The Republic of Vanuatu rests west of Fiji and Soutwest of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. The archipelago (around 82 volcanic islands make up the Republic) sits more than a 1000 miles from the northern part of Australia, and the inhabitants of the island are indigenous descendants of aboriginal Melanesian people.
Pentecost Island is a popular spot in the middle-of-nowhere Vanuatu archipelago, and that’s because the men of the southern portion of the island practice what’s known as “Land Diving.” The locals refer to the practice in the Sa language as “gol,” and in the Bismana language as “Nanggol.” Gol is recognized as the progenitor of contemporary bungee jumping. So what is this ceremonial practice and how is it the first iteration of bungee jumping?
First, the land diving performed on Pentecost Island is a centuries old practice. The ritual stems from a local legend of a wife, who flees from her husband, Tamalie, into the forest after his lascivious advances become too much to bear. Tamalie follows his wife into the forest, and she eventually climbs a banyan tree to escape. Tamalie continues to follow her up the tree, so she ties lianas (vines) to her ankle, and jumps off. Tamalie neglects the liana when he follows her, he falls to his death.
As you might have guessed, the practice of gol is said to provide health and vigor for the village men, and to remind them never to make the same mistake Tamalie did.
Both the practice of jumping, and the wooden towers the Vanuatu men jump from, are known as gol. The construction of the gol is done in conjunction with the annual yam harvest in the dry season when monsoons can’t destroy the towers and the liana vines are more embedded with sap.
Construction generally takes between 2-5 weeks, and the core of the tower is made around a looped tree as a sort of scaffolding that bends in on itself to cushion the diver’s fall. There are also various tiers on the structure, starting at around 10 meters, that go all the way up to the top; the levels the men jump from align with how many nahgol’s they’ve jumped in before. Everything in the tower is tied off with the liana vines from the legend.
The liana vines used to both protect the jumper and help construct the gol are also more elastic in the dry season (more sap), which is good because the recoil from the vines is said to be the highest g-level reached by non-industrial nations. The men also till the soil and remove any rocks from the landing area.
During the tower’s construction, the women and men are cloistered in separate areas and forbidden to interact or have sex. The women aren’t allowed to go near the tower for fear of angering Tamalie and endangering the male jumpers.
The shredded lianas tied to the divers feet are selected by the village elder and matched with each villager’s weight without any mechanical instrumentation. If the vines are too short, the jumper can bounce back into the structure; if they’re too long, the diver hits the ground too hard.
Even though the Vanuatu people are mainly Christian (missionaries first visited the island in the 1800 and 1900’s), the practice of gol is an ancient belief unaffiliated with any Christian dogma. Before the jump, the men undergo a ritual wash and spread coconut oil on their naked torsos. They wear penis sheaths called nambas, and a boars tusk adorns their necks. The women of the village wear traditional dresses without tops, and even though they’re not allowed to participate, they watch and cheer on the men.
The naghol begins with the least experienced jumpers on the lower tiers and extends to the experienced jumpers at the top. Around 10-20 men in the village will jump each year during the ceremony.
Before the jump, the men give speeches or say prayers, and often settle any outstanding accounts, in case they perish during the jump. The higher and more dangerous jumps reward a more bountiful harvest in the coming year. The goal is for the diver’s shoulders to touch the ground, so they cross arms and bend their heads, which leaves a jumper prone to paralysis because the neck and spine is exposed. During the dive, the jumpers reach speeds of up to 45 mph, and after the dive is done, villagers rush in to care for the jumper in case they’re injured during the impact with the soil; hence, land jumping.
For young Vanuatu boys, the land jump is a rite of passage, where they become men by jumping in front of their elders. Like a much scarier bar mitzvah.
Land diving was briefly outlawed during the missionary movement in the mid-20th century, but anti-colonialism thinking brought the practice back as a cultural touchstone, and the Vanuatu Republic’s independence in 1980 meant renewing the ancient ritual that continues to present day.
There have been instances of land diving in recent history and popular culture. During French colonial skirmishes in 1952, some Vanuatu people were imprisoned. The French Resident Commissioner released the prisoners only after a special land diving performance was arranged. Kal Muller, a journalist with National Geographic, is considered the first white man to land jump. He spent more than a year with the Bunlap village before they asked him to participate in the early 1970’s. In more recent popular culture, Karl Pilkington went to the island to film a segment for the BBC show, Idiot Abroad, but he only jumped from about 4 feet up.
Land diving is not bungee jumping, but it’s the basis for the contemporary practice; especially since a lot bungee jumping can be performed in the South Pacific nation of New Zealand. A 2006 decision by the tribal chiefs in Vanuatu to limit the amount of exposure to the practice has stifled a lot of coverage; there’s been a blackout on video portrayals of land diving since then, and only a select group of tourists or adventure seekers are allowed to participate each year. This is to uphold the ceremony’s relevance to the local people without stifling the tourism trade, which supports the local economy.
If you’re lucky enough to participate, remember the legend of Tamalie, and don’t neglect the vines. Happy land diving!