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Published: April 11th 2020
In these times of environmental, climatic and health catastrophes, it was heart-warming to discover that paradise still exists.
The Pacific – excluding Australia and New Zealand – is pretty much one of the only big expanses of the Earth that I have never visited. Along with Antarctica. I’ve always had in my head how special the Pacific Islands must be so I’ve been saving them for a special occasion. However, with sea-levels rising, typhoons and droughts strengthening, ocean temperatures increasing and global biodiversity plummeting, it is perhaps silly to delay visiting such places.
It was my birthday in February and it was a significant one. Consequently, I could justify spending more than usual on a trip to go somewhere I’ve always wanted to. Also, living in Japan I would probably never be closer so, as expensive as flights into the Pacific are, this is as cheap as a Pacific Islands trip would ever be.
Even from Japan, many of the Pacific nations are still very far away and tricky to get to. Palau looked more straightforward with two shortish flights from Fukuoka via Seoul. Though it was still pricey. Research suggested that on arrival everything would
be very pricey too. However, it could be justified for a special birthday because since first hearing about this little country and seeing pictures of it – probably of Jellyfish Lake and of the Rock Islands – I have wanted to visit.
Rather than stay in a hotel in “town”, that being Koror and the only substantial sized place in the country, we stayed in a nearby village in an AirBnB. This was a great choice. The family were lovely, we had tropical fruits from the garden every morning for breakfast, we were surrounded by lush forest, and from the balcony there was a gorgeous view of Nikko Bay.
And they had kayaks we could borrow. Which we did for a snorkelling and paddling exploration of Nikko Bay. The scenery is incredible. The limestone islands rise almost vertically from the crystal-clear seas. Well, first there is the undercut part giving the islands a mushroom shape, then a bit of cliff, then thick vivid green vegetation. Birds and butterflies constantly flutter amongst the lush foliage. The joy of these islands to me are that they are so inaccessible – being so steep, craggy and unapproachable – that
no human will have ever set foot on most of them.
The snorkelling was nice with loads of colourful giant clams, set within very healthy-looking corals, all swarmed around by hundreds of pretty little fish. Then as expected, the diving was spectacular. Divers in the know may swoon at the mention of Palau. It is widely known for being one of the diving hotspots of the world and I can confirm that this is justified. We dived on two days; each boat trip was a full day out incorporating three dives. Just getting to the dive sites was wonderful, zooming in between the Rock Islands and through gaps in the reef. Apparently, the more famous dive sites can get busy but we were here at the beginning of coronavirus times and flights from China had been cancelled and Koreans weren’t travelling. Chinese and Koreans make up most of the tourists so Palau and its dive sites were quiet. Within a few minutes of the first dive we saw a manta ray. We watched it circle a cleaning station (a big rock on a sandy bottom where cleaner fish will spruce it up) for a while before it slowly glided
away. We saw another manta on another dive, in addition to turtles, mandarin fish, a swimming black feather starfish, sand eels, and two octopus having sex – a strange and often deadly ritual. The highlight for me though were the sharks. We saw a lot. Black tip reef sharks and grey sharks commonly circled around us and patrolled the coral walls along which we were drifting. The schools of fish were unperturbed. And what schools of fish. Massive shoals of trevally, trigger fish, barracuda, bat fish, snappers and cuttlefish, clearly enjoying the protected marine park that surrounds the Palaun archipelago; an area the size of Spain where commercial fishing is banned.
The day in between the two diving days was my birthday and we did a Rock Islands boat trip. It was a bigger boat than when diving with more people; all Japanese tourists except us. There were regular stops for great snorkelling (more sharks), Milky Way Bay (where you coat yourself in white coral mud to give your skin a smelly treat), perhaps the greatest beach I’ve ever been on for lunch (bento box, pure white sand, gin clear seas), and Jellyfish Lake. Jellyfish Lake exists because, as
the limestone islands were uplifted, a lake formed trapping jellyfish that have no predators. Consequently, they evolved to lose their sting and live symbiotically with photosynthetic algae within their tissue. Thus, akin to sunflowers twisting throughout the day, the jellyfish migrate daily across the lake following the sun. There are millions. A few years ago, the numbers plummeted due to a combination of climate change and an increase in tourist numbers who ignored the “no sunscreen” rule. The lake closed for a while but is now open and the jellyfish have recovered. It was a hundred or so metre swim across the lake, getting excited to see the first one or two jellyfish, until you realised that on the other side there were countless quantities. They are so dense that you cannot actually swim without touching them; they brush against you, especially when you dive down. It’s actually a lovely sensation and quite mesmerising to be so completely surrounded. It was a magical experience that I didn’t want to end.
We decided to spend the final day not in, on, or under the water. We hired a car and drove around the big island of Babeldaob. The road is
very good and empty. The decision to move the capital out here to take some pressure off Koror may not have been effective as the population is still very sparse. The new capital is a bit ridiculous. Ngerulmud is home to few people but there is a new, expensive and unnecessarily huge capitol building in the middle of nowhere that you can see from everywhere. We wandered around and even got invited inside – at least the girls did, I’m not sure the workmen knew I was with them but I followed anyway. You can also find fragments of various parts of Palau’s history around Babeldaob, from remains of Japanese military buildings that were bombed out in World War 2, richly decorated thatched traditional meeting houses called bai, and ancient stone monoliths with carved faces not quite as impressive as Easter Island but equally mysterious. We also climbed the highest “mountain” in Palau; a hill of 242 metres adorned with radio mast but with pretty cool carnivorous plants on the track up.
After all, costs were not that high. Any kind of activity is expensive but eating out, supermarkets, and taxis were all cheaper than here in
Japan. I should also mention the people: everyone was lovely. It was common to get into conversation while just walking around. Being a small island nation, everyone knows everyone, so everyone knew who we were staying with. Many people said next time we were in Palau we could stay with them and even they would take us to other islands on their boats.
I was nervous that my first trip to a Pacific Island nation would let me down as I had such high expectations. However, Palau really was paradise. The thing that did it was the thousands of islands where nobody has ever set foot covered with lush vegetation and surrounded by transparent turquoise plastic-free seas filled with myriad corals and fishes. The occasional beach was of pure white sand, again with no sign of human presence, with birds swooping overhead. All under a blue sky and a hot sun. I would love to think that more of such places exist.
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