Published: August 3rd 2011December 10th 2010
Every once in a while something comes along so good it just completely blows your socks off.
As a youngster, full of the joys of spring, this sort of thing happens all the time: Sparklers, Scalextrix, Star-Wars, and Special Brew spring to mind, hopefully roughly in that order. As time slides by, though the spacing of these superlatives starts to stretch, and it becomes significantly harder to find the next Best Thing since Sliced Bread, new attractions plowing a steady downward path from the perfect to the paltry to the downright pathetic: Pop Tarts, Pay TV, Paris Hilton and Pension Plans, until ultimately your biggest thrill is a poke up the posterior at your annual prostate check.
So it was with a certain sense of skepticism that I booked a trip to the paradise of Palau.
It has to be said, there were plenty of pointers all might not go well.
After years plodding the pavements as an independent traveler, I’d just signed up for the closest thing in a long while to the dreaded package tour. This time, I wasn’t to be travelling alone, or with my ever-patient partner Debbie; this time there were to be,
count them, seventeen of us. Let’s face it, that’s four more than even Jesus had to put up with, and as far as I remember the trip didn’t exactly turn out so well for him.
Luckily, a quick check of the ‘Policy Excludes’ section of the travel-insurance found no mention of crucifixion, though they did say they wouldn’t cover Acts of God.
As it happened, though, we weren’t quite the random bunch of sun-worshippers you might expect, having at least the vaguest of acquaintances as fully paid-up followers of the Church of Scuba, a vacation with the Cairns Nautilus Dive Club featuring a slightly different sort of dive to those on offer in the likes of Ibiza or Torremolinos.
All of which is just as well as the trip we’d chosen was something of a hike.
Palau is only a couple of hours from Cairns as the crow flies (presuming, of course, said crow has first been strapped to the nose of a commercial jet), but there are no direct services, so you’re forced to detour through Guam instead.
What’s more, due to some deliberately obtuse scheduling, the relatively short hop, skip and
a jump takes only fractionally shy of 24 hours, by which time I could just as easily be perched in the paradise of, say, Pittsburgh or Preston.
Still, over the years I’ve found that the places really worth visiting are the ones you have to shed blood, sweat and tears to reach. If you’re anywhere near a big highway or main airport you’ll end up in an overdeveloped crowded dump, whereas the most rutted, obscure hellhole of a road will likely have a secluded oasis at its end.
Back in Oz, one of its most stunning spots lies unheralded at the end of an old single-track lane and goes, brilliantly, by the name of Misery Beach. Despite being close to a regional centre there’s hardly ever anyone there. Whoever named it must have had both a good grasp of psychology and a wicked sense of humour. And no, I’m not going to tell you where it is, though these days Google may well give the game away.
And so it proved with Palau, the mildly unpronounceable name and lengthy journey putting most folk off regardless of the utopia at its end; had they simply called them the
Islands of Paradise the place would have gone to the dogs long ago.
And let’s not beat around the bush, here: Palau is quite simply stunning.
Impossibly lush domes of intensely green jungle thrust straight out of the azure waters as far as the eye can see. For the first few days as our boat zoomed along we all just sat in silence and grinned like Cheshire cats, as if someone had sneaked in and refilled our tanks with Happy Gas overnight. And underwater things got even better, a hardened bunch of seen-it-all divers finding themselves Born Again: large sharks dotting the waters, turtles cruising by, never-ending walls, dramatic drop-offs, creepy caves and plenty of downright strange critters ready to surprise the unwary wherever you poked your lens.
Curiously some of the very best of this last bunch were found in the murky polluted waters of the port directly beneath the dive shop bar, darting here and there between accumulated clumps of trash and detritus. As a result, at day’s end, when the group’s sane members were supping a nice cold-one and swapping daily highlights, I unfailingly joined the sad little bunch for whom three stunning dives
are simply not enough, plunging chillily into the gloom as night fell to indulge in the attractive past-time of muck-diving.
Once again, whoever named muck-diving was clearly not stupid.
Down in the murky shallows close to shore, miles from the beautiful reef and its awaiting sharks, lurk a weird and wonderful array some of the most unlikely creatures on all of God’s earth, which he stuck, for a joke, or perhaps out of jealousy, in three metres of silty slurry. For the few who choose to check it out it’s mind-blowing, but once again the far-from attractive moniker makes it’s not exactly the kind of place you’d ask someone on a first date.
“Going muck-diving at the weekend. Fancy coming along?”
“Uhh… not sure really… where were you thinking of going?”
“Well I was thinking maybe Misery Beach.”
“Mmm, okay, tell you what…I’ll have a wee think on that and get back to you later.”
It’s never occurred to me before that the muck-diving at Misery Beach is presumably just sensational. It’s probably where the Loch Ness Monster hangs out these days now back home has got so touristy. He and the Krakens
get dressed up of a Saturday night and head out to pull a mermaid. I’ll have to go down there sometime soon and check it out with a few particularly discerning chums. Then again, they’ll have to be the kind of blokes more interested in weird-looking fish than good-looking girls, so I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from that.
