By Kayak in the South Pacific

A horrendous crash startled me from sleep, heart thumping.  I sat up.  In the steamy dark, I was quite blind.  Heavy wind roared through the trees.  Another explosion hit the metal roof of the hut.  Branches cracked.  Drumming rain sent water gushing like waterfalls off the eaves.  At the third terrifying bang, followed by a heavy rolling sound, I guessed that coconuts ripped loose by the wind were crashing onto the corrugated metal.  Splat.  A big one hit the sandy ground — a good time to stay put.

The first night of a solo kayak adventure in the Rock Islands, Palau’s world famous limestone wonderland was, I must concede, not much fun.  My rational mind kept asking the impulsive inner child, “What idiotic notion convinced you this was a smart idea?” Exhausted by the intense humid heat I dozed again on my inflated pad.  Where I woke, the rain had moved on.  A few stars winked between the big leaves.

I had ventured out alone, miles from town, because I yearned for pure tranquility, an absolute escape from demands on my time, from knocks at my office door, from telephone and e-mail messages requesting I solve somebody’s problem.  To sit in the warm shade and read and write and snooze all day, to swim in the tropical sea and smile at the moon — ahhh.  And I craved the sweet floral scents of Eden in the dead of winter.  Because I’d been here before, I knew this place had the ideal ingredients to substitute for the Garden of Earthly Delights, even in the 21st Century.

My bed was a wood platform over a sand floor, my cover a thin sarong. The true luxuries of this trip would be time and silence.  Out here, with nothing to do after dark but to read by guttering candles, sleep came early, as did waking.  It was still dark when I threw back my cover, arose full of hope, and walked barefoot toward the star-lit lagoon.  At low tide the small bay lay empty, like a stadium with a white sand floor.

Clouds blown away, brilliant twinklings out-dazzled the thin crescent moon.  Familiar constellations of the summer evening stood 40 degrees north, to match the morning hour and my equatorial latitude.  My star book pointed out the Southern Cross, a big black zone called the Coal Sack and the sun’s brilliant neighbor Alpha Centauri.   From deep in the region of our galaxy invisible from home, beautiful strangers rose to greet their admirer.

At first light the little island’s feral rooster crowed and woke his hens.  Birds sang to the glow in the east.  Warm tidewater flowed into the cove.  I scrubbed my skin with fine coral sand, rinsed off and went back to dress and sit on a beach log to eat the remains of rice and lentils cooked the previous evening.

While I savored my breakfast, several large fruit bats flapped away over the sea.  A flock of white fairy terns arrived to fish — circling, scolding and diving.  Working the outer cove, two gray herons with needle-sharp bills strutted, jabbed then gulped down small fish.  Far above, a white Tropic Bird with long split tail soared toward a fat apricot cloud.  With a sigh and closed-eyed smile, I greeted the sun.  In the goodness of daylight, it seemed simple to forgive the night its terrors and to let go of each misgiving I’d felt in the tortured dark.  Being here was not such a bad idea after all.

Back at the shelter, comfortable in my backpackers’ hammock, I read and wrote in my journal for hours.  By mid-morning the heat was intense.  Splashing in the breeze might be the perfect cure.  Slathered with sunscreen, I donned my wide brimmed hat to set off on the day’s kayak excursion.  In the Rock Islands, steep jungle-covered bits of land offer an endless labyrinth of delight for paddlers — bays, coves, caves, beaches, secret inlets and marine lakes to explore.

Impac Tours, based in Palau’s only town of Koror, had brought me here with a day trip for students from Osaka.  Their big powerboat sped us eight miles from the city.  Several other businesses also have kayaks for rent.  Impac leases the beach with its sturdy, open shelter where I could sleep.  Tours came daily so if I needed anything or had problems, I could count on help.  That gave me the security to venture farther.

On arrival at the beach, we unloaded plastic kayaks, in bright yellow, red or blue.  The kids had a paddling lesson then we all set off into the mangrove channels.  After our tour of hidden channels and secret saltwater lakes, the friendly Japanese raced away in the speedboat to new sights and left me behind.

Was that only the day before?  Hard to imagine how distant that time seemed now.  After the group left, I’d tied up my hammock in the shade and later set off to paddle around the point.

