Bungee jumping

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Talk about a serious leap of faith: The first land divers plunged head first toward hard soil, all in the name of agriculture.

Jump & Grind

If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too? Chances are, if you're a Vanuatan male and hoping for a spectacular yam crop, the answer's yes.

Vanuatu, an archipelago in the Southern Pacific best known for its starring role in 2004's Survivor: Vanuatu, has another claim to fame. Its Pentecost Island is the home of a death-defying religious ceremony known as naghol (aka "land diving") that inspired modern bungee jumping.

To be fair, land divers don't really jump off cliffs. Instead, they construct 75-foot-tall wooden towers in their village centers, tilling the ground below the towers by removing any rocks or debris. Then, they tie long, elastic vines around their ankles and, on one or two days in late spring, they jump.

The islanders believe that as the men's hair brushes the against the ground at the nadir of their fall, it fertilizes the soil and helps ensure a bountiful yam crop. Naghol is also a great excuse for village-wide parties; as the men line up to dive, crowds dance and sing below.

Before they jump, they raise their arms in a signal that silences the cheering throng, and - as if acknowledging that their next act may be their last - they reveal their most private thoughts. Then they clap their hands, cross their arms in a corpse-pose and take the plunge. At the bottom, assuming the diver survives, male relatives untie his ankles and flip him right-side up, to the cheers of adoring crowds.

When legendary naturalist David Attenborough visited Pentecost Island with a BBC camera crew in 1950, the world got its first glimpse of land diving. Naturally, it was only a matter of years before thrill-seeking Westerners followed suit.

England Gets Roped In

Believe it or not, the West's first glimpse of bungee jumping occurred on April Fool's Day 1979, when onlookers at the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, witnessed what appeared to be a suicide.

Dressed in a top hat and tails and hugging a bottle of champagne, 33-year-old David Kirke did a back flip off the bridge, 250 feet above the River Avon. To the great surprise of horrified witnesses, Kirke never hit the water; instead, he slowed just before reaching its surface, then began to rise back toward the bridge. Then, three similarly tuxedoed friends of Kirke - members of the "Dangerous Sports Club" - made the jump as well.

When police arrived the four were hanging from the ends of their homemade elastic ropes. In quick succession they were arrested, fined 100 pounds and became overnight celebrities.

Adapted from In the Beginning (HarperCollins), available at leading bookstores. For a daily dose of quirky fun visit MentalFloss.com and check out mental_floss magazine at your local newsstand.