Palau

 

 

 

David Whitley signs up for an all-action driving tour – and then gets thrown behind the wheel on the wild island of Babeldaob

 

 

 


It all seems OK until I’m told to turn right. I can’t even see the turning, just a thick sea of impenetrable jungle. The marginally less thick bit, it seems, is the track. This is going to be interesting. Anywhere else in the world, the public liability costs for running this four wheel drive tour would be utterly ruinous. In Palau, however, you don’t just get taken around dirt tracks – you’re allowed to drive them yourself. Show your driving licence, jump into the driver’s seat and go for it. Heck, there’s a guide on board to show you which direction to go in. What could possibly go wrong?

 

I’d be hard pushed to think of a time that I’ve driven on a road that’s not properly sealed before, let alone this monster. I can just about make out where the tyres are supposed to go, but the grass in the middle of them is as tall as the vehicle itself. It is liberally interspersed with what may as well be oak trees.

 

Babeldaob is the biggest of Palau’s islands, but 90% of it is thick jungle. Hardly anyone lives here, and any buildings that nature has graciously allowed to intrude look as if they could be swallowed back up in the blink of an eye. 

 

Our steed is a Polaris all terrain vehicle, most closely resembling an open-air moon buggy with a net draped over the top. Its engine growls at a level somewhere between a lawnmower and a motorbike, and it bounces over the most grotesque terrain with admirable lack of complaint. I send it charging through low-hanging branches, wincing at the collisions and coating myself in leaves and insects. In the back seat, the Japanese couple that signed up for this alongside me yelp in fear. It’s a fair call really; I’m really not qualified to drive this thing.

 

It’s tremendous fun though. I find myself howling with maniacal laughter, turned on by the fear as we plummet down the inclines and stunned by the views out over the Pacific Ocean when we reach the most privileged hilltops.

 

Eventually, we manage to complete the east to west crossing and head to the Ngardmau waterfall. There’s only so far our hardy action buggy can take us, and we have to hike it down to the foot of it. It’s partly along a muddy track, partly along railway lines laid down by the Japanese when they tried mining bauxite in the area and partly wading through the stream itself.

 

The waterfall’s worth it – it’s not the biggest in the world (around 20 metres high), but the spray seems to spark off a rainbow inside. This may be an optical illusion cause by the band of emerald green grass behind the cascade, but I’m not planning on questioning it.

 

We’ve taken turns with the driving so far, but I get entrusted with the last stretch – up to the highest point in Palau, then back down to Koror.Unfortunately, this is when the reason for all that greenness kicks in. And while the wind-through-the-hair feeling of driving in an open vehicle is a tremendous buzz, the rain in the face feeling is a bit less pleasant.

 

Careering down the hillside, lumbering over meteorite crater-sized potholes, I start to wish that my sunglasses had windscreen wipers. Matters aren’t helped by the Japanese couple suddenly having a change of heart from timidity to reckless daredevilry. “GO! GO! GO!” they cry, urging me to put my foot down and tackle nature’s obstacle course as if I’m driving an immortal bulldozer.

 

It’s like riding a rollercoaster, but having to be in charge of said rollercoaster when you’ve really no idea how rollercoasters actually work. And, by heavens, it’s great.

 

 

David lost his 4WD virginity with Fish and Finns (Fishnfins.com)

More Palau adventure photos here

Did you know that Palau is actually a lot easier to get to then you'd expect - check out our new Wow Palau RTW deal  here

Travel Guide

 

 

David Whitley reckons Palau is a brilliant spot to include on an RTW trip – and he’s generously sharing his tips on tours, dive and snorkel trips and accommodation

 

 

The Pacific island nation of Palau is the latest RTW hotspot – with great deals to Australia and New Zealand currently available via Thailand and Palau in the Wow Palau RTW ticket. But it’s one of those places that no-one knows anything about. So what can you expect if you go?

 

Main reasons to go to Palau: Primarily, Palau is a diving destination – some say it’s the best in the world.  A combo of a giant encircling lagoon, numerous shipwrecks and relative lack of pollution makes for extraordinarily high quality SCUBA action. Prescient environmental protection laws and diverse aquatic life help too. Many of the great dive sites are also top class for snorkelers, whilst the hundreds of limestone Rock Islands that the underwater honeypots are found between are a wonder in themselves. I could happily spend days mooching around them in a boat, stopping off at pristine beaches and eating the coconuts, to be honest. On one of said islands, you can try one of the world’s weirdest experiences – swimming through a marine lake filled with millions of stingless jellyfish. Kayaking, cultural tours and four-wheel drive experiences in the jungles of the largest island, Babeldaob, are excellent too.

