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 (

More Palau adventure photos here

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