How to camp under the stars in Nan’ao

IMG_0462_1.jpg

Taiwan constantly surprises me. I may have been through a certain area several times and foolishly think that there is nothing else worth exploring but through the wonder of the Internet and my local chums, new information frequently makes its way to my eye and ear-holes whether it be locations for waterfalls, wild hot springs or in this case, caves on a beach.

A couple of years back on a trip to Taroko Gorge, a friend and I camped in this town no further than a two minute drive from this beach, and had absolutely no idea of its existence. I’ve been generous enough to give you a full write-up of our trip and some handy information at the end. Here is how to camp under the stars in Nan’ao.

IMG_0520_1

Photo credit due to my two fellow cave-campers, @wu_pongo and @jason_maowang for their sweet photography that I stole for this article.

Last week I received a message from one of my mates – Mao – that used to live in Taipei, but is now stationed down in Hualien on army related business. He tells me that he’s training for the Special Forces, but considering that his Instagram stories are just him walking a dog up mountains, I think he might be telling porkies. Only joking pal. I know you’re doing good work.

Anywho, he invited me on a camping trip to Nan’ao (南澳), which is a small, mainly indigenous town in Yilan County along the east coast, far from any city. He talked about sleeping in a cave by the sea, cooking steak for dinner, doing a little off-road motorcycle riding along the beach and having perfect conditions for stargazing in the evening due to the lack of light pollution. On top of that, it was his birthday, so it would be a crime not to throw a few beers into the equation. Is there anything here that doesn’t sound appealing? So I said yes, and started to pack my bag.

IMG_0448_1.jpg

I took the 3 hour motorcycle journey from Taipei all the way along the number 9 road, which takes you directly to central Nan’ao. I met Mao here (he was over an hour late, for the record) and we collected a few last minute supplies from the Hi-Life near to the train station; drinking water, kimchi, and obviously a couple of birthday beers. Then we loaded our guts with noodles and “100 year old egg”, which is tastier than it sounds. Give it a whirl.

We got down to the beach (GPS co-ordinates at the end of the article) via Hai’an Road and in a particularly sincere manner, the first thing Mao said to me before we touched the sand was:

“Don’t let your wheels get stuck, OK?”

Sound advice that I hoped wouldn’t be an issue for me on my Kymco KTR. I was quite wrong. For around 2km, the ground is manageable. The route is regularly used by the 4×4 vehicles of fishermen on the beach, thus the sand is fairly well compacted. I had little to complain about for the moment, but Mao – on his scooter – had to travel a little slower, saying that he was concerned for the welfare of our eggs. That bloke loves his eggs, I tell ya. When we passed the fishermen, the ground started to get much more soft. We struggled to keep our bikes upright as the front wheels sank left and right. I came up with the bright idea of riding nearer to the sea, where the ground was mainly stones, and presumably had more of a solid ground. I was catastrophically wrong, and I hated myself for it. The wheels sank into the ground, and I had visions of the tide coming in to make matters a whole lot worse. Thankfully, using careful clutch control and a lot of manhandling, I managed to get the bike back up onto the sand.

APC_1754.jpg

That daft sod is me. Nice view though, eh?

Admitting defeat, Mao and I parked our bikes far up the beach as near to the cliff as possible so that the tide wouldn’t reach them. We walked the final kilometre because, well, we couldn’t take any more. Another of our friends joined later (who has a larger, heavier scooter, plus more beer) and had to park 500m further from camp than us. Doing the heroic thing, we walked down to meet him (and the beers) and helped with carrying supplies.

One nice addition to this area is the presence of a small waterfall. You can’t swim in it or anything, but it’s a handy place to have a natural shower in the evening. It’s easy to find, it’s about a 5 minute walk from the caves.

IMG_0519_1.jpg

Our shower for the evening. I’m afraid no towels are supplied so you’ll have to bring your own.