 

Who will Palau suit: Palau is most definitely for active types. There are beaches, but the ones in the resorts around the hub island of Koror are artificial. Others you generally have to get to by boat. Because doing things generally means going out with a tour operator, it’s not an absolute budget destination. All the tours and activities are – generally – very reasonably priced and unquestionably worth doing. The problem is that you’ll want to do one of them just about every day you’re there, and that’ll make the cost rack up. It is somewhere that’s genuinely special though – and you’ll regret not doing things far more than lightening the wallet.

 

Who to explore with? There are a number of operators who do much the same thing – diving, snorkelling, kayaking and 4WD land tours. Some of these generally deal are aimed at large groups of Asian package holiday makers. Staff to guest ratios can be too high, equipment cheap and responsible travel ethics iffy (they’ll not tell customers off for kicking coral for example). Fish ‘n Fins (www.fishnfins.com) and Sam’s Tours (www.samstours.com) stand out for well-trained guides, not doing things on the cheap and good organisation.

 

Where to find further information: There isn’t too much about Palau online, although the tourist board website (www.visit-palau.com) covers a decent amount. The Other Places Micronesia and Palau guidebook (http://www.otherplacespublishing.com/micronesia.html) is worth getting too. It’s not brilliant, but it covers most of the things you’ll want to do and places to stay and eat. Importantly, it also gives an idea of where everything is in relation to each other.

 

Where to stay: You’ll struggle to find anywhere using the usual online booking sites – another reason why the Other Places guide and tourist board site are worth inspecting. You’ll also not find hostels. I found the DW Motel (US$50 for single, US$65 for double) perfectly adequate as somewhere close to the restaurants/ banks etc. But I was doing something every day. If you do plan on being out and about all the time, pick somewhere relatively central on Koror – everything you need will be in easy walking distance and the tour operators always do free pick-ups and drop-offs. The more resorty places – good for flopping by the pool for a couple of days - tend to be on islands attached to Koror by bridges. They aren’t so convenient for eating out/ bars.

 

Other things to be aware of: Your phone almost certainly won’t work – Palau’s too small for most international networks to bother signing roaming contracts with – and internet speeds are ridiculously slow. It’s far better to go and enjoy being cut off from the world rather than fret about it.

 

Solo travellers should also be aware that tours generally require minimum numbers. This makes pre-planning difficult – the operators generally don’t know until a day or two before whether a tour will be running. The best plan of action is to arrive, and do a ring-round from the hotel (the hotel will let you do this for free). See which trips are going when, then book yourself in accordingly.

 

You can often buddy up with people on the tours themselves – ask what others are doing and book in for the same dates, while the dive shops act as main social hubs. Hang out there for an hour or so after the tour, grab a beer and talk to people – you’ll soon know where’s good to eat, what things are worth doing and where all the Peace Corps volunteers are meeting for Friday night drinks.

 

Jellyfish Lake

 

 

David Whitley tries to fight back his instinctive fears of being stung to death as he swims through a lake full of jellyfish in Palau 

 

It’s incredible how some reactions become so ingrained that they stick permanently. I’ve been told the lake is safe, I’ve been told that the critters within can’t hurt me, but when I’m confronted with a jellyfish, I instinctively want to get the hell away from it.

 

One of Palau’s many quirks is a lake full of very special jellyfish. Thousands of years ago, a crunch of tectonic plates created the Rock Islands. Many of these islands have marine lakes – caused by the saltwater seeping through cracks in the limestone. The golden jellyfish that can be found in some of them – only one is open to visitors – are the direct descendents of the original organisms swept in with the rising waters.

 

Most jellyfish use their tentacles for hunting purposes. The sting kills or stuns the prey. But the jellyfish in Palau’s marine lakes had a problem – it was just them, and nothing to hunt. So they evolved from hunters to farmers, using the tentacles for hosting algae. The algae growing on them gives the jellies in the lake a slightly shabby, browned look – like net curtains dipped in tea, or Miss Havisham’s wedding dress from Great Expectations.

