Following the Tide
Sea Kayaking along the North Coast By Phil Dawson|
Almost everywhere in Taiwan you will find breathtaking scenery, but perhaps the views that leave the deepest impression on visitors are those of the majestic, dramatic coastline. And what better way to take in all the splendor of the most awe-inspiring sections, characterized by picturesque cliffs and bluffs, than from the (somewhat) comfortable seat of a kayak!
There is a multitude of places to kayak in Taiwan, from calm lakes and rivers to fast-flowing mountain streams and, of course, the vast ocean that surrounds this island. Being a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I decided to choose the latter for my most recent kayak trip, and I knew exactly where I wanted to go – the enchanting North Coast and Guanyinshan National Scenic Area (www.northguan-nsa.gov.tw).
The island of Taiwan lies in a complex tectonic region, the reason for the unique geological formations to be found here. The national scenic area is a great place to go on a geology exploration tour. Here you find a set of terranes that were pushed up when tectonic plates in the region collided, thus creating mountains and vast, sheer cliffs that are a prominent feature of the coastline today. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this area of Taiwan is the incredible diversity of landforms that exist in such a small area. Golden, sandy beaches, spectacular reefs, rocks and caves artfully shaped by sea-erosion, and steep cliffs and undercut bluffs are just a few of the plethora of spectacles to be witnessed here.
This was to be my first kayak trip on the sea in about ten years, so I was feeling pretty nervous when I met up with my guide for the first time, Lorry Chen of the Taiwan Kayak Association. He soon put me at ease, however, and was a fantastic help, both in preparing the trip and assisting during the actual trip itself. My previous kayaking experience was back in the UK; when I was working as a lifeguard we often took kayaks out into the North Sea for training. Memories flooded back of 6-foot waves crashing around me as my craft overturned in the surf, and me panicking as the ice-cold waters took my breath away. Lorry laughed when I told him about it, and he then assured me that safety was his number one priority and that we wouldn't be going out unless it was safe – and he promised that the Pacific Ocean would be a lot warmer if, against all odds, we should indeed tip over.
Golden, sandy beaches, spectacular reefs, rocks and caves artfully shaped by sea erosion, as well as steep cliffs and undercut bluffs, are all to be witnessed here
On the day of the trip I woke up at 6am to bright sunshine and pleasant, refreshing breezes, and set off on my motorbike to get to the coast. In fact, from Taipei City it is perhaps quicker to drive by car or take the railway to Keelung and then a bus from there to the coast, but for me riding over the mountains of Yangmingshan National Park, on the city’s north side, on a beautiful Sunday morning was an opportunity not to be missed. It is about an hour from Taipei City to Wanli Township on the coast, and it’s truly an awe-inspiring trip. The road winds through lush green mountains and deep valleys peppered with meandering, and sometimes hurtling, crystal-clear streams. When I arrived at Wanli there was just enough time to refuel (gas for my bike, black coffee for me) before going to meet Lorry and the rest of the group at the beach.
There were about twenty-five kayaks in our group, a mixture of single and tandem sea kayaks, and we split up into groups of five to make it easier to keep track of everyone. I was to ride in a tandem kayak with my partner for the day, Steve, a very experienced kayaker who introduced his craft and gave me a safety briefing. I put on my life-jacket and dive boots, and covered any exposed areas of skin with layer after layer of sun cream, before getting into the kayak. At only 50cm wide, it was hard to believe how steady it was in the water and how incredibly well-balanced. Not once during the trip did I feel like we would overturn.
The trip started at a nice, relaxed pace as Steve and I, after taking to the water first, waited for the rest of our team to catch up with us. We then discussed the route we were about to take, about 15km of paddling in total broken up into two sections. We decided to paddle to Yeliu Geopark first and, after resting there for a while, get back into the kayaks and head to Jinshan further northwest along the coast.
When kayaking in the ocean it is important to pay attention to the tides. If you try paddling against the tide you are not only increasing the amount of work you need to do, but could be doubling the length of time your trip will take as well. When the tide comes in around Wanli the water will move to the northwest, towards Taiwan’s northernmost tip. Our timing was perfect. We departed during incoming tide and were thus able to take full advantage of the current on our journey north.
Steve and I were chatting away as we paddled over the calm ocean, and I was just starting to relax and enjoy the sun rays beating down on my arms while photographing the enchanting rock formations around Yeliu Cape, when suddenly Steve's radio crackled into life. I heard Lorry's voice excitedly telling everyone to be careful as we navigated around the cape because the swell was a lot bigger there. Adrenaline started to flow through my veins, and within a minute our kayak was being heaved up and down as we rode over the waves towards the other side of the cape. Despite the pummeling we were taking the kayak remained remarkably stable, and I was able to really enjoy the challenge of fighting through the swell. The kayak cut through the waves with ease, the bow slicing through them and sending the warm, salty water gushing over my face and body. As we reached the other side everyone breathed a sigh of relief; I was beaming with joy, my initial apprehension washed away as the waves were breaking over me. I couldn't wait for the next cape!
We paddled the kayaks safely to shore at Yeliu Geopark and joined the excited crowds of photographers and tourists already exploring this bizarre and intriguing place. Yeliu Cape stretches out 1.7km into the ocean like a giant turtle about to submerge itself. The cape is a fascinating area for geological research, but is also a wonderful place for a layman, like myself, just to look around. The rocks here contain substantial amounts of limestone, which makes them particularly susceptible to erosion and weathering. As a result the cape is brimming with remarkable features such as natural potholes, rocks shaped like tofu and – most famously – the eye-catching Queen’s Rock, named because of its resemblance to the head of ancient Egypt's Queen Nefertiti. Of particular interest to me was being able to spot more of the honeycomb rocks that I have seen many times when hiking around the island. These formations are most commonly seen near the ocean, but in Taiwan one can often find them far inland, evidence that the island’s land was once entirely submerged under the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Even though I have visited Yeliu on many occasions, I still found myself hopping eagerly around the rocks, eyes wide, with my camera clicking incessantly.
Our time at Yeliu ended all too soon, for we still had a fair few kilometers to paddle to reach Jinshan. The final section was a long, straight paddle and the gentle bobbing of the ocean began to take its toll on my stomach; I finally began to feel some of the seasickness I had been warned about. Fortunately the waves of unease did not last long, and not long after we reached the shore in good spirits at Jinshan. Physically fatigued but with spirit soaring, I landed on the beach with every intention of collapsing for a rest – until I realized that we still had to haul the kayaks 500 meters up the beach to the cars! Summoning what little energy I had, I picked up the kayak and virtually crawled through the warm, soft sand to the top of the beach. Then Lorry, being fantastic as ever, brought over a cool beer, and we celebrated what had been a most successful and entertaining excursion.