Te Ara o te Ao

Te Ara o te Ao

Te Ara o te Ao

The Road to Power

In the Mataveri district, on the road to the Rano Kau volcano, shortly beyond the cave of Ana Kai Tangata, is the start of the ancient trail called Te Ara o te Ao, the road of power or the road of command. The Rapanui people have the word Ao to name a special oar that was used as a symbol of command. Today’s trail follows the same route that was used around 150 years ago to reach the ceremonial village at Orongo where the ritual celebration of Tangata Manu, or Bird-Man, was held.
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One of the first attractions on the way are the manavai, agricultural structures made of stone to protect plants from the wind and the sun and to maintain the moisture in the soil. These have a circular base with diameters that range from 3 to 10 meters (10 to 33 feet). Where the trail crosses the CONAF (Forestry Service) enclosure, there is a display of 25 manavai which show traditional local plants. Here it is possible to see the famous toromiro, an endemic tree which almost became extinct and was recovered from seeds of the last living tree which grew inside the crater of the Rano Kau volcano.

The trail then continues up the northern slope of the volcano to an altitude of 324 meters (1060 feet) above sea level, crossing a forest of eucalyptus, cypress and acacias which offer spots to rest before reaching the rim of the crater. The view is spectacular. On one side, the town of Hanga Roa can be seen, all the way to the northern shore of the Island, while on the other is the impressive crater that is 1.5 kilometers (nearly 1 mile) in diameter with a wetland located inside, 200 meters (650 feet) below the rim, where enormous stands of reeds exist with other endemic species. Going down into the crater is not recommended, unless accompanied by a local guide.

The path continues along the right edge of the volcano until arriving at Orongo, the ceremonial village with its 53 houses made of slabs of basalt. Orongo, which in the Rapanui language means “The Called One”, is perched majestically on a narrow strip of rim along some 250 meters (820 feet) of the southern side of Rano Kau, over a cliff that drops abruptly 300 meters (985 feet) into the Pacific Ocean. At no time in its history did Orongo serve as a permanent settlement, due to its difficult access and its lack of direct access to the sea. Its importance came from the cult of Tangata Manu (Bird-Man) that developed at the end of the 17th Century and continued into the 19th Century. Prior to that, during the period of the moai (statues) and the cult of the ancestors, Orongo was a place where rites of initiation into adulthood were held for boys and girls.
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According to recent studies, around 1350 Rapa Nui suffered a profound climate change (the Little Ice Age) that was characterized by an increase in the frequency of the El Nino current in the region. Overpopulation and a scarcity of resources led to a loss of faith in the cult of the ancestors. The matato’a, the warrior caste, seized the power giving rise to a new order where authority was now to be determined by physical prowess and no longer by lineage and rank. To establish their order, they organized the Bird-Man competition in which representatives of each tribe would meet in the month of September each year when the manutara, or Easter Island tern, would nest on these shores.

The trail continues along the inner edge of the crater to the area called Kari Kari, which is the “bite” or the lower eroded area on the southern slope of the crater, from where the competitors would descend and swim the two kilometers (a mile and a quarter) to the largest islet, Motu Nui, where they would wait to capture the first egg laid by a tern and return it to the mainland. The matato’a, or warrior chief, of the winning clan would then receive governing power for a one-year period.

The houses of Orongo extend in several levels along a miniscule peninsula formed between the crater and the ocean cliff, where the space gradually narrows so that there is room for only one row of houses on the edge of the drop. This special area is known as Mata Ngara’u, and was where the priests officiated ceremonies during the month that the Tangata Manu celebration was held. Unlike the other houses, these have many entries which form a semi-circle.

On the rocks of Mata Ngara’u, there are numerous petroglyphs which represent the bird-men, the creator god Make-Make and many komari, symbols of female fertility. The American archaeologist, Georgia Lee, registered 1,700 petroglyphs in this small area, which makes it the most important site for petroglyphs on the entire Island. Unfortunately, today access is restricted due to the fragility of the constructions. In order to reach the major petroglyphs, it would be necessary to walk over the roofs of Mata Ngara’u. From Mata Ngara’u, following the trail on the edge of the crater, there are some steps which lead us to the return. Where both the entry and exit trails meet, there is the remains of a small ahu, the only one at Orongo. Judging from its size and simple design, it is probably of very ancient construction. Again due to the delicate nature of this archaeological site, the current trail is well marked and limits access to the most vulnerable zones.

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