Crazy Competition

I crunch across the black lava gravelly rock up to the tiny reed-roofed hut at Te Pito Kura, the “navel of the universe”, where the largest moai statue ever to have left the quarry at Rano Raraku is to be found. This moai, known as Paro, measures 10 metres and weighs in at over 70 tonnes, even without its “pukao” or topknot which adds another 2 metres and 10 tonnes. It was also the last one seen standing back in 1838, but was sadly later toppled too, and lies broken to this day exactly where it fell. 

At the hut, a young woman is dozing with her head on her arms. She looks at me sleepily and asks where I’m from.

“London”, I say. She immediately perks up and looks at me with a spark of belligerence.

“London! Have you ever been to the British Museum?”

I have. And I admit to knowing that one of the moai from Easter Island is on display there, having been taken back to the UK by the crew of HMS Topaze in 1868.

“Why don’t you just give it back? It doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to us. You people, you robbed us of our very important moai.” Sheepishly, I tell her agree – for sure, when I’m back in London I will go and look at it with different eyes now I really understand the significance of this particular statue.

You see, the one in the British Museum isn’t just any old moai. It was taken from the village of Orongo, home of the extraordinary Tangata Manu or birdman competition which, after the sculpting period had come to an end, sought to establish each year the chief of chiefs and ruler of the island for that year until the next competition.

To get to Orongo, you have to first climb up the volcano, Ranu Kao. You can drive, but I choose to go by foot, as did the bird man competitors, past the cave at Ana Kai Tangata, where they would gather and eat beforehand. At first the footpath wends a pleasant uphill route through eucalyptus, cyprus, acacia & Tahitian miro trees, but then I emerge into open grass and scrubland under searingly hot sun for the final part of the climb.

But wow! The view is worth it! The crater at Ranu Kao sits right on the sea cliff edge, with razor sharp edges. Inside the crater glorious clumps of reeds float on the crater lake, with flowering shrubs in an unexpectedly luscious tangle of biodiversity around the edges. This is the place that, in the year I was born, Rapamycin was discovered in the fertile soil samples, now reproduced and used as an immuno-suppressant drug to prevent rejection after organ transplants, and increasingly being tested as part of cancer treatment regimes. For a while, it was also thought to have anti-ageing effects. Having told everyone I’m traveling now because, well, life is too short not to, I just about restrain the inclination to throw myself in headlong just in case it’s true.

The village of Orongo is perched precariously right on the rim next to the sea. A whole village of long low Rapanui houses built of volcanic stone huddle together, their tiny entrances at crawl-in height.

 Here the clans would wait for the first sign of the manutara, or sooty tern, which used to migrate to the rocky islets or motus off shore to breed every September. At the first sign the competition would begin…. Selected competitors from each tribe would scale down the stupidly sheer cliff edges, then swim across to the largest and furthest of the three tiny motus lying about 2km offshore, on long thin rafts made of bound reeds. A few days later I take a trip out to the motus in a boat, bumping across waves easily big enough to give surfers a thrill, to where gannets and frigate birds still wheel around in the sky, but the manutara no longer breed, having now largely decamped to another remote rocky islet, Sala y Gomez, 400km away. Looking back ashore, I can’t quite believe that anyone would be so crazy as to climb down such dangerous cliffs, never mind try to live for even a day on those jagged rocks.

Once the birdman competitors made it to the largest and farthest island, Motu Nui, they would live in the caves for days, possibly even weeks, until someone found the first egg laid by the manutara. They would grab it and shout their name, and that of their tribe, across the water back to Orongo. According to the boatmen, there would be a whole chain of men in the water who, in Chinese whisper style, would relay the message from Motu Nui back across the 2km to the shore, so that the victorious chief could prepare for its arrival. The winning competitor would then place the egg in a pouch around his forehead and swim back to Rapa Nui, to present the egg intact to his chief, who would then become the king and spiritual leader of the island for the year. The competitor meanwhile would go into one of the houses with a “virgin” to ensure the continuation of prestigious lineage of the strongest competitors! I’m now slightly squirming in the boat at all this, as I’m now also acting as translator for my American and German co-travellers and having to relay this onwards. Raiding a bird’s nest, especially one that tends to only lay a solitary egg each year, fills me with horror, and as for the virgin part… I can’t even. It’s a struggle to temper the admiration I feel looking at those dangerous cliffs, those rampant horse-galloping turquoise breakers, and that rugged inhospitable lava rock motu terrain, with a deep revulsion at the facts of this crazy competition. 

Anyway, back to the HMS Topaze. The moai they took was found half buried in one of the houses at Orongo, it is the moai from their most important ceremonial village, taken onboard as a trophy to be given to Queen Victoria. On its back there are carvings of birdmen and fertility symbols. It’s known colloquially as the “stolen friend” although its name, Hoa Hakananai’a actually means “wave-breaker”. As I walked past the crumbled platform on which this moai possibly once proudly stood, I couldn’t help but think the statue ought to be restored majestically to its rightful and original home, even if it is then subjected to the erosive effects of the sea-cliffs, instead of standing alone in sanitised display in a building in London.

PS. A few years ago, apparently Red Bull asked if they could re-stage a birdman competition, but due to dangerous erosion of the crater edge and cliffs, which has now erased the first part of the birdmen track, they were denied permission. Not to be deterred from holding wild and spectacular sport on Easter Island, they then staged a World Cliff Diving event there instead. Meanwhile, my former colleague from the Fairtrade Foundation, Toby used to entertain us with his exploits in the very different but still zany Worthing Birdman competition– it seems that while the Rapanui birdmen are long gone now, the spirit of crazy competition is still well and truly alive.

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