Naghol: The forerunner of bungee

8 May 1993 Vanair 590 Port Vila to Lonorore
8 May 1993 Vanair 592 Lonorore to Lamap
8 May 1993 Vanair 592 Lamap to Port Vila

Hundreds of years ago, maybe thousands of years ago, Tamalie lived on the island of Pentecost. He was a cruel warrior, and husband to an enterprising and spirited young woman. One day, she climbed up a tree and lured her husband to follow her. As she jumped off the tree, Tamalie followed her. He didn't see that she had tied vines to her feet to break her fall, so that although she survived the incident, he didn't.

Such is the story of Tamalie in its simplest form. What isn't clear from that is how the jump now comes to be made by men, with women unable to participate at all, or how it comes to be from a tower made from traditional materials instead of a tree.

Least certain of all is how the tradition arose that a successful jump, or naghol should guarantee that the yam harvest will be plentiful.

These days, the jump takes place every year on about eight separate days, with a small number of visitors able to come and watch. It is certainly one of the most significant events in Vanuatu and probably in the world. It was also the inspiration for bungy jumping, but there is really little connection between jumping off a bridge with an enormous rubber band and jumping off a tree platform with vines.

It is not a cheap day, costing forty thousand vatu, or about USD 350, but on top of the package fare for the day, it is almost free.

The day started early, with the flight scheduled to leave at eight in the morning. In fact, the package started the night before, with a briefing about what we should expect, and the issue of a tour shirt.

We were up early on the morning of the trip, to collect our housegirl, who would look after our children. By now they were nearly four and nearly two, but we still reckoned that this was too young to enjoy naghol.

After that, it was nearly check-in time, so we set off for the airport, with housegirl and children, who wanted to see their parents get on the aeroplane. Our children certainly have a fascination with air travel, possibly inherited from their parents. However, it seems to be almost universal in the children we know here.

At after eight o'clock there was still no sign of any action, but by 8:30 a pilot had arrived. We were airborne by 08:40, but not before the pilot had apologised that he had misread the roster and thought that we were not due to take off until 09:30. We were supposed to arrive at Lonorore at 09:30, so we would not actually be very late, because the flight is only about an hour. Partly because it was a tourist flight and partly because it was a way to improve our time, we flew very low, between five hundred and a thousand feet. Apparently there was a tail wind at that height where there was a headwind at altitude. The trip afforded a better view of islands than is possible on the trip to Santo, simply because it passed over more of them.

The offshore islands to the north of Efate were clearly visible, as were the Shepherd Islands. As we progressed north, we got a good view of Epi as we followed its coast, and then flew over Paama. Paama is our housegirl's home island, and a densely populated one in comparison to most of the others. As I have mentioned before, there are numerous active volcanoes in Vanuatu. Lopevi is home to one of the most ferocious, and this island, which adjoins Paama, is now uninhabited as a result. It was fascinating to see it from the air. The next island we saw was Ambrym, home of our gardener. Ambrym boasts three active volcanoes, and has completely different vegetation to the nearby islands, as seen from the air. Indeed, many of the islands look different from the air. We also received a clear view of a significant waterfall on the island. Ambrym was also interesting because by its coastline you could see cliffs which looked for all the world as if they were made out of rough wood. Ambrym, in common with many volcanic islands, is a centre for occult practices, and said to be the main centre for this sort of thing in Vanuatu. Certainly magic and kastom have a great part in the lives in many of the islanders.

Finally, we were to come to Pentecost, and as we came in to land, we saw for the first time the tower from which the land dive was to take place. However, from the airstrip at Lonorore, it was still a forty minute trip in a small boat. From the airstrip we walked down a track for two or three minutes, where we were surprised to see two small motor-boats, having expected a road.

As we got into one of the boats with all the other passengers from the flight, it started to rain, and continued to rain as we followed the south-western coast of the island of Pentecost to the village of Panas. From there it was just a couple of minutes up a muddy track to the jump site, where there was a small house for us to wait and shelter.

