Monday, 24 February 2014

Snorkeling and Kayaking in Palau

Two days of our holiday in Palau were spent sea kayaking and snorkeling, and very long, tiring and wonderful days they were.

Our first stop on the first day was en route to the Rock Islands, which are hundreds of small, uninhabited limestone islands at the southern tip of Palau. The limestone base of the islands has eroded over millenia, so that they sprout like mushrooms out of the water, topped with vegetation. Water also permeates the porous rock, in some cases forming inland salt water lakes.

The ocean waters are relatively calm around the islands, and we stopped for a 20-minute snorkel, drifting on the current. As an inexperienced snorkeler, it was a little scary to be out in the open ocean, but the beautiful tropical fish soon took my mind off my fears. I'd insisted my son wear a life jacket, but it wasn't really necessary. By the end of the day he was snorkeling freely; even diving, something which I never managed to do.

As soon as we arrived at the Rock Islands we got down to the morning's work of a two-hour paddle through the quiet waters. I can't think of a better way to appreciate the natural wonder of this place, which photos merely hint at.

The water looks milky here, but mostly it was crystal clear right to the bottom of the sea bed.

At lunchtime we stopped at one of the many caves that the sea and rain have formed over thousands of years. Vegetation and animals have colonised each cave. A cave we visited later had a colony of swallows nesting in it.

More snorkeling and kayaking was on the itinerary in the afternoon. We saw a bed of coral bordering one of the islands that was so diverse in color and formation it looked like a garden, and we paddled around Nikko Bay, which is a reef shark nursery. Unfortunately there were no baby sharks to be seen, possibly because a salt water crocodile was reportedly stalking the area.

The final highlight of our kayaking day was Disney Lake, which is only accessible via a tunnel when the tide is low. I wasn't brave enough to snorkel in two inches of air, but our guide kindly took my son through.

The next day we were booked on the must-do Palauan tour experience - Jellyfish Lake. This is a inland sea water lake of golden jellyfish with no stings. Introduced to the lake hundreds of thousands of years ago by birds and through the porous limestone rock, the jellyfish suffered little predation and eventually lost their stings. Now people can swim among them, and hold them - gently - without harm.

But Jellyfish Lake was only one of our stops that day. The first place we visited was Milky Way, a bay with a sea bed formed of white clay, which tourists love to spread all over their bodies. The clay is supposed to be very good for your skin. I enjoyed that first dip of the day in the warm, pale blue, slightly opaque water of the bay very much, and of course I smothered myself in mud, though I can't say I look any younger.

There isn't much point in snorkeling in the Milky Way because it's just a white sea bed, but the same cannot be said of our next stop, the Drop Off Point. Here, the sea bed goes out twenty to thirty feet from the shore, at a depth of fifteen to twenty feet, then drops off at a sea cliff edge to sixty to ninety feet, before it sinks into the abyss. Thankfully us snorkelers stayed in the shallow waters, and didn't miss out at all as far as I could tell. We saw huge numbers of reef fish, and two white tip sharks about 5 feet long. I was a little worried about seeing sharks before we got in the water, but my feelings changed entirely after seeing these beautiful animals in the wild.

Another site we visited had giant clams in shallow water, and our guide assured us that they don't really close on people's feet and cause drownings, as is commonly depicted in films. But he added it was still a good idea not to swim down and touch them, and this message of protecting the natural life and environment was repeated throughout our tours.

Jellyfish Lake sounded like an amazing experience before we even arrived in Palau, and I found it exceeded my expectations. We didn't take an underwater camera with us, but many others have recorded this natural wonder.

There are around five million jellyfish in Jellyfish Lake, so we had to swim carefully to avoid hurting them. Cradling a live jellyfish underwater, pulsing in my hands, was an experience I'll never forget. Our guide told us that there are five jellyfish lakes in Palau, but only this one is open to the public. On the day we visited, our group of seven or eight people were the only ones there, and we stayed for nearly an hour.

Cemetery Reef was our final stop of the day, named after some cement blocks laid as a test that grew to resemble tombstones as they got covered in coral. I was too tired to snorkel by this time, but my son went in and saw some large fish.

Our Jellyfish Lake tour was on our penultimate day in Palau, so there isn't much more to tell. I'll wrap up with some final details on interesting food experiences and other bits and bobs in my next post.

