Words & Photos: Charl Pieterse
I recently had the privilege of experiencing something quite extraordinary; a challenging yet breathtakingly beautiful journey on my bicycle along one of the most underrated coastlines in the world; the east coast of Taiwan; a stunning little island country, 150km off the southeast coast of China. I did it for the fun and adventure of it, but also to raise money for underprivileged children in South Africa, through Distance for Difference (D4D), a non-profit organisation that generates funds for various children’s charities. When slogging your way up a never-ending mountain pass (and that’s most of the roads in Taiwan!), it’s really encouraging to know that your effort is helping to put a smile on a kid’s face.
While living in Taiwan, I regularly explored the island’s unmatched natural scenery on my bike and in a moment of inspiration I decided that I would cycle all the way along the east coast, from the most northern to the most southern tips, a distance of almost 600km. To make it a tad more challenging, I gave myself just three days to do it in. Hence I dubbed my new mission ‘Tip-to-Tip through Taiwan in Three Days’, or ‘MissionT2T’ in short.
But as with anything in life, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. On my first attempt a slow puncture saw me turning back after only 40km. I was bitterly disappointed, but came to see it as a blessing in disguise as I hadn’t slept at all the previous night. Having made my bed on a tiny beach under a beautiful starry sky, humid temperatures of 30°C plus huge, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, yapping beach dogs and the flood lights of a squid-fishing boat made it all but impossible to get some desperately needed shut eye! However, the deal-breaker was the prospect of riding in scorching and humid temperatures of 35°C! So a little gutted, but relieved at the same time, I headed back to Taipei and to the proverbial drawing board.
After doing some thorough homework, fixing my bike and obtaining a ‘lekker’ tent to keep those annoying mozzies at bay, I embarked on my second attempt a week later. Riding the 15km from my home in northern Taipei to the harbour town of Danshuei, I hopped onto a bus for the 25km journey to Fugeijiao, the most northern tip of Taiwan. Arriving around 18:00, I did a little scouting before setting up my tent under a tree in the park and then going for a dip in the ocean. Shortly after dinner, a heavy down pour saw me snuggled up in my tent and ready for sleep by 20:00. Tomorrow would be a long day as I was planning to do around 180km. But how on earth do you sleep in a humid tent, in 30°C? As the hours ticked by, with me rolling around in my own sweat, I got a bit worried. How was I going to ride 180km without a good night’s rest? Eventually I did fall asleep, but only for about three-and-a-half hours.
I woke just after 04:00, loaded my bike and rode for about one kilometre to the starting point of my journey, Fugeijiao Lighthouse. Despite the lack of sleep, my adrenalin was pumping. I was excited and ready for the big adventure that lay ahead! At exactly 05:45 I took a picture of myself and my bike in front of the lighthouse, jumped on my metal steed and took to the road. Man, was I in high spirits! I had such a good feeling about this adventure … everything felt so right. And so it was for about five kilometres.
After stopping for refreshments, I was ready to hit the road again. I gave my wheel the customary squeeze before getting on, and what a blow to the gut when I realised I had my first puncture just 15 minutes into my journey! I thought, “Here we go again, dejavu.” Well I did what I had to do, fixed the tube and hoped that it would be my first and last one. I’m pleased to report that that piece of bad luck was my full share for the whole trip. I guess the ‘Adventure Gods’ were just testing my commitment in that first half hour.
After this little hiccup, the day went quite smoothly and even the weather played along. Although the temperature hovered around 30°C, the humidity was bearable and the constant cloud cover neutralised the scorching punch of the sun. It also rained at very welcoming times. For most of the day I hugged the beautiful coastline and was constantly surrounded by lush green and imposing mountainous landscapes on my right and the outstretched blue of the Pacific Ocean on my left. Peaceful and quaint little fishing villages greeted me along the way and reminded me of the different world I found myself in; a far cry away from the hustle and bustle that is Taipei.
Throughout the day I maintained an average speed of just over 20km/h and reached the harbour town of Su-ao around 14:15, with 145km behind me. Tiredness started to creep in and although I only had another 35km or so to go, there was still half of the day’s climbing - up two long and winding mountain passes - in front of me. Along the way there were also a few tricky tunnels to negotiate, made even worse by all the heavy duty gravel trucks speeding past on shoulderless roads! Crazy! Well, I survived it and at around 17:00 my trusty steed and I galloped into the river valley town of Nan-ao. I had clocked 172km and eight-and-a-half hours in the saddle (my gat was lekker seer!). After a good meal, I rode on to find my overnight site a few kilometres up the river valley. It was a lovely little natural hot spring spot right next to the river, with a convenient soft and sandy bed for me to set up my tent on. I bathed in the cold river and then rewarded myself with an hour’s soak in the hot spring pool. It was just what the doctor ordered. I was content!
