22nd & 24th April: Easter Island (Ovahe)

Ovahe is a pink sand beach not far south of Anakena, the only other beach on the island and a much larger white sand beach.  On the 22nd we followed a side road at Anakena and ended up on top of the cliff north of Ovahe, which fortunately we avoided driving over.

 

This is the view looking directly down on Ovahe from the edge of the cliff.

 

Here is a view from the same spot, looking south along the east coast towards the Poike Peninsula.  You can see a much larger view of the image if you click on it.  (Then click the bottom right icon for full screen and use mouse, icons or mouse wheel to zoom in and out).

In the expanded image, you may find a few dozen horses, a few houses, the odd car, not many trees (though there is a eucalypt forest in the middle of the island), many ancient structures visible and  many ruined ahu near the shoreline (… but often hard to tell from a distance which are ahu and which are just rocks.  The ahu also have often been plundered for materials for stone walls.)

On the 24th, we drove from the other side of the island to get here before dawn.

 

The red scoria cliff is glowing in the pre-dawn light.  Caves in the cliff are reputedly used as trysting hangouts but that is probably for an earlier time with fewer people and few cars.  You can also see a much larger view of this image by clicking on it (instructions as above).

 

Here is the sky in its full splendour, just before the dawn.

 

… and finally, the sun peeks through.

Google maps location
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Ecology and History

When the Rapanui arrived at Easter Island some time between 300AD and 800AD, it was a remarkable widlife haven.  The island was also covered in trees and it may have been the largest seabird rookery in the world.

Easter Island forests mainly comprised an endemic palm (closely related to the Chilean wine palm) and the Toromiro tree.  The now-extinct Easter Island palm would have grown to about a metre in diameter and 65 metres high.  Many of the trees were cleared for agriculture soon after settlement and around 85% of the land area of the island came to be under cultivation.   Trees were then in high demand for moving moai, and no doubt many other activities we have little direct evidence of.

The Rapanui harvested most of the trees, though rats eating palm seeds may also have been a factor hampering regeneration.  However, it seems that the Rapanui did not cut down the last tree during the classic period, as often suggested.  Europeans or their cattle probably elimated the last palms in the nineteenth century while the last wild toromiro tree grew in the Ranu Kau crater until it was chopped down for firewood in 1962.   Small numbers of toromiro trees have been reintroduced to Easter Island from the Kew Botanical gardens, who received seeds from collected in the early 1960s from the last wild tree by Thor Heyerdahl.

Loss of tree cover lead to widespread erosion and loss of topsoil.  Though this would have affected food production, the volcanic soil on the island would be very fertile.  Another significant constraint was and remains water, which quickly drains away through the porous rock.  There are only two permanent bodies of water on the island, the crater lakes of Ranu Kau and Ranu Raraku.  Rano Aroi, near the summit of the largest volcano Maunga Terevaka, has a swamp from which flows a stream that persists for a kilometre before it leaches away.  The island may have been subject to periods of drought in the past and water supply remains a delicate issue for the future.

Of the 25 original species of seabird on the island, only one survives today.  There were land birds as well, including herons, owls, parrots and rail, none of which survive.  Loss of habitat may be as much a factor in this as hunting.

Fish remained a plentiful resource.  According to a plaque at Papa Vaka, fishing was not a common occupation and some species of fish were protected by tapu, with only the king’s boat exempt from that.  However, probably somewhere between 1500 and 1650, the supply of wood became insufficient to build fishing canoes so the capacity to fish was severely curtailed.

Netting from illegal fishing trawlers?

Environmental degradation is not merely confined to the classical era.  Nineteenth century farmers with large flocks of cattle and sheep would not have helped.  And recently the fish stocks have fallen sharply due to illegal trawling activities by commercial pirates from Taiwan.  Easter Island has a very large underwater land mass that harbours abundant life including many species not found elsewhere.  Bottom trawling operations have apparently reduced this by about a half since 2005.  One of the local guides also told me of nets from illegal trawlers that wash up on the shores.  I think this may be such a fragment of net on the beach at Ovahe; you can also see it on the left of image 3, Ovahe before dawn (if you expand that image).

4 comments on “22nd & 24th April: Easter Island (Ovahe)

  1. […] Murray Foote a journey to the Deep South Skip to content HomeHello ← 22nd & 24th April: Easter Island (Ovahe) […]

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  2. […] Island society reached its apex about 1500, when environmental constraints became increasingly felt as we saw in an earlier post.  Most of the trees were chopped down and there was no wood left for canoes so fishing was […]

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