You Will Get Wet!
Rafting the Xiuguluan River in Eastern Taiwan
Text: Joe Henley
Photos: Sunny Su
The Xiuguluan River offers a chance for thrill-seekers and nature buffs to get the adrenaline pumping and take in sights that will linger in your memory for a lifetime.
For the outdoor enthusiast, Taiwan has a multitude of activities that will provide an excellent workout and allow you to meet and mingle with fellow-minded travelers while experiencing the stunning natural beauty of the country. Rock climbing, hiking, paragliding, river tracing, mountain biking – the list goes on. If you've never tried whitewater rafting before, the Xiuguluan River in southern Hualien County on Taiwan’s east coast might well be the perfect spot for your initiation to the sport.
Most whitewater-rafting outfitters offer a pickup service from the railway station in the town of Ruisui, the launch-point for rafting trips (the train ride from Taipei to Ruisui takes about 4 hours), taking you to one of the local homestays (B&B) or hotels. There are around eight such outfitters running Xiuguluan outings, with the largest being the Hsiang Sun Rafting Company. Boasting a fleet of 400 boats and a staff of over 40 lifeguards certified to the highest national standards in Taiwan, Hsiang Sun has been in business on the Xiuguluan since 1983. That was just after owner Lin Yong-le came to the area while on leave from his national military service and fell so head-over-heels in love with the scenery that he decided to stay and introduce others to the quiet majesty of the East Rift Valley and Coastal Mountain Range that the river cuts a path through. Today, his company takes as many as 2,000 tourists per day down the river towards the Pacific along a 21.5-kilometer stretch of the approximately 100-kilometer-long body of water. The tours last about four hours, including a stop for lunch halfway along at the Qimei Rest Area, and end near the bright-red Changhong (Rainbow) Bridge close to the coast. There are 20 sets of rapids along the route providing intermittent shots of action. Here's an idea of what you can expect on your river journey.
Before you head out to ply the rapids, you have to be outfitted with the proper safety equipment, namely a life jacket and a helmet. During the hot summer months, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants are also advisable, or lots of sunscreen. A pair of crocs or hard-soled shoes should also be worn, as the river bottom is rocky and sandals or flip flops could be lost should you fall in. Outfitters usually have shoes for rent should you not wish to soak your own, and you will get wet – it's a virtual guarantee, even if you don't wind up going for a swim. You'll also need a paddle – there are no free rides on this trip (though guides in motorized boats will frequently give you a nudge out of harm's way should your boat get stuck, or if everyone needs a bit of a break from paddling).
After this, there is a short briefing on what to do should someone fall into the drink (pull them out by the shoulder harnesses of their life jacket), and on proper paddling technique. Finally, there is a short video presentation (should you go with Hsiang Sun) introducing visitors to the river and the surrounding region. Then it's time to head for the boats waiting on the riverbank. Each fits 8-10 people, so if you come with a large group you don't have to worry about being separated. After another quick briefing on river safety, everyone launches out onto the refreshingly cool water. At this point, working out a nice paddling rhythm becomes key; you’ll see boats filled with first-timers swaying to the right and left as rafters try to work out a nice, even pace.
The first set of rapids. Time for trial by fire, or water in this case. If you have visions of being tossed about like a wine cork in angry sea swells, however, don't worry. The Xiuguluan is perfectly safe for beginners. The rapids are just swift enough to provide a thrill, yet not so fast as to put anyone in jeopardy, so long as everyone follows the safety instructions. Though people do fall into the water from time to time, they merely float along on their backs until someone from their boat, or another boat, can pull them back in. And the lifeguards in their motorized craft are always there, with an all-encompassing knowledge of the river's every twist and turn. They know their stuff, and how to keep everyone safe at all times, often anticipating when a boat might get stuck on a rock jutting out or trapped along a riverside embankment before anyone in the boat realizes what may be about to happen. With speed and precision they guide their craft over to any troubled vessel and push them to safety. At times, they even attach a rope to the boat and pull for a while, providing a break from all that hard work.
These breaks provide an ideal chance to take in the surrounding scenery, and there is much to see. Numerous unusual rock formations, named for their similarity to animals such as pigs, swans, or monkeys, stand watch over the flowing water. It's possible to see actual monkeys lounging in the trees, too. White limestone, known as King's Rock for its use in making seats for the Japanese emperor during the Japanese colonial period, stands out in stark contrast to the darker marbled stone along the banks of this mighty stream. Towering cliffs give way to flattened grazing land for water buffalo, while birds of prey glide on the mountain breezes overhead. And if that isn't enough to hold your attention, there are other distractions as well.
Whitewater rafting on the Xiuguluan could easily be billed as “whitewater rafting plus massive water fight.” All boats come equipped with bailing canisters, which are quickly implemented as instruments of all-out water warfare, along with paddles, cupped hands, and anything else rafters can use to give one another a thorough soaking. It's all in good fun, and when the heat is beating down on you, a bit of a splash is quite welcome. Just remember to leave the expensive smartphone and any non-waterproof electronics, along with cash and any other valuables that might suffer from water damage, back at the guesthouse/hotel.
Rafting on the Xiuguluan is a safe, year-round activity for just about everyone, with the sole exceptions being pregnant women and those with a serious heart condition. Beyond that, young and old can take a trip down the river feeling secure, as there are special boats available for children and the elderly that are virtually impossible to tip over. Expeditions generally leave every half hour, though the most common start times are 7 a.m., 8:30 a.m., and 11 a.m., with the latest departures at about 2:30 in the afternoon. It's advised that tourists call at least a day or two in advance to reserve a spot, and prices vary from NT$700 to NT$1,200 per person, depending on the type of boat you would like to book (these are Hsiang Sun Rafting Company’s prices; those for other operators may vary). With Hsiang Sun, English and Spanish tours are also available. The best time to go is between April and October.
So, if you'd like to inject a bit of adrenaline into your Taiwan trip, head for Ruisui on the east coast, and take your own unforgettable journey down the picturesque Xiuguluan.
English & Chinese
Changhong (Rainbow) Bridge 長虹橋
Coastal Mountain Range 海岸山脈
East Rift Valley 花東縱谷
Lin Yong-Le 林永樂
Qimei Rest Area 奇美休息站
Xiuguluan River 秀姑巒溪
Hsiang Sun Rafting Company (向上泛舟公司)
Add: 97, Dagangkou, Gangkou Village, Fengbin Township, Hualien County
Tel: (03) 878-1166
Website: www.hsiangsun.com.tw (Chinese only)
Contact info about other rafting outfitters at: http://goo.gl/aJEnm
More info about Eastern Taiwan at:
East Rift Valley National Scenic Area: www.erv-nsa.gov.tw
East Coast National Scenic Area: www.eastcoast-nsa.gov.tw