I’ve lived in Taiwan (apart from an eighteen month hiatus around the Millennium) for exactly twenty years this month (June 2013), yet in all that time have only been to the Kenting area once, about a decade ago. Finally I paid a repeat visit last weekend when a group of us zoomed down there by HSR for a weekend exploring. Local guidebooks suggest that there’s more to the area than the famous beaches (which I still don’t think are that great) and the party atmosphere (which is admittedly a lot of fun), but it was only on this second trip that I realised just HOW much there is to see, do and experience around Taiwan’s southernmost tip.
Here are seven sights within a short(ish) scooter’s ride of the party strip that are guaranteed to change anyone’s view of this well-loved but under appreciated corner of Taiwan. A couple are already firmly on the (local) tourist trail, but the others are still an open secret guarded by those in the know. The most astonishing of all – Big Sharp Stone Mountain – is an inescapable landmark from almost anywhere around Kenting, but few actually climb it because the trail is hard to find. Climbing to the summit of Kenting’s most memorable landmark (which lies on private land) is also technically illegal (although when that stop people doing anything in Taiwan?) and fairly hard, vertiginous work, so consider if you want to risk it before going. If you make it to the top though, the panoramic view over Taiwan’s southernmost tip is unequalled.
1. Big Sharp Stone Mountain (大尖石山)
If you’ve been to Kenting, you’ll doubtless have been fascinated by this extraordinary cockscomb of rock sticking out of the otherwise gently rounded hills just inland from the tourist strip. It’s an impressive sight from whichever angle you view if from, but is at its pointy best from the road leading south from Kenting’s tourist ghetto towards Eluanbi, Taiwan’s southernmost point.
From many angles the summit, bounded on most sides by sheer cliffs, looks impossible to climb, but there is a way up. Unfortunately the peak lies on private farm land (the surrounding grasslands are used for grazing cattle) and plenty of signs warn visitors to keep out. A trickle of hikers still climb the peak, despite the threats, but the trail is unmarked and impossible to find without a good map or directions. It’s also very overgrown (nasty prickle bushes in particular are a real pain here, literally) and definitely only for those with a good head for heights and experience in climbing steep rocky cliffs (with fixed ropes). The cliffs are no harder than the harder climbs in the Taipei area (the Mount Nangang cliff in the Four Beasts Mountains in Taipei City and Zhongyang Point near Pingxi for instance), but if you attempt it, definitely avoid the summer, when it’s baking up there!
If the pull of the peak’s steep, steep profile overcomes good sense and you do decide to climb, you need to take Gongyuan Road (公園路), at the northern edge of Kenting’s tourist strip (near McDonald’s) through the old ticket gate and towards Kenting Forest Recreation Area, then, at the first big bend (in about 500 meters), turn left along a narrower road (Daxi Lane; 大溪巷) heading northwest, with the cliff-lined southwest face of Big Sharp Stone Mountain looming above. The countryside here, just five minutes from Kenting’s tourist ground zero, is a startlingly different, pastoral landscape of grassy meadows that’s worth enjoying even if you don’t plan to climb.
Follow this road for about a kilometer and on the right there’s a small surfaced track closed with a gate and (a real giveaway this) a big sign saying (basically) DO NOT ENTER. Climb over the gate and follow the track passing a small aerial up on the right. The track soon becomes grassy, and is less distinct, but basically head towards the left face of Big Sharp Stone Mountain. It’s this face (the northwest side) that provides the only way up the peak. You’ll soon pass a small pond; head straight towards the face ahead, and the way up will be clear – it’s the only place where there’s a gap in the otherwise sheer cliffs. Occasional plastic trail ribbons now mark the overgrown trail – take long pants (and long sleeves as well if poss) as the thorns here are vicious and you’ll get cut to pieces if you go in shorts.
After about ten minutes’ climb, the undergrowth thins out and the path climbs steeply up a ravine between the sheer cliffs, soon reaching the first of several rock faces. This is nearly sheer, but has good footholds and is OK; a second pitch above is awkward, so take great care and don’t put all your weight on the rope, which may be frayed (the last foot of the rope here broke off in my hand on my way back down – luckily I was almost at the bottom of the pitch and just scraped a hand a bit). At the top of this cliff the view opens out, and it you’re almost on the ridge. After a short, overgrown walk along the cliff edge, another rope leads up a smaller but very awkward rock face with a rock jutting out, which makes for a tricky climb. My legs were already knocking with fear from the scary climb this far, and I called it a day here, while only two hardier members of our little party continued to the summit itself, which is apparently very close, but extremely slow going, since the trail is overgrown with prickle bushes. In any event, the view from the top of the second pitch was magnificent, and the scenery about as magnificently rocky and rugged as any lower altitude spot I know in Taiwan, plus the feeling of getting (nearly) to the top of one of Taiwan’s most memorably sharp peaks is priceless.
