Awestruck Again: Three Jaded Travelers Find Paradise in Palau
Three of us, all world travelers, were sitting on a rickety dock, sipping white wine, watching for the Southern Cross and reliving our exotic adventures in Palau.
Our group consisted of me, a globetrotting fishing writer, Peter Guttman, internationally acclaimed photographer and author of many adventure travel articles and books, and Teddie Anderson, Micronesia travel expert.
Between us we had visited more than 170 countries on every continent, but on this sparkling clear night we were as awestruck as a cou
ntry boy on his first visit to the city.
For more than an hour, our small group sat silent as we mentally replayed the unique and amazing adventures of the past few days.
Finally, Teddie asked each of us to choose which of the kaleidoscope of sights and adventures we would rank as our favorite.
To start things off, she declared that kayaking through the hauntingly beautiful Rock Islands was the most memorable part of a truly amazing adventure. Peter, who has traveled the globe in search of unique adventures voted for the snorkeling in Jellyfish Lake. For me, the hunter-gatherer in our group, the very recent late night trek through the jungle in search of land crabs was clearly the highlight.
Fruit Bat Soup
Yet, our lunch of fruit bat soup had to be seriously considered, if only because there is nowhere else on the planet where this particular dish might be had in a roadside diner. And we all agreed that the birthing ceremony in Koror was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime treat. In truth, we were all right: any one of the recent sights and adventure we had shared might be considered reason enough to make the very long flight to this far flung corner of Micronesia.
And choosing only one piece of the marvelous montage of sight, sounds, smells and adventures available in Palau does not do justice to the entire experience.
Peter was adamant that Jellyfish Lake should be remembered by all of us as the high point in our travels. He made a great point. Palau is the only country on the planet that has fresh water lakes inhabited by millions of, golden colored, delicate jellyfish.
The name Jellyfish Lake is a bit confusing since there are at least a half dozen fresh water lakes that are home to the very rare fresh water jellyfish.
Because so little is known about these fragile and rare creatures, several of the lakes are off limits to visitors. We visited two lakes — Jellyfish Lake and Secret Jellyfish Lake to swim with the fishes — jellyfishes.
Both lakes required a short trip by water taxi through the spectacular Rock Islands that surround Palau’s largest Island; and both lakes require a short hike through untamed jungle to reach their shores.
As we approached Jellyfish Lake, we could see the jellyfish — thousands, perhaps millions of unspeakably beautiful and graceful golden jellyfish pulsed and pushed again the crystalline waters forming a galaxy of life that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up.
Sam, our guide, told us we could swim with the jellyfish if we liked. He assured us they were completely harmless. In fact, the Palaun government is concerned that swimmers might harm the jellyfish. So fragile are they that a careless kick of a swim fin might mortally wound a half dozen of these extremely rare creatures. We removed our fins and began ever so slowly snorkeling across the lake.
Even knowing how rare and fragile these creatures are, it was difficult not to try to touch them. We resisted and instead simply floated among clouds of one of nature’s most remarkable creatures.
Teddi agreed that few natural wonders can match Palau’s many Jellyfish lakes but she still voted for the kayak trip through thee Rock Islands. The nation of Palau consists of some 350 islands, arranged in six clusters. The largest, Babeldaob, is 396 square kilometers. But many of the islands are small, and some are tiny, green-capped rocks no larger that a house.
While all the islands of Palau are beautiful, the Rock Islands are magical. Our small group rented kayaks for a day trip through the Rock islands. A short ride in an open “panga” brought us to the heart of this enchanted sprinkling of emerald islands.
The smaller islands were little more than rock pillars sprouting above the turquoise shallows. The soft limestone rock erodes near the waterline resulting in whimsical islets with tops much larger that the bottoms. Many look like fairy mushrooms frosted with green caps of every imaginable sort of jungle flora.
Scattered among the beauty of these tropical islands are grim reminders of the folly of man. Old concrete pillboxes remain from the bloody Pacific battles of World War II.
In several places, Japanese Zeros remain where they fell during aerial battles. One lies in water less than ten feet deep. We stopped to snorkel around the rusty remains of a Japanese aviator’s war machine and final resting place.
One group of islands, locally known as “Seventy Islands,” is very likely the most photographed area in Palau. Here, long serpentine islands wind around each other forming a maze of canals, lagoons and protected bays that beckons travelers to come explore, tread on a beach with no other footstep and simply celebrate being a part of this marvelous planet.
A kayak trip through the Rock Islands is a passage though paradise that very few ever experience.
While I agreed that the Rock Islands are a not-to-be missed experience, my favorite Palau adventure was the midnight jungle crab hunt. After a full day of kayaking and snorkeling, we spent a quiet evening at Carp Island, one of the myriad outlying islands.
Carp Island is home to the ultra secluded Carp Island Resort, consisting of a few bare wood floor cabins with running warm water and few other amenities. Its lure is the pristine white sand beach in front of the cabins, obligatory hammocks and the untouched jungle that begins at the back door of the kitchen.
Most Carp Island guests come for the quiet beaches and the world-class SCUBA diving opportunities found in nearby waters. We came just to relax after a very full week of diving, fishing and island hopping.
I would have been well pleased with Carp Island even without the jungle crab hunt. But I admit this unexpected adventure was a highlight of the trip for me. After a simple dinner of fresh caught fish, we were sipping a glass of white wine when one of the staff asked if any of us cared to join the crab hunt.
I was a bit concerned that a midnight trek in the depth of the jungle might be the Micronesian equivalent of a snipe hunt, but we all agreed that one can’t pass up the chance to hunt jungle crabs when such an opportunity presents itself.
Shortly before midnight, five travelers and five Carp Island staff members headed into the jungle. Our only tools were a handful of sputtering flashlights and a big plastic laundry tub.
Before we had gone more than a few yards, someone shouted, “There’s one!” and crashed off through the vines and lush undergrowth. Seconds later, he returned with a very unhappy crab that very much resembled a 1/3 scale model of the Dungeness crab found in my home waters.
Into the tub the crab went and the hunt continued. As we grew accustomed to the dark and became better attuned to what we were looking for, we became ardent crab hunters. By sweeping our flashlights across the jungle floor, we could spot the crabs as they scuttled for shelter from the light. Finding the crabs was easy.
Picking them up required teamwork. One of us would use a large stick to pin the crab to the ground while someone else gingerly grabbed the crab behind the pincers and flipped it into the tub.
All around us, the jungle was alive with unseen creatures. A cacophony of bat shrieks, frog croaks, bird screams and indescribable noises emanating from who-knew-what constantly reminded us that we were in a tropical jungle.Once we had approximately 40 crabs in our tub, we made our way back to camp.
Cooking the Crabs
I was surprised to learn that we had very nearly circumnavigated the small island in a bit more than an hour. Back at camp, we turned the crabs over to the camp cook who soon had them boiled and ready for our dining pleasure. We feasted on fresh jungle crab cracked with knife handles, hammers and any other solid objects we could find.
The meat was tender and succulent, but the small size of the crabs assured that one would never get full from eating them.
After our crab feast, three of us sat on the dock sipping wine and proving to each other how little we knew about the Southern constellations.
As we each relived our most memorable moments in Palau, it became clear to me the Palau is indeed a Pacific paradise. One where the oft-overused word, unique, is barely adequate to explain its varied and wonderful treasures.
Yes, we were jaded travelers, but Palau proved to us that there are still places on earth that can instill that thrilling sense of wonder and awe that sends us off on our wild adventures in the first place.
Read more about Micronesia
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