Pursuit of the Endless Summer #12

Palau: Our Pacific Paradise

Palau, a group of islands in Micronesia, is not a typical stop for independent travelers. Just getting there requires some effort; for us it took four layovers and six days due to our circuitous route and missed flight (see previous entry).

Because of its isolation from nearest neighbors (about 800 miles east of the Philippines and 800 miles S.W. of Guam) and population of only about 20,000 residents, once there we were rewarded with an idyllic, laid back, small community, tropical island atmosphere. We were amazed to discover that the roads didn’t even have names or street signs! After our brief foray into the hustle of S.E. Asia and our imminent return shortly hereafter, we vowed to make the most of Palau’s remote natural beauty and tranquillity.

Our main challenge to enjoying this Pacific paradise was money. Until recently Palau was an American territory so its currency is US dollars – we no longer had the advantage of a favorable exchange rate. In addition, since most visitors to Palau are tourists from the US or Japan on short package holidays, prices are reflected accordingly.

For our first few nights we stayed at the cheapest place we could find in Koror, the D.W. motel for $50 a night. Although it was clean and the Palaun owners nice, it was bland – not the way we wanted to spend a good hunk of our daily budget. Then serendipitous encounters led us to friendly American expats who found creative solutions to our budget challenge.

Ron Leidich, founder of Planet Blue Sea Kayak Tours, helped us get our Palauan explorations started. Being a frequent independent traveller himself, Ron understood our situation and worked out an adventurous yet economical plan. Typically he guides day, multi-day, and even several week tours through Palau’s famous Rock Islands. Since we couldn’t afford the standard package for a multi-day trip, Ron provided the next best option – a do-it-yourself itinerary. He reviewed maps with us of a proposed three-day route, which sounded great, so we happily left the D.W. motel the next morning. After we loaded our two-person sit on top kayak with our camping and cooking gear we headed off following Ron’s directions.

Over 340 islands comprise the archipelago of Palau, which doesn’t even include the countless number of small rock islands. To our uninitiated eyes they all looked the same, making navigation a challenge. Mid-morning we flagged down a fishing boat to verify where we were on the map, and later that afternoon we caught up to and tagged along with part of Ron’s guided tour. When we ventured close to the shorelines of the rock islands we noticed that features became apparent which were hidden from a distant view.

Before Ron returned home with his group he pointed us in the right direction towards cathedral cave. Silently gliding through the calm waters of a low entrance, high ceiling cave covered with stalactites was dramatic even without the knowledge of how these formations were created (which we learned and will explain later). Unfortunately we only had time for a quick stop before the tide lowed, exposing patches of reef which would have made approaching our campsite treacherous.

Camping on a secluded uninhabited island was the ideal way to experience its peaceful natural environment. Once our initial concerns about getting lost disappeared we found it surprisingly simple to fend for ourselves. Our first two nights camping were on Lee Marvin Beach, a beautiful setting complete with a small covered shelter, outhouse, and water basin full of rainwater.

Each day we followed Ron’s advice about which spots to visit for the best snorkelling and excursions to rarely visited marine lakes and caves; his itinerary minimized our paddling efforts since we travelled the same direction as the prevailing tides. Our kayak was stable and comfortable and best of all its design left our bodies exposed so that we could splash ourselves while still paddling to cool off – very important since Palau is only seven degrees north of the equator thus is consistently hot and humid.

Visiting the German Lighthouse wasn’t as easy of an endeavor. WWII cannons, barracks, pill boxes, and other relics were scattered about the route to the highest point in the rock islands, but although an old war road leads the way to the top it is still a hot, tiring trek through the jungle – especially while carrying camping gear, food and water! We pitched our tent on a tiny clearing at the rocky base of the lighthouse and as luck would have it, all night it rained forcing us to put on the fly and turn our tent into a steam sauna. However, the sunset and sunrise view overlooking a large group of the rock islands, and kudos of respect from the locals upon returning made the jaunt well worth the trouble. Only some Palauans thought we were crazy for camping someplace they believed is haunted with the ghosts of Japanese solders who were killed at that location.

Only for three days each month are the tides just right for the Tarzan Tour. Created as an “extreme adventure tour including cliff jumps, rope swings, and cave dives”, we couldn’t pass up on this opportunity after roughing it ourselves. Besides exploring secret spots Ron has discovered, we also gained a much better understanding of the complex ecosystems with his marine biology background and explanations. There were only two other people on our kayak tour, a quiet Russian couple, so for us it was an ideal small group exploration. Our first stop was Lost Lake, which we entered by kayaking through a small marine tunnel that is only exposed at low tide. This hidden lake had colorful soft coral fans along the entrance and excellent snorkelling that included blue-lipped clams and feathery lionfish.

Tunnel to Tarzan Lake

Tunnel to Tarzan Lake

Tarzan Lake was our second stop, and this time the tunnel to enter the lake was so tiny that we had to leave our kayaks tied up at the shoreline of the rock island and snorkel in. Everyone enjoyed swinging from a long overhanging vine and calling out Tarzan yells before dropping into the lake.

