Paddling the Perilous Paradise
The extreme intensity of the sunlight as I walked across the tarmac at Koror International Airport was my first impression of Palau, after arriving just two weeks after September 11, 2001. Koror is 8 degrees north of the Equator between New Guinea and the Philippines. I’d come, like most visitors to Palau, to enjoy a week of scuba diving in one of the premier dive locations in the world. Unlike other visitors, I planned to spend a second week solo sea-kayaking in the Rock Islands (well known now from the TV show “Survivor 2005). My plan was to paddle from Koror to the ecological wonder, Jellyfish Lake, on Eil Malk.
For a week the fantastically beautiful under-water world of coral, anemones, sea turtles, mantas, and reef sharks at the dive sites of Blue Caverns, Peleliu, and Blue Corner were my mornings. In the afternoons I explored on foot the causeway-connected islands of Koror, Malakal, and Arakabesan. The former US protectorate of Palau has a resident population of about 25,000. Only half of the residents are Palauan; the others are guest workers and expats from all over the world.
My first week in Palau was a delightful experience of gracious hospitality in a remarkably cosmopolitan society. I was invited to dine in the homes of American expats, Palauans, and resident Filipinos. I was charmed by the friendly openness of most everyone I met.
Although independent since 1994, Palau was a possession of the U.S. after the islands were taken from the Japanese in World War II. The country is still financially dependent on the U.S. government under a treaty that provides $425 million to be paid to Palau over fifteen years. A peculiar outgrowth of this post-colonial relationship is that one-third of resident Palauans work for their government. The government is modeled on the US with twelve state governments, a bicameral legislature, a judiciary, and an executive branch -- all for a population of 25,000! It has the government of a nation-state for the population of a small town. The only significant industries are tourism (primarily scuba diving) and fishing.
Tourist literature about Palau describes it as a paradise, and, for the tourist, it comes as close as any place I’ve visited. But the Bible teaches that there is no Paradise on earth, since the Fall.
An unknown graffiti artist warned me. I would soon learn he or she was correct and that a seeming paradise can be quite perilous.
Eddie, a Palauan boat captain, told me that Palauans used to be the greatest outrigger sailors in the Pacific, but now “we’re all too lazy to use anything that doesn’t have a motor.” The Filipina staff at my hotel laughed out loud at the idea of coming half way around the world to paddle a kayak in the open sea under a burning Sun and pay to do it. Why leave paradise for the uncertainty of the sea?
Tony could not find the key to the lock on the expedition kayaks of Blue Planet Outfitters, so I had to settle for an open two-seater, which is fine for day tripping, but a bit worrisome for the open sea. Sea kayakers typically wear spray skirts to keep water out of the kayak and life jackets to float out from under a rolled boat. When I asked about a life jacket and spray skirt, Tony said he’d heard I was a good swimmer, so he hadn’t reserved one for me. Tony’s “No worries, man” attitude was infectious, so, despite my reservations, I tied the dry bags filled with my tent, clothes, and food, onto the kayak and pushed it off the dock.
The 18 inch drop into the water and an unhelpful wave knocked everything out of the kayak that wasn’t tied down; camera, binoculars, water bottle and snacks went overboard. I fished my stuff out of the water with the paddle, said good-bye to Tony, and paddled off red faced.
After two hours of easy paddling, I was across Malakal Harbor and into the Rock Islands. I skirted the east side of Ngeruktabel, a 15-mile long twisted serpentine-shaped island and the largest landmass in the Rock Islands.
The waves had been breaking a mile out in the Pacific from the jagged northeast coast of the island, but as I neared the northeast point where I would turn south, the waves were breaking closer and closer and pushing the kayak toward the dangerously rocky shore. So, I turned the kayak sharply left and paddled directly into and over the breaking waves and then, pumping the steering peddles as fast as I could to keep from getting rolled, reversed direction to surf the four foot waves past the rocky point. The kayak didn’t roll, and I found a long sandy beach about a half-mile past the point.
"Margie's Beach" was handwritten on the map I borrowed from Tony. Sitting on the beach drinking gin tonics and enjoying the view out to sea from “their little slice of paradise” were Margie herself and her friend Bill. Margie was a handsome Palauan woman in her mid-fifties, and Bill, her American friend, a retired truck driver about a decade older. They welcomed me to camp on Margie’s private beach, offered me refreshments from a well-stocked cooler, and fed me grilled fish and ribs. We watched the sun set, told stories of travel and adventure, and laughed till the tears ran at Bill’s truck-driving jokes.
I was packed and ready to push off by 9:30 the next morning. Bill warned me to keep the northeast point of Eil Malk to my left and just cruise down its mile-long inlet to the dock below Jellyfish Lake. He pointed toward a gray hazy speck beyond the rock islands off the southeast point of Ngeruktabel, "That is the northeast tip of Eil Malk, you can’t miss it." The wind was blowing slightly against me, but I had the tide going out, so I paddled straight for the hazy speck. According to the map, the dock at the end of the inlet to Jellyfish Lake should be a ten-mile paddle. If the weather held, it should be a six to eight hour paddle with generous rest and snack breaks.
But the winds grew stronger and after an hour of paddling storm clouds were building ahead. Three and four-foot waves slapped the prow as the storm closed in. I steered a course between two rain clouds and only took a mild soaking, but fighting the wind and waves was draining me. I’d only traveled three miles in three hours without a break. “Long Lake Beach” was indicated on the map at the midpoint of the long concave coast of Ngeruktabel, so I steered toward land. It was misty and little rock islands obscured my view of the shore, but I found a sheltered inlet and rode the waves over a shallow reef onto a wide sandy beach.
I took an hour-long nap under a lean-to, while the remainder of the rainstorm blew by. It was after 1:00 p.m. when I walked the kayak back over the reef with the tide going out. Given my slow progress in the morning, I was slightly concerned about reaching Jellyfish Lake by sunset at 6:00 p.m. But surely, I thought, I could cover seven miles in five hours.
|I was scared and crying and cursing myself for my navigational stupidity and the perversity that would take me from hearth and home to be paddling a kayak by myself in the Pacific Ocean at night!|