I’ve got a backlog of recent hikes to write-up from the last two weeks (Xiaozukeng Old Trail, Sacred Mother Peak (both fun), Shifen Bat Cave (scary)), but first I had to write about an amazing transformation we experienced today on our hike up Big Sharp Mountain in Xizhi.
It’s a hike I’ve done too many times (it’s in the first TDT book, walk 6) with a long and hard uphill haul at the beginning, but today started well enough with a visit to Dzuhang Tang Temple, with its fine buildings and beautifully tended grounds. This serenely beautiful place is a rare example of a purely Buddhist temple in Taiwan, with not a single flourish of colorful Taoist exuberance or hairy Immortal to be seen.
In a pavilion at the very top of the complex sits the incorruptible body of the deceased monk Dzuhang, whose body remained miraculously preserved five months after burial following his death in 1943. The monk’s remains are now in a glass case, covered in gold leaf and an object of veneration for countless Buddhists.
By happy chance, we found a new short-cut route from the temple across to the road at the start of the climb up Big Sharp Mountain, which chopped off a lot of unnecessary descent and climbing back uphill: a revision for the new edition!
We broke the long climb, as usual, with a side trip to Xiufeng Waterfall, which looked especially lovely today.
From here it’s nearly an hour uphill to the summit of Big Sharp Mountain (大尖山). It was a tad hazy at the top, but the view was splendid as ever, and the clouds looked high, white and quite innocent, and gave no hint of the torrential rain they’d unleash an hour or two later.
From the viewpoint, we continue to climb (Big Sharp Mountain is joined to a higher ridge which rises behind), and with the sun continuing to beat down it’s as hot and sweaty as any hike I’ve done this season.
We reach the highest point of the walk, the Monk’s Head Hill ( 和尚頭山), and turn off onto the trail that will eventually descend to the Chiedong Stream, our way back to Xizhi. We immediately notice this trail is very overgrown: obviously few hikers have been through since the typhoon a few weeks ago and the undergrowth (plus assorted broken branches and other bits of forest) obscure the trail in many places. We also notice the clouds are coming in, and it’s getting foggy and quite gloomy suddenly.
We get down a natural rocky staircase easily enough and gingerly follow the narrow ledge below, perched halfway up the rock face below Monk’s Head Hill, as we hear the first, unmistakable sounds of distant thunder. Down the steep, rope-assisted slope at the end of the rock face, the trail is suddenly hard to trace, and we’re reduced to feeling our way, parting the thick, obscuring undergrowth to check for signs of the trail on the ground below.
We’ve been doing this fairly successfully for maybe ten minutes when the rain begins. For the first minute or so it’s quite light and it seems like we’ll be let off lightly. Then it suddenly starts belting down on us as if we’re in the middle of a typhoon. I struggle to get my waterproof cover on my daypack and get into my rain jacket, but by the time I’m finished my clothes are soaked through, the NT$ bills in my wallet are soggy, and my cellphone is soaked. Later on the train home I make the fatal error of trying to turn it on whilst it’s still wet. It turns on briefly, then dies. It’s still refusing to turn on, and it looks like I’ll need a new phone…!
In maybe ten minutes or so the rain abates a little and now it’s merely pouring down. Progress down this path, which in the past has always been rough but pretty simple to follow is frustratingly slow today since no recent group has been through to cut a way through the thick mat of undergrowth, and in the downpour it’s doubly difficult. Thankfully the trail soon becomes clear once again, and we can concentrate on simply getting to the wider, easier path along the Chiedong Stream without slipping on a rock or tripping over.
The rain starts bucketing down once more as we hear the sound of the Chiedong Stream below. It’s pretty high as we cross it, but this far upstream it’s still only getting started and it’s easy getting across. Our shoes are full of water already anyway, so we just walk straight through, not bothering to try to find stones to step across.
Minor waterfalls are dropping on our heads at intervals as the torrential rain is channeled along rocky overhangs and tree branches hanging above the path. The trail itself, as we get further downstream itself becomes a raging watercourse, even though it’s up on the side of the gorge high above the level of the stream, which is a furious, exhilarating tumult of pale brown water. In a few places we have to climb down small ‘waterfalls’ as the path drops over small rocky pitches in its effort to keep close to the rapidly descending stream.
By the time we get to the first waterfall (normally a delicate, frail beauty spilling over a sloping face of rock eroded into countless horizontal ‘wrinkles’, which in normal weather gives the cascade a particularly beautiful appearance), a couple of major tributaries have joined the main stream, which is now quite unrecognizable. At one point the path descends to the riverbed to follow the rocky ledges (usually dry) beside the tumbling stream for a spell. In less than an hour of rain the route has become submerged under fast-flowing water that came up to our shins. Luckily it was a short wade, and we kept our footing!
Today it’s hard to recognize the sequence of small falls that follows – familiar friends on previous visits – as they’ve suddenly become raging torrents. Most astonishing of all though are the Chiedong Waterfalls (茄苳瀑布) themselves at the bottom of the series, a connected sequence of three drops which normally look graceful and gentle. In barely an hour since the rain has started they have totally transformed into an exhilarating but scary torrent of awesome power. The path which crosses the stream below the lowest fall by stepping stones is completely submerged, and it would have been suicide to attempt to cross today. With the road now in sight just below, it’s a relief to find we can climb from the path down the side of the valley, and then edge along the bank of the stream to reach the road.
News of flash floods crops up on the local news from time-to-time, and I once saw the effects of one first hand during a visit to a waterfall in Chiayi County when a fisherman got stranded in the middle of a river- torrent when a flash flood hit (he was later rescued by rope), but in all my years of hiking I’ve never before experienced how extremely suddenly they strike, and almost completely without warning. It was quite an awesome phenomenon, and I suppose today’s would count as a fairly minor example. It’s a slightly scary experience in a way, but also an extraordinarily exhilarating one (certainly worth losing a cellphone for), and one to add, alongside the day I was nearly benighted in the mountains, to my disappointingly small catalogue of exciting hiker’s tales.
Getting there: Visiting Chiedong Waterfall when in flood is safe enough if you stay at the bottom (and very impressive too!), as it can be seen by walking just a couple of easy meters up the riverbank from the minor road below, but I wouldn’t go any further upstream (if I had a choice a choice) as the trail is definitely not safe in high water conditions! This entire hike is described in Taipei Day trips 1 (page 53).