It’s all about the yams and the Sa tribe’s desire for a bountiful harvest. It’s also, not so subtly, a male fertility ritual, a rite of passage, and a tale of escape and redemption. In the remote South Pacific on Pentecost Island, each year men of the Sa tribe build a 98-foot tall tower out of jungle wood, climb to the top, and jump off, tethered by vines tied around their ankles. If the vine is too short, he will swing back into the tower. If it’s too long, the land diver will at a minimum experience pain, possibly break some bones, or even die.
A Tall Tale
Naghol or N’gol, is an ancient ceremony based on a tale. In it, a wife escapes from her abusive husband, Tamalie, who discovers her up a tree. In exchange for coming back down, he promises to beat her, but only a little bit this time. However, if he has to climb up to retrieve her, he promises to beat her a lot. She refuses his “offer” and remains in the tree until eventually Tamalie makes the climb. Once he reaches her, she quickly hurls herself from the branch falling to the earth below. He dives after her to catch her (whether out of guilt or hubris isn’t known), and falls to his death, not realizing that she had cleverly tied liana vines around her ankles to prevent herself from falling all the way down.
Before a man dives, he airs his grievances and makes amends atop the platform, so that if he should die, he dies with a clean slate. Ninety-eight feet below, tribal members sing and dance to help the diver remain brave. Then he jumps.
The annual land diving competition grew from the legend of Tamalie’s wife. Each year, village elders oversee the construction of a tower built for the sole purpose of the jump. Superstition and belief run strong during this event. Even though legend has it that it was a woman who made the first jump, now only men are allowed to jump. Each dive day is filled with celebration: participants spend the night under the tower to ward off evil spirits and are greeted the next morning with a feast, singing, and dancing. Before a man dives, he airs his grievances and makes amends atop the platform, so that if he should die, he dies with a clean slate. Ninety-eight feet below, tribal members sing and dance to help the diver remain brave.
Then he jumps.
A successful landing includes a slight brush against the ground with the shoulders (the ground is tilled the night before to make it as soft and cushiony as possible), then tribal members rush over to check the condition of the diver. Is he hurt? How badly? (Usually only slightly, and that’s caused by the jarring of the pull on the ankles as the vines become taut.) Then, on to the next contestant.
The vines are never measured precisely. Instead a tribal leader decides the right length of vine for each diver. With great measuring prowess comes great responsibility. After all, if it’s too long, the diver can die. Strangely enough, the last recorded death from land diving is in 1974 when Queen Elizabeth II visited Pentecost Island and wanted to witness a dive. Legend has it the diver died because he chose to carry a good luck charm to protect himself. It’s now considered bad luck to carry a good luck charm.
Lots of Tradition
While only males can make the actual jump, boys, after their circumcision at around 8 years old, are eligible to dive (but from lower platforms). In fact, the whole affair is hyper masculine. During the ceremony, men wear only penis sheaths to emphasize their strength and virility (women wear only grass skirts). The speeches performed atop the platform contain lots of bragging and bombast (and, why the hell not? He is, after all, about to possibly jump to his death.) The tower itself can be best described as phallic. And the stated purpose is to please the gods to ensure a bountiful yam harvest.
Traditionally, the dive happened once a year usually during April right after the rainy season had come to an end (the ground was easier to till, the vines were more springy), but over the last few decades, tribal chiefs came to recognize the commercial value to visiting tourists. The dives are now held each weekend between April and June, and arrangements for a seaplane and a tour can be made via the Vanuatu Tourism Bureau.