This is the largest island in the Micronesian Republic of Palau, one of the world’s youngest and smallest nations (independent only since 1994). Unlike many far-flung Pacific nations, Paulau’s islands are well grouped, some 800 km (500 mi) east of the Philippines. Palau is mostly flat, but Babeldaob (also known as Babelthuap) is mountainous and contains the country’s highest point, Mount Ngerchelchuus 242 m (794 ft) tall. It also has over two-thirds of the country’s land mass and the main airport is there.
For many years, Babeldaob played second fiddle to its immediate neighbour, the urbanized Koror Island. But the recent construction of a bridge connecting the two (replacing one that collapsed) and a new highway that rings Babeldaob has altered the relationship. The new capital, Melekeok, is on Babeldaob and the island has been opened up for rapid economic exploitation and the promotion of tourism. This major infrastructure project has been controversial, as it will degrade the ecology of an environmental treasure – the Ngermeskang River (Micronesia’s largest), its estuary and Ngaremeduu Bay. The designation of a large conservation area may not be enough to limit damage, but therein lies the dilemma of many small, poverty-stricken Pacific nations – an unspoiled environment and poverty, or development and improved living standards?
The decision has been made here, for better or worse, with an influx of middle-class professionals from Koror who are building commuter homes, and farmers who are clearing forest and mangrove swamps to plant cash crops. Despite existing tourist facilities, it’s still possible to see the islanders living as they always have, by gathering food and fishing, and experience an island that still has extraordinary natural beauty. But hurry – it won’t be long before Babeldaob changes almost beyond recognition.
Population: 4.500 (2007 estimate)
When to go: At any time, though the monsoon season (June to October) does see intense rainfall almost every day.
How to get there: Various international carriers fly in to Koror-Babeldaob Airport, often via Guam. Highlights: Paluan storyboards – traditional wood carvings depicting local myths and legends.
The bai (men’s meeting house) in Airai, said to be the world’s oldest.
Lake Ngardok near Melekeok, the largest natural freshwater lake in Micronesia – and home to crocodiles.
The many mysterious stone monoliths around Ngarchelong Province, in the north of the island.
The scenic Taki Falls at Ngardmau on the west coast.
You should know: Palauans have traditionally operated a matrilineal society where titles, land and property pass through the female line to eldest daughters.