ADVENTURE #91 — Mount Rinjani, Lombok, Indonesia

6 10 2013

At 12,224 feet, this active volcano on the tropical island of Lombok (Indonesia) was a serious hiking challenge and a chance for Queenie and I to put all our training in Taiwan’s mountains to use.

You can learn all about it here:

What we'd done

What we’d done

After taking a rather thrilling ride on a fast boat from Bali, Queenie and I walked off the beach and found the trekking outfitter we were in search of within a few minutes.  I told them exactly what I wanted to do:  3 days, 2 nights, going up via the savannah grassland to the crater rim, making the summit attempt the next morning, then descending to the crater lake and going up and over the other side of the lip into the rainforest.

Now, it is in the economic interest of these entities to say yes to any such request, without any questions about the fitness or preparedness of the trekkers.  After all, if the clients fail to make it and turn back, the company has still made its money, so why deter anyone?  Whether we could actually do it, with or without a guide to show us the way, was the question that I pondered as I fell asleep early, awaiting the 5 a.m. departure by car to the foot of the mountain.

DAY 1 – The Savannah

We had a great team, consisting of a New Zealander (who we separated with due to different itineraries) and a young Belgian couple who went all the way with us.  Then we had four porters and a guide.  We made our way gradually up through a dry savannah, where a recent fire had razed a long flow of grass into a river of ash.  We went through the occasional copse of trees, but generally the sun was the enemy all day.  Then turning steeply uphill, we could feel the air getting colder as we hauled up an increasingly steep slope until we were almost on our hands.  Then we mounted the crater lip.


Into the belt of forest

Into the belt of forest

The safari-like feeling of trekking easily through the savannah was priceless, but jaw-dropping was the view as the clouds within the crater blew out, and I took my first look inside this hollow of the mountain (a caldera), with its blissful meadows, dramatic cliffs, placid lake, foothills, and forests out of a dream, woods that were totally out of character for Indonesia.  From the crater lip, one could look outside and see in the distance the signs of mankind in the form of roads or city lights.  Looking into this land cutoff from the outside, there was a pure landscape of nature un-”developed” by humans.  It was an oasis of peace floating a full day’s walk into the sky, with even the reminders of civilization blocked from view by cliffs all round.  Something about the land inside the crater was like the world of a video game, bordered by a sheer wall, but with various sub-locations within:  mountain passes in the rocky cliffs, the vast, foggy lake, the shrubby island and volcano in the center, the pine forest on the other side, a dry, dustland of volcanic powder, and of course, an idyllic, sunny grassland with hotsprings and waterfalls.  You could design a Zelda overworld just like it to scale.

Tomorrow's challenge

Tomorrow’s challenge

DAY 2 – The Summit

Waking up at 2:30 a.m., we ate some corn flakes with milk, dressed against the bitter cold and made way for the summit at 3 a.m.  The moon was so bright we didn’t even need our SureFire flashlights until much later, when the moon set and left the world truly dark until sunrise.

In silence we watched our shadows as cast by the moon on the steep, moon-like landscape of gray powder and gravel.  The air in our lungs was cold, but strenuous effort soon had us so hot we were stripping the layers off.  I’m proud to say I carried the backpack with all of my and Queenie’s things the whole way.  Each step caused you to slide backwards, so progress was agonizingly slow.  At last we spent a long, long time fighting a slope about the breadth of a sidewalk, with a sloping drop on either side that would prove fatal to fall down.  Again, luck was with us, for not only was the moon so bright but the wind was very calm, only blowing a little dust into our faces.

The last 200 meters was hellish.  The slope was incredibly steep, and we were on gray sand and smooth pebbles of scree.  For every two feet you steeped, you seemed to slide back one and a half.  The summit was in sight, as a line of headlines terminated in the blackness just above (we were one of the last parties to start and had camped farthest from the summit.  I’m proud to say Queenie and I were actually passing other climbers who’d started earlier most of the way up, and this is where our conditioning really told and paid off).  At the altitude, air was a little more scarce and so we often took five or six steps and then paused to catch our wind, then summoned up the effort for a few more steps.  It was miserably slow going, but we battled through it and reached the summit just after sunrise, though we got a great show of light on that last slope to the top, which was better than waiting for it with shivers.

