David and Helene had been planning their once-in-a-lifetime adventure for nearly a year; 10 months travel around the world visiting 15 countries to explore the history, landscape, wildlife, people and food of each destination across South America, Australasia, the Polynesian Triangle, Southeast Asia, China and Japan.
The new book of their adventure ‘Turning Left Around the World’ is out now, published by Mirador and available on Amazon.
Their journey was to include the Atacama Desert, Galapagos Islands, Easter Island, Machu Picchu, Ayers Rock, the temples of Siem Reap, Mount Fuji and the Great Wall of China. Here we join them on their three highlights from the adventure.
No.1 - Easter Island and the walking Moai
Easter Island or Rapa Nui, is one of the most remarkable places I have ever visited and has an equally incredible story to match.
With their wonderful Moai, that adorn the perimeter of the island, all 900 of them, less the one the British stole, this is their story that unfolded as we discovered this incredible island during our five day visit.
When the founding king of Rapa Nui died, around 400 AD, he was not cremated like other mortals but had his organs removed and the remains were left to dry on a stone platform. His bones were then buried underneath the first Moai hewn from the mother rock and erected on a platform of stones to observe and protect his future subjects.
This started a trend where the various tribes marked the passing of their elders in the same manner. The Moai were constructed as tributes to their ancestors and erected to watch over and safeguard the tribe, which is why although almost all are on the coast, they face inland where the communities lived.
Helene asked our guide Tito the obvious question.
‘We know how the Moai were created and we know why, but how on earth were they transported from the Rano Raraku volcanic quarry to their resting points?’
‘They walked,’ said Tito.
We were to interrogate Tito’s curious answer on a visit to another Moai platform where we bumped into the world’s leading authority on the subject, Terry Hunt – now he should be able to provide a sensible answer to the question about how they were moved.
‘They walked,’ said Terry.
‘The scientists should have listened to the Rapa Nui people,’ said Terry. ‘The answer had been passed down through the generations but ignored by the scientists. The Moai walked.’
‘That’s what Tito said,’ replied Helene, ‘it sounds as far-fetched as the UFO theory.’
The idea that extraterrestrials visited the island has been around for decades, a theory most prominently promoted by Erich von Daniken, author of the best-selling classic workChariots of the Gods.
‘This is not science fiction, Helene,’ said Terry, ‘the Moai actually walked, I proved it.’
Three ropes made of woven banana plant were tied to the head, one held by men behind, one on the right and one on the left side of the erect Moai.
‘Now for some audience participation,’ said Terry. ‘Stand with your arms flat against your sides and lean forward slightly. Don't bend your knees but take a pace by swinging one leg from the hip then the other in a pendulum action.’
The two of us did as instructed as a small crowd gathered. We swung our legs in turn and started to waddle across the field, how odd.
‘Now you're walking like a Moai!’ shouted Terry, much to his and Tito’s delight.
Terry discovered that the base of the Moai was chiselled away to allow it to lean forward slightly, which allowed this pendulum walking action. In 2012 he proved his theory with a 5 ton replica and with just 18 men “walked” the Moai 100m in just 40 minutes. His discovery was the subject of a TV film and won him the front page of The National Geographic. That's his mobile screensaver today.
But sadly, the story does not end there. As the challenge to create the largest and therefore most powerful Moai intensified so the tribal competition became more passionate and finally violent. Rather than focus their energies on creating the biggest and best they started to sabotage rival tribes Moai by pulling them down and toppling them over. Inevitably, tribal war broke out until all the Moai on the island were destroyed and left fallen on the ground. What a sad sight it is, knowing the story of how and why they were erected.
After the Moai had fallen the Rapa Nui people believed they were no longer protected by the souls of their ancestors, and so it proved. The tribal fighting continued while Spanish and the mainland Chileans came to the island and took many Rapa Nui people as slaves, leaving behind disease, sickness and infection. By 1888 the 20,000 population had been decimated to 111, yes only one hundred and eleven survived without the guardianship of the Moai.
