I Am Birdman, Hear Me Roar
The author on Rano Kau.
Credit: Joshua Paul
Four months later, I arrived on Rapa Nui, jet-lagged from a day and a half of flying but with a mission: to perform my very own historical reenactment of the Birdman race. The thing to do was plunge right in and begin training, accumulating mana and staving off the tabu – the negative spirit – of inertia. But first I thought I would scout the village for a knowledgeable, sympathetic local, someone willing to advise a hopu (as the Birdmen competitors were called).

While it's true that Easter Island has endured not only environmental and societal collapse, but also small pox epidemics, slave raids, and missionaries, it seems to be doing all right now. The Rapa Nui are Chilean citizens, hopping back and forth between Santiago and Tahiti whenever rock fever strikes. As laid-back as it is far out, tiny Hanga Roa is a bit like a Polynesian Dodge City: just a couple of blocks of storefronts on the main drag and lots of horses clip-clopping down the middle of the road – often riderless, like regular citizens. Indeed, I'd read that there are some 8,000 semi-wild horses on Rapa Nui and only 4,000 people, an enigma I never heard explained.

I picked a pair of long-haired middle-aged athletes in boardshorts and posed the question immortalized by the Jason Scott Lee character in Rapa Nui: "Will you train me to compete for the Birdman?" Actually, what I asked was if they knew where I could rent a surfboard to paddle to Motu Nui.

"Don't do it," one of the old surfers said. "The islands are far, the water is very deep, and there are many sharks." His buddy simply twirled an index finger around his ear, signing that I was loco.

I eased on down Avenida Atamu Tekena (Main Street, Rapa Nui), just another international nutcase on the so-called "island of enigmas." I'd recently read in the news that a young Finn had been fined $17,000 for breaking the ear off a moai. He hadn't really been able to explain his motivation. Could I? Best to keep my Birdman pursuit clandestine, yet respectful, if the two could somehow be combined.

My first challenge was to scout a way down the volcano that didn't involve falling to my death. So the next day at dawn I set out on foot, striding along Avenida Atamu Tekena toward Rano Kau volcano with a powerful sense of purpose, while still trying to keep a low profile. But whatever feckless demeanor attracts maximum stray dogs, I had it. By the time I reached the end of the main drag, I looked like the Pied Piper of Rapa Nui. Thankfully, the pack thinned as I left the outskirts of town and started to climb the meadow that swooped up to Orongo. Like all expanses of grass on Easter Island – which is nearly the whole island – this one was pocked with rocks like God's own driving range. You're always watching where you're stepping, or else, while admiring the glories of the Pacific, staggering forward suddenly like a clown.

My hike more or less followed what the Birdman cult called the Road of the Ao, the route of the procession that preceded the race. My progress was a great deal lonelier, but conspicuous all the same on the treeless terrain. I wasn't surprised to find myself being waved down by a Chilean National Park ranger.

I was looking for … que?

Squawk! Caught already. To explain that I was hiking up to look for a way to climb down was beyond my Spanish – not to mention all rules of rational behavior. The upshot of our halting conversation was that, while it wasn't forbidden to linger cliffside, it was muy peligroso. The park would not be responsible for my death, did I understand? Yes, I would take responsibility for my death, thank you.

I decided to try the other side of the volcano, avoiding Orongo itself, which would be guarded by rangers. It was a hike of several spectacular miles along the island-side crater rim, with all of Easter Island spread out below on one side, and on the other the vast bowl of Rano Kau sloping down to a floating marsh of totora reeds – the material used to make the torpedo-shape Birdman paddleboards. I was confident I could reach the saddle south of Orongo – the chicken route – unobserved by the rangers. But the trail dead-ended at a barricade with admonitory signage in Spanish: no va!

While I mulled incarceration for trespassing, I made a few tentative forays over the edge in a nonspecifically forbidden zone, on slick grass and rotten rock above fatal drops to the rocks below. The same little voice that always urges me to get closer to the edge now whispered insistently that I get the fuck back up. I would need a rope.