Back at Sam’s Bar in Palau the undisputed star of the muck-diving scene is the Mandarin Fish. At two inches full-grown he’s a tad smaller than the Loch Ness Monster and thus even harder to find, but he makes up for it with an outrageously psychedelic colour-scheme, like an underwater carnival clown. It really is one of the most blatant displays of posing in the entire animal kingdom, making you suspect he might suffer from more than just a hint of small-man syndrome; fed up to the back teeth with all those ‘Size Matters’ comments he’s gone totally overboard and transformed himself into some sort of yuppie guppy, hiding out in his reef-wall Docklands flat with his filofax and brick-sized phone.
It has to be said the garish display does the trick as he’s no shortage of underwater
admirers, pursued wherever he goes by a flotilla of sub-surface paparazzi whose blinding flashlights illuminate his every pose. Actually I think these paparazzi (of whom I must admit to being a minor member) may be the second most intriguing muck-diving attraction, as some of them loom out of the murk bearing cameras the size of small submarines. Fortunately these are way too big to fit down your average Mandarin Fish size Parisian escape tunnel, keeping the number of underwater conspiracy theorists down to a minimum.
You may be surmising by now that for all its beauty, muck-diving is something of a nerdy pastime, a suspicion that is only backed up by the paucity of females prepared to get down and dirty. But the truth is, even the more mainstream dive scene attracts more than its fair share of slightly out-there characters.
This was neatly proved one evening when our party went out for an excellent Indian. The waiters already thought us a rag-tag motley crew, as most of us hadn’t exactly packed our Sunday best. Their fears won’t have been calmed by the conversation, one of the younger, hipper members of the group barely able to contain her
excitement at having been given, for her Christmas, an Encyclopedia of Nudibranchs.
A nudibranch, for those of you not fortunate enough to have been acquainted with one, is a delightful technicolor underwater invertebrate of which there are countless varieties. Nevertheless, mentally removing myself from the group for a moment, I had to concede it was a trifle odd that this vibrant outgoing international bright-young-thing would express quite such wonder at being given what was essentially a handbook of slugs. Not that you would have guessed it from the reaction of her fellow diners, who were unanimous in their unbridled enthusiasm at the very thought of such a gift, the conversation rapidly turning to just what was the very best slug each of us had ever seen, with much nodding of heads and coos of wonder. Indeed, from one or two of the jealous glances she received, I’m not sure the young lady in question wasn’t in danger of suffering a dive-knife related death-in-the-night from those determined to get their grubby little paws on said tome, and I belatedly came to accept I had volunteered freely and of my own volition to envelop myself in this world of weirdness. For
the record, I myself would prefer an Encyclopedia of Shrimp, Prawn and Krill (2012 edition) tastefully wrapped with a nice pink bow, so can be ruled out early from any upcoming homicide investigations; just goes to show, I’m plainly not that weird at all.
By next morning we were back to what could be considered more mainstream pursuits when we were ferried out to Palau’s most famous dive site, the celebrated Blue Corner, for the sort of adventure even most normal people could probably appreciate.
Well, I suppose again that depends on your idea of normal.
Blue Corner is one of the finest places in the world for a nice swim with the sharks.
This may not be everyone’s idea of entirely sane behavior, but for a bunch of dive-geeks like ourselves is definitely distinctly mainstream.
At Blue Corner two adjacent reef walls come together to form a point before plunging down into the depths. The topography leads to a strong upwelling of nutrients attracting an abundance of shoaling fish which, in turn, attract our friends the sharks. Luckily they’re still present in decent numbers, as Palau has had the foresight to ban shark-fishing in
The balance of power is then swung even further in favour of our frightening finned friends when, due to the force of the current, the divers have to physically hook themselves onto the reef to stay in position, left to dangle mid-water from a line, forming a nice row of bait in this bizarre form of reverse-fishing.
Luckily they’ve been doing this in Palau for really quite some time now, and nobody’s yet been snapped up. Having said that, the sharks we were tempting were the same as their previously placid cousins in the Red Sea, who of late had developed an inexplicable habit of gobbling up Russians on a more-or-less daily basis.
The only official explanation provided by Red Sea authorities was to blame it on the actions of a passing Australian ship which had apparently been dumping sheep carcasses at sea. I have to say, attempting to placate your guests by suggesting Egyptian sharks are mistaking Russians for Australian sheep is something of a back-handed compliment. I suppose underwater ‘Da!’ might sound a bit like ‘Baa’, so perhaps as a safety measure they should at the very least have shaved their legs.
The Blue Hole
Alex demonstrates exemplary buddy procedures with his partner, The Invisible Man
Somewhat appropriately the sharks in question weren’t eating the Russians whole, but merely making off with the odd limb in a process they may well refer to as ‘finning’. The limbs were then presumably sold to Chinese sharks to make into a nice soup.
Luckily for our group we’d brought along our very own token hairy-legged Russian to act as a sort of sacrificial lamb, making the dives doubly exciting as we all hung around waiting for the inevitable. Sorry Alex, but if you hadn’t yet twigged, it was what we were all thinking, mate! Luckily your dual Australian citizenship seemed to leave the sharks’ thinking a bit woolly, and despite much underwater humming of the Jaws theme, they couldn’t be tempted into action. Maybe next time we’ll go one better and just take along a dead sheep.
