National Geographic : 1955 Jan
South Seas' Incredible Land Divers New Hebrides Islanders Prove Their Manhood by Leaping Headfirst to Earth from a 65-foot Jungle Tower BY IRVING AND ELECTA JOHNSON IN our round-the-world cruises in the brig antine Yankee, we Johnsons see more than our share of the strange and curious. Nevertheless, we were almost incredulous at the sight we witnessed in the New Hebri des last spring-islanders diving from a tall tower, not into water but onto land. Until three years before, we had never even heard of this amazing performance. We learned of it from our good friend Oscar New man when we called on him and his wife at their home on the New Hebrides island of Malekula (map, page 82). At first we thought he was joking. Divers Land in "Pool" of Earth On the neighboring island of Pentecost, Mr. Newman said, the natives have a custom of building a tower on the side of a hill and then, on a given day, climbing it and jump ing off, headfirst, to the ground on the down hill side. "How high? Sixty, seventy, eighty feet," he said, "and the record is even higher." "Why aren't they all killed?" we asked. "Well for one thing, the earth they dive into is pulverized and cleared of stones and sticks, but the main thing is the jungle vines attached to their ankles and the tower. They are measured exactly right to let the man's head hit the ground but stop him before his neck breaks." Mr. Newman and his wife had lived on Pentecost for years and were old friends of the natives there. "Let me know when you're coming back," he said, "and I'll get them to wait and put on the show when you're here. Only a few white people have ever seen it." Thus it was with a real sense of excitement that we neared the New Hebrides on our 1953 55 trip, our sixth cruise around the world with a crew of American college students.* We had kept in touch with Mr. Newman, and he made good his promise 100 percent. Wall, the chief of the village of jumpers, was a jolly, rotund fellow. "In his younger days," Mr. Newman told us, "Wall was the champion land diver of all time. I've seen him do a hundred feet." On the day before the ceremony, Wall led us inland to see the tower. On the way he told us how the odd custom is supposed to have started. "It was all because of a woman," he began. "She ran away from her husband with another man, and when pursued she took refuge in the top of a tall coconut palm. Her husband had followed and was about to grab her when she leaped from the treetop and got away unhurt. Everyone was stupefied until it was realized that she had tied vines to her ankles to break her fall. "Her feat was still pretty impressive, but the men said to themselves, 'Anything a woman can do, we can do better.' Then they proceeded to prove to each other how brave they were by headfirst jumping demonstra tions from greater and greater heights." "Each year," Mr. Newman explained, "the men select a new hillside site for the cere mony. First the workers clear the jungle, an arduous job in itself. They spade up soil in the dry-land diving pit and soften it by hand. Saving a high tree as the tower's main brace, they strip off leaves and twigs but spare two or three strong branches as supports." Jungle Tower Built Without Nails A maze of small, straight tree trunks lashed with vines, the tower stood 65 feet above its base and a measured 78 feet above the land ing target on the downhill side (page 78). No nail or wire held it anywhere. Green viny backstays, stretching like a circus tent's guy ropes, secured the tower to stumps in the rear. At various heights 28 platforms jutted like diving boards from its front. Long curling vines were attached at the tower end of each board. They were soon to be lashed around the divers' ankles. Had they been stretched to their full length, each pair of woody lianas would have ended * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Yankee Roams the Orient," March, 1951; "The Yankee's Wander-world," January, 1949; and "West ward Bound in the Yankee," January, 1942, all by Irving and Electa Johnson.