A journey to the Land Divers and Why Bungee Jumping suddenly doesn’t look so brave anymore
Suicidal and insane are the first words that come into my mind, followed by brave, overwhelming and life-affirming after the first jump – at least when you look into the faces of the laughing divers. Altogether the spectacle of the Land Diving looks more like a festivity of happiness and the desire to be alive.
I traveled to the island of Pentecost, Vanuatu, with a small air taxi. Now I am sitting in the bush with a few other guests on a bench build out of the big branch of a tree. I am monitoring the preparations and the wooden tower for the first jump. They measure and tie the vines very skillfully, every diver is responsible for his own vines – although the chief of the tribe has the last say in the construction and whether the diver is allowed to jump.
Since Pentecost has been welcoming guest to the celebration of the Land Diving only since a couple of years, I feel honored to marvel at the extraordinary ritual, even though my own bravery suddenly seem to vanish. The bravery to live, the courage to risk your life for the community, the fearlessness for the zest of life, the guts to survive, the braveness and the hunger to look into the eyes of the adventure.
Boys and men jump off an up to 30 meter high wooden tower to celebrate the harvest and their manhood with only vines tied to their ankles. The fellow villagers support the divers with chanting and dancing in the approach to fertilize the soil with their hair.
At the first jump I as a spectator hold my breath from the violent cracking, only to feel relieve that the cracking was not human bones but rather vines and the tower withstanding the shaking.
All divers get up from the ground with a heartwarming smile – in known history there have been only 2 deaths. One occurred during the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 when the missionaries convinced the villagers to entertain the royal visit out of season. One of the divers jumped with wet vines into his death.
Fearless they celebrate the manhood, the strength of the body that is built by the daily life in the jungle, the testosterone and the bravery of the men while the women dance and whistle in the background.
As an european woman I feel a little to mischievously serenity by the thought that a women concocted the Land Diving and that women altogether enjoyed the jump from high trees for many years.
Naghol or Gol in the local language of the southern part of Pentecost was invented by a married wife hundreds of years ago. Legend has it that she found her husband unbearable to live with. He pursued her up a huge banyan tree where she threatened to leap to her death. She dared him to follow her, saying that if they survived the jump off the tree they must have been truly meant for each other. He accepted the challenge without a second thought. Much too late and blinded by her sweet words he saw that his wife had vines wrapped around her ankles and tied to the tree. While he was left to die, his wife survived.
Local women re-enacted their sister’s dive for some years, but whenever they jumped off the tree, the wind whistled eerily through the woods. They took this as a sign that the dead husband’s spirit was still distressed and wandering the woods. The elders ruled then that henceforth only men could make the jump.
And these men are annually celebrated by the few guests that fly in during the months of May and June. They pose on the tower, wave and laugh, fold their hands with a glance into the sky before they jump off into the depth.
Today 9 men are going to jump, the first is the youngest. I guess he is only about 12 years old. While he stands on the lowest plank he glimpses insecurely to his relatives. He shyly jumps as a young boy and gets up from the soil as a man, proudly greeted by his family.
The chanting seems to get louder with every jump, taking the Divers higher and higher up the tower.
The final jump from the small top of the wooden tower gets me to hold my breath once again. The dive seems to be an infinite free fall although the diver can reach a speed up to 70 kmh. He too gets up unscathed and smiling.
Would I do the jump if I would ever be allowed to? Under no circumstance, not even from the lowest plank. I’d rather spend a whole night at the rim of the angry volcano on the neighboring island of Tanna.