Day 1 in numbers: 179km completed; 3,800m total altitude gain; 12 hours on the road and 9 hours in the saddle.
After another restless night I got up at 04:15 and hit the road just before 06:00. I had to get an early start because if I had thought day one was a long day, I was in for a surprise on day two! Steep mountain passes were once again on the menu. However, the breathtaking views of the coastline, sometimes more than a hundred metres below me, made it all worthwhile. One of the great benefits of riding along the coast is the huge morale boost I got when I looked back at the distant coastline and realised just how far I had come … a concrete, visual confirmation of my progress.
At around 08:00, I stopped for a quick break after a big ‘up and down’ and it was here where I met a friendly Taiwanese guy on his bicycle, also on some crazy mission. He warned me about the long and dangerously narrow tunnels that were crowded with overloaded trucks, and which I would encounter for the next 30km or so. This stunningly rugged stretch of the coastline, which looked like Chapman’s Peak Drive on steroids, was hectic but memorable and boasted some of the most impressive views I’ve ever seen! After some hair-raising moments along the infamous and mountainous coastal road, I reached the turnoff to Taroko Gorge, Taiwan’s top tourist destination. From here, I slogged my way through the grimy city of Hualien for approximately 30km, with an acute pain in my hip. This was the first sign of discomfort so far on my journey, except, of course, for a ‘helse seer gat’. I tried not to focus on my hip and stretched regularly. Luckily it didn’t bother me too much for the rest of my journey. With Hualien City thankfully behind me I got onto Highway Nr. 11, excited about the prospect of eventually riding on a decent road, with proper shoulders. It was noon and I had clocked up about 90km, but still had another 138km to go. I was a little concerned, but had no option other than to keep going. And so I did; one pedal stroke at a time. By 14:00 I had 106km to go, at 16:00 74km, at 18:00 38km and at 20:00 just 5km left!
It was truly a long and gruelling day, but a fantastic experience. I had subjected my body to extremes I hadn’t known it was capable of. For the last hour-and-a-half I rode in darkness before I eventually rolled into a little coastal town called Dulan, where I camped out for the night on an allocated spot adjacent to the police station. It had showers and the police officers were so helpful and friendly! Now, that’s what I call police service! Another highlight of the day was when I passed the Tropic of Cancer monument, which represents the most eastern land spot in the world through which this latitude runs (of course only when looking at a ‘western’ map of the world).
Day 2 in numbers: 227km completed; 3,900m total altitude gain; 14.5 hours on the road and 11 hours in the saddle.
Day 3 started at an early 04:30 after another restless night! Guess I was just too tired and excited about the whole trip to really let myself shut down completely for a good night’s rest. Packing up and getting ready for the last day was characterised by monster mosquitoes attacking me! It was probably one of the most irritating 30 minutes of my life. They were huge! I hit the road just before 06:00 and this last day would be the shortest of the three, weighing in at around 160km. My route would take me through the coastal city of Taidong, along the south-east coast, past small fishing villages, over the southern central mountain range to the west coast, finishing it off with a nice gallop along the shoreline to Eluanbi, Kenting; the most southern tip of Taiwan and final destination of my ‘T2T’ journey. It was another great day of riding and I was amazed at how well my body held up. I experienced no pains or cramps in my legs, only some discomfort in a few overworked areas of my body. This day also saw the most rain of the three, so much so that I was bombarded with pellets of rain during the last 40km of my trip. The heavens opened up all its gates and I was totally drenched. I remember thinking, “Nice to end my wonderful journey on such a dramatic note!” I still felt strong during the last stretch and clocked an above average speed, adrenalin pushing me all the way. As I rolled into Kenting, my excitement rose as I saw the Eluanbi Lighthouse, my final destination, in the far distance getting closer and closer. I passed beautiful, sandy beaches and after a few more kilometres I was finally ‘there’ at exactly 16:30 in the afternoon, filled with elation and a great sense of achievement. I took a picture of myself in front of my bicycle, with the Eluanbi Lighthouse in the background, some 564km after my first photo in front of the Fugeijiao Lighthouse a few days back. Mission accomplished. Thank you Taiwan for one of the most memorable experiences of my life! Long live the spirit of adventure!
Day 3 in numbers: 158km completed; 2,200m total altitude gain; 10.5 hours on the road and 8 hours in the saddle.
Trip in numbers: 564km completed; 9,900m total altitude gain; 37 hours on the road; 28 hours in the saddle and R15,000 raised for the kids.