On the east coast of Taiwan lies a natural wonder.
A wild river cuts its way through a mountain made of white marble.
Jungle-clad peaks thrust into cloud, holding aloft pagodas, shrines and temples. Nature goes big, and the visitor is awed by the majestic beauty, and silenced by the relentless roar of the river.
The place is Taroko Gorge National Park.
Located about an hour’s drive north of Taiwan’s major east coast city of Hualien, Taroko is one of eight national parks on the island.
Taiwan itself is about a 10-hour flight from Sydney. I flew courtesy of China Airlines, which offers regular services to Taipei with its fleet of new Airbus A-320s.
An industrial port city about the same size and feel as Newcastle, Hualien has a number of tourism operators offering bus tours to the gorge or you can hire a taxi for the day for about A$75.
As you approach the park there is an excellent visitors’ centre that is well worth a stop.
It not only provides an overview of the region’s geology, history and cultural legacy, but also updates on the state of the roads, which are occasionally closed by landslides.
As you drive up the river the mountains either side soon begin to close. The peaks become taller and more spectacular, looking more and more like a Chinese landscape painting.
Eventually the cliffs hit the vertical and every turn reveals new beauty.
The most breathtaking section is the tunnel of nine turns, a narrow and twisting section that takes its name from nine turns of a coiled Chinese dragon.
The visitor is dwarfed by the hundreds of metres of sheer marble cliffs that face off only 10metres apart.
At this point the rock contains and amplifies the sound to the point where conversation is difficult. This dragon roars.
The road’s route was initially carved by forced labor under the Japanese and later expanded into a highway by the new Taiwanese nation established in 1949. Many died in the building process, and a beautiful memorial placed over a waterfall, the Eternal Spring Shrine, is one of the most popular scenic attractions of the park.
But behind the picturesque serenity of the Asian architecture lie echoes of more ancient time.
The mountains are woven with walking trails, many following in the footsteps of the Truku people, the original inhabitants of the region who give the park its name.
The Truku are one of 12 recognised indigenous tribes in Taiwan and together they hold a special place in Pacific island history.
Archaeological, linguistic and DNA evidence tell us that about 5000 years ago the ancestors of these tribes began the Polynesian migration, populating islands from Palau to Easter Island, from Hawaii to New Zealand.
Until the Japanese stopped them during WWII, the Truku themselves remained tribal, feared as headhunters, their faces marked with tattoos.
That was then. These days the Truku are a lot more focused on eco-tourism, and just quietly do a mighty fine grilled pork rib at the combined hotel /restaurant and cultural centre they run in the heart of the park.
The Leader Village offers accommodation from small cottages for two through to shared dorms for larger groups. The park’s buildings are styled on the Truku’s traditional huts, and the centre is a performance space for indigenous music and dances.
The restaurant offers a tribal feast that has the traditional jungle foods presented in a modern fusion style, which I found to be the equal of any of the more urbane eateries in Taipei and Yilan.
If your tastes go to the more luxurious, then the Silks Hotel resort further up the river could also be considered.
The Silks features rooftop swimming pools and spa baths that allow you take in the splendour as it is always best experienced. Poolside with a cocktail.
Silks was as far upriver as our daytrip allowed and we returned to Hualien, loaded with photos and memories of one of the most spectacular sights that Asia has to offer.
For more information: