The first bungee jumpers, Pentecost Land Divers, used vines tied to their ankles and dived off towers made of sticks wearing nothing but a penis sheath called a nambus.
Diving off a high tower with an elastic rope tied to the ankles for a quick adrenalin rush sounds like something developed by tourist entrepreneurs to lure modern thrill-seekers.
But the intrepid pioneers of this sport, the first bungee jumpers, didn’t have the sophistication of engineered elastic ropes and fancy boots.
Bungee Jumping Started in Vanuatu as the Pentecost Jump
The islands of Vanuatu sprawl in that arc from the Solomon Islands in the north to New Caledonia in the south. In the 1860s, the French and English formed a condominium to bring the islands, then known as the New Hebrides, into the western way of life. This joint rule lasted until 1980 when the nation gained independence and the name changed to Vanuatu.
The first bungee jumps were carried out thousands of years ago on the island of Pentecost, one of Vanuatu’s many islands.
Pentecost Island is known as the ‘island of legend.’ To confirm this label, the nagol or ‘Pentecost Jump’ has its roots in legend.
The Legend of the First Bungee Jump
In the times when legends were made, a man named Tamalie frequently and viciously beat his wife. One day she ran away in fear and hid in the top of a tree. Tamalie climbed after her despite threats she would jump. When he reached the top, she threw herself off and he plunged after her. However, she had cleverly tied vines to her feet that broke her fall while her husband crashed to his death on the ground.
The women continued to celebrate the legend, but over the years men have taken over the role. The Pentecost land divers spend weeks preparing for the jump to psyche themselves and deter evil spirits.
The ritual now has a dual role. One is for the tourist trade to bring hard cash into the villages; the other for religious significance. As the Pentecost land diver’s head scrapes the ground at the end of his dive it fertilises the earth for the coming yam harvest.
From Traditional Ceremony to Modern Bungee Jumping
The western version of this sport is also becoming a ritual. Thrill-seekers wanting to pay homage to the ultimate adrenalin rush dive off special platforms, high bridges or cranes set up for the occasion. The Pentecost land divers used nothing more than a tower made from sticks. The modern bungee-jumper uses the elasticity in the bungee rope to stop the free-falling body. The old-timers relied on three methods to break their fall:
1) the vines of carefully measured length have elasticity;
2) the tower has a bit of ‘give’;
3) the top of the tower breaks away as the diver reaches the end of the vines.
Modern bungee jumping is usually done over water, with the jumper having the choice if they want to be dunked in the water at the end of the fall.
The Pentecost land divers do their jumps over the forest floor. The ground is softened by a layer of leaf mulch, and is usually on a slope to assist in breaking the fall. However, a miscalculation in the length of the vines can be fatal as the land diver slams into the earth. Fortunately, these are rare.
First Commercial Bungee Jump on Kawarau Bridge
Henry van Asch and AJ Hacket established the first commercial bungee jumping operation on the Kawarau Bridge in New Zealand. This bridge, spanning the Kawarau River was built in 1880 and is a short drive from New Zealand’s excitement town of Queenstown.
Many thrill seekers now pay to bungee jump from the Kawarau Bridge.
Bungee jumping is not the only modern sport that has its roots in the Pacific Ocean. Freestyle swimming was developed in the Solomon Islands; while surfing first started in Hawaii.