Mount Ngerchelchuus (Palau)

1-Feb-2001 (In High Places)

By: Burton Falk

My wife, Jo, and I arrived at the Palau International Airport on the evening of February lst at 8:30 p.m. After collecting our bags, passing through immigration and customs, and boarding the Palau Pacific Resort’s jitney bus, we were soon bouncing over the temporary pontoon bridge that connects the big island of Babeldaob, on which the airport is located, with the much smaller island of Koror, the capital of the Republic of Palau (pronounced Balau by the locals).

Our driver explained that the former inter-island bridge, built in 1979, had collapsed suddenly during an afternoon rush hour in September 1996, killing two people, and briefly cutting off utilities to the big island. On the night we crossed, the floating bridge was lined with 50 or so fishermen, enjoying the mild evening breeze. To our left loomed the beginnings of the new bridge—each end cantilevered out over the dark waters, stretching longingly toward one another.

The next morning, promptly at 7:30 a.m., I called Sam’s Dive Shop to confirm my reservation for a guide and a car for a trip that same day to 713’ Mt. Ngerchelchuus, the highpoint of Palau. I collect highpoints of countries (and continents, states, provinces, counties, etc.), and Jo and I were in the midst of a three-week peakbagging trip throughout Micronesia. Unfortunately, up to that point in our trip, we hadn’t had much success. Earlier, in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), although having been assured by the Lonely Planet Guide to Micronesia that the low-lying country’s 34’ highpoint was located on Likiep Atoll, neither U.S. Government maps, nor Likiep resident, Joe de Brum, the great-grandson of the Portuguese whaler and the German businessman who bought the island from a Marshallese chief back in 1877, could confirm that fact. We did, indeed, take the once a week Air Marshall Island’s flight from the nation’s capital, Majuro, out to Likiep, where we “climbed” the mound that Joe thought might be the high point, but my doubts remained.

Our next stop was the island of Pohnpei, on which the highpoint of the Federated States of Micronesia is located. There, unfortunately, I was stood up by my pre-arranged guide, Rufino (he was at a funeral, and funerals are very big deals on Pohnpei, often lasting for days). The good news—if it can be called as such—is that during our two-day stay on the beautiful island, I discovered the peak Rufino was going to lead me up was not the true high point after all.

The upshot was that I had been in Micronesia for ten days, and I hadn’t climbed a solid “for sure” highpoint yet. I needed to bag Palau’s. I was getting anxious.

My anxieties were not allayed one iota when I discovered that Sam’s Dive Shop (the only Palauan outfitter to respond to my e-mailed request for a car and guide for trip to Mt. Ngerchelchuus) had foisted a woman guide upon me. From my pre-trip research, I knew that the roads leading to the mountain, located on Babeldaob Island, were rough and unsigned, and that both a 4x4 and an experienced driver were required. “A woman?” I thought. “What else can go wrong?”

Nevertheless, Malahi—a woman about 40 years of age, the divorced mother of four—was to be my guide. On one hand, because she’d spent two years in the U.S. as a teenager, her English was excellent. Also, she’d grown up on Babeldaob. On the other hand, she seemed business-like and quiet. As we drove out of Koror in a Mitsubishi Pajaro 4x4, our conversation began to lag. “It’s going to be a long day,” I thought.

By the time we returned that evening, I had become one of Malahi’s most ardent admirers.

Palau is in the Caroline Islands, the western most part of Micronesia. The capital island of Koror lies roughly 600 miles due north of New Guinea, 600 miles due east of the Philippine island of Mindanao, and 750 miles southwest of Guam. Surrounded by one giant fringing reef, Palau’s main island cluster consists of Koror, where 10,500 of the nation’s total population of 16,000 live; Babeldaob, second only to Guam as the largest island in Micronesia; Peleliu, site of one of the bloodiest battles of WWII; one atoll, and 200 or so of the incredibly beautiful Rock Islands.

In 1994, after 47 years of administration as a United Nations Trust Territory by the United States, Palau became an independent nation—although it too, like the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, has signed a Compact of Free Association with the U.S., underthe terms of which, in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid, the U.S. has the right of eminent domain.

