Pitcairn Island

Sunday, June 30. At last, Pitcairn Island—but crashing breakers prevented the Paul Gauguin from reaching shore and, for some reason, pickup by Pitcairner longboats wasn’t an option either. All were disappointed, and the younger, able-bodied cruise guests (who could have managed the descent into the longboats via treacherous rope ladder), were especially frustrated.

The Pitcairners (if you’re not sure what this means, read this) boarded the Paul Gauguin with their wares for sale, and I was delighted to purchase some unique gifts for friends back home, a pretty wood dish made by Randy Christian (Fletcher Christian’s great-great-great-great-great-grandson), and several first day covers. Commemorative Pitcairn stamps were what I was anxious to find onshore anyway. Pitcairn Island was slated for an 80% partial eclipse, so while they were aboard I gifted a few dozen leftover Blackout Rally shades to the islanders and their children.

Since the onshore Pitcairn experience failed, the captain announced that we would pull up the anchor and make for the eclipse site early. New coordinates just beyond the edge of a thick cloud band were charted by Feinberg and Jay Andersen, the popular eclipse meteorologist who was stationed safely on land somewhere sunny in Chile.

A last minute weather update the day before the eclipse was delivered to the anxious chasers packed into the Grand Salon. Details about viewing were announced (the pool will be drained, the bar will be open, etc.) and questions were answered. It’s looking good for eclipse day, and spirits were high. I overheard more than one passenger proclaim, “seeing the eclipse will make up for not getting to Pitcairn.”

(Captain Toni made daily shipwide intercom announcements that rattled everyone’s nerves as we got closer to eclipse day. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he would begin, slowly and formally, in his Croation accent. “I have some information. Some information that will be of very much interest to you.” Long pause. “As you know, we are doing our best to find the best possible eclipse viewing position for you.” Oh no, what the fuck NOW we think collectively, and all souls aboard freeze, hanging on his every word. “We are cruising at eighteen knots away from our position,” he continues. “At twenty seven degrees south latitude to longitude one hundred thirty degrees to arrive five hundred seventy nautical miles from latitude minus fifteen…” and so forth. After two minutes of this level of out-of-context technical information, he concludes. “And so we are hoping for good outcome. And good day.”)

I made my eclipse phenomena “shot list”—see photo—including an essential tip from Filippenko: “make sure you go to the bathroom.” Others ready their custom solar viewers. 

Somehow I was contacted via Twitter by a producer for New Zealand Public Radio; asking if I would submit to an interview for their First Up morning show about our ship and the nutty eclipse chasing passengers, all steaming for somewhere in the middle of the sea to witness three minutes of totality. How hopeful and confident I sound in this interview. I was still convinced that my eighth TSE would be a slam dunk.

Photos:

Approaching Pitcairn Island

Pitcairners come aboard

Eclipse update: New coordinates, a hopeful weather map

Fashioning custom solar filters

A smashing sunset after navigating around the backside of Pitcairn, and sailing onward to the eclipse

Cruise to Totality on the M/S Paul Gauguin

On Wednesday June 26 I boarded the M/S Paul Gauguin for the TravelQuest “South Pacific Cruise to Totality”.

The Paul Gauguin is no stranger to eclipse chasing; she has been guided successfully into the umbra in the South Pacific four times before. Captain Toni Mirkovic from Croatia and the trip organizers were cautiously optimistic about our chances of seeing the corona, though we will be cruising straight into some dodgy weather. We’re facing several days at sea before our first destination, Pitcairn Island.

The ship is small—300 passengers—but there are nooks and crannies to discover, and the swell of the daily routine to settle into. La Pallette and Le Grill and the pool bar are on deck 8; L’etoile (the buffet) on 5 is on the way down the carpeted hall from nightly cocktails at the casino and piano bar. Pass the reception and guest desk to push open a heavy door and descend a tight stairwell to the dive marina on aft deck 4. La Veranda, a fancier restaurant, is near the spa and boutique on 6.

People LOVE the Paul Gauguin. My first impression was, “this tub is fusty.” The ship is now twenty, and she looks it. The brown and gold upholstery and draperies are unfrayed but dated. The staterooms are stately but feel well used by others who’ve slept there before. In contrast, the sparkling expedition ship Orion makes the Paul Gauguin look like my parents’ basement. 

