The nangol land-diving ceremony on Vanuatu's Pentecost Island is one of the most thrilling culture experiences a traveler can witness. A rite of passage for men, the land-diving ceremony is a “test of faith” to thank and show reverence to the gods. Here Samantha Royce, a guest of our ground agent in Vanuatu, tells us about watching this incredible event.
Land Diving on Pentecost Island
What had you heard about the nangol ceremony?
This was my fourth trip to Vanuatu, and I have always wanted to see the land diving. I heard that it was the original bungee jumping, and that the local Ni-Van people of Pentecost did it at the start of yam season to ensure that they would get a good crop. Also, I had heard that the people were very welcoming and loved having tourists come and share the ceremony with them.
Can you give us your impressions of the ceremony?
When we arrived, the men were dancing and chanting, and the women wore grass skirts and were dancing, too. I felt like I was in the Pacific back in the 1900s before westernization.
The tower was a lot taller than I expected. It was built on a hill, so when the divers jumped, they landed on the soft mud below. The ceremony went for about an hour, and we saw 10 different jumpers. The first boy to jump was only 9 years old, and he jumped from about 10 feet. There were five different levels of heights before we saw the final jumper from the top of the tower.
The singing from the dancers was amazing. The chants got louder and louder and then stopped completely just before the jumper made his leap—it really built up the suspense. Seeing the men pass the vines up the tower to the jumper, who would then tie them around his feet was scary, as it reminded you that this was no machine with mechanical engineers regularly checking that it was working. It was all natural materials, and there was definitely room for human error.
Were there a lot of people at the ceremony?
The ceremony was very quiet with only about 50 people watching. It didn't seem crowded at all because there was a large area to watch the land diving from.
I watched the first half of the jumps from beside the tower—you were allowed to get up close by walking up the side paths on the hill—and the second half of the dives from in front of the tower. It was nice to be all spread out and also be allowed to wander around and switch vantage points during the ceremony.
Did you meet any of the participants?
After the land-diving ceremony, we joined the participants for an island feast. One of the jumpers was in the string band, while another prepared kava for some of the men to taste. The young boy who jumped was also there. I spoke to the organizers of the feast and they were very excited to have a chat about land diving, tell me how they made the food and fill me in on some information about life on the island.
What surprised you the most?
What I was most surprised by was the crack of the tower every time a jumper dived off. The first one I thought it was the sound of the boy’s back breaking and it scared me, but then the guide explained to me that each man dives from a platform, and to increase the give from the tower the platform breaks off as the vine is stretched, which results in a softer landing. I was also surprised by how close we were allowed to the tower, which meant that with every jump you could see the expression on the diver’s face, and live the experience with them.
What was the highlight of the experience?
The highlight of the experience was feeling like we were part of the ceremony. We felt very welcome. It didn’t seem like a show for tourist entertainment—it was very authentic. The food at the feast was also a highlight because we got to try lap lap (Vanuatu’s national dish, a root vegetable cake made with manioc, island cabbage and coconut milk), local grapefruit, manioc chips, noodle dishes, chicken stew and locally made coconut cookies.