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.

Moais and mysteries

Iorana! I’ve arrived on Rapanui, or Easter Island.

“Everywhere is the wind of heaven; round and above all are sea and boundless sky, infinite space and a great silence.” (Katherine Routledge)

Tongariki

The seed of my long held desire to come to Easter Island was sown when I was 18 or 19 and somehow, in a college class about languages of France, my utterly delightful and eccentric lecturer, Dr Veronica du Feu, managed to turn the conversation to a comparison to Rapa Nui, then in danger of extinction with only around 2000 native speakers. Over the next couple of years, however much I enjoyed linguistics class she was teaching (she also taught psycho linguistics and phonetics), it was her unrelenting enthusiasm and passion for Rapa Nui that I remember her for. Her ‘magnum opus’ Rapanui, A descriptive grammar was finally published in 1996.

Arguably the most remote inhabited island in the world (Tristan da Cunha also makes this claim), Easter Island or Rapa Nui was formed by three volcanic eruptions – the volcanoes are long dormant but today give it its triangular shape, its ragged, black volcanic rock base and terrain pimpled with small cones.

However, it is the famous moai (statues, and ‘big heads’) that most people come to see. Who built them and why? Why so many? Why so massive? And why, when explorers reached the island in the mid 1800s, had they been toppled?

Ahu Ahurangi

Having arrived from New Zealand, I was immediately struck by the similarities between Rapa Nui and Maori – in both the word for ‘sea’ is moana, for food ‘kai’ and for people ‘tangata’. Unlike Thor Heyerdahl’s theory that the early settlers came from South America, it’s clear now that they must have originated from the same group of Polynesian islands as the Maori.

Arriving here in boats some time around 700 to 900AD, they would’ve found a richly palm forested island but with no mammals, and no fruits or vegetables as there were no bees to pollinate them. They would’ve had to live on whatever plants they brought, the animals they introduced and fishing. Resources must have been scarce. Settling in villages, usually next to a suitable bay, with caves created by lava tubes for extra shelter, boat shaped houses with tiny entrances were constructed to protect them at night or from rain, but it was otherwise an outdoor life. Typically, the houses were for the rich, the caves for the poor.

The carving of statues to honour your ancestors, so that their spirit continues to protect the tribe is known throughout Polynesia. Here on Easter Island that practice seemed to reach epic proportions as different tribes sought to show off their relative power, amidst increasingly constrained resources. When a chief died, statues were commissioned from the volcanic quarry at Rano Raraku, where hard basalt rock provided the tools, and softer compacted ash-volcanic rock the materials. The statues were then transported over land, probably upright, which is why the legend (and some people’s grandparents today!) says they walked, and many of them toppled and broke along the way – toppled moai are dotted all around the island. Arriving at the villages, the statues were erected on ceremonial ‘ahu’ or great stone platforms, with the tomb of the dead chief below. The final touches were added on-site, sometimes coral eyes and a red rock topknot representing hair (not a hat!), separately carved and transported from a completely different quarry at Puna Pau. Statues always faced into the village, to look over the people, and not out to sea, as some artists depicted. The whole process probably took a year to complete and carbon dating shows the statues becoming increasingly large and elaborate, with neck, stomach and back tattoos added to the designs.

A sense of scale – can you see me?!

It must’ve required huge amounts of human effort, the artists and carvers, people to transport and erect the statues. According to my Rapanui guide, resentment between the rich and poor of the island started to create conflict between tribes. Meanwhile, wood cut down for fire and transportation, and rats and sheep trampling on seedlings and eating the palm seeds started to delude the island, creating even more pressure for resources.

When the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen arrived in 1770, his reports say many of the moai were standing, but just four years later Captain James Cook’s expedition noted that quite a number had toppled. 1838 was the last time a visitor reported one standing. So, what happened? There were no significant earthquakes or tsunamis that can explain. Many believe that inter-tribal conflict saw them pushed over, most probably fuelled by the dwindling resources for survival. This theory is backed up by the fact that they are nearly all face down, suggesting a deliberate desecration. Or maybe the islanders just got frustrated that their ancestors were no longer providing for them. 

Hundreds of unfinished statues, including one of 21m, are still lying half carved in the rock, or standing but buried up to their necks around the quarry at Rano Raraku, as Thor Heyerdahl’s experimental excavation of one (now filled in again to protect from the harsh elements) proved. Maybe, in a struggle for survival the tribes just ran out of resources to pay the artists and transport, and other priorities took over. 

Ranu Raraku, statues buried up to their necks
Can you imagine how big these might have been?

In 1862 the island was raided by Peru for slaves, over 1500 of fittest people were taken and only a handful returned, also bringing foreign diseases which further decimated the population. The island was in a dire situation. In 1888 chief Atamu Tekena signed a document agreeing to its annexation by Chile. Just as I discovered in the Maori Treaty of Waitangi, the translation into RapaNui leaves quite a bit to be desired in helping islanders understand what they were actually signing up to. The Rapanui were only given full Chilean citizenship in 1966.
However, 150 years later, the infamous moai have given this island a whole new lease of life. Life has changed here considerably in just a few decades – my guide told me his own grandmother grew up in a cave. Since the 1970s, an increasing number of moai have been restored upright to their platforms, with great examples at Tahai near the town Hanga Rao, at Tongariki on the south east coat (some of the largest here) and Anakena on the north coast (not as large but more ornate and better preserved). They are now bringing around 90-100,000 tourists to this island every year, to see the moai, to surf in the gloriously turquoise breakers, and dive in waters that are abundant with fish and turtles and some of the clearest anywhere in the world.

Anakena, where the ruling families lived. Moai here are more ornate. Note the long ears, denoting wealth!

For an island with a population of just 7-8000 residents, the tourist boom is certainly providing employment, reducing its historic isolation, and supporting the continuation of the Rapanui culture. But it must also be creating new resource pressures to provide fuel, clean water and sewage for so many people. Despite the wind, I’ve seen no turbines here, and few solar panels in evidence – all electricity is diesel generated from imported oil. A government subsidy scheme for renewable energy could be a decent investment into longer term sustainability. It may even require some cap on the number of visitors, which is growing exponentially year on year.

Can people learn from the lessons of the past, and steward this island’s natural resources more carefully for future generation? I really hope so because this island, named after the day of Resurrection, with its toppled, buried and re-erected moai, and fascinating cultural story, is a jewel that deserves to keep shining in the Pacific blue skies for all eternity.

Sunset at Ahu Vai Uri, Tahai

(PS. Apologies for this blog’s poor image quality – wifi on Easter Island is slow & limited  so all pics are rather compressed and still took hours to load!)