2. Kenting National Forest Recreation Area (墾丁森林遊樂區)
Kenting is well-known for the beauty of the coral formations around the coast both under the sea and above it (the Sailboat Rock for instance), but perhaps its most remarkable coral landscape is a kilometer or two inland from the tourist town, at the so-called Kenting Forest Recreation Area. This place is popular with local tourists, although many foreigners are put off by the rather steep entry fee (NT$150). It’s worth paying up though to enjoy several things you’ll see nowhere else in Taiwan.
The National Forest Recreation Area is divided into two quite different halves. After entering and walking along the access road from the entrance into the park (admiring the huge, gnarled old tree on the right about halfway along and looking out for Formosan Macaques which live in the trees here), ignore the botanical garden area on the left unless you have plenty of time or love these kind of places, and concentrate on the natural half of the park. The wide concrete tracks soon narrow to something a bit less ugly and intrusive, and a network of paths wind through a landscape of uplifted coral formations clothed with a dense canopy of trees (many growing straight out of the coral). A pair of deep narrow clefts through the coral are quite impressive, but the highlight of the area is the pair of stalactite caves on the route. The Fairy Cave (仙洞) is supposedly the largest of its kind in Taiwan. No doubt bigger ones are known to local cavers, but this is certainly the biggest stalactite cave on the island open to the general public. A path threads through the cave, entering at one end and eventually emerging from another, and it’s a very memorable place, even if (like most of us) you’ve visited far bigger and greater show caves elsewhere in the world. Much smaller, but more claustrophobic and atmospheric, the Silver Dragon Cave (銀龍洞) is a long, narrow tunnel lined with beautiful white flowstone formations which all but cover the walls of the cave. The third cave in the park (the Stalactite Cave), in the Botanical Garden half of the recreation area), is much smaller than the other two, and has a single, large cluster of formations stretching from the ceiling of the cave’s single small chamber to its floor, but it’s covered with a wire cage, presumably to stop visitors touching, engraving their names in or even breaking off the formations, although it ruins the beauty of the place.
Despite the admission charge, Kenting National Forest Recreation Area is popular with tourists. We entered shortly before it closed at 5 pm, and even on a Saturday we had the whole park basically to ourselves. The cave lights were still on when we left around dusk just before seven, and the whole place was magical.
3. Sheding Park (社頂自然公園)
Sheding Nature Park is basically more of the same – magnificent, largely untouched coral formations covered in gnarled old trees. Unfortunately there are no caves here (or at least no accessible ones) but instead the two gorges here are bigger and more impressive than the clefts at the Forest Recreation Area a few minutes’ drive away, and several spots offer panoramic views over the peninsula and the ocean. The paths also are much less intrusive, often natural dirt, and there’s no admission fee. Go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds and it’s an extraordinary landscape to explore.
4. Hengchun Old Town and City Walls (恆春古地)
The southernmost town in Taiwan has been synonymous since 2008 with the hit Taiwanese film Cape Number Seven (much of the film was shot here), and to this day you’ll see young, fashionable types following maps showing the places used as film sets in the movie and getting photos of themselves snapped in front of them. Hengchun is a relatively old town, and has some interesting old buildings (and lots of good food) but its single most interesting feature is the Town Wall, the most complete surviving town wall in Taiwan.
Hengchun was once encircled by this sturdy wall, and was accessed through four gates, one at each of the four cardinal points. All four gates (in varying degrees of restoration) survive, and while the foundation of the wall can be seen in several other places, the finest surviving section of the wall is a magnificent red-brick structure stretching several hundred meters on either side of the East Gate, along which it’s possible to walk, and which give the town a real sense of history, despite the fact that they were built only in the 1870s.
5. Hengchun Eternal Flame (Chuhuo; 出火)
One of Taiwan’s more bizarre (and rare) natural phenomenon is its series of natural ‘eternal flames’; natural gas rising through cracks in the mudstone and igniting when it reaches the surface. The gas comes from deposits of shale, which are common in southern Taiwan. The high temperature of the bed rock (hardly surprising, considering Taiwan’s geographical position on the Ring of Fire) helps break down the large carbon molecules in the shale, creating smaller molecules of natural gas which then rise through cracks in the rock to the surface, where they can be ignited.
