How Land Diving Works

Land Diving: Tourism and Tradition

What was once a private island ritual is now an industry in Vanuatu. Tourists are welcomed and encouraged by the Vanuatu Tourism Office, and it even organizes tours for­ vacationers to view the ceremony. In the past, naghol occurred only on an annual basis during harvest. However, because the tourism industry is so profitable, land diving now occurs weekly between April and the end of June [source: Vanuatu Tourism Office].

­It's forbidden for foreigners to participate in any aspect of the diving. Spectators can take photos, and several production companies have filmed the ritual for documentary purposes. However, in 2006, the Vanuatu Cultural Centre placed a moratorium on all commercial filming of naghol. The Centre felt that the traditional ceremony was becoming too distorted and commercialized and banned filming in an attempt to protect its culture [source: Vanuatu Cultural Centre].

Tourists generally arrive at Pentecost Island by seaplane. A guide leads them into the jungle, and a short hike brings them to the land diving area. The day the diving occurs is a festive one, with drumming and feasts and general celebration. When the elders declare the tower ready, the men take their places and the rest of the crowd gathers around. Only men may jump, but the women provide emotional support through their dances at the bottom of the tower.

Even though the ceremony is a tourist attraction, tradition remains strong. Although the majority of the islanders today are Christian, they still respect ancient Vanuatu beliefs. Divers sleep below the tower the night before jumping in order to ward off evil spirits. Islanders don traditional garb for naghol. For men, this usually consists of only a penis sheath. Women are traditionally bare-breasted with grass skirts.

In addition to the harvest ritual, land diving is also a rite of passage. As soon as they are circumcised (around the age of seven or eight), boys are allowed to participate. The younger boys typically leap from a lower platform than the more mature men, and work their way up to the top as they grow older. As a boy makes his first dive, his mother holds an item representing his childhood. When he jumps, she throws the item away [source: Istvan].

Divers also refrain from sex the day before they jump -- legend says it will cause the jump to go badly. Also considered bad luck are so-called "good luck" charms. This ironic superstition comes from the belief that the diver who died in front of Queen Elizabeth was wearing a good luck charm at the time [source: Istvan]. The men also settle any disputes or affairs before making a jump in case they don't survive the jump.

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  • Istvan, Zoltan. "Reporter's Notebook: S. Pacific Ritual Bungee Jumping." National Geographic. Nov. 26, 2002. (Jan. 13, 2009)
  • Lee, Mike. "Land Divers of Vanuatu." ABC News. July 25, 2006. (Jan. 13, 2009)
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  • Vanuatu Cultural Centre. "Moratorium (Ban) on Commercial Filming of Nagol (Pentecost Island Land Dive)." 2006. (Jan. 13, 2009)
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  • Vanuatu Tourism Office. "Pentecost and Maewo Islands." 2009. (Jan. 13, 2009)