The air is thick with humidity and the voices of chanting men. Sweat rolls down my forehead and my singlet clings to my back.
I guzzle from a water bottle and squint up at the mass of glistening bodies on the hillside before me. Men and boys thwack banana leaves and stamp on the dirt.
Their music fills the small clearing on the edge of the jungle, and is matched only by the singing of ni-Vanuatu women behind them. The men and women are all here for one reason – to bless the annual yam harvest and barrack for the village boys who'll show off their bravado by jumping, head-first, from a tower made of branches and vines.
I'm on Pentecost Island, a remote and rugged patch of land in Vanuatu's north. I've come to the far corner of this South Pacific archipelago to witness the revered tradition of land diving – a testosterone-fuelled display of bravado said to have given birth to modern-day bungee jumping. It's a spectacular ritual unique to Pentecost and still performed in isolated villages in the island's south.
Getting here is also spectacular, with intrepid travellers flying in from Vanuatu's main island, Efate, on seven-seat Cessnas, having passed low over reefs, tropical jungle and a steaming volcano. They disembark on a small, seaside airstrip and are greeted by an upbeat band of ni-Vanuatu men, before being led to a small jungle amphitheatre, purpose-built (it seems) for land diving.
Rite of Passage
Not long after I arrive, a 12-year-old boy scales the tower, stopping at a platform jutting out over the sloping land. We're close enough to see the nerves etched across his face. But he's determined to prove his courage and take part in this rite of passage.
He holds his hands in prayer above his head, toward the relentless sun. Then, as the music below him intensifies, he launches into the air as if diving into a swimming pool.
A vine tied to his ankles snaps him back before dropping him back on to the dirt. Both locals and tourists are silent before men rush to his side and help him to his feet. A little dazed, he shakes himself off before blending back into the rows of chanting and clapping villagers.
Leap of Faith
According to tradition, boys must be 10 years old before their first dive, and must retire when they reach 30, allowing younger generations to take their place. During my visit, I watch 11 locals take the plunge. Each time, the crowd gasps, waiting for something to go wrong.
The final jump of the day is by the oldest, most experienced diver. He climbs to the highest platform, about 30 metres above the ground, and immediately gets into the mood, clapping his hands above his head and revving up his audience.
He's a show pony, loving every minute in the limelight. With his toes over the edge of the platform, he arches his back, dipping his head to his ankles.
As all the divers before him, hands move into prayer. The suspense is palpable. The music fades and all eyes are on this master diver. And then he takes the leap.
A deafening thwack of the platform breaking reverberates through the amphitheatre and the man's head narrowly misses the earth. It's a death-defying stunt you have to see to believe.