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Reporter's Notebook: S. Pacific Ritual Bungee Jumping

Zoltan Istvan
National Geographic Today
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.

The first diver climbed the tower and greeted the crowd like a rock star—the spectators roared back. Underneath the tower other jumpers softened the soil with long sticks in case a diver accidentally crashed.

Defying Death

After playing to the audience some more, the boy leapt headfirst toward the ground. The vines were six inches too long and he smacked the earth hard with his head. Amazingly, he was OK. His friends quickly grabbed him, stood him up, and freed his ankles. When he walked away, the boy raised his arms to the crowd and waived. More cheering ensued. The dangerous ritual repeated itself until the fifth dive, when a teenager's jump went terribly wrong. On the way down the teenager's vines snapped and the young boy slammed face first into the earth. I saw his lips and nose covered in dirt. Everyone rushed to his aid. But the teenager was unconscious.

Someone rushed in with cold water and poured it on his head; immediately the teenager started showing signs of life. After a few minutes of recovery, he was able to limp away, helped by friends and brothers. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The dancing and land diving continued.

To rekindle the festive mood one of the elders decided to jump next. For a long time the experienced diver stood on the tower, building anticipation in the crowd and inviting them to regain their enthusiasm. Eventually he made the leap. It was a perfect dive—he landed safely.

Participating in the Dive

After another jump, it was my turn to join the action. It's taboo for foreigners to land dive, but I wasn't going to let that stop my camera from doing it. After a lot of explaining, the chief finally granted me permission to tie a small camera to a diver's leg. It was an unprecedented moment. The crowd loved it, despite the fact that some questioned whether it was taboo-like.

Once the camera was recording, the young man climbed the tower. At the top, vines were attached to his legs. After a few moments of greeting the crowd, he made the dive. Thankfully, he landed safely—or I was going to have 300 angry people chasing me through the jungle. I rushed into the jump area and greeted the diver. The camera had caught it all.

In the late afternoon, the last jump took place. The finale was by one of the most experienced divers in Pentecost. He's been diving for decades. He lunged from the tower confidently and landed safely. Everyone went wild. When it was over, young kids swarmed the tower, dreaming of the day when they would be old enough to also be land divers.

In the evening, a pig was cooked to celebrate a successful Naghol. The string band emerged and many of the young people started dancing. As I downed my kava while watching the festivities, I couldn't help but think about those perilous land dives. The Naghol is Pentecost's culture in its most daring form—men defying death in an unusual and spectacular way.

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