Unlike the bone chilling waters of the Pacific Northwest, where I paddle my own kayak, Palau’s ocean is tepid and the air is warm, day and night.  I’d spent a happy summer working in Palau several years earlier, devoting weekends to exploring the Rock Islands with new friends and I’d longed to come back.  February was the perfect time to escape the dreary skies of home and immerse myself in a sunny marine wilderness.

Solo adventures are nothing new for me.  My first solitary mountain trip, an overnight in the Sierra Nevada, I made at age 19, and I’ve climbed several peaks alone.  Yes, it’s supposed to be dangerous, but so is riding a bike on any road with cars.  And though a companion has always been welcome, and I often travel with friends and family, this time I wanted to try creating my own schedule.  I wanted paradise all to myself, each decision my own, each moment in time to be experienced, unfolding like a flower.  This trip would be my meditation on the wilderness of solitude, both in the world and in my self.

Depending on the traveler, a solo wilderness trip can collapse into disaster or grow into a deliberate quest with spiritual overtones.  Being an experienced and disciplined outdoors person, I count on time in the wilds to heal all that ails me.  A tranquil natural satori seeps into my soul.  A clean untrammeled place and solitude is all I need.  Even when work has turned me into a Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, three days of peace outdoors is my proven sure cure.

First comes recovery from the pace of the city world, and then reconnection with something very subtle and deep inside, too fragile and too ephemeral to rise to the surface when I am with others.  Time grows immense and days pass undivided.  If an interesting thought flits into my mind, I can follow it down branching paths to new territory of the mind.  It worked for the mystics of the Han Shan tradition, but I prefer bright water and heavenly warmth to the chilly isolation of Cold Mountain.

In addition, Palau offers kayaking about as safe as any place can.  No fear of dumping here.  Inside the fringing reef, the waves are small.  No aggressive sharks, no nasty critters, and no mosquitoes mean a benign paradise.  The local society is matriarchal which brings respect for women, and just Asian enough to defer to those who’ve aged to perfection.  Of all the places in the world where I might do this trip, Palau seemed least likely to cause trouble.

I dragged my boat down the beach, pushed off and grasped the double bladed paddle.  A gusty wind riled the usually placid waters, stirring up chunky waves, but my broad-bottomed craft rocked along.

Singing comes easily when I’m off by myself.  This time, I sang to the fruit bats that lived among steep jungle cliffs.  I’d watched them come in from airborne excursions, back-flap for a full stall, grasp a limb with their feet and swing upside down.  As the swinging came to a stop, the big bats carefully wrapped their long leathery wings around their bodies, forming a snug brown cocoon to keep out the weather.

Around the vertical wall of a point, a beguiling little beach called me in.  Pulling on my water sandals, I was ready for a walk.  Among the coconut trunks, stood a great hill of leaf litter and compost.  A friend had told me to look for these heaps, community incubators built and used by groups of chicken-like birds called megapodes.  As I approached, one of the birds ran off, its bare reddish neck giving it the look of a panicked baby vulture. These odd Pacific fowl warm their eggs utilizing the natural heat of decomposing plant matter, a habit unique in the avian world.

The boat carried me onward, up a protected channel with water the color of turquoise cream, a hue created by a clear, shallow sea over white coral sand.  From the speedboat earlier, we’d seen a low arched entrance to a large inner cove, accessible only at low tide, the kind of secret hide away the explorer in me yearned to enter.  The tide was at its lowest now so I paddled in under the arch.  Inside, high walls shut out the world.

With mask and snorkel in hand, I slipped into the water, let the gentle sea surround me, wash its coolness over my skin and into my hair. The water was clear as air, dancing with sunlight.  After adjusting my seeing and breathing tools, I kicked away above the shallow sea floor, celebrating life in its intricately made hard and soft corals, bright blue sea stars, hot orange sponges, a hundred species of colorful darting reef fish and open areas where large sea cucumbers filtered nutritious debris from sand.  I was not sure, but it seemed populations were not as abundant as I recalled them in past years.

After an hour in Wonderland, I climbed back aboard my kayak.  The silence in the cove worked its hypnotic power.  For a long time, I lay on my back atop the flat-decked boat floating, eyes closed.  Unseen birds called from the forest or from vertical walls of limestone karst rock, that rose from the sheltered sanctuary.

