South Pacific Adventure?
Dive Right In
Our six-passenger mail plane soars over blue volcanic peaks and coral atolls, lush green jungles, aquamarine lagoons and deserted white crescent beaches. If we were to dip low enough, I’d see rainbow-hued coral gardens teeming with tropical sea life, coconut and mandarin orange groves, and out-of-control bougainvillea. I may see a fisherman spearing his dinner, village chiefs holding council before a smoky fire in their thatch-roofed nakamal, or children going to school in outrigger canoes. This is like the Fiji of a century ago. But neither the place I’m headed, nor what I am about to witness, is on your typical tourist map.
My destination is the Melanesian island of Pentecost, for the ancient and carefully guarded land diving ritual, Nagol, in which hundreds of men assert their virility by diving headfirst to their possible deaths from a 75-foot tower of sticks and branches.
It started about a thousand years ago, just before the yam harvest in the remote mountaintop village of Bunlap. Legend says that a young woman, running from her abusive husband, Tamalie, sought refuge in a banyan tree. He clambered up behind her. In a blind rage, he cornered her near the top at the end of a limb. When she jumped, he followed. The last thing Tamalie ever saw was the liana vine she had tied to her ankle.
Anyone who has seen a Tarzan movie knows the liana vine. It’s like a very strong, fat rubber band, but only when spring rains keep it supple. Tamalie and his wife landed in the yam field. She bounced. He didn’t. Perhaps coincidentally, the yam crop that spring was the sweetest ever harvested.
Since then, before each yam harvest—year after year, century after century—the men of Pentecost Island prove that they have mastered the liana vine; their bravery ensuring another bountiful harvest.
Pentecost is one of the 80 mostly uninhabited South Pacific islands of Vanuatu, formerly New Hebrides. Think Captain Cook, and Michener’s South Pacific. Think Pacific Ring of Fire, virgin coral reefs and giant rippled clamshells lying half-buried in the sand. Think cannibals—and missionaries simmering away in big iron pots.
Actually, the last missionary dinners were officially documented in the 1940s. The only remaining pot is a photo prop in the tourist office of Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital city. Besides introducing Christianity to the ni-Vanuatu (locals), the missionaries were responsible for the voluminous, ankle-length calico “island dresses” featuring girlish puffy sleeves and satin ribbons that are still worn today.
Vanuatu also is known for the world’s strongest variety of the narcotic drink kava. Drunk from coconut shells by men only (which is fine with me, as it is made from the chewed-up fibers of a peppery root plant, with generous amounts of saliva and muddy water), it’s always a key part of ceremonies. To be fair, the chewing is done exclusively by virginal young boys. Guests who are offered kava should cradle the shell in both hands, down it in one shot, and under no circumstances choke or spit it out. I hear the second shell goes down just fine.
Visitors may observe smaller versions of Nagol in other Pentecost villages, but Bunlap, where it began, is strictly tabu. Even National Geographic film crews are banned. But I have a rare dispensation from the Paramount Chief, which took weeks of diplomacy and a written supplication. Traditionally, supplications are accompanied by a gift of kava root, but not having any, I sent along the excellent pen I bought to write the letter. Finally, a messenger brings the verdict to my hut on Nguna Island. I’m in!
Now we’re shimmying and sliding to a stop on the wet grass of Lonorore airstrip. It will take another four hours by truck, and on foot, to reach Bunlap.
Only after we unfold ourselves from the plane do I notice the rust and patched-together places on the aircraft. But there’s no time to process that data, as our Toyota 4x4 pickup, circa 1978, has arrived. My companions are a Japanese journalist, a 20-something couple from New Zealand and a German woman who have also received the Paramount Chief’s blessing. We’re escorted by Pentecost native Mima Tari, a professional tour guide.
Mima gets the seat beside Harry, the driver. The rest of us brace ourselves in the truck bed. For the next 90 minutes, we grip the sides of the truck as it charges through jungles, forges ravines and careens along rocky beaches, connected by an intermittent gravel road. When it gets really vertical, we disembark to lighten the Toyota’s load as she claws her way upward.
I don’t fully appreciate the altitude until I notice there’s no foliage on the left side of the truck. No wonder: we’re barreling along the edge of a cliff jutting over the ocean. I spend the rest of the ride cowering in the corner of the truck bed.
Eventually, we screech to a halt in the middle of nowhere. There’s a swishing of bushes, and several unsmiling young island men appear from the jungle gripping machetes. They’re naked except for skimpy woven belts around their waists.
