal unrest.

No one is entirely sure what happened – why an industry that had centred on honouring chiefs and wise figures was abandoned – and theories abound.

There are also many theories on how the moai were moved from quarry sites to the beaches from which they look in. These are large and heavy and in a time of no tools, no cranes, no trucks, they were carried long distances over uneven terrain. No one is even sure why they were erected on the coastal areas to begin with.

On top of that, no one knows how or when the original inhabitants arrived at this far-flung, tiny island.

The one fact about Easter Island is: There are so many more questions than there are moai and there is no one who can answer them definitively.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/chile

southamericatourism.com

FLY

LATAM and Qantas offer direct flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Santiago, Chile, and from there, connections are available with LATAM, which also has a weekly direct flight from Tahiti. See latam.com and qantas.com.

EXPERIENCE

Remember to buy your National Park pass at the airport

A number of companies offer private tours of Easter Island and small group tours are available as well. The reporter travelled with Easter Island Spirit but paid for the journey herself.

It's possible to hire a car and self-drive. Distances are short and the main city, Hanga Roa, handy to all important sites.

The writer travelled at her own expense.

See also: Ten remote islands to put on your bucket list

See also: Australia's most remote territories and how to visit them

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