On November 9th, 1980, a group of five hikers from a mountain club in Taipei set off from Pinglin on a hike over the mountains to Ilan in the east. On the way however they became lost, and as darkness settled over the mountains, they arrived at the spot now known as Sacred Mother Peak. Seeking deliverance from their nasty predicament, they prayed, not to Guanyin as you might have expected, but to the Virgin Mary. Suddenly there appeared, in the top of a nearby tree, a ghostly, white-clad figure. The men found their way off the mountain safely, and to commemorate what they regarded as a miracle, they later set up a statue of the Sacred Mother. Thus this unique and extraordinary combination of hiking route and Catholic pilgrimage site had its origins.
Sacred Mother Peak (聖母峰) is like nowhere else I know in Taiwan. It’s a great hike up there, through beautiful countryside, and it’s quite a good workout (there’s 700-plus meters of vertical climb to accomplish from the trailhead to the top). The summit, however, is the most memorable part of the trip. It’s a huge memorial to the Catholic belief. The spot where the apparition of Mary is said to have appeared is now a large (and, truth be told, rather ugly) concrete platform reached by a flight of steep concrete steps, which climb past metal plaques representing the fourteen Stations of the Cross to the platform, in the center of which stands a statue of Christ on the cross. And what a view! The coastal hills, pancake-flat Lanyang Plains, the Pacific Ocean and even Turtle Island are all spread out below. It’s a slightly surreal place, and definitely a one-off, in Taiwan at least.
The weather, as so often in Ilan, almost derailed our plans on the day we rode the convenient new highway bus out to climb the peak. The forecast promised showers, and thick cloud hung over the mountains looming above the hot spring resort of Jiaosi (礁溪), but, deciding to take a chance and try our luck, we arrived at the trailhead, just below the famous Wufengchi Waterfalls (五峰旗瀑布), and set off along the track that forms the first half of the climb. Within half an hour, the track had wound up the hillside to the day’s first unexpected sight: the large and striking Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, faintly reminiscent in general design of Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, standing in the shadow of the uppermost fall at Wufengchi, which could be seen hurtling over the brink into the gorge behind the church.
Beyond the church the track becomes narrower and quieter, climbing slowly into the hills, high above a stream flowing through a gorge on the left. The area is rich in beautiful trees and flowering plants, and the bird life seems pretty plentiful too.
We even saw a bizarre and slightly alarming looking hammerheaded worm-like thing, bright yellow in color – unlike anything I’ve seen on a hike in Taiwan before.
After a good hour or so, the stream has risen to meet the track, which ends at Tung Tian Footbridge (通天橋), which, together with a large wooden sign, a rest shelter and small Virgin Mary shrine marks the beginning of the trail to the summit. The dirt trail beyond begins by climbing through a particularly lovely wooded gorge, beside a stream cascading enchantingly in a succession of small falls through thick, emerald-green woodland.
The magical scenery is sadly shortly lived, as after about ten minutes, the trail and stream part company, and the path begins to climb steeply, eventually emerging onto the open mountainside, covered in a thick canopy of silver grass. The view would presumably have been great on a clear day; unfortunately we couldn’t tell, as we’d already ascended into the clouds, which hung around us, dank and cold, reducing the visibility to our immediate surroundings.
Presently the trail ahead turns, rather startlingly, into wide, concrete steps, which climb over a small hump, and through a natural little gap in the hillside. Standing at the top, ahead we could make out our goal through the thick, chilly mist. A small reservoir with concrete walls lay in a hollow in front. To the right, in a naturally sheltered alcove hemmed in by steep slopes, was the little mountain hut where groups sometimes sleep the night, and, rising in front, was a small summit (905 meters above sea level) crowned with a large, raised platform of cracked concrete, surrounded by a merely functional and quite unlovely metal and concrete railing. It’s a startling mixture of natural grandeur and aesthetically disastrous human meddling. Climbing up onto the platform, the surrounding cocoon of cloud cut us off from completely the outside world – from up here we couldn’t even hear any sound from the busy resort town eight hundred meters below us – but sitting and enjoying the strange atmosphere for a while, the wind shortly picked up, and began blowing windows in the thick blanket of mist, giving glimpses of the remarkable view hidden behind.
Within about thirty minutes after we’d arrived, the growing breeze had almost completely cleared the mist away from our perch, and we could finally see the magnificent view. The mountainside rising above the peak to even higher summits further west is strangely eroded into countless folds, covered in a thick covering of silver grass. In photos it looks like you could roll down this soft, green cushion; in reality it’s almost head-high, and the leaf blades are razor sharp, so no touching!
As we started back down, the warm sun was busy evaporating the remaining wisps of mist that hung in more sheltered corners and the view over the Lanyang Plain and the ocean (during the first ten minutes of the descent, before we plunged back into the forest) was indeed terrific. By now the summit area was busy with hikers (this is a popular climb, it seems, even in dodgy weather), and we had the bus journey back to Taipei still to face. Before making a beeline for the bus stop in Jiaosi, however, we made a quick side trip to the fabulous Wufengchi Waterfalls; a side path near the church near the start of the hike forms a useful short cut, saving much of the climb from the usual waterfall trailhead, at the end of the road below the falls. These days the uppermost (and by far the highest) of the three waterfalls seems to be more-or-less permanently off-limits to the general public, as the path up there from the second waterfall is always gated and locked when I visit. A sign at the trailhead proclaims that the closure is the result of a ‘serious landslide, ‘ but this being Taiwan, we climb around the gate anyway, walk up to the fall (there’s absolutely no sign of any damage to the path by the way, which looks as safe and intact as it has for many years past) and cap a great day off with a private view of its most impressive sight of all, as the Wufengchi Stream plummets 80 meters into a rocky amphitheater. A spectacular end to a great day….