Monday, 10 February 2014

A Week in Palau

Taipei is the coldest and wettest I've ever known it right now, which makes memories of our recent holiday in tropical Palau especially sweet. A popular destination for Taiwanese honeymooners, Palau is a small archipelago of islands just seven degrees north of the equator roughly in the centre of the Pacific Ocean. It's also a well known diving site, with crystal clear water, coral reefs and several WWII wrecks to explore.

We're neither brave nor sporty enough to scuba dive, but snorkelling, kayaking and hiking aren't beyond our capabilities, and we enjoyed all of these and more in Palau. Arriving at night after a four hour direct flight from Taoyuan, it was too dark to see more than the road and hotel before we went to bed, but the morning revealed Palau in all its glory in the beautiful view from our hotel room:
We stayed at the Sea Passion Hotel, which is one of only three hotels in Palau sited next to a beach. Beaches are rare due to the limestone/coral reef foundation of the islands. The Sea Passion beach is situated in a small lagoon, so there is little in the way of currents or waves, but much in terms of coral reefs thriving with fish and other sea creatures. I was so happy to be staying at the Sea Passion because snorkelling in the water off its beach was one of the many highlights of our visit.

The hotel rents out snorkels and lifejackets for US$5 a day. We found lifejackets unnecessary as the salty water buoyed us up and there was no undertow to sweep us away.

We spent our first day reconnoitering and relaxing by the beach. The reef fish were an endless source of fascination and not at all fewer in number or species than those people normally have to pay to see elsewhere in Palau, according to our tour guide on a kayaking trip we took later. In fact, on our final day we couldn't resist taking a last opportunity to revisit the beach waters.

Then an hour or so before we were due to be picked up and taken to the airport, my son said he wanted to go swimming again.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We walked into town, despite the heat and the strong sun, and it was interesting to see Palauan homes and the way people lived. Palau has a population of only roughly 20,000, and its main industry is tourism. As with many small, remote islands, imports are expensive and supplies are unreliable, so that the Palauan way of life is quite simple and relaxed, and many people are poor compared to Westerners and other citizens of more developed nations. Most houses are wooden shacks with corrugated iron roofs, and we saw lots of chickens ranging free and even a family of goats. But poverty hasn't made Palau a dangerous place to visit, and nor has it resulted in a degraded environment. In fact, Palauans seemed to be very proud and protective of their unique and stunningly beautiful islands. We saw very little rubbish and few poorly kept areas.

On our second day we hired a car and drove to the very top of the largest island, which took about an hour. Speed limits are frequently low through long stretches of the only main road on the islands so this adds to driving time, but the views of the sea or lush jungle made the time spent in the car less onerous. We drove to the tip of the main island to see a set of monoliths that were set there about 4,000 years ago.

No one knows what their purpose was, but some believe that the monoliths mark a meeting place for the gods, ready for their eventual return.

The man who collects the US$5 entry fee sits at the top of the steps that lead down to the monolith site and spends all his days looking out over the spectacular view.

He told us he has the best office in the world.

My son was pleased to meet the ticket officer's other distraction while on duty, which was a feral cat he had tamed by offering it food.

On our way down the other side of the road that loops Palau's largest island, we stopped at another tourist attraction, Ngardmau Waterfall. Because we arrived quite late in the day, around three o'clock, all the large tour groups were leaving as we drove in.

There are three ways to get to the waterfalls - monorail, zipwire and hiking. The first two seemed to take the challenge out of the visit and were expensive (US$20 for what would have been a five minute monorail trip). We also wanted to experience walking through the Palauan jungle, so we took the thirty minute hike alternative.

It was absolutely the right choice because if we hadn't hiked we would have missed out on sights such as this. The final part of the journey to the waterfall entails walking along a riverbed.

Because we'd arrived so late in the day, we had the waterfall entirely to ourselves.

The figure near the centre is my son. The water is warm and the current isn't strong, so both he and I couldn't resist spending some time in there. After an hour or so of peaceful solitude in this beautiful natural environment, we dried off and hiked slowly back uphill to our rental car and the journey back to the hotel.

These two days were just the beginning of a wonderful holiday. I'll write about our snorkelling and kayaking adventures next time.