Afterglow of achievement

Afterglow of achievement



We ate chocolate chip cookies at the top, stood on the summit, and let ourselves be awed by the views.  Then, with the sun up to light the way and warm our faces, we started down.  Not only were we walking downhill with ease now, now we could look around and savor all the sights of that breathtaking mountain.  The hard part was over, and we’d done it.  Lots of people made it to the top, and they impressed me greatly.  I’ve hiked ALOT and this WAS NOT easy in the least.  All of us were in in various states of elation and suffering, but many who tried never got close.  Queenie and I had done it very fast, and we felt exhausted, but great.  We were among the lucky who had pushed ourselves hard but not overexerted ourselves to injury, strain, sickness, or threadbare levels of energy.  It was a solid climb and, once over, our strength began to return nicely.  We really felt all our hiking in Taiwan had paid off and allowed us to finish strong and happy.  This is said by guides and tourists alike to be the hardest mountain in Indonesia, and we were warned how difficult it would be by other trekkers who’d done it the day before.  The challenge didn’t disappoint.  All who made it were heroes:  nobody you see on the summit got there without alot of willpower, so congratulations again to all who’ve done this trek and made it.  I try to imagine those who have done this before and after us without the perfect weather and conditions we enjoyed.  In the rain it would be a nightmare and gusts of wind would have been a sour pestilence up there.  Uninviting and fickle are high summits, harsh and not a place man can stay for long.  But we all got a hard-earned dose of that calm that resides there, and a very well deserved breath of the keen air and as much beauty as our eyes could take in.  Is 6 hours of hard trudging worth 15-30 minutes on a summit.  ABSOLUTELY.

The last trudge

The last trudge


DAY 2 – The Lake and Hot Springs

When we got back to camp, the porters had our breakfast ready:  coffee and tea, guava juice, sandwiches, fresh fruit, and other snacks.  It was heavenly.  Then we rested until our party assembled, and we set off down into the heart of the crater.  We’d already done way more than your average day hike between 3 a.m. and 9 a.m., but we had a whole day’s hard haul ahead of us.

The way down was treacherous with rocky scrambles, where tumbles would have been most injurious, but we made it without incident down to a gorgeous meadow of grass between two cliffs and the lake.  While the porters and guide got our lunch ready, we took a long, much-needed period of rest by the lake, in which we all trooped down to the natural hot springs to wash off all the dust and oil we’d accumulated.  What a miracle of nature that hot spring was, as you will see.

Camp at the lake

Camp at the lake


DAY 3 – Up and Over Again

Now we had to go to the far shore of the lake and begin a climb through a totally new type of environment, with the aim of reaching camp on the crater lip by nightfall.  The forest here was quite similar to the Smokies, with the same kind of trees and the same wet, white mist — a strange place to find yourself while still inside a volcano caldera.  We barely made it out before sunset, but it’s amazing how far and how many hours your body can do in a day if put to the task.  Looking back at the summit we’d so recently stood on from so far away with such a huge gulf of elevation between us was extremely fulfilling.  Knowing we’d stood on that summit at sunrise, descended to the shore of the lake, and gone up the opposite end of Rinjani since then was perhaps the best part of our vacation.



Popping back out of that sunken land, which had seemed like a lost world, and suddenly looking at the outside again and the traces of civilization far away near the coast of Lombok was a little heartbreaking.  It had been good to enjoy the world of untouched nature, high over the clouds so far away.  When the sun went down, I knew I’d see the lights of the modern world again, and I did, but not before a glorious sunset over the island of Bali.

