Moai Heads

I spent some time in Rapa Nui a while back, otherwise known as Easter Island to most Americans.

Rapa Nui culture is one of many fascinating cultures I have experienced. Easter Island had such a rich and storied past.

This article I wrote more than a year ago, and somehow it got lost in the depths of my computer. Luckily, I found it. This article has once again peaked my interest in the Rapa Nui culture, and I will be posting a few more over the coming months.

Here is the article:

Rano Kau Volcano

The Rano Kau Volcano is the site of the aggressive, life-threatening Birman Cult competition for the indigenous Rapa Nui people on Easter Island.

The Rapa Nui culture is world famous for their Moai heads that decimated their island’s resources and eventually led the Rapa Nui to the brink of destruction.These Moai heads helped the tribes distinguish themselves as the leaders of their culture.

After this disastrous decline in the island’s resources had made the Rapa Nui turn their backs on their family commitments, a lesser known cultural phenomenon that established the Lead Tribe each year presented itself.

Each elder would choose a champion for their tribe and send them up the volcano to live until they competed in a competition to dive into the ocean, retrieve an egg of a small, elegant bird from a small islet in very treacherous waters 3 kilometers off the island and return the egg safely.

Rapa Nui Dancers

Many champions were devoured by terrifying sharks and succumbed to drowning by the swift currents around the volcano.

After learning of such strife and endurance, I naturally had to see the scanty living-quarters, majestic volcano, and rapid currents around the small islet just off the mainland.

Armed with just a small backpack filled with water, my trusty leather-bound journal, and my dusty well-worn camera, I was determined to sit on the edge of that volcano. I also wanted to contemplate how these champions of Rapa Nui trained for this impossible challenge. When I started out on my adventure, I followed the dirt road around the island to a small trail. That trail winded into what seemed like someone’s private property.

A relatively smooth dirt path was worn into their hillsides. I traversed stray domesticated animals and an informative sign telling unsuspecting travelers to buy a National Park Pass at the main house. I was unquestionably grateful to that wooden sign. There wouldn’t have been any access to much of the Birdman Cult’s archeological sites if I hadn’t wandered passed it. The office, what seemed like a farm house, was where you buy a National Park pass.

When I wandered back onto the trail, there were several fences with squeaky, rudimentary turnstiles. These rusty metal gates are something you just have to deal with until you are in the astonishingly green mountains.

Moai in the Sunrise

As I climbed, it was hard not to notice the glorious rollings hills that stretched for miles across Easter Island.

The sheer burgundy-colored cliff sides along the coast contrasted nicely with the ocean.

At a certain point up the volcano, the vegetation got increasingly thicker. This green landscape covered the vast blue sky. Since I could not see the sky, I did not notice the bleached white clouds that signified flash rain storms. These rainstorms can make it difficult climbing through thick mud. Slick boulders jutting out of the ground would have made the crossing dangerous. Thick tree roots winding through the trail would have made it impossible. 

I was lucky enough only to be subjected to this experience once along the way, making it a lovely climb. The one benefit of these storms was that it revealed shimmering black igneous shards. These shards, made smooth by the rain, were what I made a necklace out of later.

When I was almost at the peak of Rano Kau, I had a hard time imagining what to expect for an extinct volcano. 

And then I reached the top.

The stark contrast between the deep blue ocean, the cliffs of Rano Kau, and the always-shifting skies were incredibly breath-taking. Describing the feeling is hard. Try to imagine being completely overwhelmed by nature that you physically can’t pull yourself away from that moment.

To reach the Birdman Cult’s housing, you have to walk along the edge of the large volcano bowl. This bowl dips down into one of Rapa Nui’s most important ecological swampy oasis. This volcano happens to contain several threatened species of plants and fruits.

I was completely awestruck by this information. I found it hard to believe that the plants have preservation were from the natural high walls of the volcano. As I walked up to the Visitor’s Center, a park ranger noticed I was smattered with red, wet dirt and sweating from my earlier exertion. A simple nod of approval given to me from the park ranger was uplifting. He knew I didn’t just take a money-sucking tour bus up the volcano and let me into the park undisturbed. He didn’t even ask to see my park pass.

The houses for the Birdman Cult champions were rudimentary, yet ingenious.

They are built out of shards of shale rock precariously stacked to resemble a house. The residents would climb into these houses to get out of the pounding wind to sleep.

The shale rock funnels the wind to provide natural air conditioning when the sun is at its highest. It also retains the sun’s rays to warm the champions up at night. At the visitor’s center near the entrance, there’s a wealth of knowledge and helpful staff walking around.

They provide visitors with facts about their extensive collection of archeological findings of daily life on top of a volcano. They also try to help visitors understand the Rapa Nui culture and how their culture led to this dangerous competition.

I spent a few hours writing in my journal about the specific colors, smells, and feelings I was experiencing. I also took many striking pictures that included many panoramic and high-resolution shots.

Surfing in Rapa Nui

Something changed in me that day.

I am not sure what it was. Walking along the rim of an extinct volcano on an incomprehensibly beautiful island thousands of miles away from my daily life, I saw the edge of human society.