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Day 16 |
Jun 08, 2014

Taroko National Park, Hualien, Taiwan  

By Dr Greg Calvert, Tropical Ecologist, Botanist & Herpetologist
N 24º10.858', E 121º30.53'
Air Temperature:
1012 hPa

Weather: Cloudy, late rain
Wind: 0-5 knots

I woke at 5.15am and went to the forward observation deck to watch the Silver Discoverer glide into Hualien Harbour. A tug boat met us with the customary maritime greeting of shooting great plumes of water from its water cannons, entirely obscuring the little tug. As we pulled alongside, there were traditional dancers greeting us and they waved a warm and friendly greeting as we came down the gangway at 7.30am. After the guests had cleared immigration, changed money and cast eyes over the beautiful pieces of jade, we boarded our buses for the trip to Taroko National Park.
Our first stop was at the gates that mark the entrance to the park. Towering rainforest-clad mountains rose high around us, obscured in places with swirling mist and low-hanging clouds. The river here was broad and braided, and the water milky and clouded with dissolved limestone from the mountain ranges. House Swifts and Barn Swallows zipped through the air in search of their insect prey. I was excited to see and photograph some Common Mapwing Butterflies (Cyrestis thyodamas), whose wing patterns are suggestive of the maps of old.

We continued on by bus to the Shakadang Trail; a breathtakingly scenic trail leading along the precipitous cliffs that overlook a tributary of the Liwu River, that had been hewn by hand from the marble cliffs. The walls of the trail were thickly covered in ferns, moss and leafy liverworts, and thick rainforest hung over the parts of the path not covered by rock overhangs. I got a call from Juan saying that there was a snake up ahead so I sped up my walking pace significantly. The snake was a female Taiwanese Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus stejnegeri); a highly venomous species found only on the island of Taiwan. It had adopted a classic ambush position and was not stressed in any way by the crowd of photographers gathered around it.

The geology of the gorge was the real star though, and I enthusiastically pointed out the visible contorted folds that bore evidence of the extreme forces that had metamorphosed the limestone range into marble.

Back on the bus, we continued on a short way to the Changehun Shrine (Eternal Spring Shrine). The place barely looked real – more like something from a fairy-tale comic book. A small collection of shrine buildings sat perched on a hill, with a waterfall emerging from under a small arched bridge. The mountains soared so high above them it dwarfed the shrine. We walked along a series of paths and tunnels to reach the shrine. Just before the shrine, a waterfall emerged from a cave in the cliff, and on either side was a Taiwanese Green Pit Viper; a male on the left and a female on the right. I was very excited to have seen three pit vipers before lunch! Above the shrine, Malcolm, Juan and I accompanied a few passengers into a disused cave but we found no cave dwellers. As everyone started to return, Malcolm and I spied another disused cave (possibly Guanyia Cave) and after a short exploration we found a colony of huge Horseshoe bats. We timed our visit to the shrine well, for the place became packed with literally thousands of Chinese tourists later in the afternoon.

Just before midday we left the shrine and drove to Buluowan and I assisted some fellow passengers in a walk from hell up an endless series of staircases until we finally reached the Leader Hotel. A sumptuous meal followed, and even though I couldn’t identify most menu items, we all felt adventurous. After lunch I went outside to look at the masses of Blue tiger butterflies and large bumblebees pollinating the Shell Ginger flowers. I showed off a huge female Golden Orb-weaver Spider (Nephila) on her web and on closer inspection I noticed a small male carefully trying to mate with her without being eaten.

We took in an interesting movie about the indigenous people of Taroko National Park in a special movie theatre. Even though it was in Taiwanese with Taiwanese subtitles, I personally thought the cinematography was excellent and the visuals told the story. It made a cool break at the hottest part of the day.

After leaving Buluowan, we drove past the famous Swallow Grotto which was unfortunately closed due to recent rockfalls, through several long tunnels and past the spectacular “Tunnel of 9 caves”. All the while we were driving we could see far below us the river swirling amongst giant marble boulders, which the mountains towered high above us. We stopped at a location the guides called “King Frog Rock”; a large stone massif that vaguely resembled a frog, and with a shrine perched on its head as a crown. Here we saw a few birds, including numerous Pacific Swifts, and a Plumeous Redstar jumping around on the marble rocks.

Our last stop was the Lushui Heliu Trail. The trail started out relatively easy, and then began to wind its way through forests of Taiwanese Oak and Flowering Ash (Fraxinus), until we found ourselves on a narrow ledge high above the Liwu River. This was not a good walk for those afraid of heights! As I passed through a 30m tunnel, it was total sensory blackout – total darkness, with only my sense of touch allowing me to feel my way. I reached the end of the track just as the rain began to fall. It had been overcast all day so I felt fortunate that it waited until the walk was over before it began raining. There was a rest stop and café at the end of the track, and I had a large glass of mango juice to celebrate the end of a great day. We piled back into the buses and drove for one and a quarter hours to get back to the Silver Discoverer.

Back on board, I was excited to see Rays video production of the voyage, and Mick got the Expedition Team up on stage so we could all say our thanks to everyone for making this a trip I would never forget.


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