Getting to Turtle Island (or rather obtaining the necessary permit to land there) is enough of a hassle that I’ve only been there once before, eight or nine years ago, and that time I never landed. Getting permission to climb the path to the highest point of the island is even more difficult to get, so when I noticed a hiking group in Sanchong City included the hike to the summit of the island in their autumn schedule this year, I jumped at the chance to join them.
These days boat trips to Turtle Island (龜山島) mostly go from Wushi Harbor (烏石漁港), just outside Toucheng (頭城) in northern Ilan County, and although there was no time to check for sure as we were hurried off the coach and on to the waiting boat at 8:30 in a Sunday morning, posters up on walls nearby seemed to imply that it’s still possible (on weekends at least) to do what I did the last time I visited the island, and simply turn up and get on a non-landing, dolphin watching boat (the pesky permit is required only to land on the island).
The boats are modern and comfortable yachts, although unlike on trips to Keelung Island the operators insist everyone wears a life jacket for the twenty-five minute crossing, as though the vessel was in imminent danger of capsizing.
As the boat nears Turtle Island, the island presents its softest, least impressive aspect, and compared with memories of how spectacular it seemed on my last visit, first impressions were slightly disappointing, but not to worry: the island’s quite awesome cliffs, which all lie round the other side will be seen later, as all boats circumnavigate the island (usually at the end of the trip), giving plenty of time to view the scenery; take plenty of memory for the camera: you’re going to need it!
The boat docked at the island’s little harbor and we all tramped off and made the short walk to the island’s small visitor center which lies close to the turtle’s ‘tail,’ a kilometer-long bar of shingle which ‘wags’ to the left or right, according to the prevailing current, which changes throughout the year.
Visitor numbers on Turtle Island are supposedly strictly limited, but there seemed to be several hundred already on land when we arrived, judging from the numbers we found listening to instructions from their respective leaders barked at them through noisy megaphones, forming long lines for the visitor center loos, or posing in front of the sign out front for the compulsory group photo.
Half an hour later however, we started up the first of the 1,708 steps that climb to the summit, and left most of the other groups (who had permits only for the area around the lake near the visitor center) behind. The sun was already beating down mercilessly on us and as we panted up the steep, endless flight of steps; the mostly much older members of our group (the most senior hiker was apparently in his mid 80s!) went zooming on ahead. Clearly these senior citizens tackled steps like this every morning on their daily constitutional.
The trail up the lushly forested slopes of Turtle Island was pretty dull for the most part, although occasionally relieved by the sight of an enormous spider perched above out heads, or a view through a clearing in the overhead cover, revealing the shingle bar of the turtle’s tail curling gracefully out into the sea at the island’s westernmost tip, far below.
We were among the last to reach the top, a good hour after starting the climb, and since by the time we got up there many other members of our group were on the way down to snag a lunchbox,which was already waiting for us back at the visitor center, this gave us the unexpected advantage of having the viewing tower at the summit relatively to ourselves.
Turtle Island’s summit being only 398 meters above sea level, someone had the bright idea of building a small tower at the top to push the total altitude over the 400 meter level. The viewing platform atop the tower also has the advantage of lifting hikers above the silver grass that restricts the view from ground level, and what a spectacular view it reveals!
We happily spent nearly half an hour enjoying the peace, and gaping at the awesome panorama over the island, especially the view over the island’s plunging eastern slopes, which dive and then swoop upwards again to the turtle’s ‘head, ‘ and the powder-blue waters of the famous underwater hot springs just offshore, a dramatic contrast with the deep blue of the surrounding ocean, glistening in the hot sun on this magnificent, cloudless day. At the base of the tower, a dirt path snakes off into the forest – the second of the two routes up here from the harbor area, which is unfortunately out-of-bounds to visitors, although it’s probably a much more interesting route than the efficient but rather gruelling steps.
The slow, hot plod back down the endless steps was relieved by occasional views through the trees of the ocean, and in half-an-hour or so we were back at the visitor center, had successfully claimed a couple of the few remaining lunch boxes, and were sheltering from the intense heat of the sun under the entrance hall of the island’s Guanyin Temple.
After lunch, we pretended to forget to meet the remainder of our group for a scheduled guided tour around the lake area, and explored its banks by ourselves, enjoying the magnificent scenery and the peace away from those confounded megaphones, whose unlovely sounds occasional drifted over the water towards us from a group exploring the abandoned school area across the lake.
The area around this large brackish lake is the only flat area on Turtle Island, and the only place where fresh water can be found, thanks to the large fresh water cold spring on the bank of the lake. This was the area first settled when people began arriving, in 1853. By 1967 Turtle Island’s population had swollen to 750, and the village even had a school. The inhabitants were all relocated to the mainland in 1977 when the army swiped the island and turned it into a restricted military zone.
At the far end of the lake, a series of tunnels, 800 meters long are bored into the cliff, ending at a series of gun emplacements which offer wonderful views over the ocean. The one huge gun still on site here points not out to sea but directly towards mainland Taiwan. This place reminds me of the many similar tunnels in Matsu, although the ones there have an even more stunning location.
We successfully managed to elude the rest of our 30-strong group (although the group leader kept close tabs on us via regular calls to my cellphone) until it was time to head back to the harbor and leave this magnificent island.
However we still had some of the best scenery of the day to look forward to, as the boat made a circle around the island, passing the amazing cliffs of the island’s far side, and the underwater hot springs bubbling up to the surface around the Turtle’s Head (龜首; don’t, for heaven’s sake, use the usual word for ‘head (‘ 頭’) here, in which case the phrase has a very different meaning, as I found out to my embarrassment after my mistake was pointed out to me by an amused friend!).
It was about 4 pm before we finally sailed back to Wushih Harbor, and we’d have been very happy to head straight home. Unfortunately, this being a local tour, we still had a 90 minute tour of a whisky distillery in far-off Yuanshan and the compulsory group dinner to get through before we were finally dropped off in Taipei at nearly 9 pm. A long day, then, but absolutely, one-hundred percent worth it. Turtle Island is an absolutely stunning island.
GETTING THERE: Before turning up at Wushih Harbor, just north of Toucheng in Ilan at the far end of Hsuehshan Tunnel, try to obtain a landing permit for Turtle Island. Permits can be obtained online, although the English language website of the Northeast Coast and Ilan National Scenic Area, which (like many local tourist websites) is a triumph of pretty photos and design over any real informational value, gives no information regarding permits at all. Chinese readers can apply online at: https://kueishan.necoast-nsa.gov.tw/main.php?id=252. Alternatively, friends have told me the staff at the National Scenic Area Headquarters in Fulung (02-2499-1115) speak good English and can help in getting permits, so it’s worth phoning them.
An easier method is to join a trip run by a hiking club (especially if you’d like to climb to the summit of the island, as to get hold of these permits you need a ‘qualified’ hiking guide to lead the group, which is a mockery, seeing that the path is no harder than the steps up Seven Star Mountain in Yangmingshan; in any event few hikers stick with the guide during the climb. Getting them to organise everything and jump through the various hoops set up by the NSA as we did will probably save a few gray hairs. Yuefeng Explorer ( http://www.wretch.cc/blog/yfexplorer/8395550 ), based in Sanchong City is the club we went with; they told me they organise the trip to the island’s summit four or five times each year, between May and September; other clubs occasionally advertise the trip in their schedules.