A tale of two volcanoes

Osorno, Chile


It’s very difficult to get Easter Island in perspective. Everything somehow became clearer to me as we were finally leaving the island, and boarded the plane. On the screen in front of us was the standard map showing the planes location. It was simply a blank blue screen with ‘Easter Island’ written in the middle. The island was so small it was obliterated by the symbol of a plane. For a while after we took off, the screen continued to show a blank blue page, but with a gradually lengthening line marking our path.

And of course, ancient Easter Islanders didn’t have Boeing to help them navigate. They just had canoes. And 2500km is a long way by canoe. Apparently, Easter Island is one of the few (or even the only?) outposts of the Polynesian Empire, if you can think of it as such, which never appeared on any of their maps. Although Polynesian people found it, no one ever managed to return to anywhere else to tell them about it.

They talk about being the ‘navel of the world’ and as you walk around the coastline, its weird to imagine that their concept of ‘the world’ must for a long time simply have consisted of this tiny rock only 20km long.

Still doesn’t explain why they built the moai, but maybe it sheds a little light on the mad intensity with which they did so. There are more half cut moai (not in the after-Christmas-dinner sense) on the quarry hillside than ever got erected. They seemed not to be building them to order, just building them madly.

In fact there’s parts of the hill where we spent ages wandering round saying ‘look, another nose!’ as just bits of facial features stick out of the rock. It gives a similar feeling to the talking trees in Lord of the Rings (or was it Harry Potter – these things seem a long way away now).

I’m also left wondering what makes moai so thrilling to see – there’s something so meaningful to us in the shape of a human face. You can almost stare back in to their dead stone eyes.

And yet, in the end, they destroyed it all (even before Peruvian slave traders annihilated the entire population of the island – but that’s another story I may return to later). The madness was just too much, and now most of the moai are in bits, or lying on the ground – some of the most appealing sights are long rows of moai lying on their faces. What does it tell us about human beings, that we can be so destructive even when we believe the world is only 20km long?

From the volcanoes of the mid pacific we made haste for those of the south Andes. Puyehue in Chile, which I guess very few people have heard of.

The mountain has spawned a vast volcanic plateau – a mix of black lava flows and grey gravel dunes that, when you are stood in the middle of it, seems to reach for ever.

At this time of year it’s carved out with great sweeping patches of snow (we had to walk through quite a few hours of knee deep snow to get into the thick of things. It was a bit mad, we had to take it in turns to be Good King Wenceslas). As a result, the lines formed by the snow dominate your eyes – creating lines and forms where none exist otherwise, and totally shaping your view of the land. Yet each year the snow melts and this temporary landscape disappears.

In amongst all this is a lot of volcanic activity – hot springs (so convenient for washing the dishes) and smoking fumeroles, mud pools etc. These holes in the earth puff out minerals that stain areas of rock pink, green, even blue. There are whole brightly coloured hillsides amongst the grey and black. And yet the volcanic activity moves – these two are temporary landscapes.

In fact, being perched precariously on the side of a volcano that last erupted only just over 30 years ago, I guess the whole place is pretty transitory (and even the Andes won’t last for ever, as any good geologist could tell you).

But each process leaves its mark – the snow accumulates each year and is shaping the hillsides in to valleys; the geysers leave behind the kaleidoscopic hillsides, and each eruption builds extensions onto what exists already.

I’ve seen some pretty weird things at New Year (Clapham Common for starters) but this place really takes the prize.

These transitory landscapes have certainly made an impression on us.

Thanks for all the Christmas and New Year messages. We particularly enjoyed the many many out-of-office-autoreplies we have received.

Happy New Year!

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