For our final big thrill we free dove into the crystal filled air chambers of the Blue Room. The entrance to the first portion of the cave was about 10 feet underwater and the tunnel continued 15 feet or so before opening up so we could swim up to the surface. The second portion of the cave was a quicker swim underwater into a smaller, stalactite filled cavern with light streaking in a beautiful blue hue. The third chamber of this cave was a longer swim through a tunnel about 20 feet deep and another 15 feet long – only the guys opted to venture here.

Rock Islands

Rock Islands

Between paddling through these destinations we learned about the nature and geology of the Rock Islands. Ron used an analogy to explain how the undercut, mushroom shaped limestone formations came into existence: Icebergs are eroded by waves and often melt unevenly with large chunks of ice breaking away. The Rock Islands have eroded similarly – after a large limestone mass was initially pushed up to the surface of the ocean, the triple forces of waves, acids from rainwater mixing with leaves, and chitins that chew away at the shoreline have worked their magic over thousands of years. These formations are truly unique, and kayaking through this wonderland for four days only wetted our desire to experience them more in depth.

Palau is a world class diving destination known for it’s big fish action, strong currents, and huge wall drop offs. We experienced it all – in a typical day of scuba diving with Sam’s Diving Tours we saw everything from tiny colorful pyramid butterfly fish spiralling in 40 foot vertical columns, a few hundred barracuda schooling nearby, huge Napoleon Wrasses larger than baby sharks, and countless turtles, grey, black tip, and white tip reef sharks.

One of our most memorable diving days was at the famous Blue Corner dive site. This dive is truly a sensory overload; on our four previous dives at Blue Corner we drifted with the current and casually hooked in to the edge of the reef wall so that we remained stationary to watch all the action drift by. This dive was a lot different – the current was ripping! When we reached the reef plateau we hooked in and the sensation was incredible – our skin flapped like a sky diving free fall and the water pressure threatened to rip our masks off and regulators out of our mouths.

The strong current finally found a weak point – almost simultaneously our reef hooks straightened out under it’s force and we both had to grab for a handhold to keep from being ‘blown’ off the reef. While fighting to hold on, Andrea managed to take a photo – I look like I’m in a wind tunnel.

Twenty-nine minutes later (one of our shorter dives) we floated on the surface so pumped with adrenalin we couldn’t contain ourselves. That dive was UNBELIEVABLE, words could never describe it! Both Andrea and I agreed that out of our cumulative 250 dives that one was definitely the most memorable.

Jellyfish Lake

Jellyfish Lake

Next on the itinerary was Jellyfish Lake, at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Blue Corner. Calmly we floated among thousands of non-stinging jellyfish trapped in a marine rock island lake – it was incredible feeling their soft delicate bodies swim against us, a surreal sensory experience. How do you finish a day like this? Have a relaxing tasty lunch on a white sandy beach then dive on a WWII sunken cargo shipwreck. The Iro‘s body, masts, and big guns were completely encrusted with corals and razor clams and it’s huge structure was still discernable looming up from 100 foot plus depths.

That day of scuba diving may never be topped. Palau is world class and our efforts to get there were rewarded beyond our wildest imaginations. Every single dive had so many things to see we could go back time and time again and never see it all – but we’ll certainly try again anyway!

Men's house

The men’s house

When we weren’t scuba diving or kayaking we found other adventures on the largest island in Palau, Babeldaob. One day we joined an expat on an exciting day bouncing around the main unpaved roads in a four-wheel drive truck to see the sights. We saw ancient stone monoliths three hours away at the far tip of the island, and along the way we stopped at a Bai, an interestingly decorated men’s house, and swam under a waterfall. It was a great way to meet the locals since a lack of road signs necessitated many stops.

It’s not always the place, often it’s the people we meet that brings us the best memories. Palau and Sam’s Dive Tours crew offered us an abundance of both. Sam, the owner, is a Pacific Northwest expat who grew up in Olympia, WA and moved to Palau over 20 years ago. Starting his own diving operation and building on his success, he has established a very successful business while still managing to create a casual and comfortable atmosphere. Sam’s generosity provided us with an interesting place to call home – his personal sailboat anchored a short kayak paddle away.

Sam’s Bottom Time Bar & Grill is like the “Cheers” bar of Koror. Hanging out at Bottom Time we made new friends, exchanged travel stories, drank Red Rooster beer, and ate the freshest and cheapest sashimi we’ve ever discovered. Dermot, Sam’s general manager originally from Ireland, came to Palau to escape to the Rock Islands. He has travelled and sailed to many great places but Palau has hooked and kept him. Dermot’s Pacific N.W. connection was a three-month stay in Portland while refurbishing a sailboat (his favorite place was… Kell’s Irish Pub of course!)

Sam's crew

Crew at Sam’s – Sam, Dermot, Kaud, Ron

Dermot’s Palauan wife, Kaud, fell in love with my turtle necklace – I considered trading it in exchange for diving but just couldn’t let it go. She treated us to a huge mangrove crab, a local delicacy, which Andrea enjoyed to its last little morsel. Ron, founder of Planet Blue Kayak Tours, graduated from Oregon State University, and was our first Palaua ‘connection’. His enthusiastic spirit and can-do attitude was the catalyst that created our Palauan good forturne. He loves Palau and its nature, so we volunteered to help him protect it by spending half a day collecting destructive reef killing “crown of thorns” starfish – an experience we thoroughly enjoyed. Palau is definitely another place we’ll come back to visit!