||Day 2,955 - Pentecost, Vanuatu (15° 54S 168° 11E)
20:33hrs - July 3rd 2015
We've witnessed fire walking ceremonies in Fiji, heiva in Tahiti, lakalaka in Tonga, haka dances in New Zealand, even a four-day matava'a o te henua enana festival in the Marquesas, but none of these compare to the unforgettable intensity of naghol.
The naghol, or land diving ceremony, is only performed on one island and during a specific season. It is a tradition performed not only to ensure a successful yam harvest, but also for men to prove their bwahri, or inner warrior, and for boys who wish to prove their manhood. And before tourists arrived in Vanuatu eager to pay for the privilege of witnessing this unique ritual, it was a private, ancient and sacred custom reserved for just a single week in May.
But in the 1960's, David Attenborough revealed the shocking tradition to the world when his BBC film crew tracked through the jungle to capture the first grainy footage of Pentecost's land divers. Now, not only is the ceremony performed most Saturdays during the months of April, May and June, but it inspired AJ Hackett to launch bungee jumping in the 1980's, commercializing the ritual for millions of thrill-seeking adrenaline junkies around the world.
But remarkably, we discovered, even with all this exposure and attention, land diving on the island of Pentecost remains as genuine, dangerous and authentic today as it did when the first ni-Vanuatu ancestors jumped centuries ago.
The tower, rickety and unfinished in appearance, and looking as ancient and forboding as the tradition itself, sways on a hillside overlooking the South Pacific, tethered to the jungle with 150 foot vines as though restraining the very spirit from jumping which is believed to inhabit the structure. Each season the construction is built anew using only freshly cut tree trunks, branches and vines. A trusted village elder bares the heavy responsibility of selecting and cutting liana vines, carefully matching the diver's weight and height of jump to ensure that each diver's head will connect with the earth as the vines stretch to their absolute limit. The hillside is chosen for it's forgiving slope, and the soil turned for a more gentle landing. But the margins for safety seem impossibly narrow, especially when you consider there are no modern tools used in the preparation: no scales to weigh jumpers, no tension meters, not even a tape measure to verify instinct.
The ritual can only be performed safely from April to June when the vines have the best elasticity. In the dry season they become too brittle, in the rainy season too soft. In fact, the only recorded naghol fatality was in 1974 when a special royal ceremony was arranged for Queen Elizabeth II, tragically, for the land diver, she visited Vanuatu in February.
We arrived in Vanuatu in May, and quickly sailed to Pentecost eager to witness a ceremony which had not only captivated me as a child, but had inspired me, even with a very acute fear of heights, to bungee jump in Australia many yam seasons ago.
We anchored in Londot Bay in thirty feet of clear water over black volcanic sand, sharing the anchorage with just two other sailboats off a shoreline shrouded in dense jungle with a single plume of grey smoke rising from a traditional thatch village. Luke Fargo, a village elder and the man responsible for promoting land diving in Londot, marked the beach landing for us with an old white sheet lashed to a stick, and it was from Dream Time's deck that we got our first glimpse of the naghol tower, its summit barely visible amongst the rustling palm canopies.
Even for our tiny group of sailors, just six adults and three children, the entire village prepared, gathered and participated in the ceremony. Woman wearing traditional grass skirts swayed, whistled and sang from behind the tower, while men and boys, wearing nambas (penis sheaths), stomped the ground aggressively while chanting encouragement to divers.
Land diving is said to originate from the legend of tamale, a dispute between lovers resulting in a woman fleeing a demanding husband, seeking refuge in a banyan tree, before finally jumping with vines to escape. The husband, perhaps a little too eager to follow, jumped after his wife without vines and fell to his death. It is said that naghol is performed to remind woman that men will not be deceived again. So it is taboo for woman to touch the tower, the vines, or even walk on the sacred earth where the men land. It is also taboo for a man to have sex the night before he jumps, which seems like a poor deal to me.
The jumps were increasingly more difficult to watch, unsettling not only because each consecutive diver climbed higher towards the uppermost platform, a staggering eighty feet above the ground, but more because of the very real, guilty and disturbing understanding that these men were jumping on that day not to secure a healthy yam harvest, or to prove their manhood, or even to assert themselves over cunningly superior wives, but they were jumping for us, a group of spectators so small that most venues couldn't possibly justify the time and energy of performance for such a small return.
One by one we watched six divers climb, prepare and throw themselves off the tower. Some in our group looked away or fixed their eyes on the tower rather than the landing area below. The three cruising children covered their eyes or ears to protect themselves from a sight too disturbing, or from an echoing sound too distressing when the wooden platforms intentionally cracked and collapsed under the final and ruling strain of the vines.
One man, who was performing his first dive, visibly shook and trembled on the narrow platform before crossing his arms tight against his chest then reluctantly, and slowly, falling forward. A man clinging to the tower behind him swung a machete, cutting a support which would allow the jumping platform to collapse under the final strain, vital to absorbing the initial shock and preventing the vines from snapping. While two men below held the vines to prevent them from catching against the tower during the diver's free fall, and two more men waited at the base of the tower ready to assist the diver, who, resisting an unimaginable instinct to protect himselves with outstretched arms, must land head first.
The ceremony lasted for an hour and I felt drained from the experience, from the gut-wrenching anticipation and tension, and the concern we all seemed to share for the divers. I sat mesmerized on the muddy grass, neck craned and fully absorbed by the experience. Not with just a primitive curiosity - a morbid fascination that I think we all share deep within ourselves, but with the knowledge that I was witnessing something truly unique. It was an unforgettable ritual that I feel privileged to have experienced, but without any doubt, would never choose to watch again.