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Land-diving: from ancient ritual to modern festival

Published: 12:02PM Monday May 04, 2009 Source: AAP

Land-diving on Vanuatu's remote Pentecost Island was once an ancient, unique and private ritual where young men hurled themselves off treetops bungee-style to celebrate the annual yam harvest.

But nowadays it's evolved into the annual N'gol Land Diving Festival with tourist groups welcome on any of up to 30 dates in May or June to enjoy what the organisers describe as "a once in a lifetime cultural experience".

Boys as young as seven and young men jump head-first into the ground from a man-made tower 20 or 30 metres high with only a liana vine with one end tied to the tower and the other their ankles, the spectacle dramatised by the dancing, stomping of feet and yelling by the excited watching villagers.

Selection of the vines has to be made with great care: they must be thick and strong enough not to snap during the jump - if their length is even 10cm too long the diver risks crashing into the ground and suffering serious and even fatal injuries.

Accidents have happened.

When Queen Elizabeth II visited Pentecost for the N'gol Festival in 1974, a young diver fractured his neck and later died when his vine broke; the visit came some weeks after the yam harvest and during the dry season, when the vines were less pliable and more likely to snap.

In 2006, after three divers were injured in falls and one was paralysed, the Vanuatu Cultural Centre warned the organisers against over-exploiting the land-diving spectacle for tourists.

Other VIP visitors to the festival have included the late Pope John Paul II, in 1986.

Latest tourist package to see the land divers comes from Talpacific as a day trip from the South Pacific island nation's capital Vila, as part of a four-night getaway from Australia.

The holiday includes return economy airfares with Air Vanuatu, transfers, four nights' accommodation at the Melanesian Hotel in Vila, daily continental breakfasts and the 190km northbound domestic flight from Vila to Pentecost with light refreshments, lunch and a guide.

Several stories are told about the origin of the land-diving ceremonies.

One is that they were designed to ensure the success of the harvesting of yams, a staple root-crop food of the islanders - traditionally, if a diver's hair or shoulder touches the ground in the fall (a feat demanding considerable accuracy), it is said to bode well for the next year's crop.

Another tale links N'gol with a centuries-old legend about a woman who ran away from her husband, Tamale, after he beat her.

He eventually spotted the woman hiding high in a tall tree, and told her that if she came down to earth he might beat her again - but only a little.

She refused, so he climbed the tree and made a grab for her, only for his wife to leap from her high perch towards the ground.

The angry Tamale jumped after her - not realising that she had liana vines attached from a high branch to her ankles, and landed safely.

Tamale did not, and he died.

The incident led to the N'gol festival with men diving from a treetop tower in a display of their strength, and to show that they would never be tricked again by woman, as Tamale had been.

Land-diving is often said to have been the forerunner of bungee-jumping, the New Zealand "sport" introduced in New Zealand by one A J Hackett in the mid-1980s a few years after it was initially tried in England after the televising of a BBC film of the Pentecost Island festival.

But the Vanuatu Tourism Office said the N'gol is "an event of dignity and mystique (which) bears no more resemblance to bungee-jumping than abseiling down a 60-foot cliff or catching a lift down a six-storey building".