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Midday brings a lull to Easter Island. In the capital, Hanga Roa, fat dogs retreat beneath cars to escape the heat, hyperactive children fall silent and cling dozily to their parents, and businesses close, their owners drifting home to wait for sunset on shaded porches. In the torpid afternoon, Loti Garcia Haoa stands in shadow at the diving centre where he works as an instructor, shielding his eyes against the sun to stare out beyond the harbour to the South Pacific. A line of surfers paddle out to the open sea, bobbing up and over the furious waves that pound the coastline.

The elbows of Loti’s tattooed arms are bound tight with bandages. His wounds – which his grandmother earlier smothered in shark oil to help them heal – are a badge of honour, a souvenir from his part in the Tapati Rapa Nui. ‘I’ve wanted to take part since I was a kid. I promised myself I would do it. And I did it,’ he laughs, tossing back his long hair over muscular shoulders. ‘And I am still alive. With a few scrapes.’

The annual cultural festival brings together testosterone-filled tests of strength, daring and endurance with delicate displays of dance and arts in a two-week whirl that swells tourist numbers and involves most of the island’s 5,000-strong population. Loti’s own participation was in the most eagerly anticipated event, the Haka Pei. The rules for this are simple: stand naked but for a loincloth at the top of a 300m-tall volcano, hold on to two banana tree-trunks lashed together with twine and launch yourself feet-first downhill, reaching speeds of 50mph before skidding to a halt in front of a whooping crowd. ‘You are not in control of anything,’ Loti smiles. ‘The only thing you can hear is the grass swooshing and the trunk thudding. When you go, you really go!’

He was one of a couple of dozen young islanders to take part in the Haka Pei, many of whom had already competed in other gruelling physical activities before striding up Maunga Pu, the volcano used every year for the Tapati toboggan run. In the build-up, spectators laid out picnic blankets and coolboxes in any patches of shade they could find, ready for a day’s entertainment. As a traditional feast got under way, with festival organisers baking enough fish to feed 1,500, a makeshift community sprang up: an accordion band played under a gazebo, families sold empanadas, Corona and Sprite from the back of their Jeeps, and kids played Polynesian pop music through portable speakers. At the foot of Maunga Pui, the Tapati games continued. Competitors threw long spears at a distant post, each strike greeted with wild drumming, dancing and cheers from the crowd.

Set back from the hubbub, a green tent stood out against the brightest of blue skies. Men and women came and went, carrying tools or munching on slices of watermelon. Here, slowly fanning herself from the heat, sat Lilian Paté. Twenty-one years old, strikingly beautiful and with a smile that spreads easily across her face, ‘Lili’ is the driving force for half of the competitors. Along with 16-year-old Celine Bour- Manutomatoma, she is standing as a ‘candidate’ for Tapati, fronting a team that will compete in her name throughout the festival. The winners will see their figurehead crowned queen on the last night, ringing in one of the biggest celebrations of the year on an island that rarely needs an excuse for a party.

The miracle that there is a local population to celebrate here at all becomes clear from the top of Maunga Pu. From here, the island stretches out. Ludicrously bright green hills roll down to the rocky coast – and beyond that, nothing but the endless ocean and the curve of the horizon. There is no other land mass for 1,200 miles. Chile, of which Easter Island is a territory, is 2,300 miles to the east.

How this tiny dot in the middle of the South Pacific came to be inhabited is the subject of some debate, but the most widely accepted theory is that Polynesian seafarers arrived from the west around 400 AD, perhaps from their nearest neighbour, the Pitcairn Islands. Skilled navigators, they plotted their course by the stars, ocean and clouds, at a time when god-fearing Europeans still believed that the Earth was flat and they might fall off it if they sailed too far.

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