DAY 3 – The Rainforest

At last on the third day our long efforts told more heavily on us.  Many trekkers in other groups had blisters, illnesses, aches, and other maladies besides exhaustion.  Our muscles were starting to signal to Queenie and I that they would be having their words soon, if not after this was over then before.  The stiffness took a lot more work to coax away, but soon we were moving as usual with warm legs.  Getting into the jungle was nice, but it was also similar to trekking in Taiwan, and I think most everybody coming down the mountain was just ready for it all the be over.  We’d hit all the highlights, and now we just wanted out.  But we were still a long way from home.  Stops for meals were nice, but it was a long, somewhat grueling day of 3 hour marches and brief halts.  At this point, the scenery was just a leafy mass, without even a monkey to assail us and arrest our thoughts, so I, personally, went into la-la land in my mind.  As I often have on long hikes, especially alone, I just tuned out and let my mind wonder down a thousand weird and random alleyways, waiting to snap of out it when a few more hours and kilometers of progress had led to some new development in the situation.  I think most of us were on automatic pilot all day.  At least the land, which had started its decline steeply, leveled out slowly as we progressed.  At the end, our hearts sang and we walked on quick and merrily as we did the last kilometers on practically level ground in the shade.  Then that wonderful mechanism of the human mind kicked in, and it was easy to wipe the dust off our hands and feel like, “Done.  That wasn’t too bad.”  We hopped in an awaiting van and how good it felt to sit brain-dead and exhausted in that car and watch the farmland of Lombok roll by.

Final Thoughts

We could not have been more lucky.  We had no rain at all, practically a full moon every night, and the weather was an alternating mix of morale-boosting sunshine and cooling cloud-cover.  We enjoyed light winds to cool us off when we were hot, but no frigid wind blowing us off the summit.  The timing was truly perfect for this trek.  Our team was a great match, because we all completed the marches at more-or-less the same time, arriving within a quarter hour of each other at each halt or camp.  For all that, the mountain took a heavy toll on its guests, and Queenie and I had to take our game up a notch but ultimately came out very well.  A day or two of stiff legs and pain when walking down stairs was all we suffered afterwards, and now we feel stronger than ever.  It was humbling to see porters with 50 or more kgs on a bamboo pole over one shoulder doing steep ascents in flip-flops.  Sure they took some shortcuts when we took the scenic route, and they didn’t detour up to the summit and back to camp 1, but these guys were hardcore nonetheless, though they smoked about 20 cigarettes a day and littered like madmen.  Sometimes going ahead and sometimes coming up behind, they were always at camp when they needed to be and cooked up way nicer food than any hiker expects to eat on a 3 day mission.  The tents and sleeping bags were good, and we were never without water.

Mount Rinjani is special, for many reasons.  It is special as a unique and dramatic creation of nature that cleanses of the soul of anyone who journeys into its high, hidden valley of wonders.  It’s unique for all its diversity in such a small, inaccessible place.  It coats you in dust and then showers you with steamy hot water.  But I’m not going to go poetically into the all my five senses got out of this journey.  When I got back to civilization, I had leveled up.  My mental experience and maturity, and my body had broken a plateau.  Everytime I do something like this, my perspective and my priorities evolve a little.  Three days gone to the mountain and you come back a little changed, ready to face whatever’s next in life, refreshed and ready to tackle full-on your next priorities.  It’s like a chapter break in your story.

A land uninhabited

A land uninhabited

Rinjani is also special because of where it is and that it’s convenient to Bali.  I’ve never been a person who could tolerate too much comfort for long.  Eating three square meals, working, driving, and generally living a responsible modern life without being active drives me mad after about a week.  I can’t go coop myself up in a resort.  It’s the equivalent to eating nothing but candy and sweets for every meal and makes me sick.  But if you climb Rinjani over three days of hardship, what better place to reward yourself with some chilling out than in Bali, just a boat ride away?

After we’d pushed ourselves hard and tasted the bitterness on the mountain, Queenie and I found ourselves about a day later enjoying a private thatched-roof cottage, with a Balinese outdoor bathroom and top-notch resort facilities.  We ate our fill of amazing food, surfed in the mornings, laid by the pool, and generally enjoyed a good, slow-paced few days of rest the like of which can only been had on that amazing island called Bali.  Going from trudging up a slope of gravel in the 4 a.m. cold, more than a day from all help and a long way from a shower — to having a lamp-lit Indonesian dinner in a garden and getting in-room massages in your private cottage was quite a sweet leap.  The soul, or at least my soul, needs the strain and the challenge of hardship and the basking in comfort in equal measure.  Adventure is an addiction, no mistake, but one that builds you up rather than tears you down — I feel a stronger hiker than ever, even as I’m about to turn 29.  I feasted on adventure in Bali and Lombok, then I feasted on the food, comfy beds, cheap massages, and chocolate milkshakes.  Adventure doesn’t steal my sweet sleep like other addictions do, it grants it to me.


