Until my right little finger finally heals, and allows me to practice piano for more than fifteen minutes
without swelling up (and God knows when that will be!) I seem destined to releasing my emotional energies on as many long hikes as I can, and on reliving various recent and long-passed adventures on this blog. At least this gives me the chance to look out and arrange some of the huge backlog of photos from trips around the island that are presently slowing down my computer….
My return visit to Huangdidian Bat Cave the other week has set me thinking about Taiwan’s many other caverns. I’m no geologist, but Taiwan’s geological makeup doesn’t lend it to the formation of deep caves – there’s very little limestone here! (Now my home country England – that’s a different matter – check out this Titanic cave, discovered only in the year 2000!) Even Wikipedia, rather embarrassingly, has only one entry on its ‘Caves of Taiwan’ page – the well-known Baxien Caves on the coast of southeastern Taidong County. Actually there are loads of ‘caves’ on the island, and although most are little more than impressive, wind-eroded overhangs in rock faces, Taiwan has a number of true caverns as well.
Let’s start with those deep ones. I’ve heard from several sources that there are a couple of relatively deep and possibly impressive stalactite caves in Taiwan – mainly in the south. There’s footage of caves in Kending National Park, and once while down south I passed a sign for a local outfit advertising its local ‘show cave’. [There are actually three stalactite caves in Kenting area open to the public, plus others that aren’t publicized; I blogged about those on a more recent entry here.] For good reason though they’re not generally advertised, and – hopefully – now protected; large and beautiful stalactites (or stalagmites) and other beautiful natural cave rock formations mounted on wooden plinths can often be found for sale, and I was told not all of them came from abroad.
That leaves only a handful of ‘real’ caves that I know of in Taiwan that are accessible to the average explorer. The best-known is the wonderful Guanxi Bat Cave (關西蝙蝠洞) in a small area of limestone country near the town of that name in Hsinchu County. [The following info comes from my last visit to the cave, about 5 years ago, and things could have changed since]. Just off Freeway Three, the little road to the trailhead is clearly signposted off the Luoma Highway (羅馬公路; county route 118; actually an often narrow mountain road along the southern bank of Shimen Reservoir). Turn off route 118 close to the 32.5 kilometer road marker (a wooden sign points out the way to the cave). The lane is exceptionally narrow in places, but (keeping left at the fork) it’s not too long before it reaches a small parking area. Leaving the vehicle here, a concrete track continues ahead, steeply uphill, until a clear, stepped path on the right climbs the hillside towards the cave.
In less than ten minutes the trail reaches its highest point and starts descending beside a cliff of weathered limestone, its base pierced by a large black hole. This cave is inaccessible after a few meters, but follow the trail steeply downhill a minute or two further, and another dark cavity in the rock appears, with the Chinese characters ‘出口’ (‘exit’) painted in red paint beside it. This is actually now the main entrance to the system, after the original entrance nearby was closed.
Obviously you’ll need a powerful torch to enter the cave mouth, which is a vertical chimney about 15 meters in depth. A long and awkward rope ladder is permanently fixed to the rock, and at the bottom a long, steeply sloping passage dives down into the bowels of the Earth. The tricky bit over, the next stage is a much easier walk through a natural cavern whose roof soon rises high above. Entering a large cave chamber about five minutes in, another long rope ladder gives access into a chamber above at the far end of this large cavern for further exploration. A third ladder climbs down further into the system, but it’s a tricky one, and we didn’t go any further on our visit.
Oh, and there are LOTS of bats inside, as you’ll find out as soon as you enter!
Below the Bat Cave is the Blue Green Waterfall (碧綠瀑布). Reached by a steep and often extremely muddy trail down the hillside, starting below the cave entrance, the waterfall is unlike any other I know in Taiwan. Walking the last few meters up to the waterfall you’ll have to follow the stream, stepping on dry rocks in the bed of the fast-flowing watercourse. The waterfall cliff soon comes into view ahead, but curiously unless there’s been heavy rain recently, it may well be completely dry. At low water the stream disappears into a sinkhole at the top of the fall and gushes out a small black hole at the base of the cliff. It’s a strange sight, and, for Taiwan, probably a unique one.
Baxian Caves (八仙洞), a series natural formations in the cliffs above the Pacific coast just inside the Taidong County border, are scenic and attractive, but of greatest interest for the prehistoric remains found inside at least one of the shallow caverns. North, just across the border in Hualien County, Moon Cave (月洞) is a real – although flooded – cavern; the (fresh) water inside is said to rise and fall according to the phases of the moon. My only visit to the cave was, er, many moons ago, and at that time we could only walk down to the dark, flooded entrance; the wooden rafts that once shunted people through the flooded cavern were rotting and unusable. Moon Cave has since re-opened, and should make for an unusual break on the long, beautiful haul along the coast road between Hualien and Taidong.
