Vanuatu Land Diving
Vanuatu Land diving is an amazing death defying feat that has been practiced by the Bunlap tribe on Pentecost Island in the South Pacific for centuries. As the precursor to bungee jumping, land diving involves men jumping from a 30 meter tower with only the vines tied to their ankles to break their fall. However, unlike bungee jumping, there are no safety lines. Furthermore, whereas bungee jumpers intentionally miss the ground by a long shot, land divers intentionally aim to brush their shoulders against the ground. This is intended to bless the ground to bring a good yam harvest. It is thought that the higher the dive platform, the bigger the harvest.
Vanuatu land diving also serves as a rite of passage ceremony for boys. As soon as a mother can afford to pay her son’s uncles in pigs, he is taken into the woods by the older uncles and circumcised. Then, to complete his passage into manhood, he takes his first jump from the tower during the next ceremony. However, boys do jump from a lower platform than the men. The mother holds one of the boy’s favorite toys in her hand during her son’s jump. Once the jump is complete, the boy is considered a man in the eyes of the village and the toy is thrown out.
The Vanuatu land diving tower itself is truly a sight to see. It takes several weeks to build the tower out of jungle debris, branches and vines. The process is overseen by the elders with the most land diving experience. The vines holding the tower together are the same type of vines used to tie to the diver’s ankles. It is very important that they pick the exact right season to build the tower and conduct the ceremony as the vines have to have just enough sap in them to be elastic enough to hold without snapping.
The ancient tradition of Vanuatu land diving is steeped in superstition. The night before land diving, the land divers sleep under the diving platform to ward off evil spirits. Additionally, having sexual relationships the day before the dive is strictly taboo as it is believed that it would bring bad luck. In fact, land diving is rumored to have started by a superstition. Vanuatu land diving legend has it that a woman several centuries ago climbed a fig tree to escape the advances of her newly wed husband. He followed her up the tree so she tied vines to her ankles and jumped off to get away from him. He jumped after her but without vines tied to his ankles. She lived but he died. After that time, the men thought it bad luck if they did not jump without vines tied to their ankles.
On the day of a jump, all of the Bunlap villagers dress in traditional clothing. The men wear nothing but a penis sheath called a nambia. The women wear grass skirts and no tops. Festivities begin in the morning with traditional drumming and dancing. In the afternoon, as each man ascends the tower, he is treated like a rock n’ roll superstar. The drumming is so loud the whole ground shakes. The women offer emotional support by performing special dances below the tower. As the Vanuatu land diving diver stands on the platform before his dive, he often makes peace with anyone he has quarreled with. There is a moment of silence during the actual jump, but as soon as the crowd below knows the man is safe, there is a roar of support. The successful diver is treated like a hero. Unofficially, it is said that many men decide to land dive to impress a woman. In the evening, a pig is roasted and the festivities continue into the night.
Vanuatu land diving has become a popular tourist attraction for a limited number of tourists each year. However, to say that Pentecost Island is off the beaten path would be an understatement. Most tourists who are lucky enough to witness the event first hand do so by taking a sea plane from Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, which is on another island. Most tourists don’t stay the night but a few adventurous individuals get to stay overnight in thatched-roof huts and participate in the entire ceremony. The village elders limit the number of tourists who are allowed to watch the naghol, the Bunlap name for land diving.
Vanuatu land diving has to be one of the most unique tourist experiences in the world and if you are ever lucky enough to have the chance to go, be sure to take it!