Back at the metal-roofed shelter in late afternoon, I scooped fresh water from the screened rain collection tank (fed by the eave gutters), picked up sticks for firewood and built a crackling blaze in the stone hearth.  To a nice pot of corn meal mush, I added canned tuna and spices.  Happy on a beach log, I greedily devoured my humble stew.  It tasted better than a gourmet feast. In my al fresco eatery the questionable cuisine was accompanied by excellent entertainment.

Out in the cove, a big noisy flock of Noddy Terns dive-bombed skittering schools of tiny leaping fish, harassed from below by larger fish.  Those who live as prey low on the food chain feed the carnivores, and the hunters work as well orchestrated teams to make sure of it.

The next day’s project was a search for the best corner in Eden — an idyllic cove, a perfect scene, a dozen coconut palms, or another of the shelters Palauans use for weekend getaways.  By mid-afternoon, I’d claimed the finest stretch of tropical strand in creation, where tiny waves flopped over on the warm white beach.  If I scouted Hollywood locations, that spot would go in my file as the dreamy setting for a romantic tropical adventure.

Coconuts littered the curving sand, some old and dry and some fresh fallen after the recent blow.  Chosing one that sloshed with liquid, I sat an hour working on it with my small knife. The job takes patience — to slowly peel away the tough husk, drill the “eyes”, drink the sweet milky liquid then smash the exposed woody shell against a limestone outcrop and pick out the meat.  The reward is a thousand-calorie feast – a great lunch, with plenty left for later.

The next day’s paddling led to several more beaches, small isles, a cheerful and chatty meeting with a 10-day kayaking tour out of California and some snorkeling in three more spots.  I appreciated the time with people, but it’s hard to match the simple pleasure of floating over a colorful reef unseen, watching brilliant fish flit through complex coral heads.  I like to spy half-hidden creatures lurking in their coral burrows.  But after checking a number of locations, I was sure something was wrong.

Several years had passed since I’d been in Palau, and though some sheltered areas are as amazing as ever, in many places the reef had changed.  Fields of dead Staghorn coral left me troubled and confused.  Later, I realized that no one in the tourist industry mentions the devastation caused by a recent El Nino event.

While the rest of the western Pacific suffered lack of rain, Palau had an unprecedented 4-month drought that left these isles dying and brown.  I learned that waters warmed to 32 degrees C.  Fragile corals die above 30 degrees.  And with corals destroyed, entire reef ecosystems suffered drastic population reductions.

I missed the colorful crowds I’d seen during my first visit.  Several people assured me that reefs can fully recover if no further impacts occur, but none could agree on the timeframe.  Rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere will make all seas more acidic, despite the phenomenal ability of the oceans to absorb insults.  Even a tiny rise in water acidity is a further threat to coral communities and other creatures because they can’t deposit enough of the calcium needed for their hard parts.

Palau remains beautiful, above water and below, despite threats to its future.  But one cannot but regret that things are changing.

The Impac guide had suggested I camp a night on one of the so-called Seven Beaches.  After checking maps, I headed that way.  A couple of hours paddling revealed numerous steep coves and exposed rock points where big pandanus trees leaned out over the sea.  Pandanus look like giant yuccas that want to be palms.  Their mushy fruits are edible, in a pinch.

My first landfall at the seven beaches looked terrific.  Stone arms enclosed a tiny soft-sand cove, and offshore a mini island stood like a green mushroom with undercut shoreline.   I explored the flat jungle back of the beach, in search of a tent spot.  At the sound of footsteps, I froze.  A monitor lizard at least four feet long scampered off, its tail dragging like a snake behind it.  Recovering from an adrenalin rush, I imagined waking up in my rainproof, bug-proof zip-up tent, this thing having gnawed its way in to stare into my eyes and do pushups on my chest.  Never mind that monitor lizards are quite shy.