After this point there is a large, unmissable cave that is by far the most ideal spot for camping without a tent. It’s huge, is practically fully covered and has room for plenty of people. Unfortunately for us, when we arrived it was occupied by a group of stargazers. We took the second best option, which is just a little further along. The weather was perfect for our stay with hardly a cloud in the sky so shelter from the rain wasn’t a priority at the time, and we didn’t use sleeping bags. I can’t say with confidence that there is enough cover in the second cave to keep you dry overnight if it rains, so consider taking a tent if the weather report looks a bit iffy.

IMG_0512_1.jpg

IMG_0510_1.jpg

This is the prime real estate of the area, the first cave. Set up camp here first and you’re laughing.

APC_1766.jpg

Our evening was essentially photographing the Milky Way, drinking a little beer and scotch, and chowing down on wedges of cave steak. Pretty manly, eh? Yes it is.

We awoke at around 5am just before sunrise, as the dawn’s light didn’t really give us any option. As I have weak British skin, my kind friends mercifully decided to make a move sooner rather than later to stop my pasty bum getting burnt to a crisp. As expected, we struggled for the first section but once we reached the fishing spot it was plain sailing, as they say.

IMG_0492_1.jpg

Top notch sunrise.

IMG_0514_1.jpg

Handy info:

  • You can catch the train from Taipei to Nan’ao, which takes between 2-3 hours, and runs every 3 hours via the Mountain line or the Coast line trains. It’s $304NTD for the fast train and $234NTD for the slightly slower one.* This website allows you to search for train times, is pretty simple to navigate, and is in English! Woohoo!
  • The bus is a little pointless, as you have to change in Ludong (羅東) to get the train to Nan’ao anyway. If you bloody love buses and insist on doing this, you can get the 1917 or 1915 from Taipei bus station, which takes you to Ludong.
  • If you do plan on cooking, central Nan’ao (by the train station) has a few convenience stores such as Hi-Life and 7-eleven, so you can stop up on supplies there to save you from lugging your body weight in dried noodles and canned beef.
  • The caves are located about 4km south of the road that takes you to the beach (GPS co-ordinates for this road are [24.438332, 121.801142], and GPS co-ordinates for the caves are approximately [24.402575, 121.788924].
    You should either be prepared for a long slog of a beach walk or take a 4×4 vehicle. As you have just read, scooters are possible, but not advisable. If you take a motorcycle like a Sym Wolf or KTR, you might be OK, but don’t say I didn’t warn you…
  • If you do take a scooter/motorcycle, don’t ride on the stones near to the sea, like this idiot. I made the mistake so that you could learn! You’re welcome.
  • Take your bestest camera and tripod to shoot the Milky Way at night. If the sky is clear it really is spectacular.
  • Other essentials: earplugs (the sound of waves crashing is LOUD in the cave), mosquito repellent, drinking water, ground mat, picnic blanket, stove (obviously only if you want to cook), towel (if you want a waterfall shower), and a headlamp or LED light.

*All above info correct as of July 2017. You have my utmost heartfelt apologies if any of it is outdated.

Advertisements

Day Thirteen: Dulan to Hualien

IMG_4634sig.jpg

This morning the jets gave me a more soothing wake up call than I would have received from the Minions bin lorry (or “The Binions” as I’ve just realised I should have called it) that followed around ten minutes afterwards, in all their annoying, fatuous glory.

So onto my route for the day. I couldn’t help researching this one before today as it looked to be one of the most interesting and scenic journeys of the trip. The plan was to head south towards Taitung on the 11 road, then north along the 197 – which looked like 40-50km of mountain road bliss – which eventually joins the mammoth 9 road. Thankfully only briefly, as you can opt for the less direct but far more enjoyable choice of the 193 road, guiding you all the way to Hualien city.

IMG_4624sig.jpg

Taitung (台東), as seen from the southern end of the 197 road.

