Easter Island and the 2010 solar eclipse

This article first appeared, translated into Norwegian, in the March 2010 issue of Zine, hence Norwegian references.

Holidays are usually about chasing the sun. There may be the odd occasion when you choose to leave a beautiful country like Norway for somewhere wet and cold, but most of the time the quest takes us somewhere we can get a blast of tropical heat and a vitamin D overdose. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that eclipse chasing is, well, hot.

Earlier this year an annular eclipse – where the moon partially obscures the sun – provided a spectacular ring of fire visible from the Maldives, southern India, Sri Lanka and China. Many snowbirds who had flown south for the winter found themselves in the right place at the right time. The Eclipse lasted in parts for eleven minutes – the longest not only this century but also this millennia.

It’s not surprising then that Easter Island is proving quite a draw for eclipse chasers on July 11, when a total eclipse will pass over the heads of the islands famous statues for four minutes and thirty-nine seconds. The combination of somewhere utterly fascinating – and with a special pull for Norwegians brought up on stories of Thor Heyerdahl’s Pacific adventures – and an eclipse sounds almost too good to be true.

Hold on before you rush to book. Let’s consider what will await those who pay the inflated costs of getting to one of the world’s hardest-to-reach islands at eclipse time? I was lucky enough to visit Easter Island a few years ago, travelling from Santiago in Chile to Tahiti on the only international flight to pause and refuel here. In fact, the plane carries enough fuel to render the landing unnecessary, to counter the risk of there being no fuel available on arrival and the flight being stranded. There are also several domestic flights each week from the Chilean mainland to Easter Island.

I found the land of the moai a very special place, with an almost unbelievable history and sense of separation from the rest of the world. Visitors tour the island on horseback, on foot and by best of all by bike, and at night the main town of Hanga Roa rocks to a gentle yet inviting island ryhtmn. Like all remote islands it can have a lonely feel, and though I treasure having visited I was relieved when my flight came in. Now I’d return here before going anywhere else.

Tukuturi: aka the kneeling moai - and the only statue on the island with legs

Easter Island has only got more popular since then and flights haven’t got any less busy. Eclipse time will be the busiest of peak times. The islanders themselves are increasingly unhappy with the volume of tourists who visit – 70,000 came last year to a place with a permanent population of 2,500 – and it likely that every room on the island and then some will be filled up when with Eclipse chasers. This means big costs for those who do come. It may be the holiday of a lifetime, but be aware that it might take you that long for your wallet to recover. At least the enigmatic moai will be standing impassive and not asking visitors to pay a premium for a photo.

There’s one other risk worth considering. July is bang in the middle of the wet season and while blue skies are entirely possible, a cloudy day would not be unusual. The Total Eclipse which passed over the UK in 1999 did so through a blanket of cloud. I watched from the top of Parliament Hill in London, one of the city’s best vantage points, and the effect was a little like a series of progressively greyer clouds rolling over your head. Thousands of excited eclipse-watchers hooted and booed at the cloudy skies which seemed ridiculous at the time. We tramped back to the Lonely Planet office more than a little disappointed.

Viewing a solar eclipse may not be worth all the hype. There are certainly better times to come to Easter Island. But both are worth seeing and should have a space on every traveller’s must-see list. You could wait a year and see Easter Island at a quieter time, and make sure you’re closer to home on June 1 2011, when a partial eclipse will be visible over northern Norway. All this obeys one unwritten rule of travel: while you’ll want to go when everybody else does, it’s usually better to plan your trip for when the crowds are elsewhere.

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