Pentecost Island, muddy bottom and a broken rule
After 6 months of Australia, I had to do my 2nd visa-run across the border. I assure you, that’s not so bad if you chose Vanuatu for your visa-run and if your flight got booked by a lovely Australian family. That being said, it’s been over 3 years and I still didn’t break my hitchhiking rule to never pay for a ride by my own will. My flight was leaving from Brisbane and I was staying in Darwin, so I decided to hitchhike 3500 km to get to Brisbane in time – which I did in only 3,5 day. (Kind of proud how well that went.)
The flight to Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila was only 2,5 long and late per usual – I was told. Even though the plane landed just after midnight, everyone was greeted by a cheerful local band at the airport.
Port Vila airport is tiny and it closes down for public after the last plane arrives, so I asked the security if I could stay there until the morning. I wanted to take an early flight to Pentecost Island and couldn’t be bothered to look for accommodation for only few hours of sleep. They said yes and I found myself a semi-comfy sofa for the night. I was the only passenger at the airport. Apart from blood-thirsty mozzies and a couple of numb limbs, it was a decent night.
Pentecost is mostly known for a land diving ritual called naghol that influenced the invention of bungy jumping. Only on Saturdays, between April and June, islanders jump from 30 meter towers with only vines tied to their feet.
I didn’t know if and when the plane flies from Port Vila to Pentecost Island, but I knew I really, wanted to be there on Saturday and that Saturday morning was my only chance, because I had to be back to Australia in a week for numerous reasons.
Luckily, that morning I found a ticket to Pentecost and for the 1st time in over 3 years, I broke my hitchhiking rule and bought my 1st transport ticket by my own will and felt great about it.
45 minutes later I landed in a tiny plane to Pentecost airstrip surrounded by the fair amount of the wandering chickens.
I threw my backpack on my back and started walking down the only road there was. According to Google, the land diving field shouldn’t be too far away. As I walked off, a local woman asked me where I was going. After I explained I was going to find a land diving tower by walking, she said that was not a good idea due to heavy rain and flooding in the last days and she offered to take me by the pick-up truck with some of her older British & Aussie guests. I explained I was not part of any organized tour and that I’m fine with walking. Once again she repeated that was not a good idea and offered me a free ride that I didn’t say no to.
It turned out her guests were the expats who were working on some educational project in Port Vila, so when we arrived to Rangusuksu village, there was the whole ceremony lined up for them that I accidentally became part of. After the ceremony, everyone was invited into the school for a lunch, but I excused myself and rather wondered around the village with a local girl who could speak a fair bit of English. Soon we were called to return and watch the men (and boys as young as 6) jump from a wooden tower with only a vine attached to their legs
It takes 5 weeks to build a tower using the materials from the forest. The tower represents a body with a head, shoulders, breasts, belly, genitals, and knees.
The ceremony celebrates the yam harvest and is a fertility rite for men. The legend tells of a woman who ran away from her (some sources say abusive) husband and hid in a tall tree. The husband begged her to say sorry and come down. She refused, so he climbed the tree after her and as he reached the top she jumped. In his misery the husband jumped after her, only to realize that she had tied liana vines around her ankles. The woman survived while the man died. (Awesome story, right?) 😀 To this day, men jump from the tower as a show of strength to women in the village and as a statement that they cannot be tricked again. The ritual begins with the least experienced jumpers (usually kids) on the lower platforms and ends with the most experienced jumpers on the upper platforms.
During the period of preparation for naghol, the men stay away from the women and refrain from sex. Women are not allowed to touch the vine or the tower as the villagers believe this could lead to the death of a diver. As I was the only one from my oldies group who ran around the hill with the camera, I was warned numerous times not to touch ANYTHING and stay away from the tower.
To this day, there were only 2 (reported) fatalities from jumping and many broken limbs. One of the most memorable accidents happened in 1974, when Queen Elizabeth II visited Vanuatu. The British colonial administration wanted the queen to have an interesting tour and convinced the villagers to demonstrate the land diving. The vines were not elastic enough because it was the wrong season (the middle of the wet season). One diver had both lianas broken, broke his back from falling, and later died in a hospital. The elasticity of the vine is one of the reasons why the ritual is only performed between the months of April and June.
After witnessing all 10 dives in the light rain and running around steep and slippery hill, I closed the ritual as 11th diver while sliding on my bottom down a muddy hill. The chief of a village came to check if I was alright and jokingly commented that women divers are not allowed in his village.
Anyhow, I asked for a permission to take one more embarrassing muddy-bottom walk through his village before heading back to the airport. I had to fly back to Port Vila the same day, because the only other flight in the next 7 days out of Pentecost was already fully booked.
It was a real shame because apart from land diving, Pentecost is known for its stunning nature as well as for the Turaga indigenous movement in the northern part of the island which rejects the Western economic system and promotes "kastom” (custom) economy which uses pigs, boar's tusks and woven mats as a currency.
My sadness for leaving Pentecost didn’t last too long, because there were plenty more of Vanuatu thrills waiting on the horizon.
Read HERE how I broke my hitchhiking rule for the 2nd time in Vanuatu.
It was absolutely worth it!