As a kid growing up in England I never dreamed I’d end up living in the Far East. In fact I don’t think I ever even thought, as a youth, of visiting the mysterious Orient; poring over books describing the wonders of England and Wales (especially the mountains, waterfalls, lonely moors and (for some reason), prehistoric stone circles of the far-away north provided more than enough to set the imagination of this pre-teenager racing. About the full extent of my exposure to Chinese culture (apart from a tablecloth mum embroidered using the ‘willow pattern’ design she’d traced off a plate) was watching ‘Monkey’ on TV. In those days I had no idea that the series was based on a Chinese classic (Journey to the West), and the mad antics of Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy (quite unlike anything else on TV in the UK at that time) made a bigger impression than the fabulous scenery of the locations, so it was only after my hastily planned arrival in Taiwan in 1993 that I learnt that crazy TV series was based on a great work of art. In the novel, the Water Curtain Cave is the home of the monkey king, Sun Wukong, and this wonderfully evocative name has been adopted at some of the island’s most enchanting waterfalls. ‘Water Curtain Caves’ can be found in Taoyuan, Chiayi, Yunlin, and Hualian counties, but perhaps the most beautiful (and certainly the most mysterious) lies in the hills below the resort of Sitou in the central county of Nantou. Although not far, as the crow flies, from the bamboo forest of Sitou (famously beloved of honeymooning couples) this waterfall takes some determined travelling to reach, and can only be approached from the opposite direction by those with their own wheels. The mini-expedition there starts at the village of Shuili, just south of Sun Moon Lake. Leave the village by route 21 and follow it south for about ten kilometers to the small village of Hsinyi (信義). Turn right here into local route 59. Cross the big bridge and at the junction at its far side, turn left. In another couple of hundred meters turn right just after crossing a much smaller bridge, into a lane following the valley of the Ping Lai Stream (坪瀨溪) on which Water Curtain Cave lies. It’s a narrow lane, so take great care! In about a kilometer, the road zigzags up a steep hillside, high above the stream, and at the final sharp bend there’s a stone sign pointing left, further along the road, to Water Curtain Cave, and right, along a track to a small but fascinating curiosity, the Pinglai peculiar Rock (坪瀨奇景), where a large boulder lies precariously lodged in the top of a narrow cleft. A short path climbs the hillside to the base of the great rock face, and steps cut into the smooth, sloping rock lead up to the great cleft, passing right under the tightly lodged boulder, and emerges at the far side, further up the hillside.
Back on the road nerves of steel are needed if you intend to drive a car further on up the valley. Less daring drivers should park the car in the parking place 500 meters further up the road and walk the remaining three kilometers to the trailhead. At first the tarmac widens and is a relief after the narrow squeeze lower down, but shortly it narrows greatly. Follow the road ahead up the valley at all junctions (most junctions are signposted) and take extreme care in the later stages: this one-lane track is one of the hardest public roads I’ve ever negotiated by car in all Taiwan; there’s hardly enough room for the car to get through, and a sheer drop on the left; pray no one is coming the other way! Finally a walking trail on the right leaves the road, beside a large, colorful map board.
The trail is easy and gentle as it wanders up the valley, passing underneath a fine small waterfall (a mere prelude to greater wonders a little further on) then climbs to cross a suspension bridge spanning a short but awesome canyon cut through the mountains a few hundred meters downstream from the Water Curtain Cave. From here a breathtaking waterfall nearly a hundred meters high can be seen, plunging gracefully over the sheer cliffs of the canyon wall into the main stream below.
Water Curtain Cave is still out of sight, but follow the path over the ridge beyond and down the other side to see the full force of the main stream plunge sixty meters free of the cliff into the canyon.
Apparently monkeys inhabit the lush jungle that cloaks the sides of the gorge here, but the sight of the spectacular fall and an even higher one plunging down the canyon wall opposite make this a place of rare spectacle.
Enjoy the magnificence of the scene and be thankful for the path: until this route was constructed a few years ago, Water Curtain Cave was almost inaccessible, as the only way to its foot of was a dangerous, 3-hour wade up the canyon, with its deep pools and cascades!
Getting there: You’ll need a car or motorbike.
Length: 2 kilometers (there-and-back)
Difficulty: Easy (wide wooden board walks, long, very high suspension bridge, wooden steps; the hardest bit is negotiating the road to the trailhead)
Date of trip: September 2007.