Rano Kau, an amazing crater
Rano Kau, also known as Rano Kao, is the largest volcano and one of the most beautiful and impressive natural settings that can be admired on Easter Island. The sensation of immensity and silence, interrupted only by the wind, the distant sound of the waves and the occasional squawking of seabirds, makes Rano Kau one of the favorite and unforgettable places for visitors.
Geological origin of the volcano
The Rano Kau is one of the three main volcanic cones that gave origin to this small and remote triangle of earth that is Rapa Nui. The crater that has a maximum height of 324 meters and is almost circular, is located in the extreme southwest of that triangle a few kilometers from Hanga Roa.
The formation of the volcano is due to numerous flows of basaltic lavas, whose first manifestations took place about 2.5 million years ago. As a result of these eruptions, other secondary cones emerged, such as the Maunga Orito, the Maunga Te Manavai and the three motus or islets located in front of the volcano, all formed by acid lavas. The visible samples of this type of lava can be clearly seen on the upper surfaces with outcrops of obsidian, fragments of trachyte and other pyroclastic materials.
Of all of these materials, the most valuable from an archaeological point of view was obsidian, appearing with greater intensity in Maunga Orito and Maunga Te Manavai. These two places together with the islet of Motu Iti, were the main places of extraction of this raw material, which served for the elaboration of multiple artifacts, especially spearheads, stone adzes (toki), scrapers, pupils of moai eyes, etc.
One of the characteristics of acidic lavas is that they have a higher content of silica and this causes violent explosions, such as the one that occurred in the last eruption of the Rano Kau estimated about 180 thousand years ago, and that gave rise to the immense caldera of 1.6 km in diameter.
On the north side, which faces the interior of the island, the volcano descends on a soft slope that ends practically on the runway of Mataveri airport, just outside Hanga Roa. However, on its south and southwest flank, a strong process of marine erosion, over thousands of years, contributed to the formation of vertigo cliffs that reach a height of 300 meters.
In that area, there is a huge bite in the volcanic wall of 400 meters of amplitude known as Kari Kari, where the lava flow spilled into the ocean. It is believed that over the years, the continuous onslaught of the waves will end up collapsing this fragile wall, allowing access to the sea inside the crater.
The inner lagoon of the crater
The word Rano, in the Rapanui language, is used to designate the volcanoes inside which water is stored, as is the case with Rano Raraku or Rano Aroi. The word Kau has several meanings such as “abundance of water” and “large, broad”. So the meaning of Rano Kau could be “a large or wide volcano with a lot of water”, an absolutely correct expression to describe this amazing phenomenon of nature.
The accumulation of rainwater inside the large caldera of the volcanic crater, formed a large lagoon about a kilometer and a half in diameter whose shore is located about 200 meters from the upper edge. The surface of the lake, whose depth is estimated at about 10 meters, is covered to a large extent by numerous floating islands of totora reeds, which have a thickness of only one meter, which makes them very unstable.
Several expeditions of scientists have gone down to the lagoon to extract samples of the sediments and study the different layers that have accumulated over time, which will allow us to better understand the environmental past of Rapa Nui.
This lagoon was one of the available main sources of fresh water to the people of Easter Island until a few decades ago. On an island without permanent water courses, human activity was developed mainly alongside the small inland lakes of Rano Kau, Rano Raraku and Rano Aroi, apart from other settlements near some springs and small ponds formed in volcanic rocks.
The importance that water had in the past is observed in that all the deposits had own name, although many have been forgotten, like the legendary name of the crater: Te Poko Uri To Haumaka O Hiva, the black abyss of Hau Maka, of Hiva.
A huge natural greenhouse
The interior of the crater, with walls of more than 200 meters that protect it from strong winds and favor the accumulation of humidity, constitutes a large natural greenhouse that generates a favorable microclimate for the development and cultivation of many vegetable species.
These conditions allowed the conservation of endemic plant species and some others introduced by the Polynesian colonizers. These include mako’i, hau hau, mahute and marikuru. One of the last specimens of the almost extinct toromiro was rescued here during the expedition of Thor Heyerdahl in 1955 and thanks to its reproduction in several botanical gardens of Europe, it could be reintroduced again in the island.
In historical times, a variety of exotic trees and shrubs were planted in terraces built on the inner slopes of the volcano. Subsequently, other species were introduced such as avocados, guavas, bananas, grapevines, fig trees, tubers, etc.
It is considered that the manavai, ancient system of cultivation in a circle protected by a stone wall, were inspired by the craters of volcanoes such as the Rano Kau.
Rano Kau, scene of Rapanui history
This great volcano has been linked to the history of Easter Island since the arrival of its first settlers. The first reference appears in the legend that narrates the trip dreamed by Hau Maka where the volcano is named as Te Poko Uri A Haumaka O Hiva, or the black well of Haumaka of Hiva.
