The Haka Pei is undoubtedly the boldest and most expected competition among the locals and visitors who attend the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival. The public congregates at the foot of the Maunga Pu’i hill, located on the road from Hanga Roa to Anakena beach, to observe a unique extreme sport in the world.
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The young and brave participants wait at the top of this hill naked, with no more protection than a hami (traditional loincloth) and adorned with takona (body paintings), before starting this exciting test.
This risky game consists of sliding down the hillside, lying on a kind of rustic sled built with two trunks of bananas joined together. At speeds that sometimes reach 80 km/h, the contestants descend to the base of the hill in less than ten dizzying seconds. The winner will be the one who manages to travel the greatest distance from the launch point, thus obtaining valuable points for his team.
An ancient initiation ritual
It is believed that the origin of Haka Pei dates back to an ancient rite, in which young people had to demonstrate their maturity and courage in a test that involved a transition from childhood to adulthood. Young people who successfully surpassed it could become matato’a or warriors. Other versions believe that this practice was part of the warrior training routine in order to give them courage in the battles they fought against other clans on the island.
A few decades ago, this ancient tradition recovered and was included in the program of the events of the Tapati Rapa Nui, becoming the most anticipated competition for the public.
Many Rapanui young people do not dare to participate in the Haka Pei. Local heroes do not usually exceed twenty. It is not surprising, since to participate in this test, in addition to overcoming fear, you have to be a little crazy.
The preparation: trunks, takona and curanto
It all starts with the selection of the trunks of bananas. These should be thick and robust enough to support a man’s weight and the wear of friction on the grass. Many of them will be destroyed on the way down.
Then they are transported to the base of the hill. There they remain several days so that the trunks absorb the energy of the place. After raising them to the top with the help of pulleys, they are first shaped with a machete, and then joined in pairs using ropes and stakes, to build a kind of wood sled. This will be the reckless vehicle that will be used in the descent. Without rudder or steering wheel or brakes, with only two pairs of stakes where to place the feet and hands.
On the day of the competition, the contestants adorn their body with takona or body paint. For this, they use the ki’ea or natural pigment of various colors, mostly from the Viringa O Tuki natural quarry located on a cliff on the coast. Each design is personal and tells a story. The ancient warriors used this painting to increase their strength and courage, as a natural method to protect themselves from the sun and how to camouflage in battles with their adversaries.
Before launching, a Umu Tahu or ceremonial “curanto” is prepared to honor the ancestors who practiced haka pei and bless those present. The food is shared in a kind of ancestral and mystical communion. All competitors gather in a circle and raise a prayer to the ancient divinity of Make Make to implore the mana or spiritual power to protect them during the risky trial.
Interestingly, the day before, young people who participate for the first time in the competition go to the catholic church of Santa Cruz to pray and ask for divine protection. Once again, the religious syncretism of the Rapanui people is evident, combining their traditional beliefs with the Christian ones.
The action begins
The competitors, just over a dozen, take positions on the top of the hill, while the large audience waits expectantly forming a long line on the hillside, concentrating mostly on the base. Nobody wants to lose detail.
The perspective from the top intimidates. From the height of Maunga Pu’i, a large part of the island can be seen. The first brave one is mounted on the trunks sledge animated by the shouts of his companions and rivals, who propel him strongly during the first meters. Once the inertia is over, the sled glides at full speed along a slope of vertigo that reaches an inclination of 45º.
From that moment, luck comes into play but also the ability and position of the young people to maintain balance. Most adopt the conventional position by placing their feet in front, but some are placed with their heads facing down just like on a surfboard.
The distance traveled on the slope is about 300 meters but it is done in just 10 electrifying seconds at a speed that can reach 70 or 80 km / h. If all went well, the brave pilots reach their goal when their rustic sledge stops on the flat ground in front of the jury.
The satisfaction of reaching the goal and the shot of adrenaline makes them jump like a spring and show their immense joy among the cheers of their peers and the rest of the public. You can feel the enormous energy released among all attendees.
Usually the participants are launched one by one, but sometimes they do it in pairs, forming what could be called a “tandem haka pei”. This modality is even more difficult since when doubling the weight on the trunks, the speed increases, forcing “the riders” to coordinate the balance and the movements to avoid falling.
There was also the case in which “the manhood” necessary to launch has been questioned by some brave Rapanui woman. Acts like this, together with the recent incorporation of young women in the Rapa Nui triathlon, help modernize the Tapati Festival by promoting gender equality.
A very risky activity
Unfortunately, haka pei does not always conclude successfully. Irregular terrain, weed bushes, imperfections characteristic of such a peculiar vehicle, bad posture or nervousness can cause the participant to literally end up jumping into the air.
In many cases, the competitors are released from their mount midway without being able to finish their descent. If they are lucky, they will end your career disappointed and bruised. Other times, loss of control can end in tragedy.
Uri Paté, considered a master and a legend of Haka Pei after competing for more than twenty years, suffered a serious accident in the 2016 Tapati Rapa Nui edition. Assisted by his mates, he was quickly driven by ambulance to Hanga Roa hospital and later transferred to Santiago for later recovery.
Threats and future of Haka Pei
When these incidents occur, there are some locals who consider whether this activity should continue to be part of the Tapati program. But it seems that despite its danger, Haka Pei will continue for a long time. Uri Paté himself is willing to continue instructing new practitioners.
In fact, the most experienced participants teach this ancestral sport to new generations. Over shorter distances, children practice a light version of Haka Pei during Rapa Nui Language Day as part of the program of activities that seek to foster local culture.
Apart from criticism and questioning, there is a more palpable threat that has sometimes forced the competition to be suspended. It’s about the fires. In times of drought it is easy to turn on the grass quickly. A few years ago, the hill burned down in just five hours, forcing the competition to be suspended for the safety of the participants.
Haka Pei song
The local group Matato’a (meaning warrior in the Rapanui language) led by the missing Keva Matato’a Atan dedicated a song to Haka Pei in his album Tatoo.
The Haka Pei celebration takes place on the Maunga Pu’i hill, an ancient and small extinct volcano located on the last stretch of the road that connects Hanga Roa with Anakena beach. In the last editions it has been developed on the afternoon of the first Sunday of February. The dates and events of the Tapati usually vary over the years, so it is advisable to consult the program.
Due to the great interest that the Haka Pei generates among inhabitants and visitors, traffic jams tend to occur when several dozen vehicles are concentrated in a small space. So it is convenient to arrive in time to avoid congestion and choose a good site.
Read the following tips to enjoy Tapati Festival to the fullest
The test can be seen from three points of view that offer different and interesting perspectives for all attendees in general and fans of photography and video in particular. At the top you can follow the evolutions of the competitors, the rites and the nervousness of the launch. Along the slope, the descent at high speed will be observed more closely. Already at the base, you can experience the emotion of arrival.
It is convenient to choose one or two places at the most, since the steep slope of the hill forces to maintain balance and to distribute the forces to move up and down so as not to lose detail.