Witness the Ritual of Land Diving in Vanuatu
If you’re intrigued by traditional cultures and odd, death-defying rituals, then you’ve got to check out land diving in Vanuatu! During the land diving festival (also called naghol), local tribe members climb a 100ft man-made tower, tie vines around their ankles, and dive towards the earth as a rite of passage and show of strength. Attendance is not for the faint-of-heart. Because there is no real “science” to the vine picking, divers get injured more days than not. For this reason, only locals can participate in the dive!
Where: Pentecost Island, one of 83 islands that make up Vanuatu
When: Diving only takes place after the rainy season, when vines still contain water making them stronger and more elastic. Traditionally, Naghol happened in April at the very end of the rainy season. In recent decades, tribal chiefs have noted the value of opening this event to tourists and bringing more people to Vanuatu. Land diving now happens every Saturday between April and June.
Ages: There is no official age restriction on this festival, but I’d use discretion when choosing when it is appropriate to bring children. I’d wait until they are old enough to appreciate the ritual and mature enough to handle the traditional garb.
The legend behind how land diving originated goes like this. A husband and wife were in a heated argument. The wife ran into the jungle and climbed a banyan tree to get away from him. He climbed up after her, and she jumped to get away from him. Not realizing that she had secretly tied a vine around her ankle, he jumped after. She survived, and he fell to his death. This started the tradition of women tying vines to their ankles and jumping from trees. Men soon took over this ritual to prove that they could never again be tricked by a woman.
The most infamous land diving ceremony happened when Queen Elizabeth II visited Pentecost Island in 1974. The ceremony was performed in her honor, even though it was the wrong season for land diving. The vines were not yet strong enough and much less elastic than usual. When one diver jumped, his vine snapped and he fell to his death. It is said that he was wearing a lucky charm at the time, and lucky charms have since been banned from the ceremony. No one has died since.
Land diving in Vanuatu is also the precursor to the well-known bungee jumping. In the 1970s , AJ Hackett visited Vanuatu and witnessed this ancient ritual. He was inspired to experience the thrill himself and used an elastic cord to jump off of a bridge over water.
Image by Paul Stein [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Though most islanders on Vanuatu are considered Christian, many still hold on to ancient beliefs and are extremely superstitious. As the local men build the tower, they live in special, men-only huts, and seclude themselves from women to help them clear their minds. It is also considered bad luck for women to go too close to the diving tower.
Land diving in Vanuatu is a rite of passage for young island men and considered a show of strength. After circumcision at 8 years old, boys are allowed to dive, but only from the tower’s lower platforms. When a boy is ready to prove that he is a man, he dives from the tower in front of his elders. During a boy’s dive, his mother will hold one of his treasured childhood items. The item will be thrown away after his dive is complete, signifying that he is now a man.
Great dives are also said to bring about an abundant yam harvest, and traditionally the land diving festival was performed before, during, and after yam harvest season. Local men wear traditional waist bands and penis sheaths called nambas, and local women wear only grass skirts. Prior to diving, men settle all of their disputes- in case the dive is the last thing they do! On the night prior to their jump, divers will spend the night at the base of the tower to ward off evil spirits.
Constructing the Tower
Though land diving in Vanuatu was originally done from trees, this ancient ritual eventually graduated to diving off of man-made towers. The 100 foot tower is built by 20-30 men from the Sa tribe, and can take up to one month to construct. The ground below the tower is tilled to be as soft as possible to help cushion the divers’ impact.
On any given land-diving day, between 10-20 village men will volunteer to jump. No prior training is necessary. Younger boys will jump from the tower’s lowest platforms, and only the most experienced divers will jump from the top of the tower. At the bottom of the tower, tribe members will dance, sing, and chant in Sa (the local language) to encourage the divers to jump. As they dive, the divers will curl their heads under their shoulders. The goal is for the divers’ shoulders to touch the ground, making the earth fertile for the year’s yam harvest.
The vines are the only “safety equipment” used during this ritual, and the choosing of the appropriate vine is no exact science. In fact, vines are never even measured. The vines are chosen by a local tribal leader according to the weight of the diver. If the vine is too short, the diver will swing back into the tower, potentially becoming impaled. I don’t need to tell you what could happen if the vine is too long! Most injuries sustained are on the ankles from the pull when the vine becomes taut, even though the diving platforms absorb some of the force from the fall.
Getting to Pentecost Island & the Land Diving Festival
If you want to witness land diving in Vanuatu, it will take some work to get there! The main airport for Vanuatu is on Port Vila, with Sydney being a common stopover on the way. To get to the festival, you’ll need to book a tour from Port Vila and catch an air taxi to Pentecost Island. The tower is a short walk from Pentecosts’s Lonorore Airport. The air taxi and tour to see the land diving festival is approximately $425 per adult or $280 per child 11 or younger. A portion of fees collected from tourists attending this ceremony helps to pay school fees for local children. Only 50 visitors are allowed to attend each day, so be sure to book in advance!Watch land diving, a ritual that inspired bungee jumping, in Vanuatu! Click To Tweet