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Vanuatu's Original Bungee Jumpers

By Aaron Reedy

It’s almost inevitable that travelers to the South Pacific in search of indigenous custom ceremonies will become jaded. After one too many “authentic island nights” that are nothing more than poolside barbeques with plastic leis, it’s easy to think that the colorful and vibrant cultures of the islands have been completely wiped out by the steady advance of the all inclusive resort.

However, if you are willing to put down the Mai Tai long enough to veer off the beaten path, it is still possible to witness ancient rituals that are a unique window into cultures which persist even as the world around them changes.

Home of the Land Divers

Perhaps nowhere else on earth is the view through that window quite as spectacular as it is in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu during the time of the Naghol.

This awe inspiring ancient tradition, also known as land diving, is a feat of courage and Stone Age ingenuity that gave birth to modern bungee jumping.

Each year, in conjunction with the yam harvest, giant towers are constructed in the southern villages of Vanuatu’s Pentecost Island. The wooden towers themselves are amazing structures; up to 70 feet tall, each of their joints are lashed together with local vines.

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Remarkably, not a single nail or any other piece of manmade building material is used. The resulting tower is disconcertingly flexible and sways in the breeze, but is further supported by an elaborate system of vines anchoring it to a hillside.

Clad only in Nambas

Throughout the Naghol ceremony as many as 20 divers, clad only in nambas (traditional woven mats wrapped around the loins) will leap from staggered platforms on the tower with carefully chosen and measured vines tied around their ankles. Precision in preparing the vines is of grave importance. Too short and the diver will swing back into the tower; too long and he will slam into earth in an unchecked freefall.

Undoubtedly, the Naghol has changed since the people of Pentecost have realized that outsiders are eager to pay to witness this dramatic spectacle. It now occurs much more frequently then it had in the past.

Despite that, the ceremony itself still remains a stirring experience for its participants. Any preconceived notions of unenthusiastic divers going through the motions just to make a buck are quickly dispelled by the overwhelming intensity of the whole affair.

A Palpable energy

From the moment the large group of dancers start their enthusiastic singing at the base of the tower, there is a palpable energy in the surrounding jungle clearing. The young boys are the first to jump and each successive diver jumps from a higher platform.

The raw emotion on the face of the divers is undeniable. Some strut to the platform while others stoically try to present a calm face to the crowd. With each diver plunging towards the earth from a more frightening height, the knot your stomach grows larger.

The third to last diver prepares to take the plunge. He swaggers to the platform and departs with a gigantic leap. All illusions of the ritual being a completely routine and safe, albeit exciting, performance are instantly shattered. As the diver plummets to earth with unforgiving acceleration, there is a sickening sound as both of the vines snap. His body strikes the ground at an appalling speed and tumbles limp down the dirt slope.

The dancers stop in mid step. The instantaneous and devastating silence is only broken as the young man’s mother runs towards her son, wailing with grief. The two men charged with the responsibility of helping the divers to their feet rush to his aid. Without hesitation they yank the fallen diver by his hair to a sitting position. There he sits as they tug repeatedly on his hair and pour water over him.

Escaping serious injury

Against the tenets of Western medicine, the treatment appears to work. Slowly and with a dazed look the man stands up under his own power. With shaky legs he makes his way down the slope and splashes his face in the shallow creek. Miraculously he has escaped serious injury.

Then, almost as abruptly as they had stopped, the dancers resume their song. Undeterred, the next diver climbs the tower and prepares to jump from an even higher platform. The Naghol carries on as it for hundreds of years.

Travel Details: Getting There

All international flights land at Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila so you will have to begin your journey from there. Van Air (25025) has flights from Port Vila every day but Thursday running to South Pentecost’s Lonorore field for 22,640 vatu return. Van Air’s constantly changing schedule can be a bit perplexing so make sure and double check your flight time the day before you fly. Present your international ticket before you pay to receive a ten percent discount.

Unity Airlines (24475) is also an option. Their Islander aircraft is available on a charter basis to fly up to nine passengers (provided they and their luggage are under the 680kg limit) from Port Vila to Lonorore field for 150,040vt. They usually fly day trips. To overnight on Pentecost will cost more.

Money

Vanuatu’s currency is the vatu. Currently 115vt is equal to 1 US dollar. Take plenty of coins with you to Pentecost, as small stores are often unable to make change.

Accommodations

There are several simple but adequate guesthouses in South Pentecost. Like much of Vanuatu they lack power and indoor plumbing. However, what they lack in luxury they make up in charm.

There is magic to waking up under a thatch roof and being reminded that you are on a tiny island in the South Pacific. Among the best of these is the Wali Beach Bungalows, which is a charismatic local construction with bamboo walls and woven palm roof.

Rooms are 4,000vt per person, all meals included. Another pleasant option is the Pangi guesthouse. It has several rooms in old branch of the National Bank of Vanuatu. Rooms are 1,500vt per person and each meal is 300vt. For either of these guesthouses call 38327 and ask for Donal. For more options, find unique Vanuatus hotels and interesting tours in Vanuatus.

The number is a village phone so most likely a message will be passed to Donal and you will have to arrange a time to call back. Aside from the established guesthouses nearly every village in the area has a house available for guests if you are willing to seek them out, although conditions will be quite basic.

Camping is also an option. Most guesthouses will allow you to camp on the premises for a reduced rate.

Getting Around

The easiest way to get around on Pentecost is to walk. However, there are a few trucks in South Pentecost and any of the guesthouses can make arrangements for you. The ride from Lonorore field to Pangi Village will cost you 2,000vt return.

Dining in Vanuatu

The guesthouses will prepare all your meals for you unless you specify otherwise. Breakfast will be bread and jam with tea. Lunches and dinners will be simple stews over traditional root crops such as taro and manioc or rice.

Typically three meals a day will cost you about 1,000vt. The local stores have limited supplies and selection so if you want anything beyond ramen noodles or tinned mackerel be sure to bring it with you from Port Vila.

Health

Several strains of Malaria, including the serious falciprum strain, are widespread in most of Vanuatu so it is advised to take a Malaria prophylaxis during your stay. Ask your doctor before you travel. Not all guesthouses have mosquito nets so it is wise to check first or pack your own. Burning Mosquito coils at night can also keep the bloodsuckers away. They are available in Port Vila as well as at most local stores.

Girl dancer at the ceremony.

Water

Much of the drinking water in rural Vanuatu comes from rain tanks. This water is generally safe to drink. Piped water usually comes from local creeks and varies depending on the source. When in doubt drink boiled water or use iodine tablets. The tap water in Port Vila is of good quality.

Land Diving

Nearly every Saturday from April through June a Naghol is taking place somewhere in South Pentecost. Admittance won’t come cheap. Prices from 7,500 to 20,000 vatu have been charged in recent years. This fee varies from village to village. If you happen to have a Bislama speaker in your group the price is often on the lower end of this range. If you don’t go through a tour operator make sure you clarify this price up front and ask whether there are additional fees to use a camera.

Tour Operators

It is possible to have an agent make all your arrangements for flights, accommodation, meals and transport but it will cost you. Island Safaris (23288) has two night/ three-day packages available for 70,300vt and day trips for 47,600vt.

Aaron Reedy is a Peace Corps Volunteer and have been living and working in Vanuatu for the past two and a half years. 

 

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