Slate Houses and Mud Rivers

A Nature Experience Tour in Central Taiwan
By Nathan Godolphin

Bounding down the hill, a little brown sausage dog tangled among the legs of running children. As it happily fell over itself, they shouted to each other and waved arms before scooping the puppy up to safety. We were on foot and the playfulness of these local kids somehow symbolized our arrival at Bakurasu, an indigenous village in the foothills of central Taiwan’s mountainous Nantou County. Here, on a recent nature-discovery tour, we were going to see remnants of the Bunun tribe's traditional way of life and enjoy two days near the broad, silted Jhuoshuei River, surrounded by dense vegetation and pristine landscapes. Meeting the rest of our tour group at 6 am on a Saturday morning, it certainly was an early start. But we were out of Taipei in what seemed like no time, thanks to a leathery-smooth, air-conditioned ride. We journeyed through northern Taiwan under the shifting morning light, which cast a wonderful, sleepy hue over everything.
Being on a Mandarin-speaking tour, Sunny, my travel companion, kindly and patiently translated for me throughout the trip. Our driver and guide, Jason, was keen to keep us all well informed. In his joking way, he proudly proclaimed that he could talk ceaselessly throughout the entire trip. Luckily, however, he was open to our protests and soon stopped. We were allowed to seep into our own thoughts for a few moments, before the pop-music-playing TV was switched on.
This trip was, after all, an organized tour. There were perhaps 20 of us altogether, spread out over a couple of vehicles. It may seem somewhat contradictory to find a nature tourist traveling in a crowd of people. And yet, for a quick weekend getaway, it was both a necessary and pleasant compromise. We weren't going to a place close to a train or bus station, but into the mountains. There was no easier way. I was happy to be on a bus with a great crowd of Taiwanese folk, and I found that, later on, there was space to quietly retreat and reflect.
As we neared our destination, we headed through plantations of tall betel-nut trees, past expanses of broad riverbeds, and by verdant mountains towering in the near distance. Further away were higher mountains in lighter shades. Fluffy white clouds accompanied brilliant sunshine and saturated-blue skies.

That's what a nature tour is all about... making simple connections, being gently reminded of our roots

The roads became bumpier and increasingly less road-like, and aaccording to plan we changed to smaller vehicles. We stopped to view Mt. Gugu, admiring the river wrapping itself around the mountain's base in a sweeping U-turn. Continuing our journey, the views out the windows were spectacular. We craned our necks to see the interlocking spurs and felt the fresh mountain air seeping into our air-conditioned space.

The abundance of Bakurasu's nature was evident as we stepped out into it. Big, colorful butterflies, a bees' nest and seed pods - all sorts of things to catch the eye. I laid my hands on soft brown grasses, eyes blinded by the bright light of the sun. "This leaf is this, that building is that...," and all of it so very interesting. Then Sunny handed me something special. "Lemongrass," she said. I sniffed it and instantly thought, "that's what a nature tour is all about." Walking peacefully through nature, making simple connections, being gently reminded of our roots. Lemongrass...is grass! It smells like...lemon! Tangible to the senses, it was wonderful, pure and simple.
The area had a welcoming and laid-back feel. The aboriginal-style board houses where we were going to spend the night were certainly much more than huts, but nevertheless seemed to fit the landscape. The facilities were simple but sufficient, with running water and hot showers.

Flowing with the experience, I felt all was organized perfectly. Our first activity, after arriving and settling in, consisted of walking up one of the nearby river's mountainside channels. Squelching along in our wetsuit boots, we were soon immersed in the cold, flowing water, then playfully instructed to sit down, taking away any hope of keeping even partly dry. When we weren't wet anyway, human-induced splashes seemed to come from all directions. We climbed up slippery rocks as the crystal-white waters crashed down over us.
It actually felt like quite an achievement to complete the walk - in some areas, we really did have to be careful to ensure we always kept three points of contact on the rocks.
Our group quickly bonded, each of us lending a hand, helping to haul one another up. We went over steep and flat areas, with interesting ecological observations all the way up. One of many examples were sections of plant stem you could pull apart and stick back together in different orders, almost like a kid’s toy. At a waterfall, a few of us perched precariously on what just about passed as a ledge. I stretched my hands out to feel the water’s power, and they juddered as though hit with the force of electric bolts.
After being in the water, my T-shirt sagging with its weight, the emanating warmth of the earth was wonderful. We walked up over vegetated land, back to the buildings, wet but happy. After a short rest we left again to find some "lucky stones" - pieces of flat, smooth, and rounded gray slate with holes in them. Apparently, these stones were once used as money by the local indigenous people. The river-smoothed slate can be found all over the main riverbed, which is lined with gray dust and mud. The local indigenous people have long been using this slate to build houses with 60cm-thick walls, many of which can still be found.