I met another traveler who was cruising on the Paul Gauguin for the 15th time—not a typo. I thought, What the hell? By the end of the journey I understood completely and had fallen in love with the PG, too. The ship has a coziness and a congenial personality, and she’s just the right size—big enough to offer variety yet each space feels intimate. It quickly turned into home.

Those who’ve been on a cruise know that there are too many scheduled activities and it’s impossible to attend them all: movies, lectures, games, crafts, lessons, and live music. Snacks and drinks and singalongs and partying by the pool. Something for everyone. I spent the first day or so regrouping after the week on Rapa Nui; plus, it was raining (and continued to rain off and on until we reached Bora Bora). <FORESHADOWING>

The cruise astronomy program was led by Rick Feinberg, Editor (and new owner) of Sky and Telescope magazine; and Alex Filippenko, professor of astronomy at Cal Berkeley and well known for his appearances in the documentary series The Universe. Throughout the week science lectures included “Highlights of the Southern Sky”; “How and Why Eclipses Happen” (for the virgins); “What Happened to Pluto?” and “Flying Through Pluto’s Shadow on Sofia”; “Dark Energy and the Runaway Universe”; and “Big Bang and Cosmic Inflation”, among others. The content seemed to get more and more dense the longer we were at sea. Though Filippenko and Feinberg are delightful lecturers, the subject matter quickly went over my head. The other passengers, a disproportionate number of science nerds, paid rapt attention to the presentations and packed the Grand Salon auditorium.

Rainy day activities at sea included eating and drinking. Making pandanas bracelets and eclipse-themed souvenirs with the Polynesian staff. More eating, and more drinking. I made some drawings of ship life, and a solemn sketch of cloud-shrouded Gambier Island as we passed.

When the ship neared Pitcairn Island there were tender tickets to procure and a preparation lecture to attend. Captain Toni was unsure we’d be able to set foot on land as stormy weather could prevent an approach to the dock. It’s possible that the Pitcairners could employ their longboats to shuttle us to shore, but that would require descending from the ship via a sketchy 18-foot rope ladder. We’ll know more tomorrow. The 1984 film “The Bounty” was screened as a pop refresher of the details of Christian Fletcher’s famous mutiny on the HMS Bounty. We’ll meet his direct descendants and the families of some of the other mutineers when we reach Pitcairn.

Easter Island, pre-eclipse 2019

Summer, 2019. I attempted my eighth total solar eclipse—my third one at sea. (November 2012 I watched from the deck of the expedition ship Orion in the Great Barrier Reef. The February ’98 totality was actually viewed from the beach on Aruba; about half the eclipse group aboard the Carnival Fascination opted for luck on land, while the others sailed away in search of clear skies somewhere in the Southern Caribbean Sea.)

I was excited to see my eighth TSE, but more excited to finally travel to Easter Island, which hosted her own eclipse in 2010. (All venues were sold out when I tried, very late in the game, to make travel arrangements that year.)

Happy again to be chasing the shadow with TravelQuest International; Aram Kaprielian and his expedition teams are brand consistent in that they always offer the best available accommodations, science experts, local guides, and overall travel experience to bookend the corona, the jewel of the journey. (Hopefully. More on that later.)

Easter Island—Rapa Nui—was nothing like I imagined, and exactly as I imagined. It’s more populated, with a busy “city” center, Hanga Roa. The hotel chosen for the TravelQuest guests, the Hangaroa Eco Village, was far more upscale and comfortable than I could have dreamed. I expected heat and mosquitos—none. But the Moai, those famous Easter Island heads, dotted the deforested landscape in the way they are always pictured. Ancient. Eerie. Confusing. Tikigod-like, without the party vibe. One thousand or so of these statues, heads and squat bodies representing humanoid beings, range between six and 30 feet tall. Their weight is unimaginable; several tons. How on earth were they made? How were they transported? Who are they? WHY are they?

There’s only one flight to and from Tahiti each week, so if you approach Rapa Nui from Faa’a on LATAM (formerly LAN Airlines, based in Santiago, Chile), you’ll have to kill time until you’re returned to Tahiti. There’s plenty to keep a visitor busy on Easter Island without feeling rushed, and in a week you can comfortably see it all.

We saw the sacred site of Tahai: three ceremonial ahus (platforms) with restored Moai, including the only one with his coral eyes reinserted. (On our last evening we watched the sun set behind the Moai of Tahai—where we started on day one—from the hill above. A Polynesian “buried” feast was served, cooked in an earthen (umu) oven, followed by a folkloric performance.

