© Ron Leidich, PlanetBlue
The Brits became the first foreign-guest paddlers in Palau. The islanders used canoes hewn from tree-trunks, with an outrigger and sometimes a sail, rather different from our lightweight sit-on-top plastic kayaks. However, the islanders did have smaller express versions "which flew about like arrows." This model, powered by four canoeists, was deployed for rapid delivery of messages.
The British assumed that the Palauans, who wore only tattoos, were somewhat naive and ignorant, as they had no way of recording language, no written form. But the British had no naturalist on board: if there were such a man, he would have been astonished by the treasure-trove of plant species on Palau. The natives used the great outdoors as their pharmacy, concocting herbal medicines. What the British failed to realize is that the Palauans orally handed down highly detailed knowledge of their environment, from the fish and birds to the plant life.
A case in point: a peculiar tree growing along the shore, set back from the beach. Jayden points to some pyramid-shaped pods hanging from this large tree. The green pod is the size of a coconut. He picks one up from the beach. "It's a seed pod," he says. This has been dubbed the "fish poison tree" or bduul by Palauans. The tree's chemical warfare assets have been ingeniously tapped by Palauans, who grate the seeds and sprinkle them in shallow water: presto, stunned fish float to the surface. Fishermen previously used the buoyant cubes as floats tied to traditional fishing nets. That I can easily envisage, but Jayden is a bit of a joker—and I am wondering if he is pulling my leg about this poison thing. More intrigue: the plant is a nocturnal bloomer; flowering takes place only at night, with a strong fragrance.
Sanctuary for Creatures with Fins
Look at aerial views of Palau and you can see why it is a kayaker's dream: a maze of islands coated in lush greenery, and fringed by white-sand beaches and emerald waters. Over 250 of these islands are uninhabited. And few sign of bugs: these islands do not allow mosquitoes safe haven because of a lack of freshwater deposits in the limestone for laying of eggs.
Here's the clincher for kayakers: coastal and marine Palau is heavily protected. Tiny nation, big agenda: even though it has a population of just 22,000 (concentrated on a few larger islands), the Republic of Palau has a seat at the UN. Where, in September 2009, the President of Palau declared its entire territorial waters to be a shark sanctuary—the first in the world. A year later, in Nagoya, Japan, the creation of a 600,000-sq.km marine mammal sanctuary was announced by Palau to protect dolphins, whales and dugongs. That's an area the size of France.
It has been a terrific time paddling the waters of Palau, worthy of a new adjective: oar-some. Back in Koror, at the kayak operation base, I follow up on the fascinating ethno-botany of Palau with Ron Leidich, the manager of PlanetBlue. "Ah, yes, the Fish Poison Tree. Barringtonia Asiatica," he says. I learn that the crushed seeds do not actually poison the fish. If so, that would be a problem for humans to eat the fish. Instead, the seeds temporarily deprive the fish of the ability to extract oxygen from the water, so they suffocate. The fish poison tree's strategy with floating seed "packages" is clear enough: to spread itself to other islands. But why the fish blitzing? Ron's theory is that this strategy makes the seeds less attractive to turtles or other potential consumers.
Ron is a marine biologist who moved to Palau 16 years ago, and has developed into an expert on Palau's plants, unlocking the secrets of their pollinators and their medicinal properties. When I ask Ron to choose three adjectives that would capture the essence of Palau, he is stumped. So many adjectives apply, he protests. When pressed, he comes up with half a dozen adjectives, including lush, diverse, dynamic... and primordial. "The place has an ancient beauty," says Ron. Palau encompasses great biodiversity—and the kind of nature that transports you back in time. Way back in time.
If You Go:
PlanetBlue, located at Sam's Tours in Koror, is the only kayak operator running overnight kayak trips and customized multi-day kayak safaris. PlanetBlue can arrange a fully-catered trip with luxury tents—or they can set you up with your own kayaks and camping site permits, and off you go. See www.paddlingpalau.net for more details.
Michael Buckley is author of several books on Tibet (listed at www.himmies.com), and filmmaker for a short documentary titled From Nobody to Nobody (www.WildYakFilms), about the vanishing nomads of Tibet. Buckley is a keen diver and kayaker.
Photos by the author except where indicated.
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Books from the Author: