I Am Birdman, Hear Me Roar

The author on Rano Kau.
The author on Rano Kau.Joshua Paul

The first time I saw Orongo, the archaeological site of the Easter Island Birdman cult, the hair on the back of my neck bristled with acrophobia and awe. It had taken our tour group all afternoon to hike to the top of Rano Kau volcano, hoofing it single file along the knife-edge rim trail to where it broadened and flattened at the cliffs of Orongo. Orongo the Bizarro! Stonehenge for the Unhinged! The grassy plateau, studded with obsessively etched boulders, seemed precariously perched between the interior crater and a thousand-foot drop to the crashing Polynesian surf. In the fading light we admired the hundreds of petroglyphs carved by the Rapa Nui (as Easter Islanders call themselves and their island), picking out the depictions of gods and heroes and oversize vaginas.

“These are called komari,” said our Rapa Nui guide, Nicolas, pointing to the unmistakable labial shapes – Stone Age bathroom graffiti. And the googly-eyed dude with the pendulous nose? That was Make Make, the creator. He was etched everywhere too, a Rapa Nui Kilroy. Clustered at the cliff’s edge were the Birdmen themselves, high reliefs of plump little anthropomorphic fellows with beaked heads and praying hands, who seemed to wince at the might and magnitude of a fearsome universe – and certainly fearsome events had occurred on the unfortunate island.

Those praying figures, Nicolas explained, represented the winners of the annual Birdman race, a sacred ritual that ingeniously married politics and religion with the kind of hysteria and absurd rules usually reserved for Japanese game shows. We’d already picked up the gist of the yarn from the standard National Park information displays: the dates, from the mid-17th century to 1867, that bracketed the Birdman cult, and the purpose of the race, which was to choose a new king. As we gathered around him, Nicolas explained how every austral spring, the Rapa Nui of yore would troop to Orongo to await the return of the great flocks of succulent migratory terns that nested on offshore islets. These were hard times, post–societal collapse, and while the Rapa Nui were not exactly starving, their diet had become monotonous in the extreme by winter’s end – yams, yams, and more yams. Their trip to Orongo was the climax of a weeks-long party of pure anticipation. You can imagine everyone salivating for protein as they kept watch on the blue horizon.

And then, Make Make willing, here came the birds, in their screeching multitudes, wheeling around their nesting grounds on the three islets lined up in a row below Orongo. The dancing and chanting would’ve risen to an ecstatic frenzy, everyone whacked in a Birdman trance. Then the reigning Birdman king stepped forth, flanked by his priests. He would be impressively painted, bizarrely shaved. He’d hold up a hand, a hand so imbued with spiritual power that he touched nothing with it all year and grew the nails till they curled like claws. Then the hand dropped. “Go!” commanded the king. And they went – everyone willing to risk it all – over the cliff and into the sea, thrashing like mad for Motu Nui, the largest and farthest of the three islets. To win you had to snatch up the first sooty tern egg of the year and make it back to Orongo, egg intact.

“There were no rules once the race started,” Nicolas told us, warming to the darker aspects. “You could drown the one with the egg, yes. He could be hit on the head with a rock and killed. Or very simple, you break the egg of the guy and go back for your own.”

The way Nicolas told it, the Birdman competition was a balls-to-the-wall biathlon, a proto-extreme sports race. I was fixated on the climbing portion – the steep cliff and the thousand-foot drop. Did they really go straight down the hairy bastard?

“Yes, most did,” Nicolas said. “Some would go a longer way” – he gestured toward the crater rim beyond Orongo, where it dipped down some hundreds of feet to a saddle and a collapsed slope of rubble, a tempting chicken route – “but they lost time.”

And mana, I figured, the great intangible good of any gratuitous enterprise. The Rapa Nui were all about mana. Mana was success; mana was confidence. It was their money, metaphysically conceived: a spiritual bank account.

“The only thing was to be first back with the egg. Then you became Birdman, the king for the year.”

“Tangata Manu,” said one of us. So the display boards said.