We explored Ahu Tongariki, the largest ahu on Easter Island with 15 Moai, backs to the sea. The second one from the right wears a cylindrical red “pukao” on his head. Is it a hat, or does it represent a faddish hairstyle once worn by influential Rapa Nui males? Just one of the many Moai mysteries. (The red scoria stone used to carve the topknots was quarried at Puna Pau, 12 miles from the site where the heads and bodies were made.) Ahu Tongariki is the place to be at sunrise.

We crawled through lava tubes and caves. We admired the vistas at Rano Kau, an extinct volcano and crater lake. We posed for goofy pictures at Ahu Akivi, where the seven Moai stand who represent the seven original Polynesian explorers to Rapa Nui, led by Hotu Matua. (So they say.) We paid a visit to the Ahu Nau Nau Moai at Anakena, Rapa Nui’s only sandy, white coral beach.

We learned about the intense Birdman contest (follow the link to read about this, and join me in wondering why this is not a reality competition show RIGHT NOW). We wandered around Orongo Village, a network of clever semiunderground homes, where the competitors prepared for the race past Motu Iti to Motu Nui where they would grab sooty tern eggs and swim back through the waves with the prized eggs protected in little headband baskets.

We visited the strange and striking Iglesia Hanga Roa—Holy Cross Church—where carvings that decorate the sanctuary inside and out combine Rapa Nui and Christian symbols. At the church I remained on a bench in the garden to sketch the exterior while the rest of the group attended a short lecture inside. I got lost in the complicated drawing; when I finally looked up, to my horror, our tour bus was gone. The saints were with me though; I caught up with it down the street at the Artisan Market where later I’d buy a Moai souvenir carved from makoi wood.

The money shot of Easter Island is Rano Raraku, the quarry that supplied the stone for almost all of the Moai. Nearly 900 Moai are scattered about the site—many of the recognizable ones featured on postcards and seen on Instagram—including the 170 ton “El Gigante” who lies flat on his back, possibly abandoned during construction or intended to remain in eternal peace that way.

“Isla de Pascua”—Easter Island’s Spanish name—is part of Region de Valparaiso in Chile, and it was hard to keep up with the languages spoken there. One simple interaction could contain ia orana or maeva (hello and welcome in Tahitian), mesa para dos? (table for two in Spanish), ko ai to’u ‘injoa? (what is your name in Rapa Nui), and thank you, come again!

Even more confusing are the conflicting “facts” presented about the historical events of the island and the origin of the Rapa Nui people. Oral history and DNA and architectural and artifact clues all point in different directions, and the various theorists are generally adamant that their own interpretation is gospel. The official museum above Ahu Tahai houses interesting tools and artifacts as well as a video that discounted much of what our guide just told us in front of the Moai below, a half an hour earlier. 

“The island was deforested to make log conveyances for the Moai, a cultural obsession, made worse by competitive clan wars.” Wrong: “the demise of the once-lush vegetation on Rapa Nui wasn’t ecocide, it was genocide, perpetrated by Europeans.” “The Moai weren’t rolled, they were ‘walked’ into various resting places on the island.” Or they were moved some other way; there are three top theories. “The Tongariki 15 were toppled during the island’s civil wars” versus “No, they weren’t, they were gently ‘put to sleep’, carefully lowered with ropes, face down.” Do not get anyone started on what the red pukao on the Moai heads represent, or incite the neverending debate about where the Rapa Nui people originated. Ahu Vinapu reflects Incan architecture; Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki expedition concurs: they came from South America. Or did they sail Northwest from Polynesian islands? Modern anthropologists are sure they are Marquesan—until someone else digs up a different story. Rapa Nui is the most most isolated inhabited nation in the world, and it’s bizarre there were—are—people there at all.

After a farewell dinner at the Eco Lodge, we transferred back to the airport for a midnight flight back to the InterContinental Tahiti Resort to await the Cruise to Totality.

Photos below:

Arrival on Rapa Nui; passport stamp

Hotel Hanga Roa Eco Village

Tahai

Ahu Tongariki; Puna Pau topknot

Ahu Akivi

Ahu Nau-Nau Moai and Anakena Beach

The Birdman; Orongo Village; Birdman motus

Iglesia Hanga Roa; Artisan market

Rano Raraku

Cliff by cave; wild guava; post office; local beer; boats at the marina