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Photos by James Kao
On my first day on Easter Island, I followed a path of lightly trodden grass that curled around the lip of a volcanic crater. It left me teetering above the cool green cauldron of giant bulrush below and gazing out toward the Pacific Ocean. The sound of surf gnawing at the southern flank of the volcano Rano Kau soon grew, the trail narrowed and the blue arc of the Earth came into view.
“Do Not Pass!” reads the perhaps unnecessary sign at the edge of the crumbling cliff above the waves. And, yet, I would soon learn how 150 years ago an annual race known as “The Birdman” continued downhill from here—contended by a group of tribes who believed they were the only people left on Earth.
I had originally been drawn to this speck in the Pacific by the prospect of winter training on a tropical island, and had planned my February trip to coincide with theTau’a, an iconic, present-day banana-carrying trail race. But when I learned about The Birdman, which once decided real island politics and often proved deadly for the competitors, a darker, more intriguing side of Easter Island sport began to emerge.
The Birdman race would start once the migrating red-breasted Mahoke birds mysteriously appeared from the horizon. Each island tribe would nominate its strongest athlete. From the point where the “Do Not Pass!” sign now stands, they would go running, scrambling and climbing 600 feet down the loose cliff. They would then paddle over a mile to the birds’ nests on the islet of Motu Nui, their bulrush body boards their only protection from sharks and waves that rolled in from thousands of miles away.
At Motu Nui, the farthest outlying island, they would secure the egg of the Mahoke bird in a pouch, then begin the journey back. Several competitors died every time, according to the Easter Island Anthropological Museum, due to fatal falls, drownings or shark attacks. The winning tribe would crown a new king for the forthcoming year and the athlete who returned first (with egg intact) would receive the title of Tangata Manu—The Birdman. The athlete’s prize was a strange one. He was revered by his peers, but forbidden to be seen or touched and was confined to solemn retreat for the forthcoming year to cultivate a purity of body and mind.
The last Birdman race was run around 1867, at a time when slave raids and imported disease had caused the island’s population to dwindle from over 5,000 to just over a hundred inhabitants. However, for the last 20 years, the recovering population has found a new way to honor the Birdman tradition with the creation of the Tau’a trail race.
The current Tau’a race takes place during the festival of Tapati, a celebration of the Rapa Nui culture that includes competitions of dance, music, handicraft and sport. Points are accumulated throughout two weeks in February by two competing teams, led by two pairs of candidate kings and queens. The team with the most points crowns their respective festival king and queen for the coming year in the festival’s climax.
While today the new royalty have a non-governmental and largely nominal title, the prestige is enormous and the Tau’a race would be pivotal in deciding the outcome. Excitement was growing on the hot wet streets of Hanga Roa (Easter Island’s only town). The Tau’a race was soon to begin.
For most visitors to the island throughout the year, however, it’s not The Birdman, the Tapati festival or the feats of its chiseled trail runners that provides the draw. It’s the moai. Indeed, the sculpting of physical form on the island began almost a millennium ago with the creation of the first of the 288 iconic stone statues that punctuate the shore.
Legend tells that the first moai were built around the 12th century to honor the first seven scouts who arrived on the island. As in Hawaii (some 4,650 miles northwest), the first arrivals were of Polynesian descent. The first straight-backed, stiff-jawed, stern-faced moai statues were made in the image of these seven hardy scouts, with successive generations of island leaders continuing to be immortalized in stone until the 16th century.
Theories abound about how the moai, weighing up to 82 tons and measuring up to 30 feet, were moved into place. Among the Rapa Nui, a common explanation is simply that the mana—the life-force that runs through living things—gave the moai statues the power to walk. The last statues were carved over 300 years ago by the islanders. But with ancestors like these, who crossed oceans and who could make stones walk, it’s no surprise that the modern Rapa Nui in Hanga Roa still cut such impressive figures today.
The starting point for the Birdman race, with egg-hunting Moto Nui island in sight
Isolation and Training
Yet in the days preceding the Tau’a, the athletes were nowhere to be seen in town. Food was in limited supply in the shops, and all the chicken had been cleared from the deep freezers and transported to the training camp by the friends and relatives of the competing runners.
Today’s competitors follow in the footsteps of discipline and training that characterized the Birdman athletes.
“Life totally revolves around this training ritual,” says the competitor Manuel Mena. While some of the athletes work in the United States to make enough money to fund this time of dedicated training, others, as Mena explains, “don’t really work at all,” instead relying on the support of family and friends.