Crossing the pontoon bridge again, Malahi and I headed north into the interior of Babeldaob, soon reaching the beginning of the island’s infamous dirt roads, which, charitably, can only be described as bad. After a mile or so of serious bouncing and jolting, I knew that Jo’s decision to hang out at our hotel that day—instead of stressing her recent back surgery—had been wise. At that point we were a mere 12 air miles from Palau’s high point. It was 10 a.m.

During the next 2-1/2 hours, Malahi expertly guided the 4x4 over sections of road that seemed impossible. She eased over large rocks, tilted away from deep furrows, rocked out of muddy bogs, and, when everything else failed, she blazed new trails across open country. Coming upon a road construction crew at one point, she got out, spoke to the man in charge in earnest, and soon we had a grader and bulldozer clearing a path for us. I’ve bounced over a few thousand miles of bad roads in my time, and I can assure you that Malahi is the most capable driver I’ve ever met by a long shot.

Babeldaob’s population is only 3,500, even though it is the largest landmass in Palau, and that its southern extremity, near the International Airport, has become a suburb of Koror. The big island is home to ten of Palau’s sixteen states, all of which possess virtually unpronounceable names, such as Ngeremlengui, Ngardmau, Ngaraard and Melekeok. Interestingly, while some of the Palau’s states contain less than 100 people, each one has its own governor, legislature and state office. One wag remarked it would be hard to find another nation where so few are governed by so many.

Melekeok State, in east central Babeldaob, with a population of 261 at last count, is the site of the new national capital, now beginning to rise up out of a wilderness, much like Brasilia did in Brazil. The hilltop city will be built using money from the United States—the so-called Compact funds. U.S. aid will also fund construction of a new road that within three years should encircle Babeldaob—the “Compact Road.”

We arrived at the Ngeremlengui state capital building (a seedy-looking structure about the size of your average 7-11) about 12:30 p.m., where we hired a guide. It sounds odd, I know—a guide for a guide—but tourism is one of the few means by which the Babeldaobians, most whom depend on subsistence farming and fishing for their living, can earn hard cash. If you want to bag Mt. Ngerchelchuus, you must hire a guide.

Our overweight (due to diet heavy on Spam and potato chips—a common problem for Pacific Islanders) young trailblazer strapped himself in the back seat, and we started off again, turning left off the main road, bouncing south for a mile or two, and then turning right up a deeply furrowed dirt path leading up a steep hill. Although my Lonely Planet Guide did not give specifics on the ascent of Mt. Ngerchelchuus, I was expecting at least a short hike through the jungle to reach the 713’ highpoint. What a surprise it was to discover, after another of Malahi’s diva driving performances, that the summit could be reached by 4x4—and that there was no jungle! Coming to a stop on the flat grass-covered hilltop, under a bright mid-day sun, we found the true highpoint to be covered by an open-sided structure that, because of the sleeping racks along each side, and bare ground in the middle for cooking, had probably been modeled after a bai (a men’s meetinghouse/ lodge). It appeared to have been rarely used. Malahi confessed that it was the first time she’d been there.

I took photos, called Jo at the hotel (using Malahi’s cell phone), munched a sandwich, looked around once more—knowing full well I’d never be back, and then we were off, returning our guide’s guide to the capital building, where he would no doubt spend the rest of the afternoon chewing the fat (pun intended) with several other large, underemployed guides.

Malahi and I then returned about a mile up the highpoint road, where we parked and began a mile-long, mostly downhill, hike to the Diongradid Waterfall, a 100’ wide spring-fed stream that falls 150’ into a pool (inhabited by fresh water eels), surrounded by lush jungle. It was very pretty, and well worth the walk. Returning up the steep trail, under a blazing sun, I outdistanced Malahi, which, touching a competitive nerve, caused her some chagrin. She got even the next day.

On our way back to Koror, we stopped to visit a restored bai house, located just outside the village in which Malahi had grown up. She told me about the old way of life when the men of the village hired good-looking, intelligent “bai girls” from another village to come and live with them in their lodge for a few months (the local women were excluded). This seemed a bit out of character, as I knew that traditional Palauan culture was matriarchal, and that is was the women who owned the land and chose the men to become clan chiefs. Malahi also pointed out the story boards, painted across the bai’s cross ties, explaining that they didn’t necessarily read from left to right, as in a book in English. She told me how much Babeldaobians, who have moved to Koror to find work, enjoy coming back to the island on weekends, where they find comfort in the old life styles.