There’s just one other really deep cave I know of in Taiwan, the Quhu Immortals Cave (堀湖仙洞; described elsewhere on the blog here), the only one of the three ‘caves’ on Guanyin Mountain (near Taipei city) that really deserves the name, but although easily accessible (if you know the way!) this one is deep, and dangerous for casual explorers, requiring ropes etc.
OK, Those are the best natural caverns in Taiwan that I know of, but there are loads more fascinating places that with a bit of artistic licence can be shoe-horned into this catagory. The Taiwanese love using the word ‘Bat Cave’ to describe anything from the deep recesses of the cavern in Guanxi (packed with the furry little mammals) to a small overhanging rock face in Nuandong Gorge (near Keelung) which shelters a collection of pottery urns containing the remains of long-departed locals, but little else.
Ten or fifteen Bat Caves lie dotted around the island, all interesting diversions while in the area. In New Taipei City there’s Mountain Goat and Shaoyao Caves (see here), close together on a wooded hillside above the village of Shiding. Mountain Goat Cave is a true cave (not just an overhang), and although not very deep is full of bats. Not far away, Shifen Bat Cave (click here) and the Huangdidien Bat Cave (described here and here) are pretty impressive in their mysterious isolation. Best-known by far though are the two at Sanmin, in Taoyuan County, and at Toubienkeng, near Taichung.
Getting to Sanmin Bat Cave (三民蝙蝠洞) used to be a wonderful short adventure, threading along a narrow, overgrown trail then climbing down the side of the gorge on a long, fixed rope, before making a way up the streambed, stepping on rocks, to the gaping mouth of the cave. All that changed nearly a decade ago, when those-that-know-best decided to lay a surfaced path, with steps, almost all the way to the cave. At least they had the sense to stop a few meters short, and the cave area itself is still largely untouched (aside from a few unnecessary hand rails and cute picnic tables). The cave remains a very impressive and atmospheric place.
A small waterfall plunges through a naturally-carved hole in the rock into a plunge pool (used by locals for swimming during the summer) at the mouth of the cave, which in the flesh always seems bigger than its vital statistics would suggest (50 meters wide by 20 meters high, and 20 meters deep). The cave is certainly well worth the short walk from the end of the (signposted) road from the North Cross-island Highway (route 7) that starts in the middle of the village of Sanmin. More details can be found in Taipei Escapes II, on page 69.
From the Bat Cave a trail winds beside the stream above the waterfall for about an hour to another large natural shallow cavern, Guanyin Cave (觀音洞); sadly though this one has gone the way of many other similar natural features such as Sun Moon Cave (日月洞, in the hills above Tucheng, west of Taipei) and has almost disappeared behind a large but cheaply built and rather ugly temple – all reinforced concrete and exposed girders.
The Dapu Bat Cave, east of the huge Tsuenwen Reservoir in southern Chiayi County is, like the one at Sanmin, accompanied by a beautiful waterfall, but here the fall (Yuetao Waterfall; 月桃瀑布) is more enticing than the black hole of the cave next to it and rather overshadows it. In any case the rocks below the cave looked too slippery to risk climbing up!
On the hilly route 136, one of the roads connecting Taichung City and neighbouring Nantou County (a road which, amazingly, was still unsurfaced for many kilometers the last time I drove along it a couple of years ago!), the Toubienkeng Bat Cave (頭汴坑蝙蝠洞) has, like those at Guanxi and Sanmin, been a famous tourist attraction for many decades. According to a friend it was once a long walk from the nearest road to the cave mouth. That must have been a long time ago, because the cave has stood right beside a road for the decade or so since I’ve known it, suffering a bit from its proximity to ugly concrete residences, and a well-meaning but ill-conceived attempt to landscape the area in front of the main cave with ornamental foot bridges and wide stone paths.
The Bat Cave, unusually, is a combination of natural and man-made passages. The entrance to the cave is a small, black, and rather uninviting slot in the cliff face, and there’s often water several inches deep on the floor (bring boots or flip-flops!) but fifty meters along the cliff to the right, the exit is via a gaping natural cavern which looks quite imposing, even from the nearby road. The tunnels were apparently bored through the rock during the Japanese colonial period, to channel water from the swiftly descending river to irrigate fields downstream. The bats which once lived here now seem to have gone elsewhere (no doubt fleeing the assault of noisy, flashlight-totting thrill-seekers that arrive each weekend).
