By Michael Buckley
Lathered up with sunscreen, five people wave goodbye to the support boat and paddle into the Ulong Island chain on kayaks. They become castaways for a day—in the wake of Captain Henry Wilson
The sea lapping on limestone cliffs has a surreal calmness. This is like paddling into a postcard. The clarity is extraordinary: I can see coral shimmering in the shallows for some distance. And in this clarity, the senses seem somehow sharpened, more alert, more alive. Long-tailed tropic-birds glide past. Brown noddies skim the water for fish. And we hear other strange birds, but do not see them. Jayden, our Palauan guide, knows all the calls. “That was the call of the Fruit Dove,” he says. “Only found in Palau—and the national bird. Jayden has photos of the birds in a waterproof folder. Among them are a dozen endemic to Palau, like the Rusty-capped Kingfisher.
We cruise past some rock flowers, hanging low off the limestone cliffs. The island vegetation is striking because it somehow gains a foothold on the limestone. Jayden points out a tree with a small hard fruit, known as noni: this bitter fruit is used in traditional medicine by the Palauans.
Kayaking gives you access to nooks and crannies that are far too shallow for regular boats to approach. A ‘cranny’ sometimes means a space barely big enough to accommodate a human. We tie up the kayaks to a piece of limestone, then crawl on hands and knees through a tight cavern encrusted with barnacles. At the other side of the cavern is a tidal lagoon: we don masks and snorkel to observe the miniature world within. Palau is a magnet for divers, with barracudas, reef sharks, manta rays, Napoleon wrasses and hawksbill turtles patrolling the waters. You won’t see this kayaking, but instead get to see the lagoon hatcheries for these species, where they hide out from predators until they are big enough to fend for themselves.
Paddling along the coast is punctuated by stops to explore caves or snorkel shallow waters. Time becomes elastic: we have somehow drifted into the afternoon hours. We beach the kayaks for a late lunch. I wolf down sandwiches: you can build a healthy appetite when kayaking.
Marooned Among the Natives
At this beach, we have reached the rough spot where the good ship Antelope was smashed to smithereens. There’s a brass plaque on a plinth near the beach commemorating the events of 1783. Not the original plaque—that’s long gone—but a plaque set in place in 1985. The saga from 1783 has directed this kayak trip, which I requested after reading about the Antelope from the 1783 account of what happened. Not the original hefty folio volume that must weigh several kilos, but a modern retelling of the story in a slim paperback that I picked up at Koror museum.
In 1788, an illustrated book titled An Account of the Natives of the Pelew Islands became a bestseller in England. Based on the journals of Captain Henry Wilson of the British East India Company, the book recounts the adventures of sailors shipwrecked at Ulong and their interaction with Palauans. The Antelope hit a reef in a storm. The marooned crew camped on the beach at Ulong and set about building a small schooner, enlisting the help and protection of Koror Palauan natives in this endeavor. After three months, the schooner was completed—and the crew sailed back to Macau.
More than two hundred years later, Palau’s main draw lies in its reefs and its remoteness, for very different reasons. Adventurers come here with the intention of getting marooned in a different way: getting lost in the beauty of Palau, far from the crowds. Palau is still a bestseller in the castaway sweepstakes, but via a different medium. The islands have been featured in a number of survivor reality series, shot on location.
We’re the only ones on this expanse of white sand at Ulong. The island is uninhabited, but in the days when Captain Wilson crash-landed, Palauans lived here, up in the hills. Why not near the beach? Jayden explains why as we hike high into the tropical rainforest. He picks up shards of pottery from an old settlement. The inhabitants lived up in the heights to better defend themselves from attackers. High chief Ibedul, the crafty leader of Koror Palauans, struck a deal with the marooned British in 1783. In return for helping them build a new vessel, he wanted to use their firepower to vanquish his enemies on a nearby island. Captain Wilson obliged, supplying ten men with muskets. The gunners took aim from canoes to bring down enemy fighters—who were mystified how their men could drop dead without any weapons in sight, and promptly turned tail and fled.