As I traced the short footpath along the coast of tiny Tongpan Island (桶盤嶼) in the South Sea Islands of Penghu, I was finally fulfilling one of my smaller but longest held ambitions. Not that I’d even heard of this little island until I started planning my first (and so far only) trip to the Penghu archipelago, way back in 2002. No, it wasn’t the tiny island in itself that interested me, but rather the amazing rock formations to be found here, and on several other islands in Penghu.
I’ve long known (through photos in various travel books back home in Britain) of the extraordinary natural formations of Fingal’s Cave and the Giant’s Causeway in Scotland and Northern Island respectively. Both places are famous examples of a weird, but completely natural volcanic process, as lava spewing from the Earth cooled rapidly, contracting and cracking as it cools into the many thousands of basalt columns (many of them perfectly hexagonal) seen at those two places today. Both are so extraordinary-looking places that it’s no surprise that they were once thought them to be the work of giants, super-strong Scottish heroes, or perhaps even the Devil.
Far less well-known than these two examples are the many similar sites scattered around the Penghu (澎湖) archipelago here in Taiwan. Some of the archipelago’s most impressive column sites, such as Jishan Island and Bird Island, are remote and uninhabited and can only be reached by hiring your own boat (an expensive proposition unless you have a large group in tow), but several fine examples are within the range of the casual visitor to Penghu. For my money they’re the best reason (apart from the interesting island culture and fantastic beaches on Jibei Island) to go to Penghu in the first place.
The easiest to reach (and most famous) basalt formation on Penghu is the strange natural arch known as the Whale Cave (鯨魚洞) on Xiaomen Isle, a short and easy detour off the solitary highway which links the five main islands at the center of the archipelago, although the columns here are rather crude, and more square than hexagonal. For some much more refined natural basalt sculpture, motor southwards a few kilometers further to the village of Neian (內垵). Daguoye formations on the coast nearby are one of the best areas of basalt cliffs on Penghu reachable by two (or four) wheels. After coming this far (and it’s a long, monotonous drive here from Magong, the main town on Penghu!), take a short detour along local route 5 nearby to pass Mount Niusin (牛心山), a stumpy little dome of a hill crowned with an elaborate flourish of basalt columns that look almost as though they were stacked there by hand, an appearance which perhaps explains its alternative name, Devil’s Mountain.
[My photos of the cliffs (and they are mine, I promise!) were somehow concerted into TIF format, which can’t be loaded directly, so I’ve imported one of them at the bottom of this entry from my collection on Flickr, which does accept Tif files!].
To get a look at the best of Penghu’s amazing geological landscapes, however, you’ll have to take to the waters and explore the outlying islands of the archipelago. Luckily, some of the best basalt scenery to be found in Penghu can be seen by taking one of the daily tourist boats from the harbor at Magong out to the so-called South Sea Islands. Pacific island retreats these windswept, rather barren, grassy islands are definitely not, but they have some jaw-dropping scenery. The main stop on the long (8 hours-plus!) day trip is the beautiful island of Qimei (七美) where basalt column-seekers will want to pay a visit to the impressive Big Stone Lion (巨石獅), a cliff face bristling with fine hexagonal columns. The most impressive sight of the day, however has to be upon landing on tiny Tongpan Island (桶盤嶼), where a surfaced path from the small docking area passes along the foot of a twenty meter-high cliff of perfectly shaped, vertical basalt columns. Eons of weathering in this harsh, exposed environment have softened the edges of the pillars a little, and you’ll be hard-put to find those classic neat hexagon shapes, but the wind, rain and salt water have worked their own magic on the cliffs here, eroding deep cracks into the columns, so that in places they look as if they’ll topple as soon as the next typhoon sweeps past.
Regular daily flights leave from Taipei Songshan Airport for Magong, the main town on Penghu, from where tourist boats leave daily (weather permitting) for day trips to the South Sea Islands, which usually include stops on Qimei, Wangan and Tongpan Islands. Note, however, that most tourist services (including boat trips) are suspended during the winter months. The formations on Tongpan Island are just a few minutes’ walk from the boat docking place; motorbikes can be rented (we needed no ID when we went) easily on both Wangan and Qimei islands, and both are well worth exploring in depth.
There are quite a few books (in Chinese) on Penghu, and an OK website in English with accommodation listings: http://tour.penghu.gov.tw/English/index.asp
For maps, it’s hard to beat the one by Outdoor Life Books Co., Ltd. which covers Penghu, Matsu and Kinmen in one book. The book is part of a series of 17 guides which cover all Taiwan’s counties and outlying islands, and a feature of each is their excellent set of detailed and accurate maps which are great for exploring the back roads by scooter or car, marking loads of intriguing places of interest. The Penghu section of the book has detailed and very accurate maps of all the Penghu islands you’re likely to get to, and all for NT$149. It’s available in most bookshops (look for the bright yellow spines).
A few more photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/29712358@N04/sets/72157620076785358/