Explore paradise: Palau

By Dean Miller 6 January 2016
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You might not have heard of Palau but if you’re any kind of outdoor enthusiast you should definitely add this tropical paradise to your bucket list.

CRYSTAL CLEAR WATER, tropical vegetation, no in-water stingy things, sensational scenery, hundreds of uninhabited islands, great fish and shark life, birds of every kind, friendly locals, manta rays, whales and dolphins, insane coral quality, kayaks and a seven-day expedition that is guaranteed to make every single one of your friends green with envy. Have I got your attention yet? 

There is no doubt in my mind – Palau is heaven on Earth. If you asked Disney animators to create the most beautiful, idyllic, colourful tropical island paradise they could imagine, I am certain they would come up with the bright green mushroom-shaped islands nestled among colourful coral reefs, set in sapphire blue water that are the rock islands of Palau. It has to be seen to be believed, and I’ve visited no other tropical island destination on the planet that comes close to how beautiful this place is. The idea then of exploring all this under my own steam on a kayak expedition has me jumping for joy!

Explore paradise Palau Australian Geographic Adventure

Palau basics 

Palau is the most western island group in Micronesia that comprises thousands of small islands in the western Pacific Ocean. At only seven degrees north of the equator, this is a true tropical playground. To get there from Australia the easiest and most direct way is via Guam, which although is similar in geology and geography to Palau, has been altered beyond repair by the Americans as it remains to this day an important military base. But if you need to visit the biggest K-Mart on earth before you get to your dream holiday location, go right ahead! For me, Guam was merely a stopover.

Once in Palau you arrive in Koror, the nation’s capital city that resembles nothing of any other capital city you have been to. It has one main street a few hundred metres long with a mish-mash of department stores, supermarkets, bars and restaurants. And that’s it. Despite meeting lots of friendly locals who are amazed to find I am Australian, I quickly discover the real Palau, the one I had been longing to see, exists beyond tiny Koror and I make my way to meet up with Ron Leidich, owner and operator of Planet Blue Kayaking Tours, all round nice guy, and super knowledgeable about everything Palau… above and below the water. 

Instantly I get a good feeling from Ron. You can see in his eyes he loves this place, and he loves adventures. In 1994, Ron, who is an expat American, was on his way to Africa to become a wildlife safari guide and he stopped in Palau for just two days. What he found changed his life forever and he now calls Palau home, along with his wife and two children. “Palau is as close as you can get to nature,” says Ron. “We have everything right here, and a little bit of effort has massive pay-offs like undiscovered lakes, the most impressive corals you will find anywhere on the planet and in-water encounters with sperm whales, just to name a few.”

If you join one of Ron’s kayak expeditions, you won’t have to bring anything at all. Regardless of whether you want to explore the rock islands on your own, or with Ron or one of his guides, everything will be supplied, from the kayaks to tents and sleeping equipment, food and cooking utensils, maps and even water. Oh, and Planet Blue Kayak Tours has exclusive access to 12 spectacular camping sites so you will have the whole place to yourself. Whether you are a hardcore sea kayaking expert, or just someone who wants to explore the real Palau, this adventure will suit you perfectly.

Explore paradise Palau Australian Geographic Adventure

On tour

The kayaks and all our gear are loaded onto a six metre open boat, and as we navigate our way out of the harbour between the rock islands of Koror I get my first taste of what Palau looks like from the water. My mind is officially blown and as we pass over coral reefs at 20 knots and I can see the fish swimming below. But it’s the sight of the islands themselves that takes my breath away, and we’re not yet out of sight of the dock!

After a 10-minute boat ride, we reach our drop-off point about 4km from Koror. Out here there are no signs of civilisation, and all the islands are completely uninhabited, so that sense of true wilderness quickly creeps in. We drop the kayaks into the beautiful clear water, load them up with our gear and jump in. Once the boat has left us we begin to make our way between two tall mushroom-shaped islands and, other than the sounds of our paddles splashing in the water, the only sounds we can hear are the diverse birdcalls from the canopy above. The water is crystal clear and away from the fringing reefs that surround the islands it turns a deep blue.

For days we slowly meander around and in between the islands at no more then walking pace, taking in all the sights, sounds and colours. We make our way through narrow chasms that separate the islands, and into shallow lagoons that seem to have been cut off from the outside world forever. These are astoundingly tranquil places that will remain etched in my memory for years to come. Every few hours we slip off the kayaks with our snorkelling gear and explore the underwater world. It is every bit as spectacular as the world above and thousands of colourful reef fish, like the shy and exquisite mandarin fish, cling to the most impressive plate corals I have ever seen. Because the water movement is so slight in between the islands, in some places the corals have been allowed to grow to their full potential, unhindered by currents and wave action. The result is magnificent and like nothing I have ever seen before.

There are 72 isolated saltwater lakes in the rock islands, cut off from the surrounding ocean by the uplifting of tectonic plates that created the islands themselves. These are connected by sub-surface tunnels allowing water to move in and out with the tides, but also carry with it fish and coral spawn at certain times of the year. “In essence, these are more impressive than the Galapagos in terms of the diversity of life”, explains Ron. “Each is evolutionary and ecologically distinct. They represent 72 completely different habitats and assemblages of species and no two are alike, nor is there anything like this anywhere else on earth.”

Explore paradise Palau Australian Geographic Adventure

The most famous of these is Jellyfish Lake which, when lifted out of the ocean, took with it a species of jellyfish that is now unique to the lake. These animals have lost the ability to sting and instead capture sunlight to make sugars thanks to symbiotic algae that live within their tissue. As a result there are millions of trapped jellyfish all living near the surface in what looks like the world’s biggest lava lamp. Swimming out to the middle of the lake and being surrounded by millions of jellyfish moving in all directions in a slow hypnotic fashion is surreal beyond belief… but then again, so is all of Palau, and so somehow it makes sense.

Away from the islands we find ourselves on the outer reef that is dominated by iconic pelagic species like manta rays, reef sharks, large schools of fish and much, much, more… and diving is not necessary when the visibility and wildlife is as good as it is just on snorkel. But Palau has a few other surprises as well; for those a little more adventurous Ron has specialised tours on which you can paddle up to and swim with dugong, saltwater crocodiles and even sperm whales.

At the end of each long and fun-filled day we pull up our kayaks onto isolated little beaches as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean. Here basic huts for cooking and eating have been fashioned out of local vegetation and we set up small tents to sleep in while listening to the waves gently lapping the sand at the water’s edge. At the campsites we also get the chance to go spearfishing with the guides for each night’s meal, as well as collect coconuts for desert. These nights are the perfect end to the most perfect days.
No matter what kind of outdoor adventures you’re in to, you should add Palau to your bucket list. I can’t think of a single person on the planet who wouldn’t be completely awe struck by this place, and this kayak tour is the cherry on the top of what is now my favourite tropical location.

The essentials

Getting there: Direct flights to Palau can be booked from Manilla, Guam, Taipei, Narita, Korea and Tokyo. The most common route to Palau from Australia is via Guam. United Airlines: www.united.com

The adventure: Contact Planet Blue Kayaking Tours before you book your flights to ensure you plan the adventure that is right for you. This ranges from day trips to multiday expeditions with or without a guide and can include all the gear you need. 

More information: Palau is an adventurer’s playground. Do your research before you leave and you will have an infinitely better time then if you just arrive and hope for it to all fall in place. www.visit-palau.com