As we toured the island Tito told the story of all the fallen Moai we visited, it was difficult not to experience the devastation they must have felt when the final proud Moai was pushed to the ground. It wasn't until 1956 when Thor Heyerdahl who sailed the Kon-Tiki expedition came to the island and restored and re-erected the first Moai at the beach where the Polynesian king first came to shore. Since then some of the Abu platforms have been recreated and Moai returned to their dignified position protecting the remaining Rapa Nui people on the island.
No.2 – Machu Picchu and the incredible Pachacutec
There is no road to Machu Picchu, so we booked ourselves onto the Perutravel Vistadome train. We left the barren mountainous slopes and the vegetation became green, lush and lofty, forming a tunnel around our train as we entered the humid rainforest. After passing some teaser Inca ruins we entered the town – the train stopped right in the middle of it, no station just the market on one side, shops, restaurants and hotels on the other.
‘From here it’s straight up by bus to the Inca’s Lost City,’ said our guide Saiber, pointing at a procession of tatty old coaches.
‘But don’t sit at the back, it’s too bumpy with too many bends and they drive too fast. You’ll fall on the floor.’ Okay, good advice. We were all good to go up the 1,000 meters to 2,430 meters and one of the highlights of our Peru trip.
After jumping the queue on arrival – Saiber our professional queuer is rather good at this – we began the climb to the plateau for the first sight of the ruins.
Saiber let us go ahead to stand on a grassy ledge looking down on the remnants of the citadel and across to the Piton shaped mountain known as Huayana Picchu (young peak). I guess he knew what was coming. Helene burst into tears.
‘I’m so sorry, Saiber,’ she sobbed, as I held her tight.
‘It’s fine,’ he said, ‘it happens all the time. I had the same reaction the first time I saw it as a student. Its beauty is breathtaking and often quite overwhelming.’
I’m not sure completely why, maybe it was the serenity of the place, the view itself, the sad story behind Machu Picchu or that it represented exactly why we made this decision to give up our comfortable lives and take on this extraordinary 10-month adventure.
While the Inca king, Pachacutec was launching initiatives that were years, if not centuries, beyond his time he also had the foresight to create a defensive strategy. What if they were to be invaded by, let’s say the Spanish for example, who had been planning their visit to America with Columbus and probably had their greedy eye on Mexico and then South America?
He instructed his R&D department to scrutinise the area within 100km of the capital city Cusco to identify a defensible area they could retreat to if there was an invasion.
Machu Picchu met all the criteria. Firstly, it was at an elevation of 2,500 meters at the end of the valley, so it could only be approached via a very narrow and exposed trail through the gorge where our train had taken us, then almost vertically up to the plateau. The plateau itself was wedged between two mountains north and south with sheer drops of 300 meters and 400 meters on the east and west down to the river that almost formed a full 360-degree moat.
The story of Machu Picchu and indeed the Incas ends almost as impossibly as it began. Sure enough, as Pachacutec predicted the Spanish arrived in Peru in 1532 led by Pizarro and his entourage of Conquistadors in search of the gold and riches he believed, quite rightly, the Inca Empire owned.
The Inca royalty and elite retreated to Machu Picchu and shut up shop, just as Pachacutec had intended. They should have been safe there for years with the natural defences and the self-sufficient life he had created in their secret hideaway. The Spanish knew the legend of a hidden castle in the sky where the kings lived but had simply failed to discover it, just as Pachacutec had planned. But in 1572 there was a rumour that the Spanish had identified the location of the citadel and were on their way in. Machu Picchu was abandoned.
The small population deserted their utopia by creating a trail “out the back door” with a bridge constructed over the valley and its 400-metre drop. They took what they could and having crossed the bridge destroyed it and retreated into the mountains, ending their days at Machu Picchu and extinguishing the last glimmer of the glorious Inca Empire.