Malahi dropped me off at our hotel about 7:30 p.m., after first making arrangements to take Jo and me on an excursion through the Rock Islands the next day. Although I was able to clean myself up for a dinner with J0 later that evening, my guess is that the mud-covered Mitsubishi 4x4 will never be the same.

The Rock Islands—called Chalbached by the Palauans—lie just to the south of Koror. Once uplifted coral limestone reefs, the 200 plus islands were slowly shaped by ocean erosion, then overgrown by dense jungle, until today they look like emerald mushrooms rising up out of a turquoise sea. Because of the abundant marine life in their surrounding waters, the islands are a paradise for divers. Bird watchers rejoice in a huge variety of specimens to be found there. Photographers can point their cameras in virtually any direction, and be assured of a good shot.

The islands are Palau’s crown jewels. I could go on and on, but since this is essentially a highpoint piece, I’ll only briefly describe our next day’s Rock Islands adventures.

First and best of all, we had Malahi as our guide, so Jo got a chance to meet the woman about whom I had spent most of our previous evening’s dinner describing.

Second, the day was warm and the sky was cloudless.

Third, it only took about 30 minutes to run our small launch from the hotel dock to the Rock Islands, so by 10:30 a.m. we were ready for a day of exploring.

During the next five hours, we snorkeled up and down one long reef, marveling at the many schools of small, brightly-colored fish living there; we swam through a hole in a limestone cliff, gliding over fields of colorful soft coral, passing from one bay into another; we lunched at a shaded white coral sand beach, a picnic spot already occupied by 50 or so good-natured Palauans holding a weekend fish fry (to which they kindly invited us), and we dove down to a seafloor to view the colorful giant tridacna clams, (which can grow to 4 feet long, and weigh 500lbs), whose shells slammed shut upon contact.

But the single most interesting adventure of the day was our visit to Jellyfish Lake, a body of saline water, cut off from the ocean ages ago, located in the middle of one of the Rock Islands. Malahi had told me about the lake the day before, explaining that there were three types ofjellyfish that lived there, and that over the years they had evolved from hunters to farmers (they grow algae within their tissue to capture energy from the sun and transform it into food). With no need to stun prey or to evade predators, the brainless creatures have gradually lost their tentacles and stinging cells. Today, harmless, they spend their daylight hours migrating around the lake, maximizing photosynthesis by remaining in the sunlight as long as possible. A sign at the lake’s edge estimates that a million of the gelatinous things live therein.

And it was at Jellyfish Lake that Malahi got even for my leaving her in the dust on our hike from the waterfall the day before. See, I have this thing about jellyfish. I’ve been stung a few times, and it’s not fun. To say I was a bit reluctant to jump in and see if all the “Don’t worry, they can’t hurt you” hype was true, vastly understates my true feelings. But, damn, there was Malahi, already 100 yards out in the lake. Foolish pride prevailed, so I jumped in and followed.

“Pick one up and pet it,” she said, as I pulled up along her side. “Yeah, right,” I thought, trying my best to avoid the slimy beasts.

Because the jellyfish were on the far side of the jungle-fringed lake at that time of the afternoon, Jo had opted not to make the long swim out to visit them. Thoughtfully, however, Malahi, slipped one of the larger specimens under her T-shirt, and swam back, giving Jo a chance to get acquainted with the orange-colored critter. I, meanwhile, was engaged in a sort of slow-motion underwater jitterbug, trying my best to avoid any and all contact. Malahi knew she had won the “most macho” contest that day. She was all smiles.

We returned to the hotel dock about 3:30 p.m., where, with a well-deserved tip, we bid our favorite Palauan a fond farewell.

Later that evening, after showering, changing, and coughing up $100 for a late check out fee, we flew off for Yap.

Oh sure, I’ll remember Mt. Ngerchelchuus, the bai house, and Jellyfish Lake in the years to come, but I’ll especially remember Malahi—our wonderful woman guide.

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