Travel Writing Competition Winner 2014

Perfecting the Art of Throwing Yourself at the Ground and Missing It

by Mikaela Nyman

We wipe the sweat off our brows and follow the path to the Nagol site, accompanied by the high-pitched singing from the Rangusuksu school children. 100 vatu coins clatter into their fundraising bucket, not nearly enough for a new school roof. Soaring trees anchor earth to sky and lend welcome shade. Massive clumps of epiphytic birds nest ferns hang above our heads. Brushing against a bush, I’m rewarded with the scent of invisible flowers. Our guide warns us to be careful, so we look down and tread carefully between snaking tree roots. ‘No,’ she touches my arm and points towards the sky, ‘watch out for falling coconuts.’ She’s barely finished speaking before the stillness is disturbed by a solid thump on our right.

It’s Easter and we are on Pentecost in Vanuatu to see the Nagol land diving. This is the original bungy jump. No safety harnesses, no high-tech cords or protective clothing, just a tower of sticks, fresh vines and bare skin against freshly turned soil.

We spill out into a clearing together with thirty odd tourists and take a seat on crudely hewn benches at the foot of a hill cleared of trees and shrubs. Above us, rising out of the muddy slope, is an organic space rocket, a 35 meter high tower cobbled together from branches and vines. Fascinated we look up. So this is it. This is where men will put their life at risk by jumping off the tower with only vines tied around their ankles. Or, to paraphrase Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this is where the art of learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss it has been honed to perfection.

A handful of men are busy lashing vines around crucial fastening points. The vines have to be cut the same morning, or else they will dry out and become brittle. A breeze sweeps down, bringing welcome reprieve. The tower creaks and sways gently. Now I see the vines twisting from the top of the tower to nearby trees and anchoring the structure to tree stumps. Another gust and it rocks and groans, like a giant scarecrow in shackles. I wouldn’t be surprised if it came alive and started to wobble down the slope towards us.

According to history, this island was discovered by Europeans on Whit Sunday, so they named it Pentecost, overlooking the fact that it had already been ‘discovered’ by locals. Vanuatu, or the New Hebrides, as it was known until its independence in 1980, has had a colourful history. It has had to endure American sandalwood traders and Australian forced slave labour under the Blackbirding period 150 years ago, followed by both French and British colonial administrations for over one hundred years, and missionaries of various denominations. It also hosted US troops during World War II.

Tourists can snorkel at Million Dollar Point in Espiritu Santo to view jeeps dumped by the US troops, or dive the wreck of the USS President Coolidge that struck a mine. War memorabilia is serious business. On Efate, where the capital Port Vila is situated, a grandfather sells the Coca-Cola bottles that US service men chucked into the sea. Curvy bottles of thick, green glass in mint condition displaying1942-43 manufacturing dates.

Perhaps it was the distracting rivalry between the two parallel colonial administrations that created space for the local culture to continue to flourish. Or cultures, to be more precise. Vanuatu spans 85 islands and over one hundred languages. It’s an intriguing melting pot of traditional and modern, indigenous and Western, where laplap and kava feature side by side with croissants and French bourgogne.

A group of villagers swarm onto the hill. They start clapping and chanting in their local language, stomping their bare feet. White grass skirts, made from strips of wild hibiscus bark, sway and rustle. The air thick with notes of mud and freshly cut wood.

Three men appear on the lowest level of the structure. Now we realise there are six levels, with four planks jutting out from the lower levels and two higher up. At the very top there is one plank reserved for the chief to do the final honours. The singing and dancing intensifies. Up on the tower men start clapping their hands, egging on the diver with their yelling. ‘Sounds like our car when you turn the alarm off,’ says my six-year-old. Whoop-whoop! Whoop-whoop! The boys are disappointed that they don’t get to jump. I’m already dreading the prospect of finding tower-like structures in our garden after this trip.

According to folklore, a woman grew tired of her husband assaulting her and sought refuge in a banyan tree. Her husband climbed after her, but she leapt from the tree to escape him. He jumped after her and died, while the woman survived because she had secretly tied vines around her ankles. ‘She tricked him!’ my six-year-old laughs, full of admiration. To prove their courage, the local men leap off man-made towers every year, from early April, when the first yam is harvested, until mid-June. Ironically, women are not allowed.

The two helpers have finished tying the vines around the ankles of the diver. He claps his hands, shouts a few words, and crosses his arms. Only one tiny, but vital, part of his body enjoys any kind of protection. We can see the bright red dot of his penis sheath, nambas, before he lets his naked body tip forward and swan-dives into oblivion.

A deafening crack echoes through the clearing, causing us all to jump, as the vines have stretched to their maximum, snapping the plank. Within the blink of an eye the diver has hit the ground, chest first. Men run to the rescue and help untie him. The man gets to his feet and raises a triumphant fist in the air. The women resume their singing, or maybe they never stopped? Now their singing drifts down to us louder, clearer. The audience cheers. He’s done it! He survived.

As the jumping progresses, it becomes clear what a feat of engineering this is. My engineer husband is awestruck. This carefully planned structure would rival any Meccano construction. Made the more impressive by the fact that each jumping plank is unique in its set up. No rigging and cord specifications exist, no standard operating procedures. No prior testing is possible. This is all based on generations of trial and error. Fourteen planks jut out from six levels of the tower, each plank fastened with supporting wood and vines to its platform. The vines tied around the ankles of the divers are connected to the jumping planks. The vines are quite rigid and if they took the full impact of the fall they might break, or the land diver’s ankles might snap. Instead, this carefully calculated distribution of the load of the impact keeps the tower intact and the divers safe. It also means that as soon as all lower planks have been snapped off, the pathway for the divers on the next level up is cleared. We marvel at the ingenuity.

Between each diver, men turn the soil with sticks and remove rocks. Others unwrap the next set of vines from their leaf packaging that has kept them pliable and start preparing the next jumper. Knives and teeth are used to slice the ends of vines into strings to be used for tying. The stiff vines with their frazzled ends remind me of the Tree of Life and the creatures in Avatar. Any minute now, and we will witness the vines seamlessly splice with one another. Instead there is a loud crack and another land diver hits the ground with a thud.

The spectacle finishes with the chief diving with arms crossed and back arched from the pinnacle of the tower. We hold our collective breath before the plank snaps and the chief hits the ground. He’s given a standing ovation.

While the day-visitors head back to Port Vila, we hitch a bumpy ride to Noda Waterfall guesthouse, forty minutes from Lonorore aiport. We spend the afternoon on a gorgeous beach of black and white pebbles. For dinner, we enjoy a fish curry, beef stew, maniok and kumala (sweet potatoes) cooked in coconut milk. No TV, no internet, no gadgets. No shopping, except for woven pandanus baskets and mats. It’s a serious detox for the whole family. No one complains. We play cards and trek to the spectacular waterfall and swim in the bubbling pools. We let the magic of traditional sand-drawing unfold before our eyes. School children entertain us with customary songs and dances, and on our last night the chief lights a bonfire on the beach and brings out his guitar. Starting with church songs and local ballads, he finishes with Santana’s Europe and a seriously impressive guitar solo. ‘Cool holiday, Mum,’ the kids say, as we’re lying on the beach trying to figure out star constellations, letting out the occasional Whoop-whoop!