23.10.11: Thomas woke me up some time after ten to tell me that he was going out with Patti for a bit. I dragged myself out of bed and marvelled at how wonderful the world is when one goes CouchSurfing, stumbled into the shower and held on for dear life – as far as my sense of equilibrium was concerned, I was still at sea. Downing half a keg of beer last night probably didn’t help.
I was still shaking the cobwebs out of my pickled brain when Tom and Patti returned looking irritatingly fresh-faced and wholesome. I was feeling lower than a rat that ratted on his pals and that steady tide of nausea that accompanies an epic hangover was starting to kick in. Fresh air was what I needed, but first, the internet!
I hadn’t managed to get online since I accidentally broke Stan’s internets a week last Thursday. There were emails to send to shipping companies, questions to answer on my website and, most importantly, blogs to upload with marvellous pictures of bare-breasted PNGers and my ridiculous moustache.
I opened up Yahoo mail and the first message was from Captain Santos on board The Papuan Chief.
“URGENT – SHIP TO DEPART EARLY AT 1130. RETURN TO SHIP AT ONCE”
I looked at my watch. It was 11.45.
Thomas and Patti, to their infinite credit, stayed as calm as cucumbers as I pegged it back into my room and flung my stuff into my bag.
“Any chance of a lift?”
Tom said hell yeah and we bundled into his car and shot off towards the port. By 11.50 we were there. I told you Honiara is a small place. The good news is that The Papuan Chief was still in port.
I felt dreadful. Not just physically (damn you demon drink!), but not only was my website going to reach a month with no updates, I had promised Tom that I’d do a radio show with him this afternoon – he’s a radio DJ here. Not only that, but I had done bugger-all filming of Honiara. I didn’t want to get my camcorder out on the main street last night as I was on my own and feeling a little exposed, and by the time the house party kicked off it was too dark and I was too drunk to get any decent shots anyway.
There is a chance I may return to Honiara in the next couple of months: one of the Reef cargo ships that goes to Nauru stops in the Solomons on the way back to Fiji. I hope I will and so do this place justice. We will have to see, but for now I said my fond farewells to Thomas and Patti and set off towards the ship, breathing a sigh of relief that a) it was still there and b) the gangplank was down.
I clambered on board. Captain – what gives? It seems that there hasn’t been a ship in Honiara for a week, so the stevedores had all the containers for loading hosed down ready to go (Oz port rules, don’t ask). All three of the ships cranes had been used and some of the containers had been taken up in twos. The operation, which usually takes two days, had taken just over 12 hours.
Best laid plans eh?
So within the hour we were blowing the air horn and saying Lukim iu to The Solomon Islands. I watched as we sailed out of port. We headed west along the north coast of Guadalcanal, then once we were clear we set course South-West towards Australia… nation 186. All being well, we would reach Melbourne in a week.
Dinner was a bad idea. I ate, I felt wretched, I stood out on the wing of the bridge in the warm night air in a vain attempt to shake off my nausea, but sometimes you just gotta bite the bullet and take that porcelain bus for a drive around the (toilet) block.
WOW. No, seriously, WOW. Talk about saving the best for last. PALAU YOU ROCK MY WORLD!! Straight into my top five countries, methinks. My number one pick in the ‘Tropical Island Paradise’ category. And I should know, I’ve been to a truck load of ’em.
I don’t know, you wait ages to visit a Pacific Island nation, and then two come along in as many days. We arrived in the port on the island of Malakal (a short distance from the main island of Koror) at around 10am. The first bit of good news was that the ship would be staying overnight, not leaving at 4pm as originally intended. This meant there was an outside chance of me seeing Jellyfish Lake while I’m here.
Jellyfish Lake in the Rock Islands of Palau is a true natural wonder of the world – a lake teeming with a unique species of jellyfish – a species that only exists in one place on the planet: Jellyfish Lake. Since these jellies have no natural predators, over thousands of years they have lost their sting – so it’s perfectly safe to go swimming with them.
I did not want to come all the way to Palau and miss out. After clearing customs I met with Perry, the ship’s agent. He told me that to go to the island of jellyfish lake would cost a small fortune – perhaps as much as $500. This is because all the tours leave at 8am in the morning – to leave now would mean chartering my own speedboat for the day. Expensive stuff.
There was an outside chance that a half-day tour might be leaving around 1pm, so Perry put his two best men – RJ and Bong – on the job. But first I had to walk down the gangway into my ONE HUNDRED AND NINETY-SEVENTH COUNTRY of The Odyssey Expedition – and the LAST of the Pacific Nations.
