Micronesia ( 10 February 1999 - 26 April 1999)

Palau (10 February - 3 March)

Arrived in Palau early Wednesday evening.

Palau is the westernmost part of Micronesia. Of Palau's 200 islands only 8 are inhabited. All but three lie within a single protective barrier reef. The islands are for the most part covered in thick tropical vegetation. Average temperatures are in the high 80F (30C) and average humidity is 79%.

I'm staying at the New Koror Hotel, at $33 per night it's the cheapest in town. On the Thursday I did a bit of walking, down the main street, getting the layout of the town, and then down to Malakal Island, it was my intention to visit the Marine Conservation Center, but the fact that I had not set my watch correctly for Palaun time meant that I missed the opening time.

So far I have done two days diving with Fish N Fins, all four dives were good, although the third dive probably ranks as my best dive ever. We went to Blue Corner where there is a reef with a steep drop off at 58 feet. We stayed at the reef edge for over half an hour, watching many reef sharks, and lots of other schools of fish. It is difficult to describe the scene, but it would be something like swimming in an aquarium, or swimming in a snowstorm of fish, there were so many fish.

For a few days I did nothing other than walk around town and visit a few gift shops and restaurants. Then I did a few more days diving , this time with Sam's Dive Tours, not that there was anything wrong with Fish N Fins, its just that I thought I should try a different company as well. Again I had some good diving, the best of those two days being Big Drop Off which is a large wall of coral.

Whilst walking around the town I have visited the Palau National Museum, it has an interesting bai ( traditional house) and some good displays on traditional life and conservation.

I have also walked down to Malakal Island a couple of times. I've visited the Palauan Maritime Development Center, which breeds giant clams for release onto the reef. It wasn't a particularly interesting visit, but at least I felt like I was doing my bit for conservation. The island also has some good views of the Rock Islands to the south-west, particularly if you climb to the top of its 400ft hill, as I did.

In order to see some of the scenery I hired a four wheel drive vehicle and drove round a lot of Badeldoab, the larger, but less inhabited island to the north-east. The scenery was quite spectacular, but the driving conditions on heavily rutted dirt roads were hard.

A few more days diving were broken up by a side trip down to Angaur Island, its only about two and a half miles long by two miles wide and has one village and a population of 200. It was an interesting visit for a few days, walking around the island seeing the scenery and some remains of planes and other things left over from the Second World War. I had a 3 bedroom guesthouse all to myself, with kitchen and bathroom, all for $20 a night.

Now however it's time to leave the friendly people of Palau and move on to Yap, I've dived thirteen dives in all, including many of my best ever dives, seen lots of corals, reef sharks, and one nurse shark, not to mention nice scenery on the land as well.

Yap (3 March - 17 March)

Yap is a much quieter island than Palau, in fact it is supposed to be the most traditional of all the Micronesian islands. The main town of Colonia would be regarded as a village in most other places. However this gives it a very friendly feel. I was staying at The Ocean View Hotel, the cheapest in town at $40 a night.

I mainly came here to dive with Manta Rays, and have not been disappointed. I have been diving with Beyond The Reef who I have found to be a very friendly operation who have been able to provide a personal diving experience. It would be very hard to fully describe the feeling of seeing the Manta Rays. Standing on a coral ledge at 50 ft watching up to five Manta glide past for twenty minutes is a very memorable experience. The Manta have up to a twelve foot wingspan and at times come within a few inches of you, moving effortlessly and with a grace that is extraordinary.

I also did a few dives on the reef at the southern end of the island, and was surprised to see how much coral was there. One of my other favourite sights were some Christmas Tree worms on a coral head. These worms are about an inch long and have a green or blue spiral wrapped around a central core.

As well as diving I have also visited a few villages. The typical village has a thatched meeting house , a thatched mens house, and the houses of the villagers. In many of the villages there are collections of traditional stone money. These are carved circular stones brought from Palau, they can range from a foot in diameter up to six or eight feet, and are still used in certain transactions today.

I have found the Yapese to be an extraordinary hospitable people.  

Guam ( 17 March- 28 March)

My first thoughts on arriving in Guam were ones of culture shock. After 5 weeks of travelling in Palau and Yap, Guam seemed a very crowded and busy place. In particular the Tumon/Tamuning area with its hotels, many businesses and three lane highway was a worlds away from the tranquility of Yap.

However that was in part how I had expected Guam to be. What I was not prepared for was how beautiful the remainder of the island was. It has some of the best beaches that I have ever seen, with hardly any one on them. The interior of the island has some nice scenery and I took the chance to go on a few hikes.