In the two months before the race, the athletes begin their preparation at sunrise. First they bathe in the lake inside the volcano Rano Raraku, where the race takes place; then they return for breakfast before beginning to train. They run with sandbags to simulate the bananas they will carry during the race. Almost all run without shoes.
“I compete to show off my physical strength,” says Mena. “This is a way to achieve social standing on the island.”
Indeed, judging by the photos of an early, 1986 Tapati festival, the competitors used to be considerably less pumped up. Today, “Whey protein, creatine and carnitine are used by the athletes to help increase muscle bulk,” says Mena. “And in truth all that muscle isn’t really necessary to win.”
Tu’u Ma Heke kisses his mother after winning and becoming men’s senior champion
The Tau’a Banana Race
Inside the amphitheater-like crater of Rano Raraku, families shared skewers of pork meat, fresh pineapple and homemade lollipops. Beside the lake, tattooed men stood shirtless, reminiscing about their previous participation while drinking generous quantities of beer—an imported habit, blamed by the mayor on the Kevin Costner production crew that filmed the flop-buster Rapa Nui on the island in 1994. Most striking of all, however, was the group of judges (clearly with some partisan elements), who animatedly directed an overworked youth as he weighed and sawed 22-pound banana bunches and then sealed them in cling wrap.
I was as eager as the rest of Easter Island’s inhabitants to see the fruit of two months’ dedicated training, and sat among a 3,000-strong crowd (nearly the entire island population) on the steeply sloping flanks of the volcanic crater, facing the lake where the action was about to take place.
The purpose of the bananas soon became clear. The first stage of the Tau’a race requires a quarter-mile crossing of the lake in handmade, bulrush kayaks. As each competitor reached land in front of the crowd, he collected his two designated 22-pound bunches and threw them over his shoulder. Dressed in clay-base body paint and a loincloth, each then set off on foot around the shore of the lake. A pacer accompanied each runner and helped ensure no bananas were jettisoned on the three-quarter-mile lap.
Sharp fricatives of indistinguishable abuse or encouragement could be heard from the pacers as the runners completed their first loop. Dropping the bananas, the competitors then tried to shake out their legs for a change of pace. They next ran a different trail that climbed higher onto the flanks of the crater and took them past their observing ancestors—the stony chins of the moai protruding over the path. On reaching their starting point at the far side of the lake, they crossed the water once more on a different, narrower bulrush boat to finish in front of the thunderous crowds. The whole event was over in 17 minutes.
The points awarded to the winner, Charly Haoa, would help decide the crowning of royalty at the festival finale. Haoa had trained more in private than at the camp, and I watched as he distanced himself from the party that was beginning on the volcano’s shore. His cycle of training and Tau’a commitment was complete for the year. The mana had flown through him. Now he stood alone in the enduring line of The Birdmen.
Trailhead: Easter Island, Chile
Take a direct flight to Santiago, Chile, from one of several major U.S. cities, then catch the daily direct flight to Easter Island.
The Southern Hemisphere heat and humidity is in full force December through March. If the February Tapati festival is your priority, get ready to sweat!
Specialties include fresh tuna, raw fish cooked in lime and empanadas (pastries with meat or fish filling). The watermelon and pineapple are otherworldly. Wash it all down with excellent “Mahina” craft beer, a Chilean red wine such as Carménère or a stiff pisco sour.
Options range from $20 camping to all-inclusive luxury. Book six months in advance if visiting during Tapati. (Airbnb is a good option.)
Car rental is possible, but foot travel or renting an electric bike will work for most visitors.
Easter Island has some of the clearest water in the world due to lack of plankton in the water. Equipment and instruction are available for hire; more experienced divers can see Kevin Costner’s sunken moai.
Easter Island Trails
From Hanga Roa (Easter Island’s only town) to the rim of Rano Kao volcano. Six miles. Gentle gradient. Mix of trail and road.
Maunga Terevaka (1,663 feet), the highest point on the island, from Vaitea. Seven miles. Non-technical running on grass slopes.
Hanga Roa to Anakena’s white beach—the site where the earliest human footprint was found (and now a great restaurant). 12 miles. Technical, rocky terrain. Exposed to wind and sun.
Continue farther from Anakena for a complete loop of the island, climbing two volcanoes for the “Ara Mahiva” run, established by Susie Stephen in 9 hours 5 minutes, May 2014. 41 miles. 85-percent trail.
Matt Maynard is from a just slightly bigger island group—the U.K. He lives in Santiago, Chile. James Kao is from Los Angeles and is already planning his next trip to Easter Island. This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.