Palau: The very peculiar Pacific paradise

By David Barbeler

David Barbeler finds himself both puzzled and fascinated by the remote and untouched tiny island nation of Palau.

The jellyfish of Jellyfish Lake have been cut off from ocean predators for 12,000 years, so have no sting. Even so, their tendency to mob visitors can be unnerving. Photo / Getty Images
The jellyfish of Jellyfish Lake have been cut off from ocean predators for 12,000 years, so have no sting. Even so, their tendency to mob visitors can be unnerving. Photo / Getty Images

From the gut-wrenching bowl of fruitbat soup that grins back at you, to a lake that feels like it's filled with equal parts water and stingless jellyfish, Palau is a tropical paradise packed with odd traits.

Where in the world is Palau, you ask? Well, the Republic of Palau is no more than a series of 250-plus limestone islands bobbing their heads up out of the Pacific Ocean 800km east of the Philippines.

It is almost untouched by tourists, but a new flight from Brisbane, operated by Pacific Flier, has just opened the first direct passageway. So, to whet your appetite, here are eight little-known quirky facts about a country you've most likely never heard of ...

1: The national culinary delicacy is fruitbat soup

When people are asked what a particular animal tastes like, most reply "chicken". However, fruitbat soup tastes nothing like chicken. The closest it comes to is a faint resemblance to quail, without any aesthetic presentation.

Basically, they drop a whole fruitbat into a broth, boil it, then pull it out, only to leave its face still grinning up at you. Only scarier - as if it's just daring you to try to eat it. I gingerly peeled off the fur and skin around its legs and managed to eat those. However, a Palauan who saw me having trouble ripped open the rib cage and devoured the guts, insisting the creature's fruit diet made it the "sweetest part". I let him eat the rest.

2: Matriarchal society

While many females are the unofficial household bosses in many countries, Palau's women formally run the show. The appointed chief of each region is generally the nephew of the previous chief in a lineage that runs through the women's bloodlines. However, if the nephew is unsuitable, the women in the tribe will appoint someone more suitable. Women also control all the money their husbands make. My guide, Steve, told me that if he wants a pair of sunglasses, he has to ask his wife to buy them. "One time, a Japanese tourist gave me this Japanese cap," he told me, cheerily pointing to his head, "My wife didn't believe me and demanded to meet the tourist, to know for sure."

3: Dancefloor musical chairs

I learned the hard way that you just don't bust out a Marky-Mark move on a dancefloor in Palau. Everyone first asks a member of the opposite sex to join them before strutting their stuff. Fortunately, because Palau is a matriarchal society, women don't hesitate to ask you. I was asked to dance six times in two hours. That's six times higher than my record. It's also important to not get too heavily involved in a dance trance. About 30 seconds before each song ends, everyone on the floor scatters and sits down. Almost like an adult's version of musical chairs. The fun resumes at the start of the next song - which is normally of the slow rock variety.

4: It was a fierce battleground during World War II

The presence of about 11,000 Japanese troops in Palau in World War II made it a major target for the allied forces. It became the scene of intense fighting during the Battle of Peleliu (aka Palau) between September and November 1944. Survivors call it "The Forgotten Battle". Before the Japanese surrendered, thousands on both sides died. To this day, divers and snorkellers visit many underwater wrecks from the battle.

5: American influence still lingers

Because Palau remained under US administration until 1994, it has adopted several American customs - as well as keeping many of its own. Despite having their own languages, most Palauans speak perfect English. Other influences the US has had on Palau include their currency, high population of Christians, particularly Catholics, dress style and baseball. Rest assured, however, that despite all these US influences there is scarcely an American tourist to be seen on the entire island.

6: It has its own Stonehenge

When you think of gigantic, mysterious stone formations, Palau doesn't exactly spring to mind. Easter Island? Yep. Stonehenge? You bet. But Palau? Well most people haven't even heard of it. The Badrul Chau Monoliths are on Palau's largest island, Babeldaob. They consist of two columns of refrigerator-size volcanic rocks whose origins have stumped locals for centuries. All the formation's rocks are so big they would have been impossible for a primitive tribe to transport overseas. The great mystery is, however, that Palau is made up of limestone, with no volcanic rocks anywhere in sight. Aliens, meteorites and super-volcanoes were just a couple of the wild theories tossed about during my time wandering the site. My guide, Steve, told me they recently paid "a lot of money" for an archaeologist to study the rocks. Steve says: "He walked around looking very serious and holding his chin for a lot of the time. At the end all he could tell us was the volcanic rocks were not from this island. We already knew that!"

7: World's first and only shark sanctuary

Last year, President Johnson Toribiong proudly announced to the world at a UN General Assembly that Palau would be home to the world's first shark sanctuary, in a bid to save more than 130 sharks and rays fighting extinction. Of course, the Palau Government finds it difficult to patrol an area more than twice the size of the state of Victoria with a single patrol boat. But the Palauans hope the gesture will be respected by shark-fin poachers from nearby countries and that it will inspire other countries to follow suit.

8: Jellyfish Lake

Cut off from the main ocean at the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago, Jellyfish Lake is home to 13 million jellies. I can honestly say the first 10 minutes of swimming here scared the hell out of me. But because the thick blanket of jellyfish have been isolated for so long, they've had no natural predators and, thus, no need to develop any toxins. Up your boardshorts, in your hair, down your snorkel - it feels as though the creatures are invading every crevice of your body. Jellyfish Lake just about sums up Palau. Both are isolated, harmless, jam-packed wonders. And although they can take some time to get used to, you can rest assured it's an unusual experience you won't forget.


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