I Am Birdman, Hear Me Roar
The author on Rano Kau.
Credit: Joshua Paul
Nicolas Yancovic, half-Croatian-Chilean, half-Rapa Nui, with blue eyes and blond dreads, owns the island's only rope and climbing harnesses. I'd met him on my first trip, when I'd stayed at the eco-resort Explora. He had been one of our guides (not to be confused with the Nicolas who took us to Orongo), and he'd invited me to go climbing, but there hadn't been time. I'd figured he would be easy enough to find in Hanga Roa. At a corner pizza joint near the church, I found a girl who knew him and called him on her cell phone. He was at home only about a block away – everything was only about a block away – and he showed up minutes later on a motorcycle. Climb? Sure! Did I know Mataveri? It was on all the tourist maps – the site of the weeks-long beach bash that preceded the Birdman race. We would meet there at noon on his day off, two days hence. I would wait for a propitious moment to bring up my Birdman ambitions.

When I arrived at Mataveri to meet Nicolas, he had rigged an anchor at the top of a hundred-foot rock face beside a cave. On the brief beach, a couple of locals were collecting flat pavers that had flaked from the cliff for a patio project, the Rapa Nui passion for stonework abiding still. I recognized one of them, another Explora guide, Singa, a long-haired tattooed surfer dude with a big gecko on his back and Make Make on one pec. He and his cousin Terai wandered over with a six-pack to watch us climb.

I went first, with Nicolas belaying, and stalled about 80 feet up. After a few attempts to swing my leg over, in the process gashing my shin, I called no más and returned to the beach bleeding from various cuts and abrasions.

"Souvenirs of Easter Island," Singa said, laughing.

I belayed for Nicolas, who knew the route by heart and tangoed gracefully to the top. Then Singa and Terai each took a turn, mastering the climb with brute strength, and barefoot – "Rapa Nui style!"

Being the sole failure on the route wasn't great for my mana, but afterward, when we sat on a makeshift driftwood bench drinking beers while the surf boomed and spirits were high, it seemed a good time to bring up the Birdman. I asked Singa if he thought I could kick out to Motu Nui on a boogie board.

"The water is very deep, and it is far," he said. Then, brightening, "But you can do it! Better with a longboard, I think." He mimed the rapid progress of a paddler on a 10-foot tanker: "Shoop! Shoop!"

I asked him about the cliffs of Orongo, which we could see brooding in the distance, how he thought the Birdmen of yore got down.

"My opinion," he said. "They had a route. Possibly a ramp."

A ramp! The sly devils. Not much mana in a ramp.

"But that was long ago. The waves wash it away. It is very dangerous now." He whistled for effect.

And Nicolas, what did he think, as a climber? Could he rig an anchor at Orongo, or near about? The question clearly distressed him. He may have heard it before.

"You know Red Bull? The energy drink? They wanted to bring back the race. But the national park told them no," Nicolas said. "It would be bad to try it, you know. Get kicked off the island."

He knew the cliffs nearby as well. Rotten rock. No anchors. Very bad. "This is our place for climbing, Mataveri." He shrugged.

It had kicked my ass, at any rate. The clock was ticking on the Birdman Project, and I wasn't any closer to the starting line.