Fun, games as Easter Island chooses queen

2012-02-16 12:02

Hanga Roa - Canoe and swim races across an extinct volcanic crater, palm tree sledding down a hill, late-night dance and song marathons - on Easter Island, choosing a queen is a tough slog.

One of the world's remotest islands is in the throes of Tapati, an all-out 15-day contest between rival teams to crown a new monarch, held under the silent gaze of the island's rows of giant monolithic stone heads.

In a battle that reaches its peak this week, the Polynesian island's 6 700 people must choose between Lily, aged 20, and Celine, aged 15. And, although it's a lot of fun, the annual fight for the crown is no laughing matter.

"This is a war, and it has already begun," Celine said at the start of the contest which is driven not just by the rivals' qualities but also their family connections in a society where nearly everyone is related.

The new queen will reign for a year, and although she has no political power, she will be expected to represent Easter Island in other cultural events in Polynesia or Chile, of which the island is a territory.

Preparations for the events take almost a year, during which hundreds of plumed costumes, grass weaves and sea conches are assembled.

Navel of the world

Teams of competitors must be plied with food and drink as they dance, sing, swim, row and even surf for their royal favourite, with a panel of judges keeping a running point tally to finally declare a winner.

Easter Island - dubbed the "navel of the world" - lies in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, more than five hours' flight from Tahiti in the west, and Chile's capital Santiago in the east.

Rapa Nui, as its inhabitants call it, has retained its Polynesian identity and in particular its relationship with the Marquesas archipelago. Rapa Nui and Spanish are its official languages.

Relations with the Chilean government went through a tense stretch last year amid protests for ancestral rights to the land, greater political autonomy and protection of the island's sparse natural resources.

The island's remoteness has not discouraged tourists from travelling there, most of them eager to see its 887 famous stone statues, or moai, the main draw of the Unesco World Heritage Site.

Santiago has agreed to limit the numbers of people not born on the island, who now account for nearly 30% of the population, a presence that strained Easter Island's society and ecosystem.

Spreading the word

The Hanga Roa airport now receives 65 000 travellers a year, about as many as the island can absorb, says Luz Zasso Haoa, mayor of the island's capital.

Many of them come for Tapati, a highlight on the cultural calendar.

Word has spread about the colourful cultural event. A dance company from the Marquesas, Kaipeka, whose virile war dances are known throughout the South Pacific, is taking part this year for the first time.

Candidates for queen must direct traditional dances with as many as 300 performers on stage. They must also speak the Rapa Nui language, sing, dance, swim and master other arts handed down by their ancestors.

Other more modern disciplines, such as the accordion or the tango, also figure in the competition, which usually goes on until the early hours of morning.

During the festival's traditional triathlon, athletes row canoes made of reeds, run around the spectacular water-filled crater of the Rano Raraku volcano, and then swim across it.

Measures of respect

Others race horses - a major mode of transport on the island - raising huge dust clouds on the largely barren surface.

The festivities don't come cheap - Celine's father claims to have spent the equivalent of $65 000 to try to secure his daughter's coronation in the largely ceremonial post.

The festival ends on Friday, February 17 with carnival-style festivities in Hanga Roa. Easter Islanders and tourists joining in will parade nearly nude, most of them dressed only in a simple grass covering and wearing body paint.

Only the bravest islanders compete in the festival's Haka Pei event, which wins the teams no points but large measures of respect.

The dare-devil participants make sleds from banana palm trees and race them down a steep hill at speeds in excess of 80km an hour.

The main goal is simply to get to the bottom safe and sound.