The sun moved down the western sky.  No way I’d camp in lizard land.  Time to make a decision.  The white line of a beach called to me over the water.  Halfway across the deep channel, it was obvious I’d picked the wrong time be to out there.  Dark, choppy water rushed to the right at a fast clip.  My top speed was barely faster than the in-flowing tide.   This was a major battle, and I had no choice but to fight it.  About sunset, I coasted into the far shore.  Grateful to arrive with no consequence worse than burning shoulder muscles, I dragged my red kayak up Neko Island’s virgin sand.

Among dry leaves, beneath spreading trees,  coconut crabs the size of salad plates skittered off, waving claws as big as my hand.  They vanished into burrows.  Starved, my first thought was how good crab would taste, but I hadn’t a clue how to catch one without losing blood.

Ahead, two spacious structures with screen walls and doors, and plenty of sleeping platforms, looked as if they might have once been part of a kids’ camp.  Why would people abandon such a gorgeous spot?  Maybe some political dispute.  Their business.  I moved in with no further questions.

Wearing only a cotton sarong, my evening stroll was a botanical tour of amazing plants.  Long Scindapsus vines and Spleenwort ferns, mere houseplants at home, grew lush.  Little elf gardens sprouted from the soil, water and moss caught among the convoluted stems of strangler figs, their trunks encircling graceful palms.  The nearly flat island had enough soil that the exotic jungle trees were huge.

The giant crabs wandered around ignoring me, unaware of my craven desires.  Dinner that night was a bowl of barley, instant black beans and a dessert of what remained of my lunchtime coconut.  A second coconut from the lizard’s island kept me busy until my candle burned low.  All husked and ready, I left it unopened on a picnic table, for the next morning.  During the night, huge rains and big blows woke me, but I slept through most of the mayhem.

At dawn, I was enthusiastic about first chore — to gather wood to boil tea water on an open fire.  As I dropped my load of kindling in the fire pit, I saw the my husked coconut lay on the ground.  It must been blown off the picnic table.  I bent to rescue it and noticed a large hole I had not carved, around one eye.  Inside, a dozen little hermit crabs were feasting.  They won first prize of the morning, a free flight to the nearby compost heap.

To assuage my disappointment, I’d need another plant walk, this time with my sketchbook.  After lingering to examine and draw the big leaves and voluptuous blooms of overhanging trees, I threw off my sarong and waded into the cool water of the bay to float on my back for an hour in primal freedom.  Beguiled by cloud dramas, watching the parade of exotic birds, I voted for the simple joys of nature.  My mind explored creative channels I’d only hoped for back home — new ideas for work and for attacking social problems, inspired events to organize, clever inventions, fun home upgrades, future trips, sculptures to make, stories to tell.

The day came to return to town.  Impac tours had agreed to meet me at a small, sandy isle.  As I arrived, a group of brown children ran down the beach, very interested in the kayak.  I offered the paddle and they played with my boat while I and their friendly parents watched and chatted.

One advantage of visiting a former American protectorate like Palau is that nearly everyone speaks English, along with their intricate island language.  It’s a small community, only 17,000  in the whole island group, and we knew some of the same people. The women invited me to join their picnic where, along with the fresh sashimi made from meat of the giant clam, I had my first taste of fruit bat.

Back in Koror, I returned my boat and checked into a hotel, excited about having a shower.  As hot water hit my skin I succumbed to the most miserable itching fit of my life. That night was torment as the incessant need to scratch jerked me from sleep to the brink of insanity.

The next day at the clinic the diagnosis was chiggers, tiny insects that burrow under the skin, called Kerkaard in Palauan and common in parts of the U.S.  The nurses had seen few cases but offered a dose of sympathy and laughing suggestions I use insect spray next time I putter around in the jungle for hours, wearing nothing but a loose sarong.  The doctor prescribed a killer chemical and a super strength itch medicine that cured my problem.  The chiggers almost certainly explain why no one uses those fine abandoned shelters.

Next time, and there will be a next time, I’ll avoid the chigger island where the crabs ate my coconut, and visit dozens of others.  As for difficulties, I’m convinced anyone willing to practice camping and paddling for a few seasons and ready to pay attention in a new environment can enjoy unaccompanied adventure in Palau’s tropical wilderness.

Of course, only seekers more serious than I can expect to achieve permanent satori or nirvana in a week.  But even unenlightened mortals of modest self-discipline can come close, for a while.


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