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Nobody really knows how the colossal stone statues that guard Easter Island were moved into position.
Nor do we know why, during the decades following the island’s discovery by Dutch explorers in 1722, each statue was systematically toppled, or how the population of Rapa Nui islanders was decimated.
Shrouded in mystery, this tiny triangular landmass, stranded in the middle of the South Pacific and 1,289 miles from its nearest neighbour, has been the subject of endless books, articles and scientific theories.
Protecting a nation: Some of the giant stone statues, or moai, on Easter Island
To visit is to be allowed into an exclusive club of adventurers who have made it to this remote outpost. Each one has fallen under its spell, but also left with more questions than answers.
Most travellers visit Rapa Nui while touring the dramatic landscapes of Chile, which laid claim to the island in 1888.
You can take one of the daily five-hour flights from the capital Santiago, which are a lifeline for the islanders.
British Airways has made the journey to this region slightly easier with the launch of the first direct flights between London and Santiago.
But as you fly over endless blue seas from Chile to Easter Island, you will still feel as if you are journeying to the middle of nowhere.
After all, there was a reason why the first settlers, who sailed to Easter Island from Polynesia in 500 AD, called it the Navel of the World (Te Pito Te Henua).
There is something slightly haunting about visiting the extinct volcano Rano Raraku, from which the stone statues, or moai, were carved.
Its grassy flanks are scattered with abandoned statues, buried up to their necks and tilted at all angles, like drunk revellers making their way down the mountainside.
Others have been left by the roadside, lying face-down. It is as if the workers carving and transporting the statues simply disappeared one day without trace.
‘As you fly over endless blue seas from Chile to Easter Island, you will still feel as if you are journeying to the middle of nowhere,’ according to Sarah Gordon. Above, the Rano Kao volcano
Some scientists believe the Rapa Nui brought it on themselves, committing ‘ecocide’ by cutting down the island’s many palm trees to transport the almost 900 moai, causing irreparable damage.
Others believe the islanders brought Polynesian rats with them, which proceeded to destroy the trees.
As food grew scarce, warring families started toppling each other’s protective moai as an insult to their ancestors.
Another camp of scientists say they have found evidence that the Rapa Nui were respectful of their surroundings, using only what they needed and carefully preserving water and food sources.
They claim the first Dutch ship to arrive in 1722 brought illness and that, as the Rapa Nui died in huge numbers, they lost their faith in the protection of the moai and knocked them over.
Traditional welcome: Dancers in Hanga Roa perform traditional Polynesian-style dances for visitors
What we do know is that ships passing between 1862 and 1864 kidnapped up to 3,500 Rapa Nui from the already-dwindling population.
These included all the elders who could read glyphs known as Rongorongo and who passed on the tradition. They were used as slaves in Peruvian mines and just two survived long enough to return to the island, bringing yet more disease with them.
By 1868, there were just 111 Rapa Nui left. Today’s population of about 4,000 Rapa Nui stems from those 111 people.
A veritable open-air museum, the historic sites on the island trace the development of the moai from when they were first carved in 1250 to the last ones in 1500. They started out short and squat, but over time they were carved up to 33ft tall and weighed 80 tons.
While the stern moai with their blank stares fascinated me, my favourite story involved the Bird Man, who became the political leader to unite the island’s 12 tribes once they had lost faith in the moai.
Each year the Bird Man was decided by a competition between the tribes, in which they sent men to climb down a precipitous cliff, swim across open sea for a mile to a tiny outcrop called Motu Nui, and steal the egg of a sooty tern.
The first to return with the egg intact, having climbed back up the cliff, would win the leadership for their tribe.
Each year the Bird Man was decided by a competition between the tribes, in which they sent men to climb down a cliff and swim across the open sea for a mile to Motu Nui to steal the egg of a sooty tern, above
At Orongo, where the competition was held each September, there are a number of restored Rapa Nui houses, built like upturned boats and covered with grass. The only way to enter is on all fours – this ensured that the inhabitants were always safe from a surprise attack.
Back in Hanga Roa, the village-like capital, I suddenly understood the design of my hotel, the Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa.
Each suite is built using curved ceilings and wooden pillars, with grass planted on top. Even the spa is designed to resemble one of the traditional plots, which were surrounded by stones and used as small kitchen gardens.
On my last night I strolled into the centre of pretty Hanga Roa, where each week members of the Kari Kari theatre perform traditional Polynesian-style dances for visitors.
It could easily tip into the realm of cheesy tourist show, but something about the earnest way today’s Rapa Nui are trying to rescue their culture, while still learning about it themselves, keeps it interesting.
After three days I had more questions than I arrived with. But to visit the Navel of the World is to understand that we may never solve all of its many mysteries. And that is part of its enduring charm.
Cox & Kings (coxandkings.co.uk, 020 3642 0861) has a three-night stay at the Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa from £1,995 per person including flights from Santiago, airport transfers, full-board accommodation and daily excursions.
British Airways (ba.com) offers return flights from Heathrow to Santiago from £950.