2 02 2013

If you subscribe to this blog, you may be saying, “Wow!  It’s been a LONG time since he’s posted.”

But I hope, if you like this blog and relish adventure, you’ll say it was worth it when I announce that over the last 15-17 months or so, I’ve been on an expedition through pages never written, uncovering a new world in my mind, authoring a short story series all about adventure.

The result:

The Adventures of Chadwick Yates will be available for purchase on Valentine’s Day.  The first book is called Chadwick Yates and the Cannibal Shrine.

Give me a Valentine’s Day present by having a read and letting me know what you think.  I’d appreciate comments of any kind.

I’ve also built a website about the world of these stories:

ADVENTURE #90 — The Jingtong Triple Crown

4 08 2012

At 5:30 a.m., a single tiny train, made up of only 3 cars, was rolling into Jingtong Station, a rural and final station far from any main thoroughfare.  If an observer had been looking into the cars, he would have thought the train was completely empty.  He’d have been wrong.

I was lying on the padded bench seat with my arms folded over my chest and my backpack under my head as a pillow.  All that was lacking was a fedora to make the Indiana Jones image (I like to think, anyway).  The mechanical behemoth, single pilot and single passenger (me), had rattled through the darkness of tunnels and deep forests for an hour, the wheels screeching and hissing in the turns, the doors sometimes opening to let in the humid morning air at stops where no one got on and no one got off.  All the while I rested in total privacy, my bed flying along the tracks.

My cell phone alarm went off just as the train was slowing to stop at the last station, and I sat up as the doors opened.  I stood, said to myself, “And here we go,” and walked onto the deserted platform.

The sun hadn’t fully come up, but there was plenty of light.  I set my boots to the road, and so my adventure began.  I had my favorite Patagonia rock climbing pants (which really are the best hiking pants) and my blue adventure shirt, with a small pack containing a little bread, a little water, and a pack of M&Ms.

I had a tough mission today.  The first phase was summiting 2 peaks called Stone Bamboo Shoot and Shulung Peak, respectively, both pretty impressive spires of rock with sheer drops.  They are not on the same ridge, so that one must descend all the way down to the starting level and haul oneself back up from the valley floor again to reach the other peak.  They can be done as two separate hikes, since they are really two unlinked adventures.  But knocking out both was just phase 1, and an easy phase 1.  I will let the words of the guidebook explain:  “Tackled separately, either of the summits would make for an exciting 2 or 3-hour hike … For something altogether more challenging, combine one of them with the third (and much more strenuous) summit, Fengtou Peak for a hike that’ll take most of the day.  Super-fit hikers might even be able to tackle all three in one go with an early start, but that would be quite a feat.

Now how could I, the Pterodactyl, resist a challenge like that?

I would have to navigate all 3 peaks, doing the easiest two first, and saving the peak rated “Very Strenuous” for last of all, a climb back up from the valley for the third time, which by itself was estimated to take 5 hours to complete.  The book allowed 2 to 3 hours for the first two, EACH, putting the most conservative total time at 9 hours, with the trickiest and most dangerous rock scrambles coming on the final descent off the 3rd peak.

For this reason, I decided not to bother with the camera.  Perhaps I’ll get some film of this terrain on a later trip, or maybe I’ll just save the sights for myself.  It was, in short, the best adventure I’ve had in Taiwan yet.

I have been in true jungle before.  Not rainforest, but jungle.  In Cambodia, in Thailand, and in Malaysia, I have seen the real stuffy, steaming, creature-teeming bush that typifies what most of us think of when the words jungle is uttered.

This was dense, true jungle at its finest, and I reached a level of progression with that, of acceptance of that, which I’m still enjoying the afterglow of.

The first creature I saw was a snail the size of my fist.  The next was a monkey.  Like so many trails in Taiwan, this path consisted of lots and lots of 5 to 20 foot scrambles up rock and dirt where usually some old rope has been tied to help out.  But this was different.  The jungle was thicker than any off-trail route I’ve done in the Smoky Mountains.

