Fri, Jul 27, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Off the Beaten Track: Making the most of the east coast

The Suhua highway boasts some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in Taiwan — and some great waterfalls too

By Richard Saunders  /  Contributing reporter

The impressive Aohua Waterfall in Yilan County drops into a huge plunge pool that’s great for swimming.

Photo: Richard Saunders

Taiwan has some spectacular coastal scenery and plenty of amazing waterfalls, but it’s unusual to enjoy both on the same trip. The Suhua Highway (蘇花公路), however, has both, and just a two-hour drive from Taipei. Despite the hassles of traveling along it, the highway between Yilan County’s Suao Township (蘇澳) and Hualien has perhaps the most spectacular coastal scenery in Taiwan, and when friends come to visit, I almost always tack on a drive along it either before or after the compulsory trip to Taroko Gorge. ah

The 118km-long Suhua Highway originated as one of three routes created to gain access to the interior and east coast of the island. The other two are the original Batongguan Old Trail (八通關古道) in Nantou and Hualien counties and the Jinshueiying Ancient Trail (浸水營古道).

The three routes were established after 54 shipwrecked Japanese sailors from the Ryuku Islands were killed by Aborigines in 1871 near the southern tip of the island. The Japanese used the incident to launch a brief invasion of Taiwan later the same year and, finding the feat unexpectedly easy, fomented plans for a second invasion attempt 14 years later, which was successful.

In the 1920s, the Japanese started building a gravel road (following a different, parallel route from the Qing-era path), and it was that which eventually became today’s Suhua Highway.

For decades after it opened to cars, the road was a one-lane affair, and vehicles had to take it in turns, traveling along sections and queuing at designated places to wait while traffic in the opposite direction was allowed through. I can attest that as late as the 1990s, several long tunnels were still one-lane affairs, and drivers faced an interminably long wait if they missed a green traffic light.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Aohua Waterfall is only accessible with private transport, such as a scooter, which can be rented at Suao or at Xincheng (新城) townships, the railway station at the foot of Taroko Gorge.


Things have improved greatly in the two decades since, and the current Suhua Highway Improvement Project (started in 2011 and slowly opening in sections) is seeing much more of the highway being burrowed into the cliffs, away from the hazards of falling rocks and landslides, as eight new tunnels are finished.

The first tunnels are already open, between Suao and Nanao (南澳) townships, and the old road between the towns (which can still be followed) is a delight to motor along nowadays, as there’s relatively little traffic.

Although wider and safer than a couple of decades ago, the Suhua Highway remains probably the riskiest of Taiwan’s major highways. It is fairly narrow in many places, often with a sheer drop into the ocean, and, to make matters worse, heavy lorries and other big vehicles continue to zoom along it at often unreasonable speeds, so driving it can be a nerve-wracking experience (now the summer holidays are underway, I wouldn’t dream of attempting it on the weekend). If you get good weather, though, it’s one of the nation’s most exhilarating drives.

WATERFALLS

There are at least five waterfalls either just off or close to the highway, and although two of them, including the wonderful upper Jinyue Waterfall (金岳瀑布), can only be reached by a river trace, the others are easy enough to visit.

The lower fall at Jinyue (which doubles as possibly Taiwan’s highest and scariest natural waterslide) is just a couple of minutes from the road turning off the Suhua Highway at Nanao in the direction of Jinyue (金岳). Follow the road up beside the stream, and leave your vehicle in the car park at the end. Walk down to the stream, and paddle up to the base of the waterfall, just a minute or two upstream.

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