Stepping back in time ....
Stepping back in time ….
We could have been forgiven for thinking that we went to sleep one night and woke up trapped inside a National Geographic magazine. Holy moly – we are clearly not in Polynesia anymore! If you are ever lucky enough to find yourself in Vanuatu in May or June – try and get to the island of Pentecost to witness “Naghol” or land diving. This is the ancient Kastam practice involving men of all ages throwing themselves off a very high ( 25 mtr ) rickety home made tower in an effort to appease the spirits to ensure a good yam season and bountiful harvest. Yes ….. they still believe in this and many other forms of “magic”. As a visitor they are proud to have you attend but they do this kind of stuff anyway as part of their intricate way of life.
As soon as the first new season yam plants start to emerge, the men and boys start building tall wooden towers – all natural materials woven and bound with tree trunks, saplings and vines. Women are not allowed to see the tower being built – hence it is tucked away in the hills. They will jump from varying heights with only two long springy vines to break their fall – and yes – this is indeed the practice that inspired AJ Hackett to make this thrill available to the masses in the form of Bungy jumping. After a slightly hair-raising ½ hour trip in the back of a ute – us and 2 other cruisers were dropped off amongst over a hundred locals – seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We walked a little way up the valley to where the tower revealed itself.
Most of the locals we walked with dropped their clothes and went about their separate roles of the Naghol ritual. The men particularly are a very powerful sight with only a “namba” or penis sheath as safety equipment J The woman only in Pandanus skirts. At times it was hard to tell the men from the structure.. The ‘diving boards” are the platforms that each jumper launches himself from.
The lower platforms are for the young boys – once they are 8 years old and circumcised they are allowed to jump – with the platforms then gradually getting higher and higher. The first young fella chickened out at the last minute and later he was clearly very disappointed in himself but they didn’t let him back on the tower that day. There were 12 divers in all and it took around 2 hours for the whole deal to unfold. Before each dive, there is a lot of ritual from the large group of men (including the other jumpers) on one side of the tower, and women on the other- and of course the dude on the platform! They go into a bit of a trance chanting and winding themselves up – when we went close to the men to photograph them we could feel the ground moving under our feet as they stamped. They were happy with Carl to be there but as a woman they weren’t keen on me getting too close and asked specifically that I not touch the vines.
Each vine is specially made for the particular diver – his height and weight.
They freefall when they first jump and then when the vine tension is on the platform that breaks when they’re 3/4 of way down which must slow them up a bit, then when the vines around their ankles comes to an end they are pulled back towards the tower where they hit the sloping ground. The idea is that only the diver’s hair should touch the soil to fertilise the yam crop – that is the level of precision they aim for. The slope is groomed just so – the fresh dirt is dug just so – the vines for each diver are just so - all calculated so that no-one hurts themselves (most of the time) which is quite amazing.
The final diver is considered the “chief of the tower” and must launch himself far enough outwards to avoid hitting any other parts of the structure jutting out below him. It was quite difficult to watch and needless to say the crowd went wild ……
We felt very privileged to see the bravery of these men and couldn’t help but think it would have looked much the same 100 years, 500 years or more ago. Vanuatu is so close to where we live – but my goodness – we are a world away.