I was staying with my cousin in Mangilao and initially she showed me around the island. After a few days I hired a car from Cars Unlimited for $25 a day, which allowed me to be a little more independent.

I did a couple of days diving with Guam Tropical Dive Station, but have to admit that after the diving in Palau and Yap the diving in Guam was not particularly exciting, at least it's another entry in my log book.

Although initially I was surprised by the "big town" amenities of Guam I soon took advantage of them, eating out in a variety of restaurants, going to bars, and visiting the shopping centers (just to browse not to buy) and seeing a movie.

I even went to watch my first baseball game , my cousins' husband was playing, and I was surprised how many rules there seemed to be to the game.

On one Wednesday I met up with a friend and went to the Chamorro Village for a meal of local food, to see some craft stalls and to watch some dancers.

My visit became more expensive than I had planned when one evening on the wet roads I crashed my rental car, I did not have insurance! I had not realised that the coral roads became like ice when wet.  

Chuuk (28 March - 5 April)

My first day in Chuuk (sometimes spelt Truk) was spent, as was my first in Palau and Yap, walking around getting to know the positions of stores, banks etc, and getting some information on diving.

Chuuk is known as a wreck divers paradise. On 17&18 February 1944 the US air force launched an attack against Japanese shipping anchoured in Chuuk lagoon. Although a number of the Japanese naval ships had already left the lagoon some remained, as did significant numbers of merchant ships. Over 30 ships were sunk, and they remain preserved in time, beneath the waters of Chuuk lagoon.

Of my seven days in Chuuk, five were spent diving. Some of the diving was beyond the limits of my previous experience and I was glad to be diving with Jules and Wendy, two experienced British divers. It is unfortunately impossible for me to fully describe the experience of diving these wrecks. To glide effortlessly through cargo holds carrying still live mines, torpedoes, shells, and small arms ammunition, to view Japanese tanks still on the decks of ships, to swim through ships bridges and accommodation areas seeing pottery, sake bottles and other items are experiences which I will remember for a long time. Most times the sheer exhilaration and wonder I experienced outweighed any feelings that these were ships on which so many people had lost their lives.

Given that Chuuk is known by divers the world over as such a great site I was surprised by how few divers there actually were staying on the island, and by how many of those that were there were British. I was also surprised at how uncommercialsed the island was. Other than the bars and restaurants of each hotel there was nowhere else to go and eat or drink.

On my last day, in between frequent rainshowers, I walked up into one of the caves dug by the Japanese as fortifications, and which still has a large gun overlooking the lagoon.

Pohnpei (5 April - 12 April)

After a while one island seems very similar to the previous few. There are some differences of course, Pohnpei has a larger town center than Chuuk or Yap, and there seem to be more banana and breadfruit trees growing my the roadsides. As I move eastwards my accommodation is becoming more expensive, I'm staying at the Joy Hotel for $68 a night. It's a nice place, but not much different from my hotel on Chuuk which cost $55 a night, although it is closer to the town center.

On my second day I went diving with the Phoenix Marine Sports Club. I have obviously been spoiled by my diving in Palau and Yap, since my dives today were not particularly good. We did see some manta on my first dive, but not as close nor for as long as those on Yap.

On April 8 I did one of the main things I had planned to do whilst in the region, with a visit to Nan Madol. Often called the "Venice of the Pacific" this site, nearly 1000 years ago, was a city for a large royal civilization. Huge basalt pillars were quarried from around the island and stacked within the lagoon to form over 90 man made islands. In the narrow channels between the islands navigation is possible. We visited first the island of Nan Douwas which has the largest remaining structure with walls over 25ft high, inside the walls are three burial chambers. We then went to an island in the lagoon for lunch before going by boat back to the main island for a short walk to Kepirohi waterfalls. It was then back to the boat for a trip through the narrow channels between the lower lying islands of Nan Madol. It was difficult to get a full impression here since many of the islands are covered in vegetation and the only sign of their man-made nature was the straight vertical walls rising a meter or so out of the water. Overall I was left with a feeling of awe for the people who created these structures, moving so many thousand pieces of rock, so long ago, and before metal tools were known on the island.

The next day I had one more day of diving, but it was not much different from the first. In the evening I tried the local drink, Sakau made from the root of the pepper plant. It's rather like drinking a mud milkshake and is supposed to be mildly intoxicating. It didn't seem to have much effect of me, but maybe I needed more than four glasses.

