All societies have their competitions for power – Easter Island tribes were no different. The friendly competition involved climbing down the cliffs, swimming through the water to the island, and if still alive, waiting. Waiting to procure (steal) the first egg from the bird’s nest and then bring the egg back to the top of the village which meant swimming back to the shore and climbing up the mountain. Once declared the winner, the tribe chief gained power and the “birdman’ winner prestige. Of course, nothing can be easy and this was definitely a test of endurance, mental agility and athletic ability.
Visiting Orongo (about 15 minute drive from town or a nice long walk), we hiked up the mountain a bit to view the dormant volcano crater which is sadly deteriorating from environmental elements. The question isn’t will the water flood into the crater if the side wall crumbles but when will it happen. Knowing that this area could disappear makes the visit that much more important.
With a strong wind, we toured the top of the crater making our way to the Orongo visitor center. This is one of the two visitors centers that you need to show your National Park pass that you purchased at the airport. You also sign a visitor book but our guide Paul, who is well known, had us skip the line, so I know I was there but there is no written record sadly.
We were told of the birdman competition and shown the houses that the tribes lived in while waiting for the winner to return to the village. Paul, our guide, had visited the island in the 60′s as a teenager helping out with an archeological visit. At the time, he said that they were able to climb into the igloo like structures and discovered that they go deep down inside on levels. You can no longer get up close and personal with the houses.
Looking out to the island where the birds nest was located, you realized the scope of this competition. It was insane! How anyone lived to bring the egg back is amazing.
Sadly, another victim to the environmental decay are the petroglyphs on the rocks. The viewing platform limits the number of tourists so you need to wait your turn. The fact that they are still visible given the wind and sea damage is pretty incredible this many years later. It is disappearing history, but the story of the “birdman” lives.