Palau, Micronesia: Part I

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by natgeo, Mar 26, 2013.

  1. natgeo

    natgeo Paddler

    Joined:
    Dec 4, 2012
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    Location:
    Kalamazoo, Michigan
    Trip Journal: Palau, Micronesia

    In January 2011, my wife and I decided it was time to fulfill one of our lifelong ambitions: to kayak amidst the tropical islands of the South Pacific. Although Palau is technically not in the South Pacific, it was chosen by the American Divers’ Association as one of Seven Underwater Wonders of the World. It’s also close enough to the South Pacific in climate and character to make dickering about this point moot IMHO.

    Palau is an ideal destination for do-it-yourself sea kayakers who want to like to explore at their own pace and on their own schedule. It’s the only place I could find in the South Pacific region that fulfilled every wish my wife and I had.



    For one, the islands of Palau are fringed by an extensive reef system. Moreover, south of the capital city of Koror, more than 300 Rock Islands lay scattered across the reef’s interior like a broken dish. These two factors, when combined, means that paddlers are rarely caught exposed to extreme winds and swell (unless they want to be). One can easily access the outer reef if one wishes, but paddlers are under no obligation to do so if the weather conditions are less than favourable. There is almost always a reef or island to take shelter behind if wind and waves pick up.



    Second, the logistics of kayak-touring in Palau are made easy because an American expat named Ron Leidich washed up on Palau’s shores a number of years ago, and he’s since set up Planet Blue Kayaks (http://www.samstours.com/kayak.html), which offers both high-end tours for the uber wealthy and kayak rentals for people like us. I can’t recall the make of our boats, but they were Australian made and we found them stable, user-friendly, and equipped with plenty of storage space for two weeks worth of food and gear. Ron has even devised a clever system for snorkeling with one’s kayak: he’s attached a surf strap to the front end of each boat so that you can Velcro the strap around your ankle and pull the kayak behind you as you explore underwater.



    Third, with the intricate network of islands in Palau and an abundance of beach campsites, we knew there was enough variety in Palau to keep us occupied for an extended tour—our plan was ten days of beach camping, followed by three nights staying in a cabana at Carp Island Lodge, a dive lodge that’s conveniently perched on the Outer Reef at the south end of the island chain. In hindsight, while Carp Island Lodge was nice enough, it was the beach campsites that were the real highlights. The local Palauans use them extensively during the day, but I can only recall one campsite that we had to share during the ten nights we spent in Palau’s tropical backcountry.

    For those who prefer video journals, here is the link to a brief five-minute video of our two-week kayak trip in Palau.

    [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Przh6lR-bPM[/youtube]

    For those interested in a brief description of our trip, including some of the highlights, here’s a brief day-by-day breakdown accompanied by some still photographs. I should also mention that I had purchased a Canon Powershot D10, which is shock proof and waterproof up to thirty feet, and was very pleased with it. The price tag was $330, but considering how much underwater cameras can cost, I found it to be a nice compromise between the cheap disposable brands (terrible) and the high-end versions that can cost thousands of dollars. I particularly liked the underwater function, which did a nice job of bringing out the vibrant colours underwater that are often absent without a flash.

    My one complaint was the zoom lens, which I found difficult to focus underwater when it was fully extended.

    DAY ONE: My wife and I hired a guide for our first day, at Ron’s suggestion, so as to get out “feet wet” so to speak and get a feel for kayak touring in the tropics. Malcolm is a local Palauan, and we found his insight to be quite valuable. That first day he paddled with us from Koror to a couple of snorkel sites (Lettuce Coral Garden and Disney Lake), alerting us to potential dangers and managed to “rescue” my wife from a small snake.



    We had just finished lunch and had tied our kayaks to an overhanging limb so that we could snorkel a narrow passage near Disney Lake. We spent about 45 minutes in the water, then swam back to our kayaks, untied the ropes and climbed in.

    It was about an hour later that we arrived at Blue Devil Beach, where we would camp for the next two nights. My wife got out of her kayak, and a couple of minutes later we saw a small razorback snake slither from the cockpit. The snake had obviously dropped from a tree limb into her kayak’s cockpit, and had been coiled at her feet for the last hour!

    The razorback is not venomous (Palau does not have any venomous snakes, other than the sea snake), but can be aggressive if cornered.

    Blue Devil Beach was a much smaller version of the campsites we were be using while in Palau. There was a small swath of white sand where we could access the water, and behind that, a flat area where we pitched our tent. Further down the beach was covered with thick foliage (until most campsites), hiding a thatched picnic shelter where we would cook our dinner. Before leaving, Malcolm showed us how to open a coconut in about twenty seconds; when we tried to recreate this later, it turned into about twenty minutes for us.

