Naked and fearless in Vanuatu

JENNIFER ENNION
Last updated 05:15 16/07/2014
Vanuatu land diving
LONG WAY DOWN: Land diving in Vanuatu.

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Near naked, he stands 20 metres above a mass of chanting men in the jungle of Vanuatu.

Only a namba (the traditional penis sheath) covers him as he thrusts his arms into the air and claps his hands above his head.

The chanting from the men below intensifies, as bare-breasted women whistle loudly.

The young diver absorbs the energy from atop a narrow platform on a tower constructed from tree branches and twine.

He steps to the edge, bending his spine as he dips his head toward his heels, and brings his palms to prayer on his forehead.

Suspense stills a small crowd of tourists sitting at the base of the hill.

The diver's dark skin glistens with sweat as the sun relentlessly beats down.

Then, in one swift move, he throws himself off the tower, diving hands-first into the humid Vanuatu air.

A loud thwack reverberates across the jungle as the vines around his ankles snap him back towards the tower and the platform breaks.

The man's head comes within inches of ploughing into the earth.

His body, rippling with muscles and as dark as Tanna Coffee, hits the dirt ground with a thud.

Three men rush to his aid, cutting the vines from his ankles with a knife.

Unlike the pre-teens who went before him, the diver quickly rises to his feet. He laughs with mates, brushes off soil, and blends back into the singing group nearby.

He looks to be in his early 30s, the oldest of a line of men tempting fate by land diving - a tradition still practised on Pentecost Island, in Vanuatu's north.

The ritual is unique to Pentecost and still undertaken in remote villages in the island's south.

According to folklore, land diving started after a ni-Vanuatu woman ran away from her husband and hid in a tree.

The man found her and scaled the trunk but when he reached his wife, she jumped from the branches and he instinctively followed.

He died but she survived because of the vine she'd tied to her ankles. And so land diving was born.

It's believed to date back hundreds of years and to have sparked the idea of modern-day bungee jumping.

In its early days, women would jump but it was deemed inappropriate because their grass skirts would flip and reveal their nude bodies, says local tourist official Jonas Tabi.

It was changed so only men, wearing the namba, would take part.

Some people view land diving as a rite of passage for men and a symbol of manhood but Jonas says it's to bless the yam harvest every May.

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The ritual I'm watching is set up for tourists, with a small entry fee going back into the community.

Those brave enough to dive request songs for the villagers to sing to encourage them to jump.

It's a fascinating spectacle but entertainment aside, land diving is serious business - it can cause death and paralysis.

The most important decision regards the vines each diver picks according to his weight, to tie to his ankles. The right choice can mean the difference between hitting your head on the ground or coming out of the experience unscathed.

It explains why some of the first-timers smack the earth when they hit the ground but more experienced men do not.

Although land divers are respected in their communities because they bring in tourist dollars it's not compulsory to take part.

Boys have to be at least 10 years old.

When divers reach about 30, they stop and let others take their place, says Jonas.

"Some of the men are very smart," he explains.

"They stand on the platform and they dance and then they jump,"

"It is a big tourist attraction because... you cannot find an event like this anywhere in the world. It's only in Vanuatu and only on Pentecost Island."

The land diving ritual today is in jungle, a short walk away from Pentecost's small airstrip, where seven-seat Cessnas arrive in convoy from Vanuatu's main island, Efate.

It's an exhilarating flight over forested Epi and Ambrym islands and bubbling, smoking Ambrym volcano.

We see 11 men and boys scale the tower and throw themselves off.

A young boy of about 12 is the first to take the leap.

He looks nervous on one of the lowest platforms and prays to the blinding blue sky before launching bravely into the air.

But the vine attached to his ankles is too long and he's jolted, slamming face-first into the ground.

He lies limp in the dirt in shock and the crowd goes silent before he's helped to his feet by older men.

After a few seconds he shakes himself off and blends back into the chanting and clapping ni-Vanuatu.

And then we're all silenced once again as the next diver takes the plunge.          

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Pentecost Island is 190km north of Port Vila on Efate. Air Taxi Vanuatu offers a Pentecost and Epi Island tour, costing 44,000 Vatu per person ($534). For more, go to airtaxivanuatu.com.

For airport transfers and transport around Efate, check out Melanesian Tours, melanesiantours.com.

STAYING THERE: Breakas Beach Resort is an adults-only resort 10 minutes from Port Vila. It's popular with couples and has a great beachfront pool, bar and restaurant. Prices start at $287 per night (including breakfast) for the garden bungalow. For more, visit breakas.com.

Mangoes Resort is another adults-only resort in Port Vila, with room prices starting at $219 (low season) for a garden-view bungalow. For more, mangoesresort.com.

PLAYING THERE: Commercial land diving for tourists is held on Pentecost Island in April, May and June. For other activities in Vanuatu, check out vanuatu.travel.  

The writer travelled as a guest of Vanuatu Tourism Office.

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