UPDATE September 21st: In true Taiwanese fashion, a resourceful local hiking group has already found a way round the ominous sign that blocks entry to the Stegosaurus Ridge trail, with a new trail skirting around the perimeter of the disused copper plant. It starts a little further down the coast road at the 80.2 kilometer marker. A post on the group’s Facebook page (in Chinese but with a sketch map of the new route, which joins the original route behind the compound) is up here: https://www.facebook.com/paul.lee.79827/media_set?set=a.1378880355474393.1073742720.100000573244989&type=3&hc_location=ufi
Yesterday I learned that the trailhead of a very popular Taipei-area trail, which I (and many others, no doubt) regard as one of the finest day hikes in Taiwan, has now been officially closed, and with warnings of jail-time, no less, for those caught trespassing. It’s just the latest event in an ongoing, but seemingly intensifying attempt to curb or limit access to Taiwan’s beautiful countryside, or to ‘tame’ it with the intention of making it ‘safer’ and more ‘accessible’.
From now on, hikers illegally entering the Stegosaurus Ridge Trail could face a fine of up to NT$500,000 (or up to a year in jail). Compare that with drunk drivers, who, for a first offence, face a maximum penalty (in a 2013 amendment to the law) of only NT$200,000.
The Taiwanese authorities have a history of meddling with hiking routes they feel to be unsuitable for general consumption. Well over a decade ago, the beauty of one of the Taipei area’s most popular hiking routes, Huangdidian (皇帝殿) was compromised when the rock of its famous knife-edges was chiseled away to make the way along their top easier and, supposedly, safer. Iron bars and rope handrails followed shortly after, and these artificial additions now adversely affect the beauty of the ridge. Taipei area’s other great knife-edge ridge walk, Wuliaojian (五寮尖) later suffered a similar fate, with steps and footholds being hewn out of the natural blades of rock, and a long handrail installed on the main knife-edge ridge. Here, at least, it could be argued that the additions are a necessary safety feature on such an exposed ridge; however the physical chiselling away of the natural rock has of course permanently defaced the natural scenery.
A more recent victim of meddling by the authorities is another classic Taipei walk, the Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail (三貂嶺瀑步步道). In an attempt to open the trail to the less able-bodied, a year or two back a bulky flight of metal stairs (which a number of friends have described as ‘ugly’) was installed beside Sandiaoling Waterfall itself, replacing the far more compact (and much more natural-looking) wooden rope ladder that once scaled the rock face there.Stegosaurus Ridge is just the latest of a whole series of trails where hikers are either warned to steer clear of, or are officially banned outright from entering. In most cases hikers have until now simply ignored the signs, especially since the trails beyond (including Stegosaurus Ridge) offer no appreciable risks to any reasonably experienced hiker. The threat of a huge fine or up to a year in jail, however, is a startling new development that I haven’t seen on any other closed trail in Taiwan, and seems to indicate a hardening of the local authorities towards hikers. It might cause even those who have long been accustomed to ignoring these familiar, scaremongering signs, to think again before enjoying the glories of Steg Ridge.
The ‘official’ reason for the closure of the Stegosaurus Ridge trailhead doesn’t really make sense. The sign states pollution of the water and soil inside as the reason for the ban on entry. However, the water in the famous Golden Waterfall (黃金瀑布) nearby is tainted with arsenic and other highly toxic substances, yet upon my last visit, access to it was open to everyone. The waterfall lies right beside a busy road just below the hugely popular former mining village of Jinguashi, with no safety barrier of any kind between the road’s edge and the contaminated water. The real reason for the closure is more likely due to the death of a hiker on the nearby Banping Cliff trail in early June. But even then closing the whole route still makes sense. A number of people have been killed by falling rocks while simply driving along the Taroko Gorge road; similar accidents have happened along the Suhua Highway, yet it’s extremely doubtful that the authorities would ever permanently close either route to public vehicles.
Hikers in Taiwan have for decades had to decide whether or not to heed the ‘no entry’ signs posted at the trailheads of many popular routes.In the past it’s generally not been a problem. The Stegosaurus Ridge trail closure, however, may well be ushering in a new era where authorities are taking a much more pro-active role in dictating just where hikers can walk, and where they are most definitely not welcome.