Vanuatu: Jungle tumble

By Susan Buckland

Land divers leave Susan Buckland in awe, risking life and limb to prove their manhood.

Thirty metres high above ground at Pentecost, a man prepares himself for the leap of faith. Photo / Susan Buckland
Thirty metres high above ground at Pentecost, a man prepares himself for the leap of faith. Photo / Susan Buckland

Are you going to see the land divers of Pentecost Island?" asked the check-in assistant for the Vanuatu flight. She looked excited. "Some say they inspired the bungy jump. But diving to the ground is braver by far."

"Weather permitting," I replied, feeling excited about the prospect of witnessing the daring land divers hurtling from high towers with jungle vines lashed round their ankles.

"The weather will permit," she laughed. "You are heading for tropical balm. Take plenty of photos."

And now I was out on deck, camera in hand, on a week-long voyage among the outer islands of Vanuatu. We had departed from Espiritu Santo on Island Passage, a New Zealand vessel which takes up to 23 passengers in big ship comfort.

The small port of Luganville was quickly swallowed by rainforest. No other vessels were in sight. Just a solitary turtle swimming past with his small head above the water like a submarine periscope. And in the distance, the misty blue shapes of Vanuatu's scattered islands.

"We have 83 islands and villages where foreigners are rarely seen," Island Passage's Vanuatuan purser informed passengers. His name was Happy and he had a smile that stretched from port to starboard.

The New Zealand captain, Paul Mabee, whet our appetites with planned activities. A dug-out canoe trip into the jungle. Excursions to villages. Snorkelling and fishing. Swims from coral-sand beaches and in pools fed by waterfalls. And the icing on the cake - a trip to see the courageous divers of Pentecost Island.

By evening, passengers were out on deck, sharing impressions of Vanuatu like old friends. Night falls swiftly in the tropics and the moon shone a path to the horizon. I swam from the boat, partly to justify eating the chef's decadent desert. But mostly because the water felt like silk under a starry sky with no city lights to steal their brilliance.

The day had passed without seeing a single vessel. Unlike Vanuatu's main town of Port Vila on Efate Island, the outer islands appeared untouched by mass tourism. Yet flights from Auckland to Vanuatu take about the same time as those to Fiji.

"Dinner will be served here on deck. It's a beautiful night," beamed Happy.

"But tomorrow the weather could suddenly change."

How true. The heavens opened next morning when we climbed into dug-out canoes at the mouth of Santo's Riri River. Wrapping our cameras in plastic bags we set off with the Santo paddler.

Rainforest grew thick to the banks and snaked over the glassy green water. Suddenly, it turned astonishingly blue. We had reached a deep waterhole at the end of the river and the rain bounced off its surface like millions of crystals. Already drenched, we barrelled out of the canoes and burst into song in the tingling freshness of the jungle pool.

By the time we had returned to Island Passage the sun had come out and steamed everything dry.

In the ensuing days we anchored off islands, where the hospitable villagers entertained with rousing custom dances. Plates of lap lap (pulped yam and coconut), bananas and sweet grapefruit were passed around. The villagers at Champagne Beach - so named by the American writer James Michener - were the only people on the magnificent arc of sand when we arrived. Offers from wealthy foreigners to buy the beach are always politely declined. The people's land is not for sale.

When the morning of the eagerly anticipated land-diving ceremony arrived we anchored off the shore of Pangi Village on Pentecost Island. A tapering tower of jungle poles rose from a hill above the beach and soon we were joining the procession of villages, dancers and divers moving towards it.

The fertility-infused land diving or Naghol celebrates the yam harvest and manhood. Wearing no more than penis sheaths, men and boys as young as 12 dive from 30m-high, hand-built towers of jungle poles strapped with vines. They dive from April to June when the liana vines lashed round their ankles are strongest. Vines only a few centimetres too long can cost them their lives.

The one known fatality famously occurred during a dive in front of Queen Elizabeth 11 in February 1974, a time of the year when the vines have less elasticity. The vines snapped under the strain and the unfortunate diver fell to his death. Ascending levels of narrow diving platforms jut from the tower.

Our group watched transfixed as 12-year-old Kensey Bebe, the first of eight divers, balanced on the lowest platform. Dancers stamped and chanted to steel his nerve, including Kensey's mother who was surely building courage for them both.

Kensey stood tall against the sky, arms raised and swaying to the rising chants. Then drawing clenched fists to his chest he dived to the ground. The vines unravelled like snakes before straining taut as he missed the pummelled earth by a hair's breadth. Triumphant, he jumped to his feet and joined the dancers.

A man in his 20s dived from the next highest platform and was badly winded. The crowd fell silent until he was helped to his feet to stoically wave. At ever-increasing heights, divers hurled themselves off the platforms until, finally, the last diver stepped on to the highest platform.

Suspense built as he called on his ancestors with raised arms and rhythmic claps.

Then, with the surety of a powerful bird intent on its prey, he dived. An athlete etched against the sky. The vines snapped taut and his head appeared to skim the ground before he sprang to his feet to acknowledge the cheers.

The brave divers of Pentecost Island were the talk of the night as we sailed back towards Luganville and the end of the voyage.

Although Pentecost Island's ceremony of fertility and renewal has become a rite of passage for young men, the bravery of a young island woman is believed to have inspired the venerated land diving tradition.

To escape an unwanted marriage with an older man she climbed a banyan tree, tied liana vines round her ankles and dived.

Not realising her trick, her pursuing husband fell to his death while she survived.

Tradition holds fast. Women are not permitted to touch the tower in case this brings the divers bad luck.

FACT FILE

* Island Passage's five- and six-night cruises in Vanuatu run from May to October.

* The website for the NZ-owned and operated vessel is islandescape.co.nz.

* You can stay overnight at Aore Island Resort.

- NZ Herald

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