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When is a dog not man's best friend? A cliffhanger tale

An Easter Island hiker falls for a lovable stray -- much to his regret.

November 24, 2002|Michael Wolffe | Special to The Times

My mind was a blank as I slipped over the edge of the cliff and fell to my certain death on the jagged rocks below.

If I'd been able to think rationally, perhaps I would have asked myself a couple of questions: Who goes for a hike next to steep cliffs on a remote Pacific island without telling anyone? And with only a stray dog for company?

But this bit of logic would only come later. After the fall.

It all happened because of the dog.

Surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean in all directions, Easter Island is said by many to be the most remote inhabited island in the world and was the perfect destination for a traveler seeking adventure and solitude.

Add the allure of the island's moai -- huge anthropomorphic statues carved from volcanic rock -- and I couldn't wait to go. I headed there in the fall of 2000, giving myself a full week so I'd have plenty of time to explore.

On the morning of my first day on the island, I set out on foot, armed with a granola bar and a small bottle of water. That was my first mistake. My goal was to circumnavigate Rano Kau, an immense, awe-inspiring volcanic crater that forms a peninsula at the island's southwest corner. That was my second mistake.

Sure, you can drive to the top of Rano Kau, but where's the effort in that? I wanted to hike along the coast, up the crater rim and then continue all the way around the peninsula, ending where I began. As fate would have it, I wouldn't be entirely alone, technically.

A stray dog began to tail me as I left the island's only town. I was sure he would leave once he realized there was no food forthcoming, but he kept up with me, past the town, past a toppled moai and up the mountainside.

As the terrain grew rough, the dog accompanied me down steep embankments and up the other side. We crawled through heavy brush in single file. When the occasional ranch fence blocked our way, I'd hold up the barbed wire so he could shimmy underneath.

This wasn't exactly how I had envisioned my seaside jaunt, dodging ranchers and assisting ownerless mutts. But I didn't turn back.

In fact, my canine companion's loyalty inspired me, and I decided to reward him with a name. Proud of my burgeoning Spanish vocabulary, I dubbed him "Perro," which means dog.

After an hour or so of climbing, clambering, huffing and puffing, Perro and I reached Rano Kau's summit, almost a thousand feet above sea level, where we were greeted by spectacular views of the crater and the ocean beyond -- and a couple of tourists who had driven the distance in five minutes.

I was sweaty, hungry and panting. So was Perro. But our odyssey wasn't nearly over. Still determined to stick to my plan, I descended along the crater rim itself, following a sheer, boulder-strewn, barely discernible trail.

Perro, who must have been as hot as I was, continued to follow me. Occasionally I'd hear a whimper when he couldn't find an easy way down the rocks, but a minute later he would come bounding after me. I couldn't believe he hadn't followed the road back home. I couldn't believe I hadn't done the same.

On and on we stumbled, back up the lip of the crater, along thousand-foot-high bluffs, past a lone cross and a small pile of stones marking someone's grave. Or did I imagine that?

In a clear indication of my growing delirium, I began to compose nonsense lyrics in honor of Perro, to the tune of a song I'd learned in childhood: "I had a little perro, I carved him out of cake, and when he's baked and ready, then moai we will make."

Several hours, miles and verses later, Perro and I were still tracing the coastline, dog-tired but finally nearing the end of our journey. Here we encountered the one obstacle Perro could not surmount: a lattice fence. I hopped over, but Perro couldn't jump that high. He couldn't squeeze under it or through it. He was stuck.

After all he'd endured to be with me, I couldn't leave him behind.

Clinging to life

On opposite sides of the fence, we followed the spiteful barrier downhill until it ended just a foot short of the cliff's edge. The opening was far too narrow to let cows or horses escape but just wide enough for a dog.

Perro refused to budge.

To show him how easy it was to get around the fence, I swung myself around the last post and walked up the hill to where he was, then turned around to do it again, hoping he would follow. As I approached the post a second time, I suddenly slipped on the damp clay, fell on my rear and went over the cliff.

Now, remember, I'd been hiking all day. In the sun. With little food or water.

I was exhausted and delirious, singing made-up songs to a dog. I hadn't seen another human being in hours. The ocean was perhaps 50 feet below. And here I was, sliding into oblivion.

I clawed at the ground wildly, blindly, casting about for something, anything, to stop my fall. There was only mud. A fraction of a second later I landed, standing up, on a ledge about 10 feet below.

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