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Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
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The Land Divers of Pentecost

1 April 2015

Each year, every weekend between March and June, the male inhabitants of the South Pacific island of Pentecost hurl themselves from a timber tower with only a vine tied to each ankle to prevent them from colliding with the ground below. World Press Photo award-winning photographer Tim Clayton’s striking images capture this spectacular tradition

Chief Lauran Tho, 39, is the most respected elder in his village, which is located near Lonorore Airport in the south west of the island of Pentecost, one of 83 islands that make up the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. Chief Tho stares piercingly at a young teenage boy perched precariously eight metres above the ground, balancing on the edge of a wooden platform jutting out from a tall tower constructed of timber poles. 

Chief Tho’s stare is concentrated, as if he’s looking into the boy’s soul. Suddenly Chief Tho jumps to his feet, and with hands gesticulating wildly, calls a halt to the young boy’s progress and orders him down off the jump tower. The platform is broken with a loud crack, the vines are untied from the boys feet, and he breathes more easily, relieved but not ashamed, for he respects the Chief’s decision. The boy heads back to the base of the jump to join his tribesmen, who dance and sing in preparation for the next jumper. 

For Chief Tho it’s a sixth sense, a gift, a mystical magic that everybody respects. He is the village’s land diving doctor. “I bless the vines and the vines tell me when something is not right,” he explains later. “If somebody is going to get hurt, if they [the vines] tell me this, I stop the jump.” Chief Tho’s record speaks for itself. During his 17 years as a land diving doctor not one of his jumpers has ever been hurt, which is an amazing statistic when you consider other jump sites in south Pentecost have experienced many injuries and three fatalities in recent years.

Soon after the teenage boy is called down from the tower by Chief Tho, Jeanis Asal, the elder of two bearded 30-something brothers (although neither is sure of his age) climbs the tower to the highest jump point about 10 metres above the ground. Asal wears nothing but his traditional belt, which holds his nambas (abdominal shield) in place. 

Two tribesmen secure the vines to his ankles. This time, after Chief Tho’s soul searching stare and consultation with the vines, he gives the go ahead. Men and women of all ages, dressed in traditional costume, dance and sing with ever increasing tempo at the base of the tower; the pulsating chanting is accompanied by whoop whoop sounds that build a feeling of anticipation in the waiting audience. 

Asal, now on top of the tower, works his audience, which today consists of 12 tourists who have flown in on a day trip from Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila; he arches his back to the heavens and claps a beat; he continues to encourage the audience like a pole vaulter preparing for a world record attempt, building the rhythm and intensity of their chant, psyching himself up for the jump. 

As the sound reaches a climax, Asal launches himself off the 10-metre platform in the style of an Olympic diver – precise form, perfect balance – only there is no water below, just the rich brown clay of the hillside. The two vines attached to each ankle are the only things stopping him crashing into the earth and suffering almost certain death. 

The vines tighten to break his fall in a violet jerk and there’s a huge crack from the platform’s shock absorber mechanism. Built from carefully crafted wooden struts that the vines lay over, the ingenious device is designed to snap at the full tension of the jump.

Asal is dragged from the jaws of death with inches to spare. He lies spread eagle, face down on the earth; two aids rush to his side to check on his wellbeing. Asal is more concerned about whether his nambas is still in place. He stands to his full height, his gleaming white teeth glistening from the depths of his bushy black beard as he smiles and waves at the audience. 

The dive is over in the blink of an eye, but the audience responds with rapturous applause, knowing it is one of the most extraordinary sporting spectacles they have ever witnessed. The tourists have watched 10 dives in the space of an hour, starting with a boy of eight diving from two metres with a gentle push from one of the older jumpers, and ending with Asal’s jump from the top platform. Content with their whirlwind visit to Pentecost, they are soon whisked back to Lonorore Airport for their trip home (weather permitting). 