Several days prior, I had a conversation with one of my friends living in Taipei, whose name will remain anonymous. But he knows exactly who he is. And so will all of my Taiwanese friends reading this by looking at the profile picture below.. We talked about where I’d been so far, most of the places I chose to stop off at he was already familiar with, as that group are avid hikers, and probably know every inch of this island between them. Please observe the following conversation.

maochat

Sounds good eh? Aboriginal tribes, mountain roads, and lush scenery, pretty much everything I’m looking for. I wasn’t so keen on the 11 road, as it has the same view of the ocean for the entire journey and would most likely be full of construction vehicles, trucks and tour buses, as it’s one of the main routes between Hualien and the south. The 197 to 193 route was the obvious winner.

Once I’d reached the 197 the traffic became virtually nonexistent, which wasn’t a bad thing at first. Then I realised that I hadn’t seen another human being for about 30 minutes of riding. Then I noticed that the road surface changed from that of a solid asphalt to loose gravel. Then it became slightly muddy. I kept my confidence by noting that I was – at least – still on the correct route as I continued to ride past ‘197’ road markers, and that I was on a suitable mode of transport: a rugged KTR dirtbike. I’ve seen uncles riding these bad boys up hiking trails with several gas canisters on the back, so I had confidence that it was prepared for a challenge. I remember reaching a point where the road continued to get worse and worse, and my brain had a negative spell once the thought of getting a puncture crossed my mind. I had no repair kit, and hadn’t seen a soul for about 10km. If the worst happened, the bike would have to remain while I went in search of a mechanic by foot. I started to care less about enjoying the quiet mountain countryside views and more about getting back onto solid tarmac and finding some degree of civilisation.

IMG_4626sig.jpg

Another beauty on the way out of Taitung.

I powered along the deteriorating road – incidentally the worst I recall seeing in Taiwan – in the belief that it had to end soon. Well, it got worse before it got better. I turned several corners that had clearly suffered landslide damage; piles of rocks teetered on the edge of a steep cliff drop to the left hand side, which was sporadically marked by temporary (though clearly showed some age) concrete safety barriers. Large chunks of granite littered the road but were only a minor obstacle to be steered around. The real stumbling block was around the next corner, which is probably best described as a 30 metre clay pit. Grey, wet, and appearing to have the consistency of a chocolate mousse, I stopped to think about the best method of crossing. Quickly? Nope. If the bike topples in, I’m in big trouble. Hard to lift out, and I would bet that the clay isn’t good for the exposed engine, and tough to clean afterwards. Slowly then? But maybe I’ll get stuck and the bike will start to sink. Not slowly and not too fast? OK sounds good. Let’s do that.

My main comfort was that I could see car tyre marks from previous visitors of the swamp, but I had no idea when they had been made, and if it had rained since then. I was hopeful that the more narrow weight distribution on a motorcycle wouldn’t be a problem if the clay had been compacted by the last car’s mass. I turned on my Xiaoyi camera to capture the event, as I predicted a lot of swearing and anger being directed at the aforementioned expert of Taiwan for his terrible advice, which I could show to him later. With some careful manoeuvring and the use of my feet as impromptu stabilisers, we managed to brave the metaphorical banana skin with only a caking of dried clay on the bike and my trainers.

claypit

Just. Look. At. That. Shit. Not fun.

Around 15 minutes later, a random road sign appeared on the gravel road, seeming to show different routes at a junction. My first instinct was to laugh. My second thought was that a previous landslide had most likely dramatically altered the landscape, thus calling for a slight re-shuffle of the intersection. All of that was rubbish in the end, as 100m later I finally reached a junction made of my old friend: tarmac.

Overjoyed is too insignificant an adjective to describe my immediate mood. I punched the air, whooped, and even chanted my celebrations. I felt like I was smoothly floating over the road, and leaned into turns with ease. We had reached industrially developed society again! A clear reiteration of that was the appearance of a well placed 7-eleven, where I stopped to have lunch – covered in dust and clay.