Let me give you a picture of what I mean:  imagine a thick underbrush including elephant ears, tall grasses, and broad-leafed palm-life plants is obscuring the six-inch wide trace as high as your knees.  You know there is a trail there, but you can’t see what you’re stepping on.  Sometimes it’s up to your waist.  Sometimes you’re pushing through grass with your shoulders.  Most of the time, the plants, hillside, boulders, or tree trunks are right about elbow or shoulder level on either side of you, and there are typically low branches and limbs just above your head.  The jungle is teeming with life.  Butterflies dance on the air all around you, dragonflies buzz within inches of your face, hornets and cicadas make a racket when you pass, and you must check every thin tree before you grab it to haul yourself up the next scramble, because there is probably something crawling up it.  I nearly grabbed a gecko-type lizard when I went to grab a branch for support, and probably no less than a hundred times did I nearly run through a spider web.  And when I say spider web, I mean a spider net that spans the trail, made by a weaver the size of my palm.  For the entire length of this jungle journey, I did not see another human soul.  I was under a canopy so thick it stayed dark and shadowy even at 1 o’ clock in the afternoon.  When a brief rain shower hit, I didn’t get wet.

I saw a yellow snake on the path, I surprised tropical, beautifully colored birds who flew out from hiding at my approach.  I saw wooly insects I’ve never seen before.  I saw dozens and dozens of lizards and salamanders.  It seems there was a spider web every 10 feet.

Like so many off-trail hikes I have done before, this was a completely acrobatic hike.  It was a full-body endeavor, using my arms to climb and lower, climbing over fallen trees and obstructions, ducking under others, sliding sideways down slopes, going on all fours over roots and under bushes.  I was crouching and leaping down drops, swinging from branches, and walking as if on ice over mossy stones in jungle streams.

I hit the peak of the Stone Bamboo Shoot for a dramatic bit of air and a look down a sheer precipice to the jungle floor, then I went down through a dark valley, then up again to the next peak.

I reflected on how in those same pants and that same shirt I had stood looking across the ridges of Tennessee, which go back and back, getting grayer and grayer like so many ripples in the sea — how I had looked from them far away across the seas to where I stood now, looking at a totally different and tropical landscape full of all the exotic life I could imagine.

And somewhere between the snake and the screaming, unknown insects which hummed in the air around me, somewhere on my way up the even more dense third peak, my growing peace with the jungle became absolute.

My friends will recall me mentioning this before — that being in jungle like that is like being in a cave.  When you’re in a cave, your mind is completely switched on.  Your senses have an alert focus as no other time can equal.  You looks with flitting eyes like a squirrel carefully over everything ahead, because in a confined space with inflexible walls you don’t want to run into anything you don’t expect.  Stalking through the jungle, pushing thick vegetation out of the way in front of you and having your senses assaulted by more information than they can process is alot like that.  Where every branch, mossy rock, and clump of grass is teeming with life, where a pattern of vines, roots, trunks and leaves make a more elaborate pattern than an Arabian carpet, you are in sensory overload.  But for a hike as long as the one I was planning, remaining that switched on, over-alert state would be exhausting and tedious beyond all reason.

So I let go.  I accepted that the camouflage of prey animals was more advanced than my senses, that if I was going to run into something, I wouldn’t see it until I was inches away, and I did pass probably within 8 inches of that snake I spotted willingly.

I went forward, completely present and in-the-moment, attuned to my senses, but in a relaxed, passive way.  I stopped trying to spot things and let myself notice things.  I pushed at an energetic pace forward, not afraid of what might be in that netting of branches over my head, on what I might squash if I grab that limb, on what might be in the deep grass I’m plunging my foot into.

Over the difficult terrain full of steep drops, rope-descents, and ankle-twisting narrow ledges of rock and slopes of loose dirt I plunged ahead without nervousness but with readiness, without fear but with acceptance.  I don’t have to be okay with everything in the jungle — but I have to be okay with the jungle, with being submerged in it like the dark lakes and forest pools I have willingly leapt into, not knowing what all swam within.  It is an exercise in mental control, like swimming in a black, dark lake of still water after nightfall.  The fear of swimming in dark, deep water is all in the mind, and I had conquered that before.  This was much the same — not allowing my mind to suggest vague possibilities and terrible tragedies that could happen, and so waste my mental energy looking out for these ghosts.  Instead, I appreciated the beauty around me and all the life that entered my eyes and shared space with my soul.

