The hairs on the back of my neck stand directly up, despite the extreme humidity that fights to keep them firmly plastered to my body. Stirring chants from the men of the tribe are both harmoniously beautiful & terrifying all at once. We are being welcomed into the primitive world of Land Diving on Pentecost Island, Vanuatu. Like nothing we have ever witnessed before; the atmosphere is electric & yet uneasy. These warriors that stand before us are here to share one of the world’s most ancient tribal traditions & my family seem a mix of nervous uncertainty & wonder as we prepare to witness Land Diving Vanuatu style.

Thanks to an alarmingly small twin engine called ‘Oscar nine’ we have made it to the tiny, remote island of Pentecost, 190 kilometres North of Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila. I must admit that when I booked this trip I was concerned that it would be too confronting for the kids to be part of & now that we are full throttle in the middle of this world, I am unsure if I will still be up for nomination for mother of the year. After landing in the middle of a jungle airstrip called Lonorore we have walked towards the rocky coastline where a boat & Landrover have helped us reach this colourful village. Just as we arrive so to does Worldvision and the relief for the people of the village is keenly felt, as rice is distributed to help families get through in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam. This coupled with the opening of the Naghol festival creates a carnival-like atmosphere and the local school kids are dressed & ready to impress us with their version of Frère Jacques, while we sip fresh coconut & nibble on pink grapefruit.

The expertly built Naghol tower is an imposing sight looming in a clearing further beyond in the thick vegetation. This iconic piece of bush-craftsmanship had to be painstakingly re-built after Pam tore through only weeks before & everyone had been working hard to get the 30-metre structure ready in time for the beginning of the yam harvest. The ancient ritual of land diving is reported to have started when many years ago a woman of the tribe was dis-satisfied with her husband, Tamalie, and ran away into the forest to escape him. He followed her & so she climbed a giant Banyan tree, tying vines around her ankles incase she needed to jump in order to escape him. As she jumped the vines caught her in a bungie-like affect but Tamalie, who had not tied vines around his ankles plummeted to his death. The men of the tribe have traditionally performed this re-enactment from April-June each year to show their women that they will never be tricked again. The ‘divers’ of the village are young men who have reached the age of fertility, let me tell you, these guys are like rock stars in this part of the Pacific! The younger divers start off on the lower struts, while the more experienced men jump from the full height of the tower. Vine is wrapped around their ankles as they perform & lap up their celebrity status while the tribe below chant & cheer in a stirring & wonderfully hypnotic way.

We are perched on the edge of a steep incline, we have scrambled through the jungle & are now so close we can literally touch the tower and feel the energy of this tradition being carried through to the next generation. We are sticky & somewhat smattered with dirt, the cicadas chirp away while the sun beats down on our very white skin, but all of this pales into the background as the first jump looms. It feels almost like a car accident that you really don’t want to see & yet you cannot tear your eyes away from it. I am swept away with what we are bearing witness to & I have Goosebumps despite the searing heat. The young man climbs deftly to his position & sets about geeing up the crowd, his 15 seconds of fame & he will milk it for all it’s worth. He stands with toes gripping just over the edge, reaches his arms skyward, looks towards the heavens & jumps…the vines pulling taught with a snap as his full weight contacts the rich red earth below. I grimace & cover my eyes but as I peek at the kids they are in true amazement & join the crowd with claps & cheers, as they urge the young man to get up. He is a hero, virile & strong, a true man now and is grinning from ear to ear. Quickly he is helped to his feet & bundled off.

The celebration continues as more young Ni-Van men prepare to have their moment in the sun & as the jumps carry on, they move further & further up the tower. It is an amazing spectacle of colour, tradition & song & I feel like I am in the middle of a National Geographic documentary. The villagers believe that land diving will enhance the health of the diver & that a successful dive can remove the illnesses associated with the wet season. It also is said to prove the masculinity of a warrior & on a practical level guarantees a bountiful yam-harvesting season. The idea is that the arms are tucked against the chest & that the earth must come in to contact with the shoulders, the only problem being that there is a head on those shoulders & injuries range from broken necks to mild concussion. Luckily for us all jumps were a big success on the day we were lucky enough to be there, with the exception of the last jumper whose vine broke but luckily he still managed to bounce back up like a true warrior. When it comes to once in a lifetime experiences, this one sets the benchmark sky-high.

 

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