IMG_4638sig.jpg

Between there and the 193 road there is a place called Chishang (池上), which has a straight road flanked by rice paddies used for a TV advert or movie or something, and as a result has been firmly placed into the Famous category. The knock on effect is one of the most horrible tourist traps I’ve has the misfortune of seeing in all of Taiwan, and is smothered in tackiness. Loud music blares out at eardrum shattering levels, dozens of pedal rickshaw drivers wait by the barricaded entrance to the road, and hordes of tour groups shuffle up and down the road taking their unique pictures of the famous tree. I’m trying my best not to sound negative about this, but… well, I’ll leave it there. I just don’t understand it. I tried at least to have a ride down the road to see what all the fuss was about, and the swindle of rickshaw drivers (incidentally,  “swindle” is a word of my own invention; the collective noun for rickshaw and taxi drivers) jumped up in unison to tell me that no, I was not allowed down this road on my vehicle. However, if I wanted to hire a bicycle or rickshaw then I was very welcome to try and enjoy myself while attempting not to crash into anyone. I very politely told them that this option did not interest me, and carried on my merry way.

IMG_4635sig.jpg

A road leading away from Chishang (池上). There are a wealth of straight flat roads alongside rice paddies to explore, and all but one are empty!

It didn’t take long before I was on the glorious 193 road which quickly made it into my top two favourite roads in Taiwan. It snakes through rural villages, lazy winding rivers, ramshackle farmhouses, stagnant ponds and is home to many curious locals. Frankly, 90 kilometres of pure joy. The traffic is nonexistent as the vast majority of vehicles want to finish their Taitung – Hualien (or vice versa) journey as soon as possible, so logically choose the faster route 9 or 11. The only other users of this road are locals driving from village to village, or lycra-clad tour bikers. It’s surprisingly well maintained, which I would attribute to its popularity with cyclists, and that if it wasn’t in such a condition it would be avoided (like, oh I don’t know, the 197?) meaning a loss of revenue for the local people. Probably the only drawback would be a minor loss of convenience; you can still buy drinks and whatnot, but I wouldn’t expect the choice of FamilyMart or 7-eleven from the little family-run shacks they have here. Although, the road runs in-between the aforementioned routes 9 and 11, so you are never too far away should you wish to get your favourite Matcha Latte drink.

IMG_4655sig

IMG_4651sig.jpg

IMG_4649sig.jpg

Some snaps from the sticks on the 193 route.

As the sublime 193 came to an end, so too did my luck. Rain started to fall after an entire day’s worth of dry weather, something fairly rare on the east coast. I pulled over to cover my backpack in tarpaulin and replace my trainers with rubber Croc-like shoes which are perfik for riding a motorcycle in the rain, and as I bent over to slip them on my phone slid out of my jacket breast pocket. It hit the road and settled face down. People that have done this before know the awful feeling of not knowing exactly how shattered your phone may or may not be. Schrödinger’s Screen. It is both perfectly fine and completely ruined at that moment. I picked it up and turned it around for inspection, full of hope. Yeah, It was ruined. The impact hit the corner and the cracks spread the whole way up the screen, splintering in the bottom right. It was the final nail in the coffin, and I decided to get a new phone when I returned to Taipei, but for now, thankfully I was on the outskirts of Hualien and it was fairly simple to find my lodgings for the evening without the use of GPS. I reached the hostel at about 18:30 and took a well-earned shower.

My phone buzzes. It’s a text from my mate, you know, the bloke with all the good travel advice? He asks me how I got on. I tell him I hate his guts and will never forgive him. He seems confused. I tell him every detail of my ordeal, and he nonchalantly responds:

“Aww yeah, sorry. It’s not the 197. 193 is the one I meant.”
“…What?!”
“Did you take the 197 then?”
“Yep.”
“Oh I heard that it’s really difficult, like all off-road…”
“…Yep.”
“Dabon (mutual friend) is the only one of the group that has taken that road before, he says it’s horrible.”
“…I will destroy you.”
“The 193 is beautiful though, isn’t it?”

During my rage, one thing distracted me. How the bloody’ell did Dabon get through that clay pit on a scooter? To stop me riding all the way back to Taipei for a fight, I settled down for the evening by listening to whale song on my iPod. Day fourteen was going to be a big one: exploring the colossal Taroko Gorge.