Peering into Paradise
The waves lapped gently against the bow of my sea kayak as I squinted in the darkness and played my flashlight overhead. I could hear the awed voices of my paddling companions whispering nearby. We were floating in a limestone cave, stalactites dripping from the ceiling 35 feet above us, their shadows dancing in our light beams. Suddenly I heard the flutter of wings in the darkness and a series of sharp chirps that echoed off the limestone walls around us.
"A bat?" I asked our guide.
"Nope. A Vanikoro swiflet. The world's only echo-locating bird."
Saltwater caves. Birds that think they're bats. Welcome to the Rock Islands of Palau, a Pacific archipelago where geology and biology combine to create a world unto itself.
Palau, about halfway between New Guinea and the Philippines, is a 350-island nation, part of the Caroline Island chain in Micronesia. Between its main town of Koror and the outlying island of Peliliu, 40 miles to the southwest, lie the Rock Islands, an uninhabited labyrinth of jungle-topped limestone dots and squiggles. Now protected as a marine reserve, the Rock Islands are a sea kayaker's paradise: warm, calm water sheltered by a reef just offshore, hundreds of isolated coves and inlets to explore, travel-poster beaches for camping, and an abundance of marine life so astonishing that it's earned the sobriquet "underwater Serengeti." As an added bonus, Palau boasts a number of relics from World War IIsunken ships, ditched planes, overgrown fortificationsthat are easily accessible, if you know where to look.
I was part of a week-long sea-kayaking expedition run by Wilderness Travel, the big California adventure outfitter. Arriving weary and jet-lagged (Palau is 11 time zones from New York), I met my five fellow paddlers, who turned out to be a jocular crew of three men and two women ranging in age from 29 to 50, and in vocation from lawyer to photographer. Our trip leader, a muscular long-haired American named Ron Leidich, had came to Palau six years ago, married a local girl, and shows no signs of moving any time soon. "For a guy like me, whose passions are diving, sea kayaking, nature, and military history, I can't think of any place better."
After a jet-lag day of easy island touring that included a hike to a 60-foot waterfall, we were introduced to our kayaks, 15-foot Perception sit-on-top models. Among veteran sea kayakers, sit-on-top boats are typically viewed with disdain as toys for inept tourists. But in the smooth, warm waters of the Rock Islands, which virtually demand that you constantly flop overboard for snorkeling expeditions, the traditional sit-inside kayak, with its watertight elastic spray skirt, would have a big hassle whose primary advantagesseaworthiness in rough water and large cargo capacitywere unnecessary on our trip. Purists be damned, the sit-on-tops are simply much more fun in this benign environment. And after only a few minutes of paddling it was clear that the Perception models were far superior to the typical resort sit-on-top boats. They were reasonably fast, maneuverable, and equipped with knee straps for bracing during hard paddling or surf runs. And, thankfully, they had extremely comfortable seatbacks.
Within ten minutes of launching from Koror, we entered the labyrinth of the Rock Islands. Civilization vanished; the world suddenly turned to blue water, sky, and lush green hills jutting straight out of the sea. Thickly vegetated and made of limestone, the islands had sheer rocky shorelines undercut by wave action and the biological erosion of tiny sea creatures called chitons. This erosional undercutting has carved most of the smaller islands into limestone mushroom, while the undercut limestone that accounts for about 99 percent of the Rock Island coastline makes going ashore virtually impossible, unless you have superior rock climbing skills. Fortunately, the other one percent consists of smooth, sandy beaches, ideal for camping.
Our initiation into Rock Island snorkeling came early. Barely an hour after launch, we anchored the kayaks in a sheltered cove, jumped overboard into chest-deep water, and cruised for a half-hour over multi-colored coral and schools of brightly decorated fish. Pleasant and interesting, I thought, but not unlike previous snorkeling I'd done in the Caribbean.
"This is just the beginning," smiled Leidich. "It gets much better."
Our next stop was one of Ron's secret spots, a place he'd discovered a couple of years previously. Paddling along a narrow inlet, Ron nosed his kayak into the steep, rugged shoreline and pulled a concealed wooden ladder from the thick foliage. After anchoring the kayaks, we jumped overboard, swam to the ladder, clambered up through a dense thicket of trees and roots. Suddenly before us was a small cement cavern, a pillbox constructed by occupying Japanese soldiers during World War II to defend the narrow inlet, which led to Korors main harbor. Old saki bottles lay everywhere, and on a dank interior wall was scrawled, in ornate Oriental charcters, a lonely soldiers poem:
"Mother and father, my heart is thinking of you and my village."
We curiously examined a small opening in the pillbox, too narrow for a gun. When Ron first discovered the pillbox, he surmised that the tiny slot might be used for signaling another pillbox with a light. After plotting the sightlines across the narrow inlet to the opposite shore, he hacked his way into the jungle to the calculated spot. Sure enough, there was another pillbox. Similar sleuthing turned up a third nearby. None had been seen by human eyes since 1945.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication