There’s something almost suicidal about Vanuatu’s famous land divers. Bungy jumpers have the benefit of an elastic cord to cushion their fall, but not so the legendary N’Gol (land-diving) natives of Pentecost Island.
The origin of this dangerous ritual is clouded in tantalizing mystery. One of the more romantic tales tells the story of the abusive husband Tamalie who, in pursuit of his recalcitrant wife, followed her up a tall tree as she fled from him. She, whose name seems to have been mislaid in the passage of time, refused to come down knowing that another beating was in store. Driven by pride and rage, Tamalie lunged at her, but she jumped. Tamalie, intoxicated by fury, lunged after her not knowing she had tied vines to her legs and he plunged to his death while she survived.
Some liberal doses of artistic license may have embellished this tale, but it remains as intriguing as ever. Apparently the village men began to re-enact the nameless wife’s heroic plunge to prepare themselves for a similar challenge from their own wives. A slight variation says she repeated her stunt, along with other women, presumably to mock the incompetent men, but was ultimately forbidden to perform the dive along with any other women who might attempt it.
What is clear today is that the death-defying feat is the sole domain of the men and is equally believed to usher in a bountiful yam harvest as it is to ensure the jumper is never accused of cowardice or lacking manliness. Boys as young as seven or eight may jump, albeit from a much lower level, and then work upward as they get older.
The ‘rite of plummet’ is performed annually in the southern region of the island of Pentecost around April, May and June as the yam harvest begins. The enormous 30 metre towers are built immediately prior to the event and can take up to five weeks to construct. Jumpers will sleep on the ground the night before to ward off any evil spirits. They attach carefully selected vines to their legs being careful to approximate the length required. Wet vines will stretch and dry vines will snap, so the selection process is critical and is often left entirely in the hands of a trusted village elder. Beside the vines, there are no safety measures whatsoever
With vines attached, the almost naked jumper will make a short speech before throwing himself off the platform. The assembled crowd listen intently knowing these words may be his last. All the while the village men sing, chant and stomp to create a trance-like atmosphere. Then he jumps.
Like a rag-doll, his body flies toward the ground and at the last minute the vines tighten and arrest his otherwise fatal fall. A properly executed jump will result in the man’s head and shoulders gently caressing the tilled soil beneath the tower. Such a landing is considered lucky (no kidding) and is a good omen for the yam harvest. He staggers to his feet, assisted and congratulated by attendants at the base. A new hero is born.
“If you come and the two vines break, it means you break your neck, or your backbones, or maybe your legs,” said village leader Luke Fargo in an interview with US network, ABC.
But Fargo says they have to do it, despite the dangers. “It’s our traditional thing, so we must do it from year to year.”
If you think this sounds like fun, think again. Foreigners are expressly forbidden to participate, presumably because of the inherent danger, but also to preserve the allure for the islanders whose sacred rite this is.
“They tried to ask us to do it, but we don’t allow them, because if they miss, maybe they get injured and sometimes they die,” said Fargo.
And if you don’t believe it’s dangerous, just ask our Queen. During the 1974 Royal Visit the islanders were keen to put on a show for the visiting royalty. Only problem, it was the wrong season and the vines were dry. Not wishing to disappoint, they dived anyway, with vines snapping more often than not. The injury toll mounted and one diver later died. This, apparently, is the only such fatality in recent memory.
Westerners were first introduced en masse to this hair-raising spectacle via the camera of celebrated documentary filmmaker, Sir David Attenborough. In the 1950s, his BBC crew were bringing the strange and mysterious animals and people of the world into the living rooms of the English-speaking world.
The ‘Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club’ claim to have performed the first ‘bungee jump’ modelled on this ancient spectacle and it wasn’t long before it became commercial thanks to the ebullient Kiwi entrepreneur, AJ Hackett. His headline-grabbing stunt on the Eiffel Tower in 1987 ensured the new extreme sport’s success and by 1988 he was in operation in Queenstown New Zealand. Even James Bond has bungy-jumped (Golden Eye 1995).
P&O Cruises time their program to witness this spectacle in April, May and June
See cruise information for Pentecost Island