As white fog creeps into our cabin, I feel violent winds shake the small aircraft. When we land at the airstrip in Lanyu (蘭嶼), also known as Orchid Island, I see the ground crew applauding our pilots as if to salute their achievement.
The 20-minute trip from Taitung may have been bumpy, but we were lucky to arrive at all. Locals go out of their way to tell us that we visited the island at the wrong time, as strong winds and heavy rain are common during winter.
Flights and ferries are often canceled; restaurants and food stalls are closed.
Our hostess Jirina Han (韓秀蓉) is more diplomatic, calling us “the kind of tourists who want a little peace and quiet,” as she greets us in front of her eco-friendly guesthouse.
Located off Taiwan’s southeastern coast, Lanyu is home to the Tao (達悟) people, Aborigines who are believed to have migrated from the Batanes Islands in the Philippines approximately 800 years ago. They call the volcanic island Pongso no Tao, meaning “island of the people.”
We waste no time jumping on a rented scooter, coasting the main road that circles the isle and marveling at the geologic wonders left by volcanic activity.
We encounter spectacular sea caves and arches jutting out of the deep blue waters, where the sight and sound of crashing waves deafen and enthrall. Magnificent lava columns tower above the grass-covered shores, making it perfect for a picnic.
Known by its Han-Chinese name of five-hole cave (五孔洞), this popular geological site on the island’s northern end exudes an eerie, mysterious atmosphere. Devoid of visitors in winter, the colossal connected caverns feel like they belong in a surreal dream, with animal skeletons scattered about and crucifixes erected by local churches. Adding to the unease is a lingering traditional Tao belief regarding the place as a dwelling of anito, or evil spirits.
The 38km road that rings the island connects Lanyu’s six villages. Most Han inhabitants live in the Yayo (椰油) and Imowrod (紅頭) hamlets on the west side. The harbor, airport, health center and district office are located here, along with the island’s only ATM, gas station and 7-Eleven convenience store.
Another scenic road bisects the island, linking Imowrod and Ivalino (野銀) village on the east side. On a sunny day, the weather station atop the central ridge offers an open view of the sea and a haven of tranquility and solitude guarded by a lone, friendly dog.
It takes one hour to circle Lanyu on a motorbike. But we move at a slow pace, struggling to stay upright amid gale-force winds, which blow in from the Ocean from October to February, while trying to avoid hitting the free-roaming flocks of goats. The Tao regard their livestock, mostly pigs and goats, as a token of wealth, and do not rear them in pens. Consequently, they can be seen everywhere, from rooftops to the edges of cliffs.
Locals tell us that if a driver accidentally kills a goat, the compensation is a minimum NT$8,000. Ownership is easily determined with distinct marks on the animals, and the same system applies to trees in the forest, which are a valued resource for building traditional canoes known as tatala.
Miraculously, we see two sunny days during our visit. We take advantage of the weather to take a dip in a coral pool of calm, turquoise water, located five minutes on foot from our guesthouse. Apparently, it is a playground for local kids. A boy tells us he often visits this “secret spot” to dive and “look for sea snakes.”