By James P. Sterba
Wali, Vanuatu - Precariously perched atop a rickety, 80-foot tower of sticks lashed together with vines, Reginald Bebe plays for time as villagers chant and dance below. Rain and winds gust across the hilltop clearing in dense jungle. The eyes of 23 tourists in varying states of awe, lock on the lithe, nearly naked figure as he waits for balance, calm and courage.
Tense minutes pass. Finally, he raises his arms toward the heavens, looks up, claps three times and jumps. Jungle vines tied to the tower and to his ankles string out as he falls. As the onlookers wince, the vines grow taut and catch him, his head just inches from a crushing collision with earth.
It is not unfair to say - after watching Mr. Bebe and the 13 men and boys who preceded him off the tower - that modern bungee jumpers are wimps, relatively speaking.
Pure and Simple
It is safe to say that on the southern end of Pentecost Island, where these "land divers" have jumped for some 1,500 years and do so annually on Saturdays in April and May, the ancient forces of ritual and custom have successfully fended off the 20th-century forces of litigation, insurance and government regulation.
Unlike Westerners who aped the concept and minimized the risk, jumpers here don't have elastic cords to break their fall from leaps off construction cranes, bridges and hot-air balloons. They employ no engineering studies, stress meters or G-force computations. They use no water, safety nets or cushions below, just freshly turned earth on a slope.
Only natural branches and fibers are used to build the tower the men jump from. Each jumper selects his own vines and builds his own platform on the tower. The falling diver's vines are pulled tight by his weight, thus helping to break the fall. April and May, says Mr. Bebe, are the months for jumping because that's when the vines, or lianas, are full of sap and are springy, not brittle.
This particular morning, the vines of jumper No. 5 aren't quite strong enough. They snap at his ankles, and his head thuds into the earth. Alive but in pain, he spends some time in a dazed state, craning his neck, pulling at his fuzzy hair.
"Do you have any sports in America that people come from all over the world to see?" Mr. Bebe, a 22-year-old high-school graduate, asks nonchalantly after his successful jump from the highest point on the tower. He has changed out of his penis sheath and into shorts and a Foster's beer T-shirt. "Sport," however, isn't quite the right word for bungee jumping as it is practiced here.
Officially, Pentecost's land divers don't leap for thrills. They leap for yams. A successful jump, by which is meant a dozen or so leaps in which nobody is killed or crippled, ensures a bountiful yam harvest. Why modern chemical fertilizer didn't enter the picture isn't clear. (Not that people here are all that backward. Indeed, they are well ahead of their neighbors on the island of Falakula, where the last report of cannibalism that anyone takes seriously occurred in 1972.)
Pentecost, which is 37 miles long and nearly eight miles wide, is one of Republic of Vanuatu's 80 islands. Densely jungled and primitive, Vanuatu was called the New Hebrides until independence in 1980 after centuries of colonialism and missionary activity. Today, Vanuatu's government is in Port Vila on Efate, the country's "developed island." It has roads, electricity, tourist resorts and casinos. Vanuatu encourages preservation of precolonial customs, traditions and rituals among its 150,000 people. Abandoning the trappings of Western civilization (such as clothing) and returning to the customs of life in the bush aren't discouraged. Drinking kava, a pepper-root derivative with Novocain-like effects that preceded colonial alcohol, is encouraged.
Some of the land divers fortify themselves with kava before they climb the tower.
The divers, who start jumping from lower levels when they are as young as seven, leap also to prove their manhood. That is somewhat paradoxical since land diving, locally called nagol, was started at Bunlap village by a woman. Her name has been forgotten, but legend has it that she was the abused wife of a man named Tamalie. She ran deep into the jungle and climbed a tree. When Tamalie found her, she threatened to jump. To prove his love, he said he would leap too. She jumped, having secretly tied vines to her ankles. He jumped, knowing nothing about the vines. The vines saved her. He, of course, died.
Women re-enacted the jump for years after that. Then male village elders decided this female rite was bad for the spirit of Tamalie and ruled that, henceforth, men would be doing all the jumping.
Another incongruity: Pentecost's land divers profess to have a better safety record over centuries than does the five-year-old bungee jumping craze in the industrialized West. Pentecostians swear that nobody died after Tamalie until 1974, when a special off-season leap was arranged as an exhibition for a visiting Queen Elizabeth. A jumper's vines snapped, and he plunged to his death right there infront of Her Royal Highness. The jumping event continued.
By contrast, three bungee-jumping deaths in North America in 1991 and 1992 engendered legislative and regulatory conniptions, and temporary bans in several states.
In her book, "Bungee Jumping for Fun 'n Profit," published two years ago, jumper Nancy Frase credits the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club with taking the Pentecost concept and running with it. On April Fools' Day, 1979, some of its members bungeed off the 245-foot-high Chifton Bridge in Bristol. Then, dressed in tuxedos and top hats, they jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. That made the TV show, "That's Incredible," and bungee jumping was on its way to becoming a fad.
It didn't go commercial in Europe, Ms. Frase says, until 1986. In 1988, Henry van Asch and A.J. Hackett, who had bungeed off the Eiffel Tower a year earlier, set up a jump site for tourists over the Kawarau River near Queenstown, New Zealand. Then two engineers from Palo Alto, Calif. - John and Peter Kockelman - opened Bungee Adventures in the U.S. Other companies quickly sprouted: Bungee Masters Inc., Sports Tower/Air Boingo, Adrenaline Adventures East, P.T. Bungee Inc., Drastic Elastic Bungee Jump Inc., Bungee America Inc.,to name a few.
Two bungee-related deaths last summer one in Michigan and the second in Ontario, Canada, however, "sort of took the wind out of the bungee industries sails," says Casey Dale, president of the North American Bungee Association (NABA) and operator of Bungee Master's two jump sites (Dale points out that the NABA and Bungee Master's were in no way related to the Michigan and Ontario incidents). Since then, he says, the number of commercial jump sites has dropped to fewer than 100, from about twice that number. Still, he estimates it's a $70 million-a-year industry world-wide. NABA estimates that 1.5 million bungee jumps were made in North America last year.
In bungee jumping, people pay from $50 to $75 to jump. In land diving, tourist-spectators pay 7,500 vatu, which is "mone blong Vanuatu" in Bislama, the official pidgin-English language of the nation. That is about $65 - just to watch and take pictures. Tourists aren't allowed to jump, not that there are all that many requests.