I climbed into a tree and perched, Pterodactyl-like on a branch for a while, and I enjoyed the remoteness of being miles up into the jungle alone, floating above the ridgetop in the canopy, breathing the breath of life that is inseparable from danger.  I climbed up a rock and stuck my head over, only to see at least a 200-foot drop right before my fingertips.

Going alone is not just an athletic proposition.  It is an exercise of the will, from the time you get up at 3:30 in the morning rather than staying in bed, to the point at which you get lost and realize how far you are from finished, but remain calm and carefully find the trace again.  That happened to me in a grove of bamboo, where the path of least resistance could be in any direction, and I stayed lost for perhaps a quarter of an hour, but I never panicked, just as I didn’t panic when I saw a tropical snake I’d never seen before just in front of me.  Going alone is about not having someone else to distract your thoughts, but facing all your irrationality, all your doubts, learning to overcome thoughts of what would happen if… and trusting entirely in yourself to be right know the best course.  It is about having the faith in yourself that other people so easily put in you.  It’s easy to say to another, “Oh, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” whether you’re talking about a mid-term or a skydive, but it’s not so easy to say to yourself, “Ah, I’ll be fine.”  It is about being in control of your own mind and thoughts and using your courage to calm doubts as often as they bubble up through the calm pool of your soul.

As I said, I had been in the jungle before, but for the first time, I truly tuned in to the jungle, and I was one with it, and I was part of it.  As I went inside of it, so it also went inside of me.

Well the score tallies like this.  The guidebook said the first two peaks should take 2-3 hours each.  I did both in 3 hours.  The last peak was supposed to take 5 hours.  Even after having knocked out the first two, I finished it in only 4 hours.  If I had stayed switched-on and cautious, always scanning the terrain instead of just charging ahead, I never could have done that.  I spent 7 hours alone in the jungle, with the birds, the lizards, the dragonflies, the monkeys, the roots, the vines, and the trees.  I walked a far-flung rural lane in search of my way home, and along that quiet lane there was a stream with a few shady pools.  I went down onto the big gray rocks and took off some clothes and took a little bath.

My pants were still streaked with brown mud like tiger-stripes, and my adventure shirt got hung on the outside of my pack and replaced with a clean gray T-shirt from within it when I’d finished.  With my body clean  and dried in the wind, and with my hair wet and the insect bites blooming up on my washed arms, I started walking the road again.  It took about 20 minutes to get to a bus stop that’s so out of the way buses don’t stop unless you flag them down.  No one was at that bus stop, just as no one had been on the train.  I caught a bus and rode for another quarter hour or so into the little village of Jingtong, where I caught my train home, feeling the kind of exhaustion that makes you smile like you’re holding up a trophy.

It had been, as the guidebook had said, “quite a feat,” and one that served to take my game one step up higher up than it had been the day before.

And I know to the world, the accomplishment I am so proud of means nothing.  No one will clap for me.  It won’t earn me any money or win me any respect.  Girls won’t be more attracted to me because of this.  I won’t be mentioned in a guidebook or write about it on a resume.  I won’t live longer or meet new friends because of it.  I won’t get closer to the god of some religion or another.

As a newspaper reporter, I was frequently reminded that of all the questions you can ask, “Why?” is the most important.  Yet it is a wondrous paradox that in commercial and interpersonal affairs the “Why?” is almost too simple to figure out, whereas in natural matters the question leads to real speculation that gives the mind fuel for progress.  All those years ago, in Japan, when I read “Mountaineering:  Freedom of the Hills” cover-to-cover, I smiled at the adage in the front cover:  “Why do we climb mountains?  Because they’re there.”

I’m not the first to figure this out, because the title of the aforementioned textbook contains the word “freedom.”  People talk alot of smack about the loaded word freedom, attaching it to photos and speeches about soldiers following orders overseas, about democratic processes, about gay rights or fighting racism or whatever.  Dictatorships and religious persecution and all that are bad, yes.  Yet I’m always shocked by the much more relevant, down-to-the-ground personal prisons that people dig themselves into.  Prisons of scheduling, prisons of attachment, prisons of debt, prisons of fear and laziness and security and complacency.

A spoonful of freedom, or maybe a mug full, is getting up and going into the jungle alone to explore, not held back from going by other engagements (I skipped out on a party for this), the worrying of others or yourself, economic constraints, time constraints, fitness constraints, laziness, or anything else in the world.  It’s letting your roar, (or in my case, squawk) be heard from mountaintops of the far reaches of the good earth, and standing alone as untamed as the wild.


