Land Divers of Vanuatu

ByABC News
July 24, 2001, 3:37 PM

P E N T E C O S T   I S L A N D, Vanuatu, July 25 -- They are the real deal: the original bungee jumpers.

Deep in the jungle of Pentecost Island, part of the Vanuatu archipelago of the South Pacific, young men fling themselves from wooden towers 100 feet high, with nothing but slim tree vines to stop their fall.

They have no nets and no safety equipment, no water or cushions to soften the impact.

"If you come and the two vines break, it means you break your neck, or your backbones, or maybe your legs," says village leader Luke Fargo.

But Fargo says they have to do it, despite the dangers. "It's our traditional thing, so we must do it from year to year."

The tradition, known as "land diving," dates back centuries. It originated as a rite of passage for young men trying to prove their manhood.

The idea is to jump from as high as possible, and to land as close to the ground as possible.

It is also a harvest ritual. The islanders believe the higher the jumpers dive, the higher the crops will grow.

A Precision Art

Building a dive tower is a time-honored science. The wood has to be strong, so it is freshly cut. The vines that hold it together and act as jump ropes have to be supple and elastic, with plenty of sap inside. Otherwise they might snap.

A trusted village elder selects which vines to use, matching them to the weight of each jumper. Then the ends are shredded, so the fibers can be twisted into a loop for the jumper's ankle.

The judgments have to be precise. Just 1 ounce too much weight, or 1 inch of dry vine, can cause the vines to snap, slamming the jumper into the ground. A fall can cause serious injury, or even death.

When Britain's Queen Elizabeth visited Vanuatu in 1974, the Pentecost islanders put on a land diving show for her. However, it was the wrong season and the vines were dry so they snapped, with diver after diver hitting the ground. One of them later died, the only fatality in living memory.

Putting on a Show

Land diving has now become an industry on the island. The villagers earn money from tour companies who send foreigners to watch their exploits.