COOLING OFF AND GETTING WET
Rafting on the Xiuguluan River in Hualien County
By Phil Dawson
The summers in Taipei can be overwhelming; even for long-term residents the combination of high temperature and humidity is often quite exhausting. Fortunately, Taiwan has a plethora of water-based activities to help you cool off and get outside to make the most of the summer.
Taiwan, being an island, has no shortage of scenic sandy beaches that during the summer draw in tourists and locals alike looking for a cooling swim in the ocean. Fulong on the northeast coast and Kending at the southernmost tip of the island are two of my favorite beach destinations. However, taking a dip in the ocean isn’t the only way to cool off here, and those looking for a bit more excitement will be enticed by the many fantastic surfing spots, such as Wushi Harbor in Yilan County and Jialeshui in Pingtung County. These are among Taiwan’s best surf locations, and during the summer, particularly on weekends, are magnets for the island’s growing surf community. Sea kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba diving are other great ways to get wet and enjoy the amazing coastal scenery – above and below the waterline.
The local beaches are wonderful, yet they are only number two on my list of ideal summer destinations. The rivers and streams that wind and bore through Taiwan’s mountainous body are the real highlight for me, and any summer visit to Taiwan must include sampling one of the many idyllic locations. The mountains that cover about 70% of the island are laced with hundreds of incredible streams of crystal-clear water. During the hot summer months, many of these streams become excellent locations for exciting river-tracing and kayaking outings, which combine physical challenges with the pleasures of playing in the refreshing waters while surrounded by stunningly beautiful natural scenery.
The steep gradients of many of the mountains also mean that rivers and streams often flow fast, with numerous waterfalls and rapids along their course to the ocean, making some of them suitable for white-water rafting. One of the most scenic and best known is the Xiuguluan River, situated about one-third of the way from Hualien City to Taitung City. The river originates in the high mountains west of Ruisui town, traverses the East Rift Valley, and cuts through the Coastal Mountain Range before flowing into the Pacific Ocean. White-water rafting trips are available on the river around the year with the best time from April through November. There are several companies that organize trips; most will arrange transport for you from Hualien City, which makes rafting convenient to tackle as part of a short weekend trip. These companies also offer several other activities, including whale-watching (winter/spring is the best time) and night-fishing trips. Another interesting activity is river-tracing – unquestionably a must-do for all lovers of the outdoors!
My latest trip to the Xiuguluan River was in June 2009. Three friends and I took the train from Taipei down to Ruisui early one Saturday morning, a day with perfect, cloudless blue skies. Though for many the small town of Ruisui is thought of as nothing more than the starting point for rafting trips, it is also a very nice launch-point for explorations of the scenic East Rift Valley. Decorated with huge fields of waving paddy rice and with towering mountain ranges framing the valley east and west, this is a great area in which to cycle or stroll around. The valley is especially attractive in the winter, when fields of golden-yellow rapeseed flowers create marvelous scenes and fantastic photo opportunities. On this summer day, however, it was over 35 degrees Celsius and we only had one thing on our minds – cooling off and getting wet!
Before our rafting trip we had to attend a safety demonstration and watch a video explaining what to do in an emergency. This was a pleasant surprise for me; in other places that I have rafted in Asia the safety briefings have often been of the “put on your life jacket and get in the boat” variety. The rafting companies provide helmets, life jackets, and all other safety equipment that is required. It is also possible to buy/rent rafting shoes and other items of clothing that you may have forgotten to pack. After about half an hour standing around in the blazing sun with all equipment on, we were finally given the go-ahead to go down to the river and get in the rafts. There was a temptation to just bypass the craft altogether and jump straight into the cool, refreshing water, but somehow we managed to resist. The rafts seat about eight people, so we shared ours with a group of young students from the city of Changhua on Taiwan’s west side. Another pleasing difference about rafting in Taiwan is that you are in the boats on your own; there is no instructor/guide with you. The lifeguards drive around the river in small motorized boats to keep an eye on things and make sure everyone is safe, and being in total control of your own boat makes things a lot more fun.
In general the rapids are class 2 to 3 (skill level: basic to experienced paddling skills), although after a typhoon has just passed they can get up to class 4 (skill level: whitewater experience), the best time to go if you are looking for excitement. The organizers assure visitors that the ride is safe at all times, however. The first half of the trip, which lasts a total of around 4 hours depending on the water levels, wasn’t as intense as on previous trips I have been on, the water levels being low, but what the Xiuguluan River lacks in speed it makes up in natural beauty. We were quite happy to at times slowly drift down the river taking in the expansive views of our grand surroundings. The rafting trips here are suitable for all ages/abilities, making for really fun family outings. However, bear in mind that, no matter what level the water is at, you will certainly get very, very wet during the trip, so it is a good idea to invest in a waterproof camera if you want to capture memories of your trip in digital-still format!
Even though in the first leg the rapids weren't as exciting as we had hoped, much fun was had. The minute we jumped into our raft we began splashing all the other rafts in our group; soon all twenty were involved in a no-holds-barred water fight. We splashed at anyone who came near us, and splashed each other when no-one else was in range. At one point we were so involved in the war of the waters that we didn't see a set of rapids ahead. As we entered them I was flung out of our boat and into the water – fortunately, however, I had the presence of mind to grab my friend and pull him in too! Though I had always thought it would be an incredibly scary experience being thrown into the middle of swirling rapids, it really wasn't at all. We just lay on our backs, as we had been instructed to do, and soon caught up with our raft to be pulled back aboard. The biggest problem we had was that we were laughing so hard the others had to struggle that much harder to haul us into the boat!We stopped at the halfway point for a lunch provided by the rafting company and a well-earned rest. The second half of the trip was a lot more exciting, for from this point the rapids sections become a lot faster and more concentrated. We soon realized that our crewmates had preferred the relaxing first half, and I often turned my head round as we bounced up and over the waves to find them cowering on the floor of the boat in the tuck position. The boats are pretty easy to control – except when half the crew stop paddling and hide! As a result we found ourselves spinning through the fast-flowing water and bouncing sideways off protruding rocks.
Our run finished, after a quick shower at facilities provided, and after lots of photos taken with our new friends, we were driven up to the nearby coastal highway to catch a bus south to the city of Taitung. For a small fee, each rafting company in operation here can also provide transport back to the starting point at Ruisui or to Hualien City. The sun was just setting as we boarded the near-empty bus that would take us down the coast to our next destination, and we were all in good spirits after a superb day in the great outdoors. We passed the time planning our next rafting trip – hopefully when the waters are higher and the river is in the mood to give us an even better ride.