It’s common practice for cruisers to pick up hitchhikers at the dingy dock, and it was how we met Hannah, a vibrant young Israeli woman, who was crewing her way around the world on a small sailboat. As we puttered out to drop her, her groceries and her gigantic backpack off, she shared with us how she andher Captain were planning to visitthe island of Pentecost, to catch the last performance of the Island Land Divers. We had all watched Nat Geo documentaries about the villagers who were the original inventors of bungee jumping and we were keen to see this display of bravado for ourselves. But we only had 2 days left to make the run from Port Vila, Efate to the island of Pentecost. We had to move quickly in order to make the last performance. We set off the next morning.
Intel at sea can be hard to come by, and our cell phones weren’t picking up any cell tower signals. We really didn’t have a clue as to what time the program would start, what the fees were, or even where the village might be located, but we set off towards the lee side of the island, figuring that would be the best place for a village. Sure enough, when we arrived around noon, several yachts were anchored in a beautiful bay and we could heard the distant chanting of the warriors off in the bush. Eagle Eyes Garry was the first to spot the tall wooden tower that served as the diving platform off in the hills. Before we even dropped anchor, a long-boat and two touts were at our stern, yelling at us to “Hurry, Hurry, the show is starting soon, you can make it!” We grabbed our cameras, jumped in the dingy and puttered to shore as quickly as the 6 HP Mercury could manage with the 4 of us.
We were hustled up the steep hill to the viewing field, which undoubtably was yesterday’s cow pasture, and we settled in for an enjoyable afternoon of impressive displays of bravery, courage and interesting costume choices. The traditional dress for women of the village is a long grass skirt, with swinging bare breasts, whereas the men wear nothing more than their brilliant smiles and penis sheaths, woven out of grasses, scrotums dangling freely. The modern Ni-Vanuatuan man may include a pair sunglasses or a baseball cap as part of his ensemble. (Apart from the performers, the rest of the villagers were dressed in western garb). A small audience of about 30 people sat in the field to watch, most of them from the yachts anchored nearby.There was a rather large tower, constructed out of branches and vines at the top of the small hill. It appears that the tower must be re-built for every performance, as parts of the tower are designed to break away with each diver. Several men stood up in the tower, awaiting their turn to jump, while a few “catchers” waiting on the ground below. A group of 5 or 6 men and women danced and chanted, while the divers climbed higher up and whoop-whooped as they mustered up their courage to make their leaps.
The performances began with boys as young as 8 years old, tentatively stepping off the lowest branches of the tower, vines tightly tied around their ankles. It is the natural twist in the vines that provide the shock absorbers for the bungee. As the afternoon progresses, the boys got older, the platforms got higher, the bravado louder, until the final diver, who is considered the bravest, leapt off the very top of the towering structure.
Several times, one or even both of the vines would snap under the impact, causing a couple of embarrassing face plants into the red earth. However, there didn’t seem to be any permanent damage or injury, unlike in 1974, when Queen Elizabeth II witnessed a diver fall to his death, when the special Royal out-of-season performance resulted in vines that would not stretch properly.
After the last diver, we were invited to a tasty home-cooked lunch of fish curry, rice, taro and fresh fruit.
After lunch, we traveled by boat, 7 km to the the north end the island, to enjoy the afternoon hiking to a cave and a refreshing swim in a tropical waterfall.