I was starting to get worried about Palau. We’d been here for two weeks and I had yet to be impressed by the place. Besides the (mostly) good provisioning and general convenience of the place it had failed to inspire the awe that everyone talked about. And after our way-longer-than-expected passage and a non-existent New Year celebration I was really in need of a little inspiration.
The big destination in Palau is the Rock Islands. Located just south of the main town of Koror they are a cluster of uninhabited limestone island that are designated National Park zone. The area is home to the few white sand beaches and pretty much all the prime dive and snorkeling sites found in Palau. If you’ve seen a photo of Palau – verdant green, odd-shaped islands surrounded by sparkling blue water-chances are it was taken in the Rock Islands.
Being a National Park there are, of course, national park fees to pay. A cool $50 USD per person will buy a 10 day pass for the island group. This one-time fee is perfect for the usual fly-in tourist who only spend a couple of weeks here but a little inconvenient for those of us who are upwardly mobile and like to dilly-dally a bit. Tack on another $40 USD for a boat permit for the area. Add to that that you cannot extend your stay in the islands without returning to Koror and the logistics of exploration are both a little expensive and frustrating. Nevertheless we put our money on the table and were excited about getting out of “town”, and away from the constant roar of the power plant, for a little while.
The Rock Islands are beautiful, dramatic and full of surprises. We found flat calm anchorages tucked into intimate coves surrounded by nothing but chirping birds and splashing fish. A few nights the boat sat so still that I actually woke in the middle of the night to check that we were actually still afloat.
Famous for it’s diving and bragging rights about the water clarity and visibility I was a little disappointed. Perhaps it was the time of year, the windy weather or just the fact that the islands are limestone but I found the water rather milky looking most days. Certainly there were moments of clarity where you could easily see the bottom at 15 M but on most days, and in most anchorages I struggled to see into the abyss more than 5M or so. The coral here is in good condition in many places but, inside the lagoon at least, it is not particularly colourful.
Of course there were exceptions. A tourist snorkel site called the Soft Coral Arch, a naturally formed swim through where soft coral thrives, was worth going to see, even if the viz wasn’t great. The walls and floor of this 10M tunnel were covered with delicate fans and colour soft coral that waved and undulated in the tide. Steve commented that it felt like we were on a magic carpet, and for the few minutes we had alone between the constant stream of go-fast tour boats who unload boat load after boat load of tourist here it certain did.
We spent our allotted 10 days anchorage hopping and didn’t see another sailboat. Those go-fast tour boat however buzz about the islands all day long, without regard to visiting yachties. The procession starts at 0830 and ends at 1600. One afternoon while out exploring in the dinghy we counted 20 boats on the horizon, all zooming back to Koror to drop off their passengers and ready to boat for tomorrow’s run.
We ate lunch on board only once while we were in the Rock Islands, the rest of the days we packed a picnic and headed out in the dinghy. Sometimes we found a quiet shallow bay to float in, enjoying lunch while we listened to cockatoos screech and watching kingfishers dart about the shoreline. Often times we explored one of the numerous caves that pock the limestone cliffs, eating lunch amidst the curious stalactites that continually drip with water.
We explored 9 anchorages in 10 days and hadn’t even scratched the surface, so numerous are the bays and coves of the Rock Islands. The decision to return to town, re-provision and head out again on another 10 day pass was an easy one.
Rock Islands were just the balm that these weary sailors needed.