The number of (known) natural eternal flames in the world have been estimated at only a couple of hundred, of which a number can be found in Taiwan. Among others, there’s one near Zhongxing (中興) village in Miaoli County (not far from the strawberry-growing town of Dahu), another near the aboriginal settlement of Chashan (茶山) in Chiayi County, and one just above the hot spring village of Baolai (寶來) in Kaohsiung County. Best-known by far but rather disappointing is the Fire Water Cave (水火洞) at Guangziling in Tainan, which isn’t a cave at all, and lies beside a road. There was once even one near Taipei – in the hills above Tucheng at the western end of the blue MRT line, but sadly that was buried by a landslide several decades ago, and now only an info board near the site remains to show where this strange phenomenon was once found.
None of these (all of which I’ve seen) are as interesting however as the eternal flame at Hengchun, which has become quite popular in recent years, and now attracts a steady stream of people throughout the day. For the best effect, go after dark, when this place is quite magical. On weekends (and possibly during the week too) you’re unlikely to have the place to yourself, and will probably find people playing with sparklers lit from the natural flames or trying (often unsuccessfully) to pop corn (both can be bought from vendors at the car park). None of this spoils the strange allure of the place though, which lies a few minutes off the road and has so far been little developed, aside from a low barrier surrounding the gas outlets, which everyone steps over regardless. It’s only 15-20 minutes’ drive from the pubs, so a night-time visit it won’t eat into the evening’s entertainments too much, but be warned: seeing flames emerging spookily from a patch of crumbly, earth is oddly compelling – we stayed for over an hour watching them.
6. Qikong Waterfall (七孔瀑布)
There are only a couple of waterfalls in southern Pingtong County (the highest and most spectacular – Yuanyang, Neishi, Liangshan, and Dajin waterfalls among others) are all in the north of the county, but the string of seven-or-so Qikong Waterfalls, although small, feature several deep pools that are a perfect place to beat the summer heat. A shuttle bus from Kenting is supposed to run near the falls, but you really need to rent a scooter to get there. Drive up to Hengchun, turn east along county road 200 (the road that passes Chuhuo Eternal Flame) and then turn left about 4 kilometres after that onto a narrow lane (there is a small signpost to the waterfalls in Chinese). The road isn’t in a great state of repair, but in about 5 minutes, it passes through a long-abandoned ticket gate (you once had to pay to go to the waterfalls!) and ends at the stream just below the waterfalls. Currently there’s some major construction work going on to sure-up the steep banks of the stream against typhoon damage, and the stream now runs through an ugly man-made channel bordered with large boulders. Follow the right bank of the stream up past this ugly mess, and the lowest waterfall is just 5 minutes upstream, unluckily above all the work and untouched. The trail heads straight up (with the aid of fixed ropes) beside the waterfall, and it’s a steep but easy and exhilarating climb up right beside the series of linked waterfalls almost all the way. Ropes make getting down to several of the most inviting pools simple, and they’re deep! The best is below the third or fourth waterfall, which has hollowed a deep punchbowl out of the rock, before immediately spilling over the lip of the next cascade.
If planning on swimming here on a summer Sunday, it’s well worth heading out in the morning, when most others will be still asleep. We had the waterfalls (and pools) completely to ourselves at 10 am on a hot Sunday morning, but on our way down an hour later we passed several groups heading up the approach road, doubtless heading up there for a swim.
7. Cacevakan Prehistoric Site (Cacevakan 神祕石板屋遺址)
The name of this place, in the hills above county route 170 about 4 kilometres south of Mudan Reservoir, is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s not prehistoric at all, but it’s still a fascinating and very atmospheric spot. It’s actually an old, long abandoned settlement of Paiwan aborigines, with a history of about 600 years, and is considered the ancestral birthplace of the southern Paiwan.
The trailhead is clearly marked near the 4 kilometer marker of route 170 (an hour to 90 minutes’ drive from Kenting), and the trail (15-20 minutes each way) climbs through thick jungle to the atmospheric ruins of the village, half concealed in the jungle. The village is in a far more ruinous state than the more famous stone-slab houses of the ancestral birthplace of the Rukai tribe at Jiuhaocha in the north of Pingdong County (a place I’m determined to visit later this year), but Cacevakan is also far easier to visit (getting to Jiuhaocha involves a day’s walk along rough trails, and spending a night in the abandoned village).