 

To get to the lake, a steep hike up and down a rocky hill that seems specifically designed to tear feet to shreds is required. At the bottom, the water unfolds, and... um, there’s not a jellyfish in sight. “That’s because this part is in the shade,” our guide tells us. “The jellies like soaking up the sun.” We’re given life jackets – so that we can float without having to kick to maintain buoyancy – and fins. That means any kicking is a sweeping movement, less likely to chop any of the jellies in half.

 

As we swim further into the lake, they start appearing. The odd one down to the left, another floating to the right. I instinctively flinch when I see them, and the whole freaking out thing is about to get much, much worse.

 

We paddle our way towards the middle of the lake, and they start appearing thick and fast. It’s like a game of Space Invaders. I suddenly twig that there aren’t hundreds of jellyfish in here, but hundreds of thousands. Possibly millions. And it’s impossible to dodge each one.

 

When you’re snorkelling, you’ve got a heightened awareness of your breathing. Every time I see one get unnervingly close – particularly those that float out of nowhere right in front of my mask – I feel my heart going faster and normal breathing turning to slightly panicked panting. The jellyfish density creeps upwards and upwards; I’m hitting them, they’re hitting me, and I start to push them away, palm to pulsating see-through umbrella.

 

It’s a genuinely extraordinary experience, and once I manage to fight the ingrained urges to scream and run away, I decide to take things a step further. The jellyfish wall is slightly patchier on the surface, so I take my lifejacket off and use it an impromptu boogie board. From there, I take a deep breath, and freedive downwards into the throbbing mass of stained transparent rubber. It should be a Room 101 moment, but it feels so odd that it’s utterly invigorating. The sting, it could be said, has been taken out of the situation.

 

Wanna try it yourself? David went to the Rock Islands and Jellyfish Lake with Sam’s Tours (Samstours.com).

 

 

Capital

 



 

David Whitley marvels at the Melekeok’s Capitol building, and learns about how the world works in one of its lesser known corners

 

 

 


There appears to be no-one around. We poke our heads through the door, see no sign of life and decide to walk in anyway. It’s fair to say that you’d not be able to do this in many countries; we’ve slipped inside the corridors of power.

 

Palau’s Capitol building is one of the most gloriously ludicrous constructions to have ever graced the planet. It sits in an imperious position, high on a hilltop and visible from miles around. From the deserted beaches and other vantage points around the island, it has a fitting grandeur. Up close, it is incredibly silly. It’s like the US Capitol building has been transported from Washington DC, shrunk a little and been plonked in the middle of the jungle.

 

“It’s far too big,” admits our guide. Palau has a population of just over 20,000; a medium-sized room would realistically do the job for the legislative assembly. But the original plans for a Capitol building based on a traditional bai – a meeting place for village chiefs – were apparently abandoned in favour of a Washington replica kit, albeit with big lizards carved all over the walls. As with many such things in tiny nations, there is labyrinthine story behind it.

 

The Capitol building is located in Melekeok state on the island of Babeldaob. It’s by far the biggest island in Palau, but the majority of the population lives on Koror. That Koror is not Palau’s capital ‘city’ would appear to defy sanity, but it’s all about the politics.

 

Palau became independent in 1994. It was a United Nations protectorate before that, although to all intents and purposes a surrogate of the US. The obvious solution was to become part of the Federated States of Micronesia, but Palau had more natural resources and a smaller population. It didn’t take a genius to work out that the Palauans would get a raw deal under federation, so full independence was the chosen answer.

 

As the terms of independence were being nutted out, it was decided that efforts would be made to spread the population rather than crowd everyone into Koror. Melekeok was chosen as the capital-elect, partly because one of the two major clan chiefs in the country was from Melekeok, and partly because he was willing to donate a large chunk of his family’s land to put the executive, legislative and judiciary HQs on.

 

The aim was to get people moving to Babeldaob, but it’s not been a rip-roaring success so far. Our guide estimates that Melekeok has a voting population of around 150, and only about 100 of them actually live there. ‘There’ being a seaside hamlet that’s good couple of miles trek down the hill from the lonesome Capitol building.

 

Enter Taiwan. We’re told that the whole government complex, of which the Capitol is the pompous centrepiece, cost around US$50m. That’s about US$2,200 for every citizen. But Taiwan generously stumped up ultra-low interest loans to fund it.