About twenty minutes before noon, it looked as if something was about to happen. So the whole group of about twenty of us, including some from the Port Vila Air Club charter flight, our group from Tour Vanuatu and several others climbed up to the jump area, where a group of dancers were dancing and chanting, as a young boy was starting to climb up the tower. I fear that it will be difficult to describe the event in a way that will make it sound reasonable or worthwhile. Pictures and videotapes might help you to get some idea. The tower is made entirely from traditional materials, and has been developed over hundreds or thousands of years. From a jumping platform made of wood, a jumper will dive downwards and as he does so, his fall will be broken by the stretching of the vines tied to his ankles and by the snapping of the wooden platform. Finally, he will be landing in soil which has been extensively dug over to make it soft. An ideal jump will finish with the jumper being jerked upright as he reaches the ground. Various catastrophes may result if his vines are the wrong length. Too long and he will crash into the ground: too short and he will crash into the tower.

A small boy reaches the lowest platform, perhaps nine metres above the ground, and with a distinctive call, hurls himself off toward the ground. No applause, no shouting, just the chanting from the dancers at the top of the hill.

Naghol must attract many different sorts of jumper. Some were obviously experienced, and just climbed up to their platforms, paused and jumped, while others were more in the nature of the showman. They played their part well, playing to the gallery, except that it was below them, before jumping. All the time, however, they were playing to their own people and not to visitors such as us, even though we were treated as honoured guests. About twenty jumped altogether, and there was one man both of whose vines snapped, though he was fortunately not badly hurt. One man who fell to the ground head first, as most did, pulled himself to standing using the vine before anybody could get to help him. The last jump, from the highest place at the top of the tower, perhaps twenty-five metres above the ground, is a great event, and one that is awaited with enthusiasm by local and visitor alike. It is a very long way to fall. On this event, one of his vines snapped, but the platform and the remaining vine were sufficient to keep him safe.

However, the jump I will remember best was the one immediately before this. Still very high, he jumped and was snapped to an upright position as he hit the ground. Sitting with us watching this was an Australian lady who was teaching in central Pentecost, who remembered this man being married when she had been there previously as a teacher sixteen years before.

Two hours had elapsed, during which time the chanting had continued unabated except for pauses during the jumps themselves. After all this, we went down onto the beach for our lunch. It seemed an anticlimax in some ways now that the jump was over.

What can I say? Any further anecdotes or narrative might detract from the main event, but I must continue. One thing which struck me as very interesting was that a large majority of visitors to naghol hailed from New Zealand, when New Zealanders are generally a small minority in Vanuatu. I cannot explain this satisfactorily. One girl from the New Zealand mission in New Caledonia had come over for the jump with her boyfriend, a Frenchman on National Service. I wonder whether a New Zealand diplomat and a French soldier are really suited in the long term. Probably they will be fine so long as they don't talk about Rainbow Warrior.

As we climbed into the boat for the return to Lonorore, it started to drizzle, but we were drier on the return journey. On the way back we were able to get a clearer view of the hot springs at Hot Wota. As we watched the small aircraft come in to land, we prepared for our journey back to Port Vila. We were told that the flight would be making a detour to Lamap on the southern coast of Malekula to pick up some baggage which had been off-loaded. This did mean that we wouldn't see so many islands on the way back, but would add another doubtful airstrip to the collection.

We flew low over Ambrym and southern Malekula before coming to rest at Lamap. We hopped out for a moment, but there was nobody to be seen. The pilot called for assistance and information by radio, but none was forthcoming. He looked around the terminal building but to no avail. Eventually three local men turned up, but they had no information to offer either. Probably they had gone to the airstrip to find out why were there at an unexpected time.

Less than five minutes after landing, we were in the air again, bound for Port Vila and home. It would not be five o'clock before we drove to the supermarket to pick up some milk and return to daily life. After seeing the life of South Pentecost, nothing would ever be quite the same again.

Up to this point, my wife's flights had largely been a subset of mine. Just before we came to Vanuatu for the first time, she took our son on a day trip from Birmingham to London Heathrow to find out what, if any, are the pitfalls of flying with small children. It seemed worth finding out before embarking on a twelve thousand mile intercontinental journey. The main problems, she suggested, were queuing for check-in, queuing to board, queuing to get off...

She had also travelled to Tanna shortly after our arrival in Vanuatu when my school-friend came to visit us from Sydney.

Her independent air travel became significant in July and August 1993 with a short duration journey back home for a friend's wedding. Travelling with Air Vanuatu from Port Vila to Auckland, connecting with Air New Zealand's one-stop flight to London Gatwick and returning less than two weeks later by the same route, with a one night stopover in Auckland. This journey clocks up 26,712 miles for her, along with 8030 Air New Zealand Air Points.

It also results in her total mileage exceeding mine for the first time. This, however, is my narrative and not hers.

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