It is also said that the first King Hotu Matu’a chose the southeast side of the crater to spend his last days after his wife Vakai passed away. When he felt his death approaching, Hotu Matu’a went to the sacred site of Orongo and looked with nostalgia towards the horizon on the islet of Motu Nui, remembering his homeland Hiva.
In the interior and exterior of the Rano Kau crater, caves, petroglyphs, foundations of houses and even remains of ahu or platforms have been found.
All these vestiges show that the volcano had a great relevance in the life of the ancient settlers. Among all these sites, the ceremonial set of Orongo stands out for its location and historical relevance.
Orongo, the ceremonial village
Bordering the south rim of the crater, the crest becomes narrower, falling 300 meters above the sea on one side, and abruptly descending towards the lagoon on the other side, until it ends at an elongated wall of rock that rises on a sharp point. Right here, on the narrowest edge of the Rano Kau, the Ceremonial Village of Orongo, one of the most spectacular scenery on the island, is located.
Read more about the Ceremonial Village of Orongo
Orongo is composed of some 50 elliptical stone houses that offer a perfect view of the three islets or motus that are in front of the Rano Kau. This village was inhabited only in the days before the ceremony of the Bird Man or Tangata Manu, during the month of September, when spring came and the different clans of the island competed to obtain the first egg of the manutara bird and thus get the government of the island. This ceremony was held until the end of the 19th century.
Tips for visiting Rano Kau
The visit to the Rano Kau can be done by hiring some of the excursions offered by most of the island’s tourism agencies. The Rano Kau is included in its half-day tours, which have a guide and transport, where you can also visit the cave of Ana Kai Tangata and Orongo.
Read more about Easter Island Tours
The other option is to do it on your own. In that case you would have to rent a vehicle or walk.
In any case, the access to see the Rano Kau volcano is free of charge but if you want to know also the village of Orongo taking advantage of the visit, it is necessary to buy in advance the ticket to the Rapa Nui National Park to enter the site that closes at 6:00 p.m. Although the ticket is valid for 10 days to visit the different sites of interest, the visit to Orongo and the quarry of the Rano Raraku volcano can only be done once.
More information about Rapa Nui National Park
It is advisable to bring some warm clothing, because due to the height of the volcano and its location facing the ocean, in Rano Kau there is usually enough wind and sometimes it can be cold.
The volcano is an absolutely natural and wild place so there is (fortunately) no food services or toilets. So it is advisable to bring at least potable water. The closest toilets are located in the dependencies of the National Park in Orongo, located 1 km from the viewpoint.
The visit to the volcano is spectacular at any time, but if you want to avoid the shadows of the sunset in the photos, it is advisable to go up to the crater in the morning or until a little after noon, in this way the sun will illuminate the entire panorama. Later the sunset light will be perfect to see Orongo.
The viewpoint of Rano Kau
This is one of the best observation points of the crater. It is accessed by walking along the path that ascends the northern slope or by vehicle which can be parked in the parking enabled. Here also the tours of the agencies stop so that travelers can take pictures and contemplate the magnificent perspective that this place offers.
A few meters from the viewpoint, there is a small rock surrounded by trunks where you can see several silhouettes of the bird-man or Tangata Manu, an advance of the many similar petroglyphs that can be seen in Orongo.
From this point, you can continue by car to the village of Orongo located 1 kilometer higher where the road ends or you can walk for 15 minutes there by the path that borders the crater, while still admiring the huge caldera.
Another less common option that is not usually included in conventional tours, because you can only reach it by walk, is hiking to Vai Atare. This time you take the path to the left that starts from the viewpoint of Rano Kau.
Read more about hiking on Easter Island
This trail, which has a length of just over 3 kilometers, offers the possibility to see the crater from other angles, observe the three motus through the Kari Kari (the great “bite” of the crater), as well as the cliffs, where the participants in the Bird-Man Competition came down, and to appreciate from the front the amazing location of Orongo.
At Vai Atare more than eighty foundations of rectangular houses have been discovered. It seems that this was the place where the slabs with which the houses were built (paenga) were carved, so it is thought that this settlement was probably used by the stonemasons.
How to get to Rano Kau
There are several ways to get to Rano Kau by car or on foot. By car, from Hanga Roa you have to take the road to the airport and turn right. You will pass by the only gas station on the island and just continue all the way up until you reach the small parking lot where you can leave the vehicle. You can also ascend by bicycle along the same road. The climb is quite steep but if you’re fit, the views and the pleasure of getting to the volcano are worth it.
On the ascent road, before arriving at the car park, there is a place called “the viewpoint of the island” from where you get a magnificent view of the runway of Mataveri airport, the town of Hanga Roa and in the background the Terevaka, the highest point of Easter Island.
To get there, you have to follow the path Te Ara or Te Ao that starts from the gardens of the CONAF, passing the cave of Ana Kai Tangata, and that was used in the Tangata Manu ceremony by the participants to go up to Orongo. The route is more or less marked and in any case it is difficult to get lost, in case of doubt you must always go up. The walk to the crater viewpoint takes about an hour and during the tour you have great views of Hanga Roa and the coast.