“Yes,” the guide nodded. “And you would marry the most desirable woman on the island, of course. The woman with the biggest clitoris.”

All eyebrows rose. Excuse me?

“We ought to do it!” I said.

All eyebrows turned to me.

The guide smiled at my bravado but shook his head. “No, the rocks are sharp. You will bleed in the water. And there are many sharks.”

I glanced around at our group for support. Anyone? They were game enough hikers, but landlubbers at heart. And our tour was a tightly scheduled affair, with no wiggle room for spontaneous risk taking. I ended up going home with what seemed a good deal of knowledge, but very little mana.

The Birdman stuck in my craw. The very word Orongo resounded like a gong in my brain, going, “Do it! Do it!” It was as if, having rashly spoken, I’d been cursed by Make Make to return and confront the cliffs of Rano Kau and the sharks of Motu Nui, or face life as a komari – which is to say, a big pussy.

What frustrated especially was that, despite the fear factor, the Birdman race combined two of my favorite activities: a kind of advanced beachcombing/rock scrambling/putzing around rugged coastlines, and battling out to sea through pounding surf, which I’m far more capable of than actually surfing. I’m something of an anthropology buff as well, happy to plod through a tome like Tristes Tropiques or The Golden Bough, pondering mankind’s eternal quest to please itself while propitiating the great and vengeful Unknown.

I nursed my case of coulda-shoulda-wouldas at the library and on the Web, battening down the basics I’d learned on the tour. Easter Island is famous for three things: its remote location, about equidistant from Tahiti and Chile (which governs the island) and smack in the middle of a peculiarly vacant expanse of Pacific; its monumental statuary, the giant stone-head moai (much better known than the etched petroglyphs on Orongo); and the man-made environmental disaster of imprudent arboreal harvesting that rendered the island treeless three centuries ago, as it practically is to this day.

It was a near miracle the ancient Polynesians found the speck, but once they arrived, circa a.d. 400 to 600, they never left and entertained no visitors for a thousand years, providing anthropology a kind of petri dish of human culture in isolation. Without the benefits of contact with other peoples – some Other to learn from, someone foreign to fight – how weird can we get?

In their solitude, the Rapa Nui developed a monomania for statue carving, a craze they ultimately could not control. They erected hundreds of moai on seaside altars, each an Ozymandias facing inland and glaring at the mortals. Hundreds more completed moai accumulated at the principal quarry, awaiting delivery. Though they never exhausted their enthusiasm for honoring aristocrats, the Rapa Nui did run out of lumber to make log rollers, having cut down all the island’s trees for the enterprise, and the moai bubble burst. Soon thereafter it was Mad Max time, the ecology buggered, society in shambles, the moai all knocked down by angry mobs, half the people hiding in caves, the other half hunting them with rocks. Out of the chaos of cannibalism and chicken hoarding arose the Birdman, a brightly feathered phoenix of hope, a last chance to get their mana back.

In hopes of getting a little of my own mana back, I read everything I could find, highbrow and low, from the accounts of the seafaring explorers to the sardonic lyrics of “Oh Bring Back the Egg Unbroken,” by the cello combo Rasputina (very likely the only song in English about the Birdman cult). Given its schlock wattage of orgy and disaster, plus ready-made drama of a death race, the Birdman seemed like catnip for Hollywood. And indeed, while on Easter Island, I’d seen weather-beaten Rapa Nui movie posters flaking off of telephone poles in Hanga Roa, the most remote community on Earth and the only place where the film had been a hit. Roger Ebert had praised it, tongue in cheek, for the gratuitous National Geographic–style topless women, but my Leonard Maltin compendium dismissed it with one and a half stars. Netflix didn’t have it. I phoned around to my local stores, and a nearby Blockbuster told me it had 13 copies. Excellent! But when I showed up, it turned out the clerk thought I’d meant Ratatouille. I should’ve taken that as a sign of absurdities to come.