Plenty of caves do still provide a home to bats, of course, one of the most important of them being the Ruifang Bat Cave (瑞芳蝙蝠洞) on the northeast coast just down the road from Keelung. This place is famous among local naturalists as a reserve for the Schreiber’s Bat (Miniopterus schriberii), listed as ‘near threatened’ on the IUCN Red List. The caves (there are actually two), beside the coast road between Shen Ao and Nanya (immediately after the road passes through the only short tunnel between the two villages; look for the Bat sign) are actually the man-made result of mining. Despite the importance of the site, local authorities have stubbornly resisted giving it any kind of protection. Noise created during road widening scared off many of the bats, and a local now cultivates an allotment (!) on the ground in front of the tunnel mouths. Apparently the tunnels are still used by the bats during the breeding season (May to July), although in depleted numbers.
Another man-made tunnel used by bats to this day (simply because it was – until recently – so little visited; how DID they find this place?) is called Reclining Dragon Cave (臥龍洞), close to the town of Puli (埔里) in the very center of the island. This place used to be a bitch to find, and during a year-and-a-half of living in Puli and several attempts, I never found the correct way, because the tunnel entrance lies in rough, confusing, jungle-covered country and there was no trail. We finally struck lucky five or six years ago when, while in the area, we’d heard a group had been there with a guide (and a big machete). It appears the local authorities have recently finally cleared the historic route that passes through the tunnel, and made a followable trail. The trip from the road isn’t all that long (perhaps 45 minutes), but the tunnel (about a hundred meters long and up to about 7 meters in height), cut in Japanese colonial times as part of an old route through the mountains, is (or at least was) a wild place, deep in thick jungle. I must go back one day. My photos of it are awful, but this website has one that gives an idea of the place, and here are directions (in Chinese); it’s well worth seeking out if you’re in the Puli area.
Another place with a bit of history, White Horse General Cave (白馬將軍洞), near the tofu town of Shenkeng in Taipei coun… er New Taipei City is a collection of tiny overhangs in the densely jungled hills above town, which were the hideouts for a group of resistance fighters in the early years of the Japanese colonial period. A couple of them lie beside the surfaced path that climbs up to little Black Moon Hill (烏月山); the route is described in – yes – Taipei Escapes I (page 197).
Finally, a rather fine feature in an unexpected location: Wugu, near Keelung. Up in the low hills north of town is a very nice little climb called Mount Xiandonghu (仙洞湖山), which despite its insignificant height of 298 meters (!) offers excellent views from its sheer cliffs. The trail up the hill starts near Yuemei Cave (月眉洞; see the photo at the top of this blog entry), a large wind-eroded overhang in a sandstone cliff similar in shape to the Bat Caves at Huangdidien and Shifen, but much easier to get to than either.
I could go on and describe a few more, but they’re pretty similar. Several fascinating places I’ve yet to reach though include the biggest cave mouth in Taiwan, the Thousand People Cave (千人洞) near Chiayi County. Accessible from one of my favorite spots in the whole of Taiwan (Fengshan 豐山; the scenery in this area is some of the finest on the whole island, for my money), the cave is usually incorporated into a 2-day hike between the mountain resort of Shanlinxi (杉林溪) and Fengshan, combining the cave with a visit to Shuiyang Shenlin (水樣森林), a coniferous forest flooded (and still partly submerged in a lake) when a landslide caused by the 921 Earthquake damned a stream.
Nearby, an awesome-looking trail (阿里山來吉蹤走) connects Alishan with Laiji, another magically situated settlement. The two villages are separated by the terrific cliffs of Tashan (塔山), on which lies the Quanshuixian Cave (泉水仙洞), which local aboriginals believe was once inhabited by a giant. It looks like an amazing place, but getting there (with two major cliffs, the Mountain Goat and Tashan Passes, to climb) would entail hiring local aboriginal guides.
Update (October 2012): Another two small but great caves, in New Taipei City (one of which really has bats!) are described elsewhere on the blog (here).
I’ve listed approximate GPS coordinates for some of the caves below (taken from Google Earth); of the remainder, you’ll have to rely on a good old-fashioned map for now – most are marked on good Chinese-language maps.
All the caves in the Taipei area are described in detail in Taipei Escapes:
Guanxi Bat Cave: 24° 45 ’32” N 121° 14′ 02″ E
Guanyin Cave temple: TE2, page 70
Huangdidian Bat Cave: TE1, page 183-4
Nuandong Gorge Bat Cave: TE1, page 45-6
Qufu Immortal’s Cave: TE2, page 21
Ruifang Bat Cave: TE1, page 67-8
Sanmin Bat Cave (24° 50′ 10″” N 121° 21′ 14″ E): TE2, page 69
Shifen (Nanshanping) Bat Cave: TE1, page 83-4
Source of the Keelung River (Guanyin Cave): TE1, page 88
Sun Moon Cave (New Taipei City): TE2, page 173
Toubienkeng Bat Cave: 24° 06’28” N 120° 46′ 48″ E
White Horse General Cave: TE1, page 197-8