As you can imagine, I danced a goddamn jig.
RJ and Bong (great name!) ran me around to Fish n’ Fins, but they wouldn’t bite. Then we went to IMPAC, but again we left with nothing. Finally, we tried SAM’S TOURS, not far from the port. Maybe they’d be willing to take me to the Island of the Jolly Jellies.
Happily, my TV programme ‘Graham’s World’ is showing here in Palau and so I played the card. I may have been paid, well, nothing for my hard work on the show (after all, I did only work on the project every day for 14 months devising, shooting, presenting and organising all the travel so I guess it’s fair enough that I made a massive loss on the deal), but the fact it gets repeated ad nauseum on the Nat Geo Adventure Channel does come in rather handy in situations like this when I need a special favour (although royalties… why don’t I even get royalties??!).
The nice lady in the shop went to get one of the managers, Mark from America, and after a bit of bob’s-your-uncle he offered me a deal – I could go out on a speedboat of my own with a local driver called Ray and spend as long as I liked swimming around with the jellyfish. YEY!!
As a consequence, this blog entry is brought to you by the good folk at SAM’S TOURS. If you’re in Palau, look no further than SAM’S TOURS – the best tour guys in the nation. They even supplied me with a free hat – it’s no magic kanga hide, but when you’re 10 degrees north of the equator and that noonday sun is beaming down on your balding crown, you do not look such a splendiferous gift-horse in the mouth. It has SAM’S TOURS written across it in big friendly letters.
As we were pulling out of the dock of SAM’S TOURS, a couple were walking along the jetty. I was filming our getaway so I shouted over to them to wave for the camera. ‘Graham?!’ was the reply… it was Martin and Corinna – the yacht couple I met in Tuvalu back in December. WHAT ARE THE CHANCES?!
‘MEET ME HERE AT SIX!’ I shouted across the water. ‘CAN WE MAKE IT SEVEN?!’ Martin shouted back. ‘NO PROBLEM! SEE YOU THEN!’. And we were on our way.
It takes about 40 minutes to get to the island of Jellyfish Lake – 40 minutes through some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen – Palau’s Rock Islands.
Now I want you to imagine Monument Valley in the US. Got it? Okay, now imagine all of those rocks are covered in dense green foliage, the deepest, most vibrant green you’ve ever seen. Now set the rocks out in the clear blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and erode the lower few feet of the rocks so they not only look like giant stone mushrooms, they also make it next to impossible for humans to climb up them.
And there you have Palau’s Rock Islands: mother nature at her finest, untouched and unspoilt by man. Believe me, there are few places left in the world with such a boast.
One of the rocks looks like Homer Simpson lying down, another looks like an elephant. A spectacular natural rock bridge marks the ‘entrance’ to the Rock Islands, and once you’re in the national park, there are hundreds of these islands to feast your eyes on.
We arrived at Jellyfish Lake island around 1pm. To get to the lake, you have to climb up and over a rocky ridge – something that you have to undertake in these crazy little diving booties they give me at SAM’S TOURS. A word of warning – avoid the sharp rocks… ouch! Before you set off over the ridge, you have to show your pass and dip your feet in disinfectant to prevent any parasites or foreign invaders such as algae getting into the lake and killing all the jellyfish.
At the moment, the pass to visit the lake is $35. I’m one of the lucky ones. After June, the price is going to go up to $100. That’s just for the pass, not transport and stuff. The reason being is that too many people are visiting the lake, and it’s not good for the jellies. In fact, when I arrived, there must have been about 50 people in the lake – mostly Japanese tourists.
But they were on a schedule. I wasn’t. So I bided my time. Eventually everybody left and for a moment I was the only human being in the world in this magical lake teeming with jellyfish.
I had been kitted out with a snorkel and flippers, courtesy of the good folk at SAM’S TOURS. And a-snorkling I did go.
Beneath the surface, it was jellyfish as far as the eye could see. Thousands of translucent pulsating boobs gently drifting through the clear waters. Most had an X in the middle of their bells and eight broccoli-like tentacles coming out of their rear. I found one with a Y who only had six tentacles and wondered if that was like finding the Jellyfish Lake equivalent of a four-leafed clover.
The lake is salt water, so you can float without much effort. Lying face down on the surface, staring into this alien world… it was like floating in space, only surrounded by hundreds of friendly jellyfish. One of the more remarkable things about these creatures is that they are solar-powered – seriously, they live off photosynthesis!