Harry unloads some cardboard crates, bottled water and us. Then he’s gone. One man, balancing a box on his head, hooks my backpack on his shoulder and wordlessly signals me to follow. His machete hacks away at vines and branches as he navigates the craggy path. I’m trying to concentrate on my footwork and not on the well-muscled, unencumbered glutes ahead.
I’ve just congratulated myself on my agility when the sky opens up, dumping a monsoon-like deluge. The rocks become perilously slippery. The first trekker goes down and comes up covered in black muck. Then the next. I’m number three. My guide Bo (or To, I’m not sure) cuts a giant taro leaf for an umbrella. Too late.
It’s nearing sunset when we limp, mud-caked, into Bunlap village. My sodden hiking shoes and my proper ankle-length island skirt weigh a ton. I’m too cold for an icy outdoor shower, and I can’t put clean clothes over this mud. Luckily, Bunlap has no wardrobe tabus—mostly because they have no wardrobes, except the men’s nambas and the women’s hibiscus grass skirts. I grab the thin sheet from the mattress of my sleeping platform. A few creative twists and voila! Instant sarong. As it turns out, I’m the most overdressed person in the village.
The kava hut is busy with men who accomplished their dives today. There are a few stumps for seating, but most lean against the bamboo walls or squat on the floor. Everything is brown. Mud-caked brown skin, brown hut, brown kava. Except for the shiny silver, alien-looking apparatus in the center of the dirt floor. It’s a 21st century stainless steel kava grinder, a gift to the chief from a recent visitor. But that doesn’t stop the chewing. Custom is custom.
A proud group of 10-year-old boys, recently emerged from several weeks of secret coming-of-age rites, are clustered together away from their families. They now belong with the men, whose most important life skill will be the precise, life-or-death science of vine-measuring. They now are eligible for kava chewing and land diving.
Sleep comes easy, even on the wooden platform. After an early breakfast of bread and tea, there’s another trek to the Nagol field. We feel the stomping and chanting through our feet, half a mile away.
Still, we’re unprepared for our first sight of the three-story monolith that looms like a prehistoric creature against a darkening sky. Men seem woven into the sculpture, testing platforms, reinforcing, establishing their positions for the dive. Others are scouring the softened yam field for potentially deadly sticks and rocks.
Rows of flower-garlanded women are terraced on the steep hillside, swaying, dancing, chanting, watching, waiting. It’s easy to spot the wives and mothers of men making their jumps today. They’re carrying bouquets of red leaves; their expressions alternating between anxiety and pride. There are shrieks of greeting as neighboring villagers arrive, swathed in ceremonial leaves and vines.
A shy girl hands me something warm and green. Lunch. It’s a fire-baked taro root wrapped in a taro leaf. Nobody seems to care that it has started to rain.
A man steps to the edge of his platform about 50 feet up. He raises his eyes and arms heavenward. Suddenly there’s an eerie silence. All movement has stopped, except for the mournful swaying of his womenfolk. Into the silence, the diver calls out what may be his last words. For as long as he wishes, he rants against his enemies and recounts his life’s triumphs. With hands folded as if in prayer, he dives.
To me, it seems that he has landed on his neck, bouncing twice before lying perfectly still. But then he stirs. A shout goes up from the crowd and the dancing resumes. Relatives rush onto the field to cut his vine, as he leaps to his feet in a posture of victory. His reward—beyond survival—is a night of virility; with all the shells of kava he can drink and guaranteed success in matters of love.
And for the village, another bountiful yam harvest.
Flying In. Flights arrive into Port Vila several times weekly from Fiji (one hour), Australia and New Zealand (3 to 3 1/2 hours).
Land Diving Packages. Some Pentecost villages welcome day and overnight visitors. Reservations essential. Packages $350-$1,000. Start with Mina at
Luxury Resorts Eco and cultural tourism has its rewards, but luxury gives balance. Check out the dreamlike romance of these South Seas hideaways on private islands near Port Vila: Eratap Beach Resort,
www.eratap.com; Iririki Island Resort and Spa, www.iririki.com. For more, visit
My Personal Islands It took the promise of a solar shower and a water seal toilet imported from Australia for my son, Chris, to lure his sister, Sarah, and me to see the coral-fringed islands of Nguna and Pele, 90 minutes by truck from Port Vila, then 20 minutes by boat. Villagers are still so delighted to have company that if they know you’re coming, the entire community may turn out to greet you on the beach with a traditional hand-shaking ritual, live music and fresh mangoes. Chris is working on his doctoral thesis about marine-protected areas (MPAs) in the Pacific Islands. Visit www.marineprotectedarea.com.vu.