7 indigenous adventurers who will leave you in awe

Whatever you’ve done, these guys have been doing it longer and better.
By Brooke Morton

No matter where you live or what tribe you belong to, whether wealthy westerner or Mongolian farmer, it's seems there's one thing that unites us all – a love of heart-stopping, adrenaline pumping sports. From yak racing to bungee jumping with just some vines around your legs, prepare to be humbled by these indigenous athletes. Not everything is for fun though. The honey hunters of India don't scale 150m cliffs for kicks – but it's sure worthy of respect.

Tarahumara ultra-runners

Tarahumara Indians running down a dirt trail.
Tarahumara ultra-runners of Mexico © Getty Images/Aurora Creative

Where: Sierra Madre, Mexico
Heat exhaustion, rattlesnakes, drug lords
Respect factor:
Random fact:
Immortalised in the cult book, Born to Run

Some theorise it’s the corn beer that powers Mexico’s Tarahumara runners to travel distances up to 700 kilometres (435 miles) over the course of two straight days. Some credit their lack of overly cushy running shoes. In a culture where Nike has yet to make a foothold, these men stride over rocks and sun-scorched desert in nothing but bare feet, or occasionally, sandals cut from trashed tyres.

Despite conditions where most recreational runners would take a pass, this community professes a love of running that keeps them in motion.

Traditional spearfishing

An indigenous Moken man hunting fish with a traditional bamboo spear.
Moken man hunting fish © LightRocket via Getty Images

Where: Surin Islands, Thailand
Hazards: Shallow-water blackout, drowning
Respect factor: 9
Random fact:
They don't wear goggles

Thailand’s Moken people first garnered media attention when they anticipated the 2004 tsunami by reading the water, weather and animal behaviour patterns. That ability carried them to the safety of the mountains. Otherwise, these nomadic people stay at sea level, freediving down to 20m to spear fish and collect sea cucumbers and other edibles.

What’s most incredible? They have no diving gear, and typically wear neither fins nor masks. Because they need the sea to survive, they’ve learned to narrow their pupils, sharpening their underwater focus to twice that of westerners.

Honey hunters of India

Indian nest hunters risking their life.
Sweet nectar: what man will do for honey © Eric Tourneret

Where: India
Hundreds-strong bee swarms, 150m cliffs
Respect factor:
Random fact:
The ropes are handmade from jungle vines

The Alu Kurumbas people of Tamil Nadu, the state on India’s southwestern tip, give new meaning to praying for safety before they set out to scale the 150-metre high cliffs of the Nilgiri Biosphere Nature Park. Their quarry: the honey of giant rock bee colonies. For this, they honour the forest goddess Magaliaman with days of fasting and other purifying rituals.

The village priest picks a starting time, typically as close to sunrise as possible. Then, they begin. Only thick ropes handmade from jungle vines suspend the climbers. Hundreds of bees threaten. They’re spared from the bees’ venom thanks only to smoking baskets of green leaves set on fire, and the hands of their gods. Despite this, the honey snatchers can expect to be stung multiple times. 

Traditional kayaking in the Arctic

An inuit sitting in a traditional Kayak.
An Inuit in a traditional Kayak © LightRocket via Getty Images

Where: Northwest Greenland
Hazards: Hypothermia, drowning
Respect factor: 6
Random fact:
The word kayak comes from the Inuit language

The boat was the only thing separating kayakers in Baffin Bay from death. This 2,000-year old tradition in the Arctic Circle grew from the summertime need for meat. Ice melt prevented Inuit peoples from otherwise nabbing the seals, walruses and whales that nosed up through broken patches to breathe. Boats were crafted from whalebones, covered in sealskin.

Now, the outermost layer of handmade boats is coated nylon. But much of the technique remains the same. The Inuit invented the kayak roll to escape death from exposure to 2ºC water. Then, the weight of animal pelts would have led instantly to drowning. Now, dry-suits and Gore-Tex make the sport a much warmer, safer practice, which only saw a resurgence in the 80s – around the time much of this hi-tech gear came on the market.

Yak Racing, Asia

Yak racing at Gyantse Horse Racing Festival.
Giddy up! Yak racing in Tibet © Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

Where: Northern Mongolia
Hazards: Stomping injuries
Respect factor: 7
Random fact:
In Nepal they make yak burgers

In Mongolia, it’s the yak that sustains life: Its milk makes cheese, its hide becomes pelts and its dung, fuel. So it stands that the animal is celebrated annually with a festival. Every July, northern provinces, including Uvurkhangai, arrange celebrations with yak rodeos, milking competitions and even yak beauty contests. Races also take place in Tibet.

For men, one of the highlights is the yak races, but because these beasts are known only for speed sustained over short distances, the event is capped at 2,000 metres.

Original bungee jumping

Land diving on the island of Pentecost, Vanuatu.
Land diving on Pentecost Island, Vanuatu © AFP/Getty Images

Where: Pentecost Island, Vanuatu
Falling to your death
Respect factor:
Random Fact:
The most notoble death occured during an attempt to impress the Queen in 1974: the vines weren't ready and the victim broke his back, later dying.

Land diving on Pentecost Island in Vanuatu is allowed only in months with heavy rainfall – otherwise the vines acting as bungees would lack the elasticity necessary to keep participants alive. Even with that caveat, it’s a sport with many variables. Each spring, 30m tall wood-and-vine towers are rebuilt by hand.

The vines are measured for each man – and youth – who jumps, because, unlike in Western cultures where impact is avoided at all costs, here, the goal is to have your head skim the tilled earth ever so slightly. The practice is believed to bless the yam harvest, regardless if the jumpers live or die.

Skiing on homemade gear

A girl skiing down a steep slope in Afghanistan.
You don’t need a pair of fat rockers to have fun © James Robertson Photography

Where: Bamiyan, Afghanistan
Eating snow
Respect factor:
Random fact:
This corner of Afghanistan is tourist friendly

This is not so much a traditional sport as one the locals have taken to after watching visiting westerners come and go. Deciding that skiing looks fun and wanting a slice of the action, they've taken to fashioning home-made skis.

“They'll use whatever plank of wood they can find, bits of chain or metal to wrap around wellies,” says photographer James Robertson.  “The amazing thing is that they can turn.” With more adventurers visiting the area, attempts are being made to supply modern gear and offer training.

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