Instead, I ordered a Korean bootleg online, and a few days later watched the American auteur Kevin Reynolds, of Waterworld fame, crush a thousand years of Rapa Nui history into a 107-minute love story. For the amateur Rapa Nui-ist, anachronisms abound. The movie has everything happening at once, opening with a soaring bird’s-eye view of Orongo and then panning to a colossal moai being wastefully hauled on log rollers. There was the fat dyspeptic king with long fingernails saying, “Nah! Make it bigger!” On, lickety-split, to the chopping down of the last tree, leading man Jason Scott Lee screaming the inevitable “Nooo!” And the climax of the film, as it surely had to be: the Birdman race, pitting the hero, Mr. Lee, an aristocratic “long ear,” against his blue-collar “short ear” nemesis, played by Esai Morales.

To my delight, I watched the competitors eschew the deadly cliff for the chicken route, scampering along the thin ridge of the crater rim down to the saddle that Nicolas had pointed out. The movie Birdman racers carried paddleboards of woven reeds on shoulder straps (accurate, according to some accounts), and although one dude was hip-checked to a fatal fall and another slid some hundreds of feet, shredding his reed board, the scramble looked eminently doable. I also suspected that our guide had cadged a good bit of his account from the movie, an irony I found somehow uplifting.

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.

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.

The next morning, the fourth day of wheel-spinning, I popped into a souvenir shop on Avenida Atamu Tekena to buy a headband. In one account I’d read, the Birdman racers carried the egg in their mouths. But in another, and in the movie, they’d worn specialized tapa-bark egg carriers, little woven baskets, somewhat like a Jewish phylactery, that rested on the forehead. I settled for an I’m-going-out-of-my-fucking-mind Christopher Walken Deer Hunter do-rag, bright green with Rapa Nui bird designs. I chatted with the shop owner about my Birdman ambitions in bad Spanish, and then with her Scottish boyfriend in bad Scottish. He knew exactly who I needed to talk to.

“Wilo. Has a shop just down the street. Bike rentals and such. He’s the adventure guy.”

I headed straight to his place of business, a shed attached to a laundromat. The sign outside showed the Make Make character. Wilo came out to greet me; his pregnant wife waved from the doorway.

“The eyes are the balls, you see,” he said, noticing me admiring the sign, “and the nose is the penis. Everything on the island is sex.”

That aside, Wilo confirmed that he was the go-to man for adventure. “I love it,” he said. “Mountain bikes, surfing. Whatever you need. You want to do the Birdman, it’s not a problem. But it’s very dangerous. Are you famous?” I pondered the most advantageous response, then answered honestly.

He frowned. “You are old,” he observed. “But fit?”

Yeah, sorta. All right then. We quickly sketched out a plan. Later that day he would show me where I could jump into the sea, and then, tomorrow morning, when I did it for real, he would follow me out to Motu Nui in a boat. I didn’t see how that was so dangerous. Never mind: I was happy to have found someone who solved all my Birdman problems in one fell swoop. Wilo, who was an adviser on the thwarted Red Bull campaign and had JPEGs to prove it, was an accomplished big-wave surfer and owned one of the island’s two Jet Skis, which he used with a dude nicknamed Hydro for tow-in surfing. He would make an excellent water-safety officer.

We quickly came to a price: wonderfully low, I thought. He even offered to toss in a replica totora-reed paddleboard. More wonderful still. Plus, he had a traditional Rapa Nui warrior costume he could wear, for color. Cool. We agreed to meet that evening at a cafe to work out any remaining details.

I strolled back along Avenida Atamu Tekena a happy man. The Birdman was on! No longer a mere tourist, I was a participant. A celebrant. What an island! What a town! Paradise, with rocks. But that night at the cafe, Wilo arrived looking heartsick. He’d been thinking. Of the difficulties. Of the dangers. “I’ll do everything like we agreed,” he said, “and even provide hot shower and towel.” He then named a price six times the original. I pointed out that I didn’t need the shower and towel. I counter-offered half his figure, still a substantial raise.

“Well, okay,” he said, not disguising his disappointment. We parted soon after, Wilo with his regrets, me with disgruntled-water-safety-officer tabu on my head and word of a big swell on the way.

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.

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