Iorana  MANUTARA

“Iorana, welcome Manutara and thank you for coming to Rapa Nui” are the first lines of a song written by Parapina Araki when the “bird”, coming from east to west, descended over Vinapu and alit on the sandy strip at Mataveri.  Manutara is the Easter Island seagull which each year in the springtime nests on the islets in front of the Rano Kau volcano.
The arrival of the seaplane “Manutara”, which connected the city of La Serena (Chile) with Easter Island in 19 and a half hours of flight over the ocean, with only enough fuel for 24 hours of flight and food for 15 days, just in case, was a total success.  Nonetheless, at the end of the lovely song of welcome, the skies opened and a torrential rain began, which left the plane mired deep in the mud of the airstrip. To free it, they had to tie it up and pull with horses, oxen, ropes and the help of the entire community to drag it to the Air Force guest house.

The commander of the ship was Horacio Barrientos, the chief of the Quintero Air Force base, but the planning behind the flight was the work of his pilot, Roberto Parragué, who had first visited the Island as a seaman aboard the naval ship Baquedano in 1933 and 1935. He later entered the Air Force and upon graduating was able to fulfill his vision of projecting the first flight of the Manutara. Parragué had entrusted the task of preparing a 400 meter (1,300 feet) long airstrip to the Islanders Alberto Huke, Simón, Emilio and Napoleón Paoa, the Pakarati brothers and Domingo Paté.  There was no machinery available for that type of job, but they weren’t lacking in enthusiasm.  Compacting the terrain for the airstrip was the job of thirty volunteer women under the direction of Juan Edmunds, an employee of the Williamson Balfour ranch company. Alfredo Tuki remembers…among them were Graciela Paté, Parapina Araki, Emilia Tuki-Kaituoe, Magdalena Hito and many more.  During several years they removed rocks, carrying them in their skirts because there were no wheelbarrows.  They made holes in the future airstrip and buried small rocks in them to make it firmer.   There were also enormous rocks and the men had to break them up with sledge hammers, hoes and wedges and haul them away in ox carts.  Some women on horseback herded animals over the strip, so that the running sheep, cattle and horses would compact the ground.  Its a shame that today there is no recognition of these Rapanui visionaries who put so much effort into preparing the landing strip.

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The successful arrival of the Manutara was followed by a total failure in the return.  Due to the ruined state of the airstrip, the plane tried to take off from the sea, but damaged one of the wings in the attempt.  It had to be disassembled and taken on the naval transport “Pinto” back to the Quintero base (on the continent) for repairs.  This initial trip of the “Manutara” to Easter Island served as inspiration and experience two months later for an Australian airman, in another Catalina seaplane, to fly from Australia to Chile with a stop on Rapa Nui.  This opened possibilities and led to the construction of a 2 km (1.2 mile) long airstrip at Mataveri.
It was January 20th of 1951.  The entire town was waiting for the arrival of the “Manutara”, a Catalina seaplane, with a “curanto” feast and the traditional floral necklaces for the nine crew members.  At 1:30 p.m., the Captain Roberto Parragué-Singer shouted at the top of his voice, “the Island, the Island” with the indescribable emotion of realizing his great dream of uniting continental Chile with its island territory.  As they approached, the crew could see dozens of Islanders running euphorically towards the hills to watch this noisy bird, the likes of which they had never seen before, pass over their heads.
Eight years later, in January of 1959, Parragué dared to make a second flight to Rapa Nui and back, but without getting previous permission, which cost him his career in the Chilean Air Force.  Later, with his own Catalina seaplane, which he named “Manutara II”, he flew again to Rapa Nui in 1961 and 1963, extending the trip to Tahiti in 1965.  The Chilean National Congress, in recognition of his merits, awarded him the rank of Air Force General.  In a news interview in 1965, he commented that “one flight cost me my retirement and another now means a promotion.”  The flight of the “Manutara” was one of the great events in recent history for the Islanders.  In gratitude, they gave to the city of La Serena one of their most precious treasures, a Moai of almost 4 meters (over 13 feet) in height, which is today prominently displayed in the Archaeological Museum of that city.
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