 

Go to any small nation around the world and you’ll find any number of costly development projects being funded by either China or Taiwan. This is nothing to do with altruism, and everything to do with buying up resources/ inroads for future business opportunities (China) or gaining influence on a world stage (Taiwan). Taiwan doesn’t have a seat at the UN, and isn’t recognised by most countries, so it lavishes money on those proxies that will do its bidding when relevant votes are required. Palau is one of the few countries to have a Taiwanese embassy on its soil, and an awful lot of infrastructure projects seem to have Taiwanese funding.

 

According to our guide, Taiwan builds the roads, the EU builds the solar panels and Japan builds the schools. Is the Japanese investment a World War II guilt thing? Possibly, but it’ll be interesting to see where the money goes after Palau took the bold decision to stop voting with Japan at the International Whaling Commission in 2010.

 

None of this should be seen as an indication of iffy banana republic status, however. You’d struggle to find a more stable place in the world. One dive shop owner I spoke to seemed very keen to stress how scrupulously clean and broadly corruption-free the country is. He said that, in 18 years of running a business here, he’d never been approached by any official regarding something untoward (ie. great big stonking bribes).

 

Pointing to Palau as an example of an easily corruptable state would thus be monumentally unfair. Sometimes, however, the smallest kid in the playground has to do what the bigger kids want. For example, in 1979, Palau wrote up the world’s first nuclear-free constitution. But the price of independence was abandoning it. The US wanted the option to be able to move its ships through Palauan waters; and ditching the nuclear-free part of the constitution was the sticking point for treaties, recognition and aid packages. 

It’s amazing what you can learn about the world by asking a few questions in one of the most obscure corners of it.

Rock Islands

 



 

Non-diver David Whitley visits one of the world’s undisputed great diving destinations, and finds that there’s no oxygen tank required

It all happens so suddenly. On one side, the rock and coral is shallow. On the other, it is a deep blue, plummeting down heaven knows how far. The colours are so high definition that it looks almost computer generated and airbrushed. It’s the best snorkelling spot I’ve ever had the privilege to witness – better than anything I’ve seen on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia or its slightly shorter compadre off the coast of Mexico and Belize.

 

It’s evidently not just me that reckons this. SCUBA pioneer Jacques Cousteau reckoned the Big Drop Off in Palau was the greatest wall dive on earth. I don’t dive; I’ve tried it and I really don’t like it. But I’m usually deliriously happy looking at giant natural aquariums through a mask, and breathing through a plastic tube.

 

From a snorkelling perspective, the Big Drop Off is pretty darned special. Shoals of fish swarm around me, lionfish duck in and out of hidey-holes and a black-tipped shark sashays its way along the underwater wall.

 

This should be the sort of highlight that dwarfs everything else. The rest of the trip should seem miserable in comparison. It doesn’t.

 

To just say “the Rock Islands of Palau” you might not get too excited. They’ll be like the Scilly Isles or something, yes? Well they’re not – collectively, they’re one of the most extraordinary sights on the planet.

 

Nobody has properly counted how many there are – the default answer from guides is “365-plus” – but sauntering around them in a boat or kayak is a joy. They were once coral reef themselves, but tectonic plate crunching thousands of years ago forced them upwards. The coral gradually turned into limestone, and the sea got to work carving out the shapes. Many of the smaller islands – some of which are little more than green-topped rocks standing on their lonesome – were once joined together. Now they just stand, looking extraordinarily pretty. This is partly due to the shape – most are rounded, with mushroom-like bottoms cut away by the crashing saltwater. Some of the excavations have turned into caves; others have seen tunnels blasted through. These get the water into the marine lakes.

 

But it’s also about the colour. All of the islands are thick with vegetation, which billows over in a most unruly fashion. In the sun, it’s a vivid, emerald green.

 

The colour blast extends to the water too. In some parts of what is essentially a giant lagoon that envelops the country, it is a deep blue. In others, it’s a turquoise. In others, a vibrant green or a milky mint colour. But it’s almost always incredibly clear. Bomb through the channels in a speedboat, and the contrasts make for postcard shots at just about every angle.

 

Throw in the beaches – it’s not a beach holiday destination, but every now and then you turn a corner to see a strip that’s white and untouched apart from the coconuts that have landed on it – and you’d have to have a hard heart not to fall in love with the place.

 

For visitors, the Rock Islands are a playground. But for millions of sea creatures, the area is home. Further snorkelling expeditions unveil beds of giant clams, baby rays darting towards mangroves and vast fields of brain coral. It seems you needn’t have a PADI certificate and oxygen tank to enjoy one of the world’s greatest diving destinations. I’m unashamedly in love with the place.