    These two photos were taken just after sunrise the following morning.





    DAY TWO proved to be one of our favourite days on the entire trip. We spent the greater part of the day exploring the Risong Bay area and some of the saltwater lagoons that are hidden amongst the towering rock ridges—a paradise for both kayakers and snorkellers. Blacktip Lake was first on the agenda. A mere ten-minute paddle from Blue Devil Beach, we found the “secret” entrance into the lagoon, which is a famous spawning site for the area’s blacktip reef sharks. One of the big attractions here is snorkeling with the baby blacktips, as they are often quite curious and will come right up to you in the water. Unfortunately, we only saw one blacktip pup, and it scooted off before we could get in the water.

    What proved to be equally amazing was the silence! Paddling through the maze of channels and islets into the back of Blacktip Lake, surrounded by an amphitheater of green, the air filled with tropical birdsong. It was so peaceful.





    Later in the afternoon we paddled into Risong Bay itself, which has a number of hidden lagoons amidst it’s ridges. One of these is Mandarinfish Lake, which features a freshwater spring draining into the lake at the west end. The blending of saltwater and freshwater creates a profusion of life—a bona fide fish nursery. We also found some of the most beautiful coral gardens and stacks in this lagoon.







    DAY THREE we paddled across lighthouse channel and had a bit of exposure to the wind and waves of the open Pacific. It didn’t prove to be a problem. For a change of pace, we hiked a well-trodden rainforest trail to the top of ridge, which offered views of the ocean. Apparently the view is better if we’d gone higher, but we lost the trail near the top and had to settle for a ‘lesser’ view. Along the trail are some rusting World War II artifacts.



    Later that afternoon a boat picked us up at the trailhead of the hike and shuttled us around a large reef that is usually awash with ocean swell. It proved to be a good choice, as it would have been a tricky paddle over several hours. Doing things this way, we arrived at Ngeruktabel Beach with plenty of daylight remaining. This proved to be one of my favourite campsites of the trip: a classic white sand beach lined with coconut palms and a perfect view out onto the water.



    It didn’t take us long to find the perfect place to hang our hammocks.



    That night, while sitting on the beach under the stars, Stacey and I were surprised when an army of crabs came prancing out of the water, up the beach and into the forest. It was so dark that I we didn’t notice what was happening until one of the crabs stumbled into my crotch. It was a bit of surprise for both of us!

    DAY FOUR was another magical day. It started with a leisurely beach breakfast, followed by a paddle across a large bay to Long Lake. To access Long Lake it’s best to wait for an incoming tide, as you can then ride the tide for over a kilometer, through an mangrove channel with thick foliage and overhanging limbs, and finally out into Long Lake itself, which is a long, narrow lake well hidden from view.



    Long Lake itself is another one of those hidden lagoons that’s alive with tranquil birdsong, and is a great place to see baby eagle rays.



    After spending an hour puttering around Long Lake, we rode the tide back through the mangrove channel and stopped at a jetty of sand for some lunch. We passed a couple of dozen kayakers on a day outing when we were on our way back, so the peace and tranquility would have not been quite so perfect if we’d arrived later in the day.

    The afternoon was highlighted by a couple of nice snorkel locations, including Einstein’s Garden, which is known for it’s fabulous brain corals.



    We also visited another hidden lagoon that we could only access by kayaking through a narrow opening in the rock wall at low tide.



    We then paddled down the Milky Way, a narrow channel between rock islands that has an exquisite turquoise color.





    I will continue this trip journal in a second report.
     

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  2. Reef

    Reef Paddler

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    Mar 22, 2011
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    Wow.
    thank you for letting us live vicariously through you!
     
  3. natgeo

    natgeo Paddler

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    Location:
    Kalamazoo, Michigan
    You're welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed it! :)
     
  4. mbiraman

    mbiraman Paddler

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    west kootenays
    Very cool. Thanks. As a hammock camper and kayaker i enjoyed it twice as much.


    bill
     
  5. AM

    AM Paddler

    Joined:
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    Location:
    Vancouver
    Awesome photos. I'm inspired to think about a trip like that for myself. My younger brother worked on Palau as an engineer and always raved about the combo of kayaking and snorkelling. Your trip report confirmed his enthusiasm.

    Cheers,
    Andrew
     
  6. natgeo

    natgeo Paddler

    Joined:
    Dec 4, 2012
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    Location:
    Kalamazoo, Michigan
    Andrew and Bill,

    Glad you enjoyed the report. At the tail end of a long winter, it was therapeutic for me to re-live the adventure through this forum. It's twice as fun when it resonates with other paddlers.

    Cheers,
    Matt