19 04 2012

Jinghuashi is a little tourist town nearby to Jiufen, where I have found my favorite teahouse.  Jinghuashi is also the home of the Gold Ecological Park, an outdoor history museum with a theme park feel and many trailheads leading up to picturesque peaks.  There is, as the guidebook points out, still gold to be mined in these mountains, but the Japanese-built labyrinth of mining passages are now set up to bring in money from tourist pockets rather than ore bodies, a wonderful adjustment of the economic machine.

I got a late start as always, but having found my way to the gold park entrance, I began cruising up a flight of rough old stairs into the hills, where I was to take a soul-bath in strong breeze, blue sky and sunlight.

There was the ruin of a Shinto Shrine not far up into the hills, with columns supporting nothing like a ruin in Greece.

From there I explored an open, canyon mine, then went off-trailing with ribbons up to the highest peak.  From there I skipped across the rocky ridges to the peaks of Banping and Teapot Mountains, which involved a ladder-steep climb through a rock-crack using fixed lines.  Teapot mountain can be climbed by going inside it like a little cave and climbing up through the middle.  Obviously I monkeyed around all over it.

Then at last I made my way down and back to the gold park, having made a giant circle, tapping each peak around it.  Also, there was some cool steam-powered gear and a copper precipitation tank.


19 04 2012

My brave Taiwanese confederate has now officially been inducted into the Brad Williams Adventure Club:  our first hike together was disastrous.

Let me just reminisce a bit:

1.  Rob Baldus’s first big adventure with me was when we went off-trailing up Devil’s Den in search of the Catstairs, ran out of water, and called the Rangers for advice.  We ended up backtracking the way we’d come all the way out, drinking straight out of a stream to rehydrate and then footing it through the pitch black woods by headlamp to the car.  Turns out we were actually sitting right on the path down and would have saved a ton of time had we kept going forward instead of backtracking.  Live and learn.  When you’re seriously dehydrated and baking in the heat of a waterless ridge you don’t take chances.

2.  Matt Dischner’s first hike with Rob and I involved scrambling up a treacherous waterway off trail above Grotto Falls, then up a ridiculously steep hill through underbrush, briars, and leaves to get back to the main trail.

3.  Joannie’s first hike with me was off-trailing to Mt. Camerer to the firetower, in an all-day downpour.  Even poor River-the-dog was soaked to the bone as we walked in a trail-turned-stream home.

4.  Tim’s first adventure with just me was when we went vainly searching for rock climbing routes at Buzzard Point, which involved an undue amount of off-trail searching and a single climb that was woefully unprotected.

For whatever reason, Fate dictates that a person’s first mission with Brad Williams be doomed to some kind of failure or at least considerable discomfort.

Anna is now 5. on the list.


Everything started out fine:  we climbed a steep valley through a break in the seaside mountains along the Yilan coast.  We reached a summit, the path leveled, and we entered the miles of grassland ridge pasture that runs parrallel to the towards the Caoling Historic Trail, which I had hiked earlier.  But the last place you want to find yourself in a drenching downpour and furious sea-wind is on an exposed grassland with no windbreaks and no trees right in the full force of an ocean-born storm.  We had to walk with our arms bent at the elbow shielding our faces as the sidelong wind cut into us, with enough force to affect our balance.  Worse, the ancient stone slabs that serve as stairs in places are so weathered as to be as slick as submerged rocks when wet.  We had four kilometers of hard going in the driving rain, which kept us shivering and squinting against the rain for a long, long time.  The careful steps we had to take on the stairs and the rests we needed from the constant ups-and-downs of the ridge made the trek take us at least an hour.  It’s one thing to be cold and wet when you can move fast to stay warm, but when you’re slowed to a careful crawl so as not to tumble down thirty feet of stone steps, it’s another thing altogether.

But by the time we reached the long winding gravel road that leads down the mountain from the Caoling trail to the end train station, the rain and the wind let up and our strength returned.  For all our hardships, and even when we were only half way across that hellish pass, Anna never complained once.  I told her I was sorry about getting her into this misery, but she told me in the strictest terms that she came of her own initiative and was responsible for herself, so she wanted no sympathy or apologies.  Not only had she not complained, she had often smiled.

