A lively band with a single-string bass was playing as we walked up the soft black sand beach from the landing on Pentecost Island in Vanuatu. As we continued on a footpath up the hill, a ramshackle tower of sticks and vines came into view, looking like some strange South Pacific modern art sculpture. We found ourselves a place to sit in the shade a short distance from the base of the mysterious tower, and the show began.
Within minutes, scantily-clad men began climbing around the scaffold-like structure, all busily tying and untying, adding sticks and cutting out sticks from the structure. Over the course of the afternoon, men would climb to higher and higher platforms on the tower, have vines carefully tied around their ankles, and then leap fearlessly forward into the air, trusting that the vines would protect them from gravity pulling them at a fatal speed into the ground.
Pentecost Island is the birthplace of the tradition of nanggol, a land diving ceremony to celebrate the arrival of the first yam harvest, and a ritual that has inspired the modern sport of bungee jumping. For each land diver, careful adjustments had to be made both to each vine and to each individual platform, which needs to break at the right moment to soften the fall.
Eventually, only one platform remained, the highest of all. We watched with mouths agape as this final jumper took his leap of faith. The image of spiraling bodies silhouetted against a blue sky will remain etched in our memories forever.