Pingtung: Expect the Unexpected (Part two of two)

If you haven’t read part one yet,  read that first.

Kenting’s position at the tapered tip of Taiwan island means that unlike most elsewhere in Taiwan (where getting lost might lead to a quick life ending or lengthy life changing experience), this far south most sensible hikers should be able to find their way within sight distance of either the Taiwan Strait or the Pacific Ocean within a few hours of hiking in any direction but due north. Once we’d left the cars behind, Misalu’s choice of footwear made perfect sense, as we found ourselves walking through a high plain grassland, dry in some places and muddy in others. (Read more: Kenting? Ken Do! – Surf and Turf Eco-Fun in Taiwan’s Deep Tropical South)

“We will not walk too far,” Misalu said. “Only to the edge of Taiwan, that’s all!”

We hiked along the windswept grassland that could have passed for the Scottish Highlands, save perhaps for the large patches of tropical jungle plants with thick, saw-toothed leaves. The rest of the group seemed to be enjoying themselves, though some of them were clearly wishing they could trade their fashionable footwear for Misalu’s Wellingtons, image be damned.

At one point we passed through a small wooded area, and Misalu stopped suddenly, tentatively sniffing the air. A second later I caught whiff of something cloying, nauseating. Misalu pointed to a medium-sized deer lying in a heap in a clearing, covered in flies but barely decomposed.

“A wild dog, maybe a few.” Misalu said after examining it from a distance. “I can see bite marks.”

“Why didn’t they eat it?” I asked.

“They killed it for fun,” he answered.

Nature is not benign.

Our hike continues for another 90 minutes from grassland to jungle hill (a trek requiring judicious machete use) and finally to a point which I could have sworn Misalu described as a place where people had come both to enjoy beauty and to end their own lives. The wind was howling, and I assumed I’d misheard until I saw the place that Misalu had brought us was a mountain cliff over which a long rock shaped like a surfboard and only somewhat larger jutted out over a sheer drop of at least a hundred feet as gale force winds ripped in from the nearby Pacific.

Misalu hung back, knowing well the folly of needless risk-taking (see above: Nature is not benign). The rest of the group, being millennials, did what millennials do – they all took turns taking selfies of themselves standing as close to the edge as they dared.

I didn’t join them with the selfie taking, because I am a Generation Xer, and in any event risk averse when it comes to heights.

Leaving the windy heights behind, we walked to the sea (where a van and driver were miraculously waiting) and headed to Hengchuan, where a welcoming hostel, pizza and Mojito awaited.

Though normally averse to hostels (subtext: I am too old for hostels, and stayed in more than my share while researching Lonely Planet guides), I loved this place.

Over pizza and Mojito, the owner described his concept to me, and it suddenly all made sense. His original plan had been to open a capsule hotel, but after visiting a few other capsule hotels he realized that the concept wasn’t a match for the restored century-old brick building he already owned. His solution was to create a hostel with individual tipi “camping capsules”, and thus Campsule was born. You can find the Facebook page for the bar and restaurant on the first floor (from where the excellent pizza and astoundingly good Mojito had come) here. Though I’m slightly confused as to whether the place’s name is Cafe1918, CreditUnionBase or 30M Bar (I have reasons to suspect it might be all three), the fact that the pizza was excellent, and the Mojito (a grape Mojito at that) was mind-bendingly good and strong is totally not in question.

Maybe it was exhaustion from the day, or the strange juxtaposition of sleeping in a tipi with a laptop charging station. Perhaps it was the mojito. At any rate, I slept well and woke early the next day to a breakfast of strong coffee, spirulina smoothie, and (in keeping with the place’s Southwest vibe) a breakfast burrito.

Hengchuan is a pretty, colorful town, and remnants of the city wall that once surrounded the small city still stand. Had it been up to me, I’d have done the expected thing and spent the morning exploring the town, then headed over to the beach at Kenting before declaring the experience done.

But as is often the case with planned group activities, it wasn’t up to me, and this story will probably be the better for it.

After leaving Hengchuan, we headed not south to Kenting, but east to a small spot in Manzhou township known generally to surfers and tea lovers. The former group come to Manzhou to catch the waves (unlike Kenting, Manzhou faces the Pacific), while the latter group come to buy a variety of tea called Gankou cha, which is unusual in that it’s the only tea in Taiwan grown next to the ocean. Salt air and unique soil conditions give the tea a peculiar earthy taste and a higher than normal caffeine content, and as we sip our own gankou tea, the farmer leading the tour cautions us against drinking Gankou cha too late in the day.

We lunched in Manzhou at a tiny restaurant that if the menu featuring burgers and fried chicken, fruit smoothies and beer was anything to go by, was more geared towards the surf crowd than visiting tea aficionados. Afterwards, we headed across the mountains to the final destination (and last surprise) of the trip.

Having visited beach and jungle, mountain and grassland, it seemed natural that our last stop on the trip would bring us to a desert, or at least the closest thing to a desert that Taiwan (an island not generally associated with that distinctively dry environment) has to offer. The Jiupeng desert is actually a vast expanse of sand dunes stretching pretty much as far as the eye can see in a sparsely populated part of Pingtung coast roughly halfway up the county’s eastern edge. As we got closer to the dunes, I found myself wondering why the group had been brought to this particularly remote corner of the county.

It was then that I spotted them in a distance; half a dozen tiny, fast moving objects racing Mad Max like across the sands. Parking in a lot not far from the edge of the dunes, we were introduced to our last guide of the day, a slim, short haired person of indeterminate age and gender called Wuming. After showing us how to suit up to protect against the sand, we were then given very brief lessons on how to control a four wheel ATV.

“The thumb throttle gives it gas. Brake on the other side. Don’t drive it into the ocean. OK, ready?”

We then followed Wuming for the next two hours across the sandy wastes. Every so often Wuming would lift her betel-nut stained mask to give us instructions.

On this hill, don’t touch the brake!

On this hill, don’t give it gas until the end!

Keep giving it gas as you cross the river, otherwise you’ll stall halfway!

And so forth.

I’ve never been a huge fan of activities like this, by which I mean to say I’d never had the opportunity to do an activity like this before. Actually, ripping across sand dunes on an ATV was pretty fun, not as insanely dangerous as I’d assumed, and also fairly unexpected.

After two hours in the saddle, our tour was at an end. We split up into different cars, with the journalists from out of country shuttled back to the airport while I headed back to the High Speed Rail with the smaller group who’d come from Taipei.

We’d almost reached Kaohsiung when it occurred to me that we’d not even bothered to visit Kenting.

MyTaiwanTour would like to thank everyone who took part in and otherwise made our Pingtung trip possible and memorable.

Interested in exploring Taiwan’s Deep South? Join MyTaiwanTour’s  Southern Taiwan 5 Day Fun Tour…. or let MyTaiwanTour helps you custom design a tour of your own!