The Land Divers
A legend tells of a man chasing a woman, the woman climbed to the top of a tree and the man followed in pursuit. With nowhere to go the woman jumped. The man, seemingly without hesitation, jumped after her. Unbeknown to the man, the woman had tied vines around her ankles that strained and pulled her up before hitting the ground. The man hurtled past her and fell to his death.
This is the story behind the renowned land diving ritual (Nagol or N’gol) from the southern lands of Pentecost Island, Vanuatu.
I first saw the dive sites from the window of the aeroplane on the approach to Lonorore Airport. Small brown scars etched into the dense green hillsides, in the middle of each dive site stood a single tower. From the air, the towers looked like small neat stacks of tooth picks pushed into the earth. Arriving at the dive site each tower dominates the scene. although they still looked fragile. A complex lattice of wooden stilts held together with lashings of vines. Protruding from the front of the tower were a series of what looked like small diving platforms, each with a pair of vines attached to the end. These platforms were arranged in pairs <<<ECHO>>> and were tiered upwards along the face of the tower. During the Nagol, the younger divers, starting at just eight years old, would dive first from the lowest platforms. <<<FLOW>>> As the ritual continued, older more experienced divers would dive from the higher platforms. At the very top of the tower, stood a single platform, reserved for the final dive, performed by the most experienced and certainly the bravest diver.
At the top of the hill behind the tower the entire local village were gathered. They were separated with men on the left side and women on the right. The women were wearing the traditional grass skirts. <<<FLOW>>> The men however, were wearing nothing more than rolled up leaf, imagine a Chinese finger trap, but not for your finger.
Give yourself to gravity
The ritual begun almost as soon as we arrived <<<PRONOUN>>>. The villagers were already singing a continuous, uninterrupted song. Some of the men howled and hooted, some of the women whistled a short repeating, almost trance inducing tune. The first diver, a young boy begun ascending the tower. After being thoroughly attached to his vines with a very tight knot, he waded over to the first platform. He presented himself to the crowd, like an Olympic Diver. After a few moments on the platform presenting he leaned forward and seemingly without hesitation, jumped.
The villagers kept singing but for me everything went silent as I witnessed this young diver plummet towards the ground. The dive was over in a few seconds but it felt like a life time. The moment of silence was abruptly ended by the sharp crack of the vines as they strained. They tugged hard at the young diver's ankles and although they stopped his fall downwards, he still hit the ground with some force as he swung back into the steep hillside. He was quickly picked up by one of the men stood around the dive site, brushed off and sent limping back to the crowd behind the tower. They seem keen to clear the divers away as soon as possible. They also quickly begun raking over the dive site, smoothing over the surface in preparation for the next body <<<THEY SOFTENED THE GROUND, NOT RAKING>>>.
The Nagol continued, the next diver (another young boy) ascended the tower, had his ankles wrapped tightly in the vines and leapt. One after the other, the men climbed to the platforms to give themselves to gravity. <<<FLOW>>> The final dive, a slim man, climbed to the very top of the tower and jumped with an almost inhuman absence of fear. After the final dive the crowd quickly dispersed back to the village. All that preparation, commotion and singing centred around a few exhilarating moments of terror. It was all over, until next Saturday when the whole ritual would start again.
Change over time <<<BETTER>>>
The Nagol wasn't quite how I imagined. I thought the vines <<<WEAK WORDS>>> would be flexible and gently tug at the diver's ankles, halting their free-fall at the last moment. In reality, the vines were like thick, unforgiving cords of rope. The give came from the platforms themselves which were designed to partially collapse and swing downwards at the moment the vines strained. It was a curious design that meant each platform could only be used once. If you arrived half way through the ritual, you could <<<FLOW AND WEAK WORDS>>> tell how many dives had taken place and how many were remaining simply by counting the platforms, like looking at a giant advent calendar.
Another surprise for me was the fact that the whole body of the diver made impact with the ground. The idea of just the top of the diver's head dipping into the ground seems to have been forgotten, maybe this was resulting in too many serious neck injuries.
<<<CHANGE>>> Unsurprisingly, the Nagol is a very dangerous ritual to perform and there have been a number or reported accidents. The most famous example was during a royal visit by Queen Elizabeth in 1974. She came to the island outside of land diving season which runs between April and June. Nagol can only take place within these months as the vines are too dry and brittle during the rest of the year. Despite this, the British commission were determined for the queen to have an "interesting visit" and managed to coax a local to perform a land dive for the queen. The vines snapped and the diver broke his back, later dying in hospital. Another, similar story involves a tourist bribing a local to perform a dive outside of season, again this resulted in the death of the diver. We even witnessed <<<PRONOUN>>> a diving accident ourselves during our time on Pentecost Island. A teenage boy jumped from one of the middle platforms, as the vines strained the platform snapped clean off the tower hurtling the diver into the ground. He survived and managed to walk away, but in considerable pain holding his face and neck.
The origin of the bungy jump
If you have been reading this and been thinking "Nagol sounds suspiciously like bungy jumping", you are correct! A New Zealand entrepreneur by the name of A.J. Hackett heard about the Nagol and was instantly obsessed with the idea. He hired a few scientists to develop a strong elastic cord, flew to France, climbed up the Eiffel Tower at night and jumped off the following morning. A genius publicity stunt, commercial bungy jumping quickly took off with the first dive site opening shortly after on the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown, still a popular bungy site to this day. The A.J. Hackett bungy company today are still busy throwing people off bridges and buildings. I often see people hurling themselves off Auckland Tower on my daily commute. It always makes me wonder, would they be jumping off that building if it wasn't for that legend, of a man chasing a woman?