Ungil tutau! From the cool, damp depths of a Melbourne winter to a deliciously warm 28 degree day in the tiny Republic of Palau, we can’t help but be excited by the idea of all that sea at our disposal.
To even find us today, you’d first need to pinpoint the Filipino capital of Manila, then head south-east for almost 1600 kilometres through the western Pacific, being careful not to sail right past the Palauan archipelago. Or you could head north from West Papua and hope for the best.
Sharing maritime boundaries with the Federated States of Micronesia, Indonesia and the Philippines, the Republic of Palau is made up of more than 300 coral and volcanic islands encircled by a huge lagoon. Many of the islands are still pristinely beautiful, providing the perfect backdrop for some of the world’s best diving. Which, of course, is why Leroy wanted to come here. As for me, I’m a snorkeller at best, and even then I haven’t worked out how to stop seawater coming down the tube and choking me.
First inhabited between 2000–3000 years ago by consecutive waves of Malays from Indonesia, Melanesians from New Guinea, Filipinos, and then Polynesians from outer Micronesia, the islands quickly developed a diverse population. Add European whalers, traders and Catholic missionaries to the mix, along with the Japanese and US navies, and it becomes even more interesting.
Once part of the Spanish East Indies, Palau was sold to Imperial Germany in 1899, conquered by the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War I and then hotly contested in World War II by the US. There are war relics all through the jungle or half-submerged in the sea — tanks, bunkers and shipwrecks — reminding us of this violent history. And despite achieving full sovereignty in 1994, the US still holds sway over the islands. The greenback is the country’s official currency and US funding is provided for defence and social services.
Palau’s largest island: Babeldaob
Babeldaob: what a great name. It was still dark when Leroy and I arrived in a field overlooking the sea on the north-eastern tip of Palau’s biggest island. Long gone were the days of Leroy grumbling about early starts and lack of sleep. With his pack stuffed to brim with dive gear, he could hardly have been more enthusiastic to see the sun rise over the ‘Easter Island of Micronesia’.
No one knows the origin of the Badrulchau stone monoliths, but legend has it that the gods arranged them there as foundations for an enormous bai (men’s meeting house) that could hold thousands of people. Thousands of men, anyway. At first they didn’t look all that impressive but, when we considered that some of the carved basalt stones weigh up to five tonnes and that none of them even originated in Palau, it quickly became obvious that something pretty special must have been going on in 2nd Century Micronesia.
From Badrulchau we headed south towards the Ngardmau Waterfall, which plunges from Palau’s tallest peak, Mt Ngerchelchuus. To fortify ourselves for the stiff hike to the base of the falls, we stopped into Benny’s roadside restaurant for a breakfast of coconut rice and fresh fruit, including dragonfruit (pitahaya), rambutan, soursop, mango, passionfruit and breadfruit.
While we ate, Benny told us about Palau’s traditional matrilineal society, where clan lands are passed down through the female line. And about the council of chiefs from the ten main clans that governs the villages, while another council of their female counterparts play an important advisory role in regards to the division of land and money. All highly unusual in terms of how things are done in most of the rest of the world, although he said things are gradually changing.
After breakfast, Leroy and I set off along the jungle path. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the pools at the base of the falls, sweaty and a little scratched up from our hike. There’s nothing quite like plunging into fresh, cool water when you’re feeling like that. We only saw one other group while we were there; a Chinese family from Shenzen, who must have been completely disoriented by the contrast between their home and this remote wilderness.
Dripping wet — having foolishly forgotten to bring towels with us — we headed further south along the coastal road towards Palau’s oldest bai, stopping on the way in Melekeok to track down the Easter Island-like monoliths known as the Odalmelech Stone Faces. They’ve been carbon dated to 895 CE and, like the monoliths at Badrulchau, their origin is a bit of a mystery.
Airai Bai, the men’s meeting house in a clearing in the village of Airai, is well over 100 years old and was built using local wood and thatch on a stone platform. Both the interior and exterior have been painted with scenes depicting local legends and symbols, including Delerrok, the mythical money bird, which was believed to bring good fortune to the village. A man appeared as soon as we arrived (word travels quickly in these parts) and disappeared again once we had paid him our entrance fee.
We spent some time looking at all the art, then realised it was late morning and we probably should get a move on or Leroy would miss the dive boat. From Airai it wasn’t far to the next island as the islands of Babeldaob and Koror are connected by the new Japan-Palau Friendship Bridge (the old KB Bridge collapsed into the sea in 1996).
Diving at Blue Corner (and exploring Koror)
From Koror, Leroy set off in a fishing boat for Blue Corner, one of Palau’s most amazing dive sites. Recommended for experienced divers only — thanks to very strong tidal currents — Blue Corner is renowned for its sudden steep drop into the depths as well as its huge array of marine life. Barracudas, jacks, Napoleon wrasses, hawksbill turtles, dugongs and grey reef sharks, to name but a few. It was going to take him around an hour to get out there, another hour to come back plus dive time, which meant that I had the afternoon to explore as I chose.
While no longer the capital, Koror is Palau’s commercial centre as well as home to two thirds of the population. I was expecting it to be busy, but it actually felt very laid back. Operating on Tropical Time, perhaps. The city centre itself was compact and I found my way around easily, stopping to pick up a substantial taro burger for lunch, before calling in for a quick visit to the Belau National Museum & Bai.
Having had my fill of culture, not to mention a year’s quota of taro, it was my turn to experience some aquatic life. Since I needed time to digest the burger, I made the decision to take the slow ferry through the rock islands to Peleliu, a small coral island 30 nautical miles south of Koror. It is also the location of one of the most violent battles in the Pacific during World War II and is still dotted with relics to prove it.
I am not a good sailor, as I think I have mentioned on previous occasions, but I decided to brazen it out anyway, ginger pills at the ready. I managed to make conversation with several fellow passengers while staring fixedly at the horizon (a technique recommended for bad sailors). Anika, Markus and Dael are from the Netherlands and are spending six months travelling through Asia and the Pacific. They appeared quite taken with the idea of virtual travel as an alternative when I explained the concept, but are probably secretly thinking I am crazy.
The four of us set off to see Jellyfish Lake, a ten minute hike from where the ferry docked. The mangrove-fringed marine lake has been cut off from the sea for tens of thousands of years, and the transparent jellyfish, with no natural predators, never had the need to develop stingers. Until recently it was possible to swim with them, but drought and an increase in tourism has seriously impacted the population. Swimming is now off the cards until the population has recovered. Award another point for virtual travel, please.
We slipped around on the rocks for a while, trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive, pulsating creatures, and are now off to explore sites built by the Japanese between the wars: a maze of tunnels known as Thousand Man Cave; the creepy sounding Military Headquarters Building; and the Japanese Power Plant Building, a bombed-out concrete structure now half-covered in plants.
I’m planning to meet Leroy back in Koror later for a slap-up dinner somewhere. Although the taro burger may yet sustain me for days. Anyone want to meet us for dessert?