I Am Birdman, Hear Me Roar
The author on Rano Kau.
Credit: Joshua Paul
It was a perfect morning for a Birdman. Bright. Blustery. I hiked up the ancient Ao Road singing, stopping just outside the gates of Orongo. From that great height I could see the corduroy of the swell, its pattern of shade and shimmer, and hear the roar as it gnawed at the shore far below. There was no Birdman king to signal "go!" No rival to compete against – no Esai Morales to my Jason Scott Lee. No one would be trying to murder me, and I wouldn't be eaten if I lost, unless by a shark. But at that moment I believed I shared something of the spirit of the Birdman: for God, protein, and poontang!

I started running down the volcano toward the sea, dodging boulders, soaring down sudden inclines into 10-foot-tall grasses, past horses that craned their necks and showed me the whites of their eyes. The pell-mell descent took me back to boyhood running, tireless and hilarious, and seemingly always downhill. And back to the boyhood of man, when men sat around fires and made shit up, saying, "Who has the egg, he is the Birdman."

At the end of the meadow, I passed under the shade of eucalyptus – reforestation – then back out into bright sunlight, the cliffs of Mataveri coming into sight now. I was leaping erosion ditches and scrambling over rocks, until at last I stood panting at the edge of a cliff some 40 feet above the sea. In Rapa Nui, Jason Scott Lee dove about a hundred feet into the water with his totora-reed mat. But that was the movies for you. A debris field completely surrounds the base of the volcano. Wilo had shown me the best jump-off spot on the island, and at 40 feet it was just high enough to be scary fun.

But where was Wilo with my totora-reed surf mat? I'd caught my breath by the time I saw him rounding the point, coming from Hanga Roa on his Jet Ski and leading the way for a fishing boat with what looked like two uniformed soldiers – what was up with that? Apparently, when it came to manning the support boat, marines were cheaper than fishermen. Mr. Adventure went airborne over a 12-foot swell, gunned it, and carved a hard turn below me. Time to jump.

Heart in throat, I smacked in hard and clean, remembering to keep my feet together to protect the Eyes of Make Make, but forgetting to hold on to my headband, which whisked away on impact. The waves seethed and slurped at the cliffs; I had to get away at once.

"Toss me the totora-reed torpedo!" I shouted, and not with a straight face, either.

"I don't do this for money!" Wilo shouted back. "I do this for the love of adventure!"

Wilo, I noted, had not worn his warrior garb. I feared he hadn't brought the totora-reed torpedo, either, and I was right. The marines crept in a little closer, one of them rummaging in the bottom of the boat and coming up with a surfboard, which he flung over the side. I swam for it, climbed aboard, and pointed it toward Motu Nui. Funny thing, perspective. From up on Orongo it looks like a trifling distance, but from belly level, Motu Nui, a mile and a half away, was a distant dot.

No wonder the Birdman racers often drowned in the "treacherous" currents, according to accounts. Everyone on the island who discouraged me from trying cited the profound depth, and they were right: The islands are tips of seamounts a thousand feet tall. For the Rapa Nui, who knew their waters but feared their gods, it would've made for a formidable void full of spirits and monsters, not to mention an undepleted supply of sharks.

If there was a lesson in the inconsistent accounts I'd read, it was that you had to make your own Birdman race, and mine was to paddle this slippery little surfboard, and paddle like hell. Up, up the mighty rollers, the crests blowing apart in my face, and down, seeming to slip backward a yard for every two of progress. The marines stuck close to me, as if I were some sort of injured cetacean they couldn't quite figure out how to save. One was middle-aged, a dead ringer for Manuel Noriega, the other a youth, soon seasick. After about two hours I reached the first of the three islets, the fang-shape Motu Iti, dead in the water and half-seasick too, flinging one arm forward, hauling it back, flinging the other. Noodle arms, surfers call the condition.

"Hurry up, Boo-key," Noriega pleaded. "We want to go home!"

An hour later, I was there, abreast of Motu Nui, an embattled dome that the swells half-swallowed, pouring off in cascades of foam. I sat up to rest and admire the spectacle.

"We are hungry!" Noriega cried. "Vamanos!" And just then his boat ran out of gas.

I tuned all of that out and turned to look at the cliffs of Orongo, the Birdman's view I had coveted for months. "I have the egg!" I bellowed. But no way was I going to shave my eyebrows and head, or grow my nails all year, or spend six months in lockdown on the other volcano with just a priest for company, as the Birdmen of yore had to do. As with so much of life, better to be a hopu than a king.

I had a story to tell at least, and doubtless I would, with various embellishments, for years to come, beginning that night in the bars of Hanga Roa, to the woman with the biggest clitoris, of course, if I could find her.