At the river, channels with deceptively strong currents gushed gray, muddy water downstream and into our boots. In we went, negotiating these channels in lines, holding our strength in numbers, arm in arm. Hopping up a bank and moving along a jungled path we came to a hut-like building, pleasantly shady inside. A 70-year-old man living there invited us in. This was his third wooden house. It was amazing to hear that two houses had rotted in his lifetime. Sitting below a big mushroom on a shelf behind him, he began an attempt to get me plastered with a strong alcoholic drink made from a herb he picks in the surrounding area. We had thumb cup after thumb cup, but I politely declined after about five of them. He offered lychees and opened up a big plastic drum of nuts for us all to enjoy. As we drank, he toasted us with "I love you," as he apparently does with all his English-speaking visitors.
We continued, crossing the river again at a later point, only four of us this time, which was more of a challenge. The currents pulling at our feet, we were a little worried about our cameras. But we crossed safely, the water just below our waists. Now, the group dispersed further. It became ever more relaxed, with mountains all around the sounds of the river. We walked, paddled, stopped, stared, sat, played with stones, and enjoyed taking a few more photos.
On our way back, Sunny and I got a bit lost. We climbed up a bank and came across a group of aboriginal people, fat-bellied and smiling, barbecuing what looked like big pork ribs. They pointed us to a path, along which we encountered two more aboriginal strangers, who laughingly offered us some "Taiwan chewing gum" (betel nut).
For dinner we ate various vegetable and plant-based dishes,
and delicious barbecued wild boar from the mountains. A mantis flew around and landed under our shelter as we were watching a slideshow.
Lots of eyes were on lots of pictures
of plants and bugs. People were quietly talking amidst the periodic chirps of unseen insects.
Tired but eager, a few of us went on a night-observation tour and spotted a few frogs and giant snails. No wild boars. Back at base, I sat, with dying embers glowing across
my face. Sunny and I chatted by
the fire until we decided to call it a night. It was nice to sleep in the silence of the mountains, in a partly slate-walled room.

I splashed, relaxed, and leaned back, seeing the mountains upside down

Next day, we were given more information about various plants, stopping here and there as we walked along. There were pretty flowers to feed pigs, and tree leaves that make excellent snacks. I tried a red and green stalk that tasted sour and even munched away on a cinnamon leaf before realizing what it was, knowing the flavor before the name came to me. It's remarkable how removed we are from this unprocessed nature - from our true nature - and how refreshing it is to get back to it.
Next up was "lazy river tubing," a great activity. I splashed, relaxed, and leaned back, seeing the mountains upside down. We all went to a waterfall pool, where a large number of butterflies fluttered their wings, resting against the warming rock. Being held under the crashing waterfall atop my floating tube was like a benediction.
On the walk back, we painted gray mud on our faces - and as these things usually go, on each other. I even sported a mud-made bikini, until I had the chance to sit in a stream and wash it off. We enjoyed another delicious and plentiful lunch before showering and heading back to Taipei with rejuvenated bodies, minds and newfound friends.

Immersed in the bounteous gifts of nature, it struck me that we need to breathe in the pure air from time to time to realize how amazing it is. Yes, we need to stop destroying our planet, but we also need to know why. That means being aware that nature is not just "out there," but also within ourselves. Leaves and plants and huts on hills are the roots our souls yearn to go back to. Living in unadulterated nature, or even just visiting from time to time, is about recognizing the essence of your humanity and learning to become whole again.
Taiwan has an abundance of nature to explore, and it really is about making the effort to get out there. Being well-organized, however, this trip required minimal effort and took us to the natural beauty of secluded mountains. Beyond day-trip limitations of time and distance, it provided a different feeling altogether. This was one of the best weekends I've ever had and the most connected to nature I've felt in a while. It truly was an insight into a potentially new, yet timelessly old, way of living.

Bakurasu Tour Info
Organizer: Ye-Yan In-Depth Travel
Taipei Office: 190 Shida Rd., Taipei City
Reservation Hotline (02) 2597-6765
Fax: (02) 2861-6365
E-Mail: online0811@yahoo.com.tw

Website: www.141travel.com.tw/travel/farm/e_frameset_BaKuRaSu.htm


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