The origin of land diving on Pentecost is uncertain, but general consensus seems to point to a dispute between a pair of newlyweds who argued continually, so much so that finally the wife decide she’d had enough and climbed to the top of a nearby tree and threatened to jump off and kill herself. Feeling guilty about the way he had treated his new bride, the husband decided to join her, agreeing they should both jump together. 

They both jumped, but unbeknown to the husband the wife had tied vines to her ankles. She was saved by the vines as he fell to his death. As the legend has it, the women of the island then started diving in her honour, but this was quickly stopped by the menfolk when the women’s grass skirts ended up over their heads revealing too much to onlookers. So the men took over the role of land diving, while the women were banished from the dive site and only allowed to participate in dancing on dive day.

As time went by the weekly jumps, which take place between March to June when the vines are strong and supple, also became a celebration of the Yam harvest. They were also once considered a rite of passage for boys on the cusp of manhood. Chief Tho is also the chief builder of the jump tower at the Lonorore site. 

He overseas everything, choosing which trees to chop down to build the tower, which vines to use, the construction and, of course, the jumps. He leads a group of 15 boys and men, ranging from eight years old to in excess of 60, and each carrying a menacing machete, into the jungle. Chief Eric Moltevalep, the eldest of the group, is comfortable wearing the traditional nambas, while the younger men and boys are dressed in board shorts like many men of their age in other parts of the world. 

Jean-Claude Asal, 31, affectionately know as Van Damn to the younger men and boys, also dons the nambas but is continually teased by the group and soon resorts to board shorts too. He is obviously more comfortable on the day of the jumps when everyone is wearing the traditional costume.

The trees and vines are brought down from the hillside to the jump site. Chief Tho carefully marks out nine pegs on the hillside where he wants holes to be dug for the construction, and he sits down while the men and boys take it in turn to dig, their bodies perspiring in the sticky, humid jungle heat, not helped by the constant assault of the mosquitoes that have no problem penetrating the assortment of tropical strength insect repellents. 

Over several days the jump tower is assembled, the men returning each day from surrounding villages; some face a two-hour walk, others travel by boat. They merrily sing and chant while the construction takes place, and all the time Chief Tho sits in the shade on the hillside overseeing the positioning of every pole and every vine lashing. No one ever questions his authority. 

Each day, when Chief Tho feels the men have done enough, he calls a halt to proceedings and the men head back to their villages. When the tower is completed the platforms are put in place. 

With the arrival of tourists, the sport of land diving has gone professional, and according to Chief Tho, there is no pressure on the young men to jump. What was once a rite of passage has now become a commercial sport. The payment for jumping rises as the jump height increases, with divers who jump from the bottom level receiving VT500 (AUS$5.84) and those who jump from the very top receiving VT2,500 (AUS$ 29.20). But the tribesmen don’t jump for personal gain; the money goes to a diver’s community. 

Chief Tho explains that jumping improves a diver’s standing among his peers. People look upon a diver as a hero not just for the feat of diving but also for his contribution to the community. “We are proud of our customs and tradition,” explains Ben Sarnie, 34, also known as Chief Luismal. “We want this to go on forever and we want people to see this magical and mystical event. It is a sport now and we are happy to show our sport to the tourists and to help keep the tradition alive and to help the communities.”

Words and images: Tim Clayton

News Update
Shortly before this issue went to press, Cyclone Pam hit the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, which is made up of 83 islands, including Pentecost Island. One of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history, the Category 5 tropical cyclone has affected 166,000 people, according to the United Nations (UN). A UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team arrived in Vanuatu on March 16 and is working with the Government of Vanuatu to coordinate the humanitarian response. 

The UN estimates that around 65,000 have been left homeless, and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has also reported “extensive damage” to crops, livestock and fisheries, but the full extent of the crisis is not yet known due to a lack of communication and access to some of the islands. “We must support the people and Government of Vanuatu as they continue to help the most vulnerable communities and start to recover and rebuild,” the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Vanuatu, Osnat Lubrani, told the United Nations News Centre. “The United Nations and our partners are ready to continue to help in this effort.” 

For more information, visit: un.org/apps/news