Much has been written about the island of Pentecost (part of the Vanuatu archipelago) and its yearly ritual of death-defying land jumps performed in the south of the island in celebration of the yam harvest. The Nagol (or N’gol) ritual of land diving has been performed for hundreds of years, and also doubles as a male coming of age ceremony. Following the wet season (January to April), men and boys above the age of seven tie elastic vines to their ankles. In accordance with the height required by the jumpers, the other ends of these vines are then tethered to different levels of a specially constructed tower.
The tower is built when the first yam crop is ready for harvesting and takes about five weeks. A tall tree is found as the ‘foundation’ of the tower and hundreds of branches are tied in a scaffolding pattern to reach a height of between 20 and 30 metres. Each diver then selects his own vine. The thickness and length of the vine is of primary importance because if it is too long or stretches too much, the jump could be fatal. The diver must touch the earth with his shoulder in order for the jump to be successful and to ensure fertility for next year’s yam crop.
It is impossible to describe the ambiance as the women and children stomp the ground, dancing in rhythmic unison, encouraging the divers. You just have to be there! The sight of families as they may witness the final minutes of a father’s, husband’s or brother’s life before jumping sends shivers throughout the limited number of privileged spectators.
The Pentecost jump is 100% authentic and is unequalled in its threat to the lives of its participants. No other spectacle in the world matches the intensity felt by those who have witnessed it. A few divers have jumped to their deaths and others have been severely injured.
If you want to find something unique and off the beaten track, this is it. The jumps only occur between April and June each year following the monsoon season, ensuring that the jungle vines – which so many lives will depend on – have enough moisture in them to guarantee elasticity and will not break from the stress of the fall. A plunge takes sheer Stone Age courage or temporary madness, depending which way you want to look at it.
This photo is from a series of 50 shots taken on my last trip there (in 2009) using a Sony Cybershot DSC-F828 (fantastic workhorse camera). Every year I organise day trips to this event via private plane, with a stopover on Epi Island for lunch and a swim with the wild but docile resident dugong family (see our site for details).