It was 10:15 p.m. and we skidded to a halt on the unlit, winding road near Explora Rapa Nui, my Easter Island hotel. A dark-coated mare and her foal had appeared suddenly in the headlights. My driver muttered with good-humoured disgust, manoeuvring around the surprised-looking horses.
Easter Island – known as Rapa Nui to natives – is famed globally for its moai, the huge, solemn-faced stone statues carved between 1000 to 1600 AD to honour high-ranking dead individuals. But, as I was about to discover, "Come for the statues, stay for the horses" could be an alternative tourism slogan for one of the world's most remote inhabited islands.
Estimates on the horse population vary wildly. In A Companion to Easter Island, James Grant-Peterkin writes there are almost 3,000, but locals often claim: "We have more horses than people." (There are about 6,000 inhabitants.)
Horses, originally introduced by 19th-century Catholic missionaries, now roam freely on this Chilean-ruled island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But all are branded and owned by someone. And the horses have the bad habit of scratching themselves on the moai – the stone walls at major archaeological sites such as Ahu Akivi can't keep them out.
Oddly, I was inspired by my near-miss encounter to go riding two days later with horse master Pantu Tepano.
I got quite an introduction at Pantu's palm tree-ringed house. Greying hair tied back in a ponytail, the 50-year-old followed about 40 horses out his front gate on his motorcycle and gave me a cheerful wave.
Moments later, Pantu returned and saddled me up on nine-year-old Makenu, a blend of Percheron and Chilean breeds. Apart from Makenu's penchant for veering slightly off the path, it was smooth going. Enjoying the 25 degree weather, we trotted along the coastline amid scattered black volcanic rocks and low guava trees. Grazing horses stared at us at every turn.
"I see my horses every day," said Pantu, who grew up riding here. "I know their personalities. I am like a professor, and the horses are like my children." We ascended a steep hill named Maunga Hiva Hiva and took a break at the summit, topped with a big white cross. As I gazed over the stark, wide-open landscape, Pantu told me about helping Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl when he returned in the 1980s to continue excavations at the mysterious quarry Rano Raraku where the moai were created.
We explored for two and a half hours, crossing muddy back roads and riding through fields. Finally, back at Pantu's stable, I'd had my fill of Easter Island's extraordinary equine excess. (I'd certainly stepped in their excess.) I'd seen horses aplenty while hiking, but riding through such a wild far-flung place was unforgettable (and much safer for the horses than driving).
Arrange horseback tours with Pantu Tepano at rapanuipantu.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.