Paddling the Island on the Day After

By Barbara Shaw
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Still, even experienced divers can only stay down so long before seeking out other amusements. Many unfortunately do their above-water exploration in big power boats that scare the wildlife and never get near the secret places. Kayaking is a great alternative.

Though their ancient ancestors arrived by canoe from New Guinea, the Philippines and beyond, few Palauans paddle now. For years, no one realized tourists might enjoy the simple pleasure. Rental kayaks arrived for the first time in 1995 thanks to Eric and Mona Carlson. They went into business with two double and seven single open kayaks, all having comfortable canvas back rests. In addition to rentals, the Carlsons offer guided day and overnight trips of any length, with meals and all equipment supplied.

Mona, a native Palauan, says the best part of the overnight excursions is sleeping on a beach. "I really like laying out. The stars are so absolutely beautiful. You enjoy the sunset and sunrise every day. At dawn, the ocean is just like glass and the birds are singing to you."

We chose to begin with a day trip on our own and set off exploring, supplied with full water bottles, lunch, cameras, and SPF 30 sunscreen, plus snorkel and mask. The day started early at the edge of a mangrove swamp in the still inner sanctum of Neko Bay. From the start I felt like a child, awestruck by a fabulous wonderland, astonished at every turn by the scenes revealed. After wandering mapless most of the morning in a sunny labyrinth of solitude, we left the bay through a narrow gap and emerged outside with a view to the open sea. Beaches are few here, so we pulled up on the first one we saw.

Huge trees arched over the shallow water, shading a chamber roofed with green lace. Here we sat on the sand to eat our lunch. According to Palauan party custom, the guests carry off the leftover food, which meant we had some local treats with us from the night before. My favorites were ground tapioca dumplings, something like soft pasta balls, in a rich coconut milk sauce. The sliced boiled taro root was a bit dry, but tiny sugar bananas made a fine desert, along with a ripe papaya we shared.

In the forest above, some bird belched and roared like a sick cow, but we never glimpsed it. While swallows, frigate birds, sooty terns, and fairy terns swooped before us we listened to the cooing of what might have been the colorful Palauan fruit dove. Whatever it was, it came with an accompaniment of cricket chirps, dings, weewops, smeeps, and other equally onomatopoetic calls from contenders for bird-of-the-month club. It was a chorus that any birder back home would die to hear.

Scattered along the beach we found the weathered remains of young giant clams, as well as the pearly, turban-like trochus. There were also dozens of fine snails, including cowries, the egg-like white bubble shells, and an iridescent pink spider shell. By law, nothing except food fish is to be taken from reefs or beaches in this area, an excellent conservation provision for a tiny nation of 17,000 struggling to maintain its natural heritage. We reluctantly left each shell and piece of coral in its place.

Offshore, a Palauan family tossed their anchor onto sand. An elderly man and a younger one put on masks, snorkels, and fins and went off with their fishing spearguns. The woman of the family meanwhile sat in the boat with Palauan music for company. We waved and set to packing away the remains of our meal. That's when we noticed that the sky had gone black.

From first raindrop to full downpour we had just enough time to scope out the limestone overhangs at the edge of the beach, grab the daypack, and crouch under cover, munching our raisins. The sky probably dumped an inch in ten minutes. Then it was over and the woman in the boat reappeared from under the front deck. We emerged dry from our shelter and set off for an afternoon of exploring.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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