For my last two days I hired a car, on the first day I drove to Sokehs rock, parked the car and walked to the top and then along the ridge for a nice view overlooking the harbour and the airport. On the next day I drove around the island with Gerald, a Swiss guy I had met whist diving. It was a slow drive since much of the road was unpaved.

Kosrae (12 April - 19 April)

As the month moves on the weather gets wetter, or maybe its' simply that Kosrae is further south than the other islands I have visited recently.

Although it was good to find some cheap accommodation at The Tradewind Motel ($35 a night) the fact that there was no restaurant on site and that things on Kosrae are fairly spread out meant that I felt it was necessary to rent a car.

On my first day on the island I went diving with a small operation, the quality of whose equipment left a lot to be desired. The actual diving was good, with a lot of small fish, a shark, and good corals. After the dive we visited the village of Walung, which can only be reached by boat, but as the tide was falling we could not stay long.

On another day we visited the small museum in Tofol and afterwards went to Lulu ruins, which are in some ways similar to those of Nan Madol on Pohnpei. The gaps between the islands in Lelu are mainly pathways whereas in Nan Madol they are canals. There was a lot of vegetation growing over the structures which made it difficult to get a full impression of the site. One of the compounds does have walls over 20ft high. Afterwards we took a drive along the eighteen miles of road to the south of the island, passing along beaches and through thick forest as we did so. The poor quality of the road meant that this trip took all afternoon.

Another day was spent diving, this time with with Sleeping Lady Divers who are based at the Kosrae Village Resort. They are a very professional operation with the largest range of equipment for sale on all the islands (except for Guam). Their boat was based in the village of Utwe on the south of the island, and the corals along this part of the reef were amazing, with massive coral heads, multiple colours, and hardly any dead coral at all. The shallow diving (averaging 50ft) and the fact that my cylinders were filled with air (rather than three quarters full as with many dive operators) gave me two of the longest dives I have ever done.

Sunday is a day of rest on Kosrae, businesses are closed, tour operators do not operate and there is not much to do. It also rained all day. I was glad that when I was a child my grandfather had taught me how to play the card game of patience (or solitaire), since that was about all I did all day.

Majuro (19 April - 26 April)

I left Kosrae mid afternoon for the flight to Majuro. There I checked into the Hotel Robert Reimers, its more expensive than where I had originally planned to stay, but I considered that I would spend one night there and then move to the cheaper Adidrik Hotel. However after getting settled into the Robert Reimers I decided to stay, reasoning that this was likely to be the last time in the whole of my trip that I would be staying in such up-market accomodation (it is back to hostels once I reach Hawaii).

One of the main reasons for my visit to Majuro is that it is completely different from all of the other islands I have visited in Micronesia. All the other ones are the exposed tips of old volcanoes, and all have reasonably high areas, rain, and abundant vegetation. By contrast Majuro is a low coral atol, with less dense vegetation, and where the highest point on the atol is only 20ft.

The other noticable difference is the weather, where for the first time since leaving Guam I have had days with no cloud cover.

Majuro is surprisingly close, about 400 miles, to Bikini and Enewetok atols where, in the late 1940's and 1950's the USA detonated 66 nuclear bombs.

The Alele Museum has some interesting photographs from the early 1900's, displays on traditional canoe building and other artifacts. From more recent times it has some photographs of islanders who were contaminated by the nuclear testing.

I did one more days diving, probably my last for a while, with Marshall Dive Adventures. Our first dive was in the Calalin pass on the north side of the atol and we saw many small fish. The second dive was on the outside of the reef at Delap point, the water was clearer here and again we saw a lot of fish.

There was not much else to do on Majuro, But I did hire a car one day and drive the 30 miles to the far western end of the atol, to the village of Laura, which has a lovely white sand beach .

Summary

Micronesia is an area of the world which I had wanted to visit for about six years. I had read each of the last two editions of the Lonely Planet Guidebook, and tried to imagine what it would be like. Before I arrived there I was a little concerned that I may have been dissapointed with with the area once I actually saw it for real. I was not. During the past 10 weeks I have done over 40 dives, many of them being the best dives I have ever done. The islands themselves have been lovely, and reasonably undeveloped, and the people have been very friendly.

I had imagined that this would be my only trip to the region, but it is now difficult to believe that I shall never go back. Palau in particular is a place I shall probably visit again. Its hard to pick a "favourite" island, but Palau with its excellent diving, cheaper hotels, and wide range of restarants was especially nice. Maybe though it was simply that I spent longer on Palau and got to know the place.