by Jed Smith
It is the mid-nineties and a young Kohl Christensen is on his first trip outside of Hawaii. He has landed in Rapa Nui, an obscure speck of lava some three and a half thousand kilometres west of Chile in the Pacific. It is among the most remote islands in the world where you’ll find humans living and although Kohl was expecting things to be a little different, he wasn’t expecting this.
“I got off the plane and kinda tripped out. There were more horses than cars at that point; all dirt roads. I’d never experienced anything like it,” he recalls. As the rest of world was getting to know the internet, Rapa Nui was doing the same with the automobile. Nevertheless, with its dozens of lava reefs subject to the same swells as Tahiti and Fiji, the potential for world-class waves was obvious. What’s more the promise of no crowds, endless adventure and limitless ways in which to test yourself was something the young Hawaiian just couldn’t pass up.
Kohl thrusts his hips and yells “Yah!” The beast doesn’t budge. Kohl scans the deserted hills around him. Wind whistles off the grass and out to sea. In the distance cobalt lines whoooomp! against the lava cliffs. Kohl his 7’0 to the ground, dismounts and begins walking his horse the seven miles home. “We had an interesting relationship, me and my horse,” says Kohl.
He’d gotten the beast after swapping a board for it. There were a handful of surfers on the island and after making friends with two of them he was shown to some of the island’s waves. For his first surf, they ventured to a giant open ocean right, fanned by a stiff offshore, with 12 foot peaks shifting around it. “I’m undergunned,” was Kohl’s first and only thought.
Although Rapa Nui has been compared to a coldwater version of Tahiti, it has remained firmly off the travel itineraries of the wider surfing community. A fact which makes much more sense once you’ve been there, says Kohl. “The waves are some of the most dangerous and scary waves I’ve ever surfed – super slabby and heavy, like Hawaiian North Shore waves but with no beaches. It’s super sharp volcanic rock and underneath the water it’s sea urchins the size of basketballs sitting on top of the reef. There is one small shitty hospital and on this side of the island (where he is at the moment) there is nothing around – just statues and cows and horses. There is nobody. If you get hurt out there you’re kind of fucked,” he says.
“It was a pretty rowdy scene,” remembers Kohl of the Rapa Nui party scene. The Pakaratis lived next door to the island’s discothèque and it soon became tradition for Kohl and his travel partner to toast a day waves at the bar. After tying their horses up out front with the rest, Kohl remembers entering a room full of giants, with even bigger appetites for booze. At any one time there might be several clan disputes going on meaning it wouldn’t take long for the fists and bar stools to start flying. “You’d get in a lot of quarrels. Luckily I was staying with one of the biggest families and I’d party with them so I only got in a few,” says Kohl. For the lone foreigner in the bar there was also one other side effect: “The girls would rape you!” says Kohl. Often the antics of the night paled in comparison to the morning after. Kohl remembers cavalcades of drunkards slumped over their horses being carted home.
One time he watched a drunkard run his horse at full gallop into an oncoming VW Kombi. The drunkard was thrown over the van, landing in a crumpled heap on the other side, while the horse’s head smashed through the windshield, almost killing the driver (the horse was killed). With only a tiny medical clinic on the island, serious injuries here require an air evacuation to Santiago, Chile, five and a half hours flight away. It’s hardly an incentive to risk your life surfing the island’s giant waves but as Kohl puts it, “you’re young and dumb and charging. You’re never thinking of that.” Apart from one mishap in which he was rolled across a bed of basketball-sized urchins, Kohl’s time on the island was relatively injury free. He and his Pakarati spent months riding the countryside. They would camp out for as long as a week living off the land and surfing. Kohl soon took up with a local girl and ended up staying almost a year, in which time he became totally immersed in the local culture. He even competed in the famous Tapati festival (in which locals race around the island’s lake carrying giant bunches of bananas).
Today Kohl is rated among the world’s best big wave surfers, having racked up bombs at Cloudbreak and during the most recent swell at Teahupoo. But it was this first trip in Rapa Nui that is his most memorable. So adored was he by the local community, they demanded he be initiated with a traditional tattoo before leaving. Kohl agreed and as a final parting gift was thrown a banquet. What was on the menu, you ask? His trusty steed of course. “Yeah, we BBQ’d it,” shrugs Kohl. “They eat a lot of horse there.”