As we stood on the path where their escape bridge had been, Saiber recounted the denouement to the 4-day story he had enthralled us with. The unbelievably poignant and sad end to this story is that Pachacutec had, as always, done a wonderful job. The Spanish never did find Machu Picchu, it was abandoned needlessly. The hidden castle in the sky became the Lost City of the Incas and was left to be reclaimed by the jungle, not to be seen again for nearly 350 years. How dreadfully tragic.
No. 3 – Siem Reap, Cambodia and the real Tomb Raiders
Siem Reap literally translates to “Siam Defeated”, Siam being the former name of Thailand. It is the gateway to the Angkor region, itself a mega city in the 12th C. supporting 0.1% of the world’s population it was the largest pre-industrial urban centre in the world.
Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire which flourished from the 9th C. to the 15th C. covering most of what is now Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Southern Vietnam. Angkor Wat, Wat meaning temple, is claimed to be the world’s oldest religious monument and one of the ancient seven wonders of the world.
Angkor Wat is a complex rather than a single monument, built between 1113 and 1150 for King Suryavarman II as his state temple and capital city, and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. It was later converted to a Buddhist temple in the 14th C. so statues of Buddha were added to the already elaborate stone artwork, it makes for quite a confusing religious chronicle.
The scale of the Empire was best seen at Angkor Thom (Big Angkor) a 9 km square walled and moated city built in the 1180’s. This is the one with the huge stone smiling faces carved into the 23 metre towers at the city gates and the wonderful central temple of Prasat Bayon, in my view the most impressive of all we visited.
‘Why are they smiling?’ I asked Mr. Samsung, our guide.
‘Who knows?’ he replied, ‘maybe it is the king himself, wouldn’t you be happy?’ Fair point.
By the 1970’s Khmer antiquities were one of the most popular and in-demand collectables, their value in the West was recognised by the Khmer Rouge who orchestrated a strategy of looting and plunder to fund their civil war. Banteay Srei, a temple built in 950 we visited in the north of the Big Circuit had been decimated from systemised looting by a highly organised criminal ring. The villagers had been “invited” to loot the temple at night or face violence, possibly death if they refused. They were paid US$12 a day to hack the heads off statues, cleave off wall sculptures and chisel away the dancing Apsaras.
Soldiers from the US backed Lon Nol side of the conflict were just as bad. They would close a temple and seal off the area, the raid was made at night and their spoils carried off by helicopter to be smuggled to dealers across the Thailand border and eventually grace the covers of UK and US auction house catalogues.
Mr. Samsung was desperately sad as he pointed out the empty platforms where thousand year old statues once stood, wall carvings with bodies prized out of the relief and empty shapes of half-human half-animal figurines long gone.
Mr. Samsung said the looting and trafficking of antiquities had abated, mainly because all the good pieces have gone, but he had heard that at the Thai border there are still “receivers” who, if given a picture of a piece still in situ, will deliver it within a month, at a price. In the past six months a head of a statue was hacked from its shoulders leaving a forlorn headless torso.
We continued our journey of temples crossing a bridge of fifty beautifully carved but headless torsos until we reached the temple everyone wants to see. It seemed a little more poignant now, the temple was Ta Prohm made famous in the film “Tomb Raider”. It is an astonishingly atmospheric place, difficult not to believe we were standing in a film set. The crumbling towers appear to be in a slow wrestling match with the jungle as the vast roots have locked the temple walls in an embrace which can realistically only have one outcome. It is a stunning place; every view was awe inspiring wherever we looked.
Our last venue was Bakheng Hill a towering temple from which we watched the sun go down on a glorious day of adventure and discovery, and our time in Cambodia.
This is an extract from ‘Turning Left Around the World’ by David C Moore.
It is an entertaining account of their adventure, often intriguing, frequently funny and occasionally tragic. Share their adventure, enjoy the surprises and meet some fascinating people along the way. The book is published by Mirador and available now on Amazon.