In April 2005 I landed on Rapa Nui late one night, walking straight out of the tiny airport under pitch-black starry skies into the fragrant enveloping smells of the Pacific. Little did I know how that night would signal the beginning of four challenging, but life changing months.
Before travelling to Rapa Nui I had done little research. I was simply looking for a raw and un-edited experience. But I did know something about Pacific Islands and Rapa Nui (Easter Island was the name given by early Europeans), or so I thought… The Pacific seeds had been set many years before during windy nights in the attic bedroom of my Granny’s house, where I would read a first edition of the Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. With its black and white photos of the high seas, distant islands and of course, Scandinavian men with big beards and short-shorts, the book fuelled my young imagination. They built a raft and rode waves, caught sharks and floated over whales. Maybe that’s one reason why I studied marine biology as an undergraduate…
Arriving on the island was like nothing before, yet something about the landscape felt distantly familiar. Sections of the rocky coastline were reminiscent of the western Scottish coast and the Isle of Skye. The rolling green hills, albeit volcanic, were almost comforting, with a hint of the Yorkshire Dales. But nothing could compare to the South Pacific ocean, it’s opaque turquoise colour, dominating presence and ever changing face. It finally made sense one day, when standing on the highest point of the island, a volcanic peak named Terevaka. As I stood on the grassy mound, looking out to sea, surveying the curvature of the Earth and the melding of sky into ocean, I suddenly felt deeply connected – that I was part of it, and it was part of me. Call it a yogic moment, a realisation, an epiphany but it was the moment, my moment when I truly gained an inkling that the world is at it should be, simply raw and incredibly beautiful, yet magical and mysterious.
As a volunteer with the museum and the youth programme ‘A Po most of my time on the island involved working with a group of high school students. We studied plants, some marine biology and lichen, conducting a survey of the lichen growing on the archaeological site known as Vinapu. I also found myself teaching yoga, baby-sitting and even running in the local half-marathon! But it was during my time at the museum that I learnt about Katherine Routledge – the first anthropologist to conduct an extended study of the Rapanui culture. To my surprise, Katherine Routledge was born in Darlington, the town where I was also born and grew up! With this revelation in hand, I spent further time researching Katherine’s work and read about the 1914 Mana Expedition to Easter Island. I decided right there and then that come 2014 something must be done to celebrate the link between Darlington and Rapa Nui!
But the big, looming question that I, and many visitors to Rapa Nui ask, is about the environment: is Rapa Nui an example of what could happen to the world if we deplete all our resources? Well… on one hand you could say yes but the story is not so black and white and I am personally inclined to say no! What did happen to Rapa Nui? We will probably never fully know or understand all the different reasons that brought about the changes to an island that led a once thriving, moai (and many other structures) building population into decline. The film 180° South eloquently describes the major factors that research has shown may have played a role in the deforestation of Rapa Nui and the consequent societal changes. The Rapa Nui I discovered and the people I met are thriving once again, and have undergone a cultural revival, which demonstrates and celebrates human resilience and adaptability. But the island is reliant upon shipped supplies and tourism for much of it’s income. However could you not say the same of London or any other island destination?
The same modern day environmental issues face Rapa Nui just as they do every country around the world: increasing population numbers; clean water supply; air pollution impacts; waste disposal and recycling to name a few. I had many conversations with concerned islanders regarding population growth, which in turn is leading to increased pressure on the island’s fresh water aquifer. The aquifer is slowly soaking up pollutants from raw sewage and run-off from the island’s landfill site, plus sea water intrusion is occasionally occurring. All of these factors may lead to water from the aquifer being un-potable in the future, which in turn could impact the health and livelihood of many islanders.
A few months ago, during a long run with a local ultra runner I learnt about the concept of athletic altruism. Many runners have battled with the question ‘Why?’ – but my running buddy has made a dedicated effort to show that running for a reason is a very important consideration. There seem to be two schools of thought with regards to reasons for doing extra-curricular activities – those beyond the normal scope of an average day. When asked ‘Why climb a mountain?’ George Mallory famously replied, ‘Because it’s there.’ But going beyond the simple urge of moving to fulfil a nascent need, linking our thoughts and actions with problems bigger than our own, ultimately can create a potentially more valuable butterfly effect.
Initially the plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1914 Mana Expedition included sailing to Rapa Nui from England, and that project titled ‘Sail Our Seas’ is still on the table for a later date. But with 2014 fast approaching, I began to realise that something smaller, on a more personal level, that could be effective, was needed.
After taking advice from connections to Katherine Routledge, the decision to raise funds for an environmental issue linked to freshwater on Rapa Nui was made. I remembered reading about the work of an Australian NGO on the island, and contacted them with regards to potential projects. The NGO immediately replied saying ‘Yes! We want to supply the island with a ‘BioMax’ sewage digesting unit.” The next step was to decide how best to combine my passion for running with fund raising for the BioMax unit, and after many coffee fuelled brainstorming sessions, and long runs deep in thought, ‘Running after Routledge’ was finally launched.
However – an expedition does not spontaneously happen, and to help cover some of the basic costs associated with running and travelling from Darlington to Rapa Nui, and to help fund the film making aspects of the journey, I have created an Indiegogo Campaign (with some awesome perks!) that is live until December 23rd. After that date the final preparations for departure will take place and the funding the BioMax will begin in earnest.
The answers to the question why I decided to plan this expedition might seem long-winded but I hope they provide enough background: some sense to the inspiration; logic to the miles; and method to the madness – which is difficult to define. If not, then please do send me an email!!
To read fully about the plans for the trip, which has the hash tag #runpedition associated with it for these social-media-times, please see the project page: Running after Routledge.
Thanks for reading and Happy Trails!