Ricky Gervais side-kick and general Idiot Abroad, Karl Pilikington, on defying death with the Stone Age bungee jumpers from Vanuatu
We got to the island of Pentecost in Vanuatu where I met John. He took me from the landing strip through the woods where I could hear whistling and singing, and through the trees until we came to a massive tower that looked like it was made of scaffolding poles. As I got closer I could see it was a structure of wooden poles all bound together with rope. It looked like a giant game of KerPlunk.
Men and women were dancing and singing while others were climbing up the side of the wooden frame. John explained that they were looking forward to seeing a white man do a land dive. As he explained why they do the land diving, men were jumping from various heights with nothing but vines wrapped round their ankles. Somehow, they measure the vines so that the land divers just brush the ground before being whipped back up by the vines.
The highest jumping platform was around 30 metres high. When one of the men jumped, the whole structure shook violently, as if it could come down at any moment. As each man landed another two blokes ran up and cut the vines free to clear them before the next man dived, like a kind of air traffic control.
As soon as the jumpers were released from the vines they ran back up the tower to have another go, like kids in the park playing on a slide. I imagine it would be difficult to refuse to do the jump if you lived here. It seemed to be such a tight community and might lead to being shunned.
I think most people in life just want to fit in so follow suit rather than questioning things. It reminded me of the bungee jumping situation...
John said that if the divers brushed the land with the hair on their head, it blessed the land. 'No chance of me doing that then,' I thought. I'd have to plant my head in the earth like an ostrich for my hair to brush the land. He explained that the higher the jump, the more plentiful the harvest.
There were no St John's Ambulance people on stand-by if things went tits up. Even in the professional set-up in New Zealand I had to sign a waiver to say if anything happened it wasn't their responsibility, so I doubted if this village had any sort of cover. They didn't even cover their bollocks, so Life Cover wasn't going to be on offer.
The men wore a nambas, which is a small bit of material worn over the knob. The bollocks are left free. I didn't see the point of the material. It didn't really cover anything. It's like when you wrap a bottle of wine for someone at Christmas. There's no surprise there, and it was the same with the nambas – it wasn't hiding anything.
But, as with everywhere else in the world, you'll always get someone who wants to be different. There was a man who was walking around dressed in a right load of foliage. He was the Lady Gaga of the area. Maybe this was his way of getting out of doing the dive, by getting camouflaged up. The odd thing about the clothing was how the tradition had carried on and yet the odd villager had a mobile phone or wore a quality watch. The watch just didn't look right. It was never designed to go with a knob sheath. If anything I'd probably wear the watch round the nambas as a belt to stop it falling off. Surely if they accepted mobile phones and watches they might as well wear underpants or a pair of trunks.
A young lad who looked about six years old did a jump from around 25 feet. Kids of his age in England are being told not to play conkers at school due to little injuries, and yet here's little Billy diving to his imminent death just for the sake of growing some cabbages. This is what happens when people don't have enough to do. No jobs, no paperwork or bills to pay, no washing of clothes, no sales calls to answer, or windows or cars to wash, so they turn to arsing about.
There was no way I was going to do it from the top. I told John it was too risky. I explained that I have a mortgage and other responsibilities that I wouldn't be able to sort out with a broken neck. He told me: 'Not a problem. It safe. Been doing for many years, no accidents. No worry.' Yet one after another, men continued to hurl themselves off the tower like lemmings. These people need wings more than the kiwi bird.
Everything seemed to be going well until a man whose vines were too long went and planted his head in the ground. He lay on the ground shaking like a baby sparrow that had fallen out its nest with his eyes rolling about in the back of his head. The singing and dancing continued as two men went over and slapped his face. Eventually he came back round with a big smile on his face.
I didn't want to let everyone in the village down, and I knew Ricky and Stephen would moan at me if I didn't get involved somehow, so I came up with an idea. I agreed to do the lowest possible land dive. I pointed to the lowest rung on the structure and asked everyone if jumping from there still counted as a land dive. They said it would. Two men prepared the vines for my dive. They definitely looked too long for the distance I was going to jump. They tied them around my ankles. I got up on the ledge to find it was a lot higher than I thought. Just as on the bungee platform in New Zealand where loud rock music blasted out of speakers, here the singing and whistling puts you in a kind of trance. I held onto the wooden frame with one arm and leaned as far forward as possible. Now I just had to let go. I remember having the same feeling when I was learning to swim as a kid, when you know you have to let go of the side of the pool and push away. This was like letting go of the edge of a pool, except there was no water. No one was shouting at me like the jump in New Zealand, no one was counting me down – I just had to wait until my inner voice said, 'Release'. The thing Sam kept saying to me on the bungee in New Zealand was in my head: 'Coach, pass me the ball, and I'll make the play.' With everyone wearing a nambas, now wasn't the time to be asking for any ball to play with. I let go.
The vines they had attached to my legs were far too long. I face-planted the earth. Given the distance I'd jumped I'd have been better using shoelaces instead of vines, but the villagers loved it. The chanting and whistling got louder, and they lifted me in the air in celebration. I felt good, not from the dive, but because I felt they had appreciated my effort.
Check out Karl Pilkington's chat with Michael Palin on Amazon. It's quite the meeting of minds...