Reporter's Notebook: S. Pacific Ritual Bungee Jumping

November 26, 2002

Vanuatu's world-famous land diving ritual, the Naghol, seems like a traditional form of bungee jumping. But after watching the first diver leap off a wooden tower reaching upwards of 25 meters (75 feet) and crash into the earth below—and the 300-person crowd erupt in cheers—it's obvious that what's happening on Pentecost Island is something radically different.

In late May I took a small bush plane to Pentecost where the villages of Loltafala were about to hold their annual Naghol. As a solo videojournalist, I'm fascinated with traditional cultures and strange rituals; Pentecost is ideal for both. Every year, males of all ages tie vines to their ankles and make daring leaps—head first—off a wooden tower.

Historically, a diver's goal was to bless the soil by skimming the earth with the top of his head; the blessing guarantees fertile soil for a bountiful yam harvest.

But these days the ritual extends far beyond yams—it underlies the foundation of tribal society in Pentecost. When a boy is ready for manhood, he proves his courage by jumping off the tower in view of his elders. Watching from the ground, the boy's mother holds a favorite item from his childhood. After his first jump, the item is thrown away, signifying he is no longer a child.

Of course the islanders of Pentecost dive for many reasons. Some jump for the sheer joy of it; others jump to prove they're committed to their ancient traditions; one young man told me he even jumped just to impress a young girl he was courting. Before dives, it's common for men to settle disputes with family, friends, or wives—just in case they die. While it's rare that anyone gets killed, ruptured spleens from accidental crashes are a serious concern. On an island without a hospital, it's an extremely serious injury.

The day before the ceremony began I visited the jump site and climbed the tower. Renee Tari, a local, explained some of the strange taboos that surround the Naghol.

Lucky Charms

"A diver must not have sex with a woman the day before he jumps—otherwise the jump will go badly and he will be hurt. Also, you must take off any lucky charms," said Tari. "A diver died in front of Queen Elizabeth when he wore a lucky charm on his dive."

Vanuatu is one of the most traditional countries in the South Pacific, and superstitions remain a cornerstone of the culture. Even though most of the islanders are Christian, ancient Vanuatu beliefs still prevail. This was evident the day of the ceremony when many of the locals abandoned their western dress for more traditional garb—penis sheathes or grass dresses.

The morning of the Naghol I awoke to drum beats. The diving wouldn't begin until the afternoon, but already the day's festivities were starting. At noon a village performed a play about a good spirit overcoming a mud-covered demon. Later, during an elaborate village lunch, string and drumming bands played their latest music.

At 2 p.m. it was time for the land diving. Everyone migrated to the jump site outside the village. I followed closely behind the female dancers. According to tradition, only men are allowed to dive, but female dancers play an essential part by giving emotional and spiritual support.

Continued on Next Page >>


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