We reached a massive temple that lies in Dali, where we warmed ourselves by the temple furnace.

We had to wait in the lonely train station for an hour to get on the first train heading towards Keelung, which put us at nearly 4 hours total in soaking wet, cold clothes.

When I finally got home, it was the best hot shower I’ve ever felt in my life, and I savored the thick steam for a long time, complete with a dash of something to get the cold out.  If only those mountain pastures had had a St. Bernard to bring it to me earlier.


The story behind the video:  So, I showed Anna a funny OkCupid photo.  In this photo, the hopeful girl who’s on the dating website looking for a boyfriend posted a photo of herself getting bit on the face by a cat while making a duck face.  I explained how funny it was to me and how not sexy it was.  This led to me explaining to Anna what a “duck face” is and my subsequent success at directly translating it into Chinese.  It has since been a bit of an inside joke since.


19 04 2012

This was a wonderfully diverse adventure for me; I

1.  Took a bus from Keelung to Jinshan, a beach down near me, for the first time.

2.  Explored Jinshan and started on foot down a long, flat highway leading in the direction of the mountains.

3.  Walked the road to the beginning of the ancient “Fish Road,” a partially stone, partially unsurfaced trail that a hundred years ago was the thoroughfare for merchants taking Jinshan’s fish catch to market in Taipei.  They literally carried them through the mountains via this path overnight for the morning fish market in Taipei, then came back in the afternoon.

4.  When the trail forked I went to investigate an old quarry area.

5.  Then I and my trusty SureFire flashlight took a peak in the ruins of an old boar hunter’s house.

6.  Then I spotted a cliff gushing steam and decided to backtrack down a fork in the trail to try and get to it.  After trying 3 or 4 possible traces heading in that direction, I finally found an offtrail path that led to it.  There were signs saying the area was off limits, but I figured I could plead ignorance on the basis of not reading Chinese.  “Well, Officer, in my country and big red circle with a line through it means you can go right in, honestly!”

7.  Climbed around on crumbly post-volcanic cliffs and found what appeared to be a Mako spring.

8.  Thrashed back through the high grass and bamboo to the trail, went up the “120 Steps.”

9.  Reached the gate of the buffalo grasslands.

10.  At this point I was in a white-out of gathering clouds, and I laid on my back in the grass.  With my eyes aimed at the sky I could see, even with them wide open, nothing but a pearly nothingness and black shadows of my own eyelashes.  It was so completely misty that I could have sworn I wasn’t in the world or that my eyes were closed.  I laid there for a long, long time just existing in the infinite, with no point of reference.

11.  Took a bus to back to Taipei and on to Keelung.



I should have added to this list the snake I spotted in a cave, the snake Rob saw in a cave without me one day, as well as the dead deer that Monica and I got to see and smell after it had washed into the same waist-deep waters as us in Chandler Cave.

There is one other thing of note though:  EPIC HIKING SAUSAGE DOGS!


17 04 2012

In this adventure, I

1:  Took a bus from Keelung to Taipei; subway to Beitou Station, bus to Yangmingshan, bus to a giant fumarole.

2.  Saw a giant missing chunk of mountain leaking steam and saw a natural mud puddle of BOILING WATER!

3.  Hiked to the tallest peak of 7 Star Mountain.

4.  I had been there before by a different route, so I descended on a path I’d never taken to Lengshuikeng.  Here I took a look at the sulfur-tinted “Milk Pond.”

5.  From there I crossed the suspension bridge and went through a glade to the familiar grasslands and then set off East into unfamiliar and empty countryside.

6.  After finding lots of fields, forest, ridges, wild oxen, and a beautifully old, damp green forest, I reached a road.

I estimate the hike, based on my guide book, to have been around 14 to 16 km at the lowest estimate.  I went a huge distance across the park.


So when I popped out on a road with no bus stop, I decided to ask some people standing nearby whether I should start walking the road right or left.  Simple question.  What I ended up getting was a long ride down a mountain road in an SUV with a Taiwanese mother, her son, and the kid’s grandparents.  I was dropped off, incredibly grateful, in Wanli, where I grabbed a bus back to Keelung.  It was an exhausting, thrilling, exquisite day.


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