After an hour or so with my wibbly wobbly chums, I gently made my way back towards the path on the far side of the lake. The water got noticeably warmer as I got nearer the exit and the large jellyfish were now few and far between, but what’s this? At first it was just one tiny polyp, a perfect tiny version of the big ’uns elsewhere. And then there were ten, then fifty, then a hundred… and then POW! MILLIONS of them! Please don’t think I’m exaggerating. To swim in a swarm of countless tiny jellyfish was just magical – an experience I’m going to treasure for the rest of my life.
If you want some idea of how frikkin’ awesome Jellyfish Lake is (and just how many jellies there are!), check out this clip from the BBC’s South Pacific documentary:
Epic eh? How do you top THAT?! On our way back to Malakal, Ray stopped off at Clam City – a coral reef that is home to dozens of the BIGGEST GODDAMN CLAMS you have ever seen. Seriously – you could hide in these things. Some tourists were there and somebody must have asked the question if these crusty old behemoths were actually alive. In order to answer that question, their local guide swam down to the ocean floor and gently stroked one. It responded by snapping shut with some angry bubbles thrown in for good measure. Cool!
After Clam City, we dropped by Cemetery Reef – so called because it’s shaped like a giant tomb. By now it was way after 4pm, so all the other tour groups had returned to Koror. Once again, I got the place to myself. Ray moored up alongside a buoy and off I went for a paddle. Bear in mind that I only saw 1% of what Palau has to offer. There are dive sites extraordinaire, there are ancient cities, stone faces reminiscent of Easter Island, there are WWII wrecks and hundreds of islands to explore. Once you pay for your $35 pass to enter the Rock Islands, your pass is valid for 10 days and you may camp on the accessible islands (those with beaches) FOR FREE. I can’t stress this enough: PALAU IS FRIKKIN’ AWESOME, PEOPLE!
And I haven’t even got to the best bit yet: the local beer, Red Rooster, is feckin’ SUPERB. Even the Germans I met were raving about it.
Palau seems to have the perfect balance of amenities (mostly on Koror Island – outside Koror and you are seeing some real Pacifika), areas of outstanding natural beauty, tropical climate, white sand beaches, ancient ruins, hiking trails, dive sites, turquoise lagooooooons, mango trees, multicoloured fish, giant clams, great local beer and lakes filled with magic jellyfish. It’s taken three years, three months and twenty six days, but I’ve finally found my heaven, and as Belinda Carlisle once tried to inform us, it is indeed a place on Earth.
Give me ten days laying on a hammock in the shade of the coconut trees in the Rock Islands, a cold beer and a good book: it would be the sum of all bliss.
After Cemetery Rock, Ray ran me back to SAM’S TOURS. SAM’S TOURS also doubles as the yacht club and there’s a bar there that’s open until 9pm. I had a good chat with Mark, met a load of yachties on their way to or from their boats and sat down and had a good old chin-wag with Martin and Corinna. I had last seen them in December in Tuvalu. Since then I’ve been to Wallis, Futuna, Tuvalu (again), Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, Solomon Islands, Kiribati (again), Nauru, Australia (again), Taiwan, Okinawa, Saipan, Guam and The Federated States of Micronesia.
So it was probably a good thing I didn’t jump ship from the Southern Pearl and join them on their yacht: in fact, they didn’t visit Kiribati on the way over here (the current was too strong for their yacht coming into Tawara), so if I had been with them, we would now be in Palau and I’d still have five more Pacific Nations to get to.
A single graceful arc around the Pacific would have been nice, my current GPS map looks like it’s been scribbled on by a five-year old, but judging by how long it’s taken Martin and Corinna to get this far, I dodged a bullet by not getting on that magic yacht (which probably never existed anyway) that was promised me back in Australia last year.
Well, we’re done, that’s the Pacific leg over. Only took me 16 months…!
After plenty of Red Rooster lager, Martin and Corinna, as well as our new American chums were ready to call it a night. Of course, I wasn’t, so I said goodbye to SAM’S TOURS, rambled back over to the port, grabbed a quick shower and change of clothes and headed out to meet with Perry, the local port agent from this morning. We headed over to Kramers, a German bar, where they were watching the Champion’s League Semi-Final of Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid.
Of course the bearded Germans at the bar were supporting Munich, but after being told by the owner René that I was on for free drinks for the rest of the night on account of my fantastical adventures (I’m seriously considering knocking England off the top of my League of Nations in favour of Palau), I was supporting Munich all the way.
After far too much to drink, Perry and I teamed up with a few of the young guns from Kramers and headed out into the night. We ended up at some club, at which point the night becomes something of a blur.
By the time I woke up the next afternoon, the Mell Sembawang was well underway; the nation of Palau now a distant, but perfect, memory.