Back home in the city, it’s the evening rush hour and my little urban street is clogged with cars. Through the window, the sound of a car horn signals the frustration of a driver below. But my apartment is empty, only my slowly-dying plants can hear it.
Fourteen thousand kilometers away, the sun is casting its first rays on a minuscule tropical island in the South Pacific. With no other humans for miles all around, I unzip my tent and gaze at the morning sun across the white sand of our heavenly beach. A perfect day. Palau is one of the smallest countries in the world (#4 by population) but it is blessed with some of the wondrous natural beauty. Above the water, some 300 rock islands pierce the impossibly clear baby blue water. Green and undercut into a mushroom-like shapes that are occasionally cut by white corral sand beaches, these jungle-covered islands are a deep green color with the occasional gray of a limestone cliff. They are, quite simply, unspeakably beautiful.
Under water, the spectacle is overwhelming: implausible abundance of corral give home to the world’s highest diversity of reef fish with abundant sharks, turtles, and rays of all kinds. The water is a warm 29 degrees and at 40+ meters, visibility nears the theoretical maximum. But how do we get there? And where on Earth is Palau? To find this country, you must first turn the globe to the all blue part. From there you find the region of Micronesia at the western tip of which, if you zoom in a lot, you find Palau. If you look closely, you’ll notice that most of the country is surrounded by a barrier reef. This gave me an idea: I frequently explore my own country by canoe-camping; with the reef cutting the swells wouldn’t it be possible to explore these islands in the same way?
After a bit of digging and some very expensive long distance calls, I discovered that there isn’t a single canoe in Palau, other than a few traditional outriggers. But I did manage to get my hands on a sea kayak which I gambled would be big enough for our trip. And so after packing the necessary safety gear for an open sea tour, my fiancée and I hoped on a plane to BC, then to Korea, then to Palau.
Some forty hours later, we landed in paradise. We promptly hooked up with our kayak dealer and obtained our sun-bleached old steed, which was over a decade old but looked approximately seaworthy. While in Palau, we would obviously be diving and at the dive shop we found a local who knew the islands by heart. He pointed out to us on our map the spots in the rock islands where beaches made camping possible. The rock islands are steep and undercut, so camping is only possible on the beaches. A word of warning to those thinking of camping: There are no maps for sale that show where the beaches are, so if you can’t find a local to point them out for you, your best bet is to take pictures of the mural map that is on the wall of the lobby of the Koror state office. That one shows beaches.
We booked a diving trip and made arrangements with our diving operators to drop us off with our new kayak on the far side of the country. Over the next two weeks, we would make our way across the rock islands back to the town of Koror. It would be the most visually beautiful adventure of my life so far.
The boat dropped us off on an empty beach where we spent our first night in complete solitude. For the rest of our trip, the only people we saw were the occasional day trip tour boats bringing Chinese tourists to snorkeling sights. These we crossed some days, but after 4pm, and until about 11am, the entire rock islands invariably belonged to us. Given the beauty of the place, it’s hard to believe that we were the only ones camping here, but the state rangers would later confirm to us that we were.
The temperature was, to say the least, consistent. Reliably, the daily high was exactly 29C; perfect t-shirt weather. At night, the daily low was an equally-reliable 28C. It was always sunny with a few small white clouds; we got a total of three 15 minute showers the entire trip. Most nights, we didn’t put the top fly on the tent, so that we could enjoy the absurd number of stars in our remote skies.
As predicted the reef-sheltered sea was calm and nonthreatening. The water was so clear that we could see the shadow of our kayak 20 meters below us, giving us a strange sensation of flying. Whenever the desire to cool down struck, a quick swim was just a jump overboard away. The sea floor is a mix of pure white sand, which gives the water a hue so blue it looks fake, and corral gardens with tropical fish. The latter made us feel as though we were paddling in an aquarium. We were also greeted daily by various turtles, sharks and other fish; and at night, baby sharks loudly terrorized schools of fish in the shallows of our beaches.
The high culmination of any trip to Palau has to be a visit to Jellyfish Lake. This inland brackish lake is home to an endemic specie of stingless jellyfish that crowds the lake in clouds of millions. We got to jellyfish lake in the morning of our third day and expected to share it with day-tripping tourists, but we had the lake all to ourselves. There are so many jellyfish in the lake that you can clearly see them from the sky. Perhaps understandably, I initially had some reservation about jumping into this hostile-looking cloud. But it turned out to be one of the most exciting underwater experience of my life so far. After brushing against them for an hour, we eventually got used to these harmless primordial creatures. They became almost endearing to us.
Back onboard our leaky steed, we made our way to an island where two different seasons of Survivor™ were filmed (Survivor Palau and Survivor Micronesia). Ulong island was quite out of the way, but the massive beach, once again deserted, made it worth our while.
Palau is a modern-day Eden. But behind the soothing atmosphere lies a frightening past. Death and destruction reigned here for a time during World War II and as we explored we often stumbled upon vestiges of those days in the form of bombed-out fortifications and bunker tunnels. At night, as we camped beside this ruin or that, we could almost hear the sound of artillery echoing from the past. One day, as we left one of our favorite beaches, we saw something in the water below us. Donning our snorkels to inspect, we found it to be a shot-down Japanese Zero plane submerged in shallow waters.
Topside, the islands’ interior is a dense jungle full of tropical birds and giant fruit bats. But having no scorpions, spiders or poisonous snakes, they are perfectly safe to explore on foot. We came across ancient Yapese stone money, stone-age cave paintings and centuries-old potteries fragments but we didn’t uncover any skulls or bones, which can apparently still be found occasionally.
We capped our trip with the smallest commercial flight of our lives. To travel between islands, PMA Pacific offers regular ticketed flights in a 5 passenger Cessna 206. We met our friendly pilot Stephan at the airport whence we flew to the dirt runway of nearby Angaur Island. To describe this flight, requires superlatives. This is, most certainly, the most beautiful flight offered on the planet Earth. And as a bonus, the profits PMA makes are directly used for their charity cause, providing emergency aerial assistance to Palauans in need.
To finish this off, here’s a list of camping gear I brought with me on the trip: Solar charger, light tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pad, camping stove, fuel bottles (empty for flight), camping kitchen (pots, plates, utensils), camp soap, food for the whole trip (Regular grocery food can be purchased in Koror but dehydrated camping food cannot. I recommend bringing Lyo-San or Happy Yak meals for supper and dried oatmeal packs for breakfast. Lunches can be purchased in Koror, but bring extra dehydrated food, just in case. Also, water can be purchased at Palau Aqua behind the main supermarket in Koror. Fill your jugs there.), headlamp with spare batteries, ropes, hammock, shelter (optional), toiler paper, knife, Bic lighter, hat, sunglasses.
I could not find a map for my DeLorme GPS that covers Palau. Paper map and compass is the way to go here. The GPS is to be able to communicate your coordinates in the unlikely event that a storm drags you out to the open ocean.
Photo creds: JY Pikulik