Despite such risk-taking, deaths in Palauan waters are mercifully rare, but it hasn’t always been so. Sixty-odd years ago, for a brief but intense period, this paradise was transformed into a war-zone in the almighty Pacific conflict of World-War Two.
The Yanks had got their knickers in a twist after the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor, realizing instantly it was
He may look cute, but he's got alot of bottle!
bound to lead sooner or later to the production of a truly-abysmal film. Never a nation known for understatement, they proceeded to blow away half the Pacific in search of a decent photo opportunity so that one day Clint could redeem them with Flags of Our Fathers.
Unfortunately midway through the Affleck-Eastwood transition Palau copped it Big Time.
Oddly back in my school-days this side of the conflict wasn’t covered much. Our images of the world wars were of dour Scots facing off against efficient relentless Germans in the muddy quagmires of Flanders or the Somme, or of going down in a hail of bullets at the Normandy landings, a relentless grim orgy of blood, death and misery.
The war in Palau was nothing like that at all.
Let’s face it, we’re talking about two of the most excitable nations on earth here dueling it out in a tropical paradise, so I’m thinking something much closer to Avatar than All Quiet on the Western Front. The sheer volume of hollering and ‘Tora! Tora! Toras’ must have given the big guns a run for their money, and as we all know the Japs eventually cracked, unable to
take the sheer levels of relentless self-absorption, irritating nasal-drawl and rampant gung-ho patriotism any longer. They took to killing themselves rather than have to put up with these bloody yanks any longer, lining up their Zeroes for one last kamikaze run in the vain hope that it might eventually lead to some Peace. Typically the Americans failed to take the hint, and instead achieved similar means by the subtle use of a couple of atomic bombs.
Took quite a while for the Japanese to recover from that one, but they eventually got their own back, proving revenge is a dish best served cold by waiting half a lifetime before unleashing karaoke on an unsuspecting world.
Sadly, contrary to my delusions, a visit to the Museum of Palau revealed the war in the Pacific knocked the horrors of the trenches completely for six, with some of the most intense relentless close-quarter combat the world has ever seen. In spite of which, sixty odd years later, you’d scarcely know it had ever happened save for a scattering of corroding wrecks adding to the list of dive sites.
Having said that the second American invasion of more recent times can’t
have been much fun either, when Palau was chosen as the location for the filming of the tenth series of ‘Survivor’. A small hoard of hopeless wannabes and attention seekers descended together with their entourage to indulge in a spot of ground-breaking television, neatly demonstrating that most people’s idea of paradise is not actually habitable by humans, especially those as used to creature comforts as your average spoilt American.
We did ourselves briefly visit Survivor Island and found over a spot of lunch that, despite looking every inch the gorgeous paradise from a distance, in reality it was just a particularly dense rat-infested mozzie-ridden jungle, with just the odd snake or two thrown in for added comfort. Fortunately on other days we were taken to the divine little cove at Bablomekang, blissfully rat and snake-free, and fronted by a crystal-clear lagoon, an altogether more enticing spot to wolf down your pack-lunch. Luckily the rations were rather more generous than on Survivor too.
As for the diving, somehow it just got better every day, culminating in an amazing spectacle at German Passage, the site of a cleaning station which tempts in the very best of the ‘Big Boys’, as
Our esteemed leader in the Garden of Eden.
our instructor Joe liked to call them: sharks, stingrays, and most stunningly of all, the mantas.
Manta rays really are one of the most awe-inspiring creatures on the planet, and yet somehow have maintained a surprisingly low-profile compared to the other iconic contenders such as the raptors, big cats and whales. Surely such majestic animals deserve more recognition than just lending their name to a dodgy 1970s Opel? If only they could crack a smile, shake hands and do a mean back-flip they’d easily surpass their great dolphin rivals to be the cutest of all sea-creatures, and naïve idiots everywhere would be rushing to have them tattooed on their ankles. Actually mantas really can do a mean back-flip, but choose to do so only while underwater, cutting down considerably on the numbers of naïve idiots available for viewing. In doing so they prove themselves more intelligent than the celebrated dolphins, who only get imprisoned in Sea World for their antics.
While dolphins are mammals that do their very best to look like fish, mantas really are fish but look more like eagles or passing spaceships. For most of our last dive we kneeled on the sand and gazed
in wonder as they soared endlessly overhead almost within touching distance, the best UFO show you’ll see anywhere this side of Roswell. The biggest one of all was kind enough to nearly take my head off with a careless flap of his wing, one Close Encounter I shan’t be forgetting in a long while, making for one of my most memorable dives ever.
In fact, the main worry after a holiday like this is the sinking feeling that you’ve been completely spoiled and that nowhere else is ever going to compare. Future trips will have much to live up to, as Palau has just raised the bar way higher than your average Fosbury Flop package tour is ever going to manage.
Truth is, Nobody Does it Better.
Makes me feel sad for the rest.
Nobody does it half as good as you,
Palau, Baby, you’re the best!!!