Taiwan’s Crumbling Canyons

In the early 1990s, the late pioneer Lonely Planet writer Robert Story, wrote that floating in southeastern Taitung’s Chihpen River Valley in Taiwan was about the closest one could get to finding nirvana. Today, it is threatened, battered by super typhoons that have caused entire mountainsides to collapse into the river. Some meteorologists have blamed the typhoons on human-induced climate change.

It is a devastating loss. In 2000, a friend and I found the river valley quite by mistake, and I couldn’t have agreed more with Story’s assessment. With its marble and limestone mountain walls narrowing to funnel crystal blue water into dreamy natural swimming pools, visitors could be forgiven for thinking that the mountains, the river, and the numerous waterfalls that spill down out of the jungle foliage had cast a spell.

Furthermore, according to Taiwanese conservationist Dr. Kurtis Pei, the Chihpen River Valley was the last place where otters were found on the island. They were thought to have been hunted to extinction in the mid-1980s. Macaques were still easy to see on my last visit there and my research partner even spotted a serow (Capricornisswinhoei), a goat-antelope with short sharp horns,ambling along some boulders in broad daylight. Feelings of having found a Taiwanese ecological paradise were, until quite recently, well-founded in the upstream section of the Chihpen River, as well as in other valleys.

Things have changed, and not only in Chihpen Valley. I often wondered, while back-floating in those secret jungle pools (other locations like Wulai and Yangminghan in the hills that ring Taipei City also host surprisingly blissful river valleys), if there was any way a place like this could be destroyed, perhaps ruined by mass tourism or other forms of “development.”

I figured tourism was out of the question. To reach the upstream sections of the Chihpen Valley requires fording deep and fast-moving streams and the mountains are so steep that vehicle access is impossible. Furthermore, downstream, where the mountains flatten out a bit, a very well-established hot spring resort area seems to satisfy the tourists who venture to far-flung Taitung County. “They could dam the river,” my friend suggested. I surmised that the water volume was too low to make a dam profitable. I was right on these two counts. But I hadn’t counted on another threat: climate change-induced super-typhoons.

In 2009, Typhoon Morakot slammed into Taitung County, turning the Chihpen Valley into a raging torrent that eroded hillsides at such speed that entire mountainsides collapsed, turning those Michelangelo-like masterpieces into broken piles of rubble. Downstream, entire hotels fell into the boiling river as the banks were eroded. Today, the Chihpen River Valley that Story wrote about and that I also enjoyed looks so different one could be forgiven that he’d taken a wrong turn and arrived at the wrong place.

Gone are the spectacular narrow canyon walls, washed away are the sandy beaches beside those dreamy pools. Boulders, rock piles, and harsh sunlight are what you’ll find today.

Morakot did so much damage in Kaohsiung County that even former President Ma Ying-Jiu, whose political leanings were clearly towards China, allowed the Dalia Lama to visit and give his blessings to the hardest hit areas where entire villages were buried in landslides.

Wulai, an aboriginal stronghold in the mountains south of Taipei City, is another of my favorite hiking and wild river-swimming destinations. My feelings about the remote upriver sections of this place were the same as those in Chihpen. It is too difficult for most tourists to get to, and, though dammed downstream near the town of Xindian, it would make no sense to construct a hydro-electric facility in these backwaters.

But again, I failed to take stronger-than-usual typhoons into consideration. Just two years after Morakot savaged Chihpen, Typhoon Soudelor came roaring into Wulaiand wrought the exact same type of destructionthat happened in Taitung. Mountainsides came crumbling down, bridges collapsed, hot spring hotels fell into the river, people died, and my private paradise pools were permanently transformed (although I should admit that a couple actually look even nicer, with new waterfalls streaming down the hillsides that were apparently ripped open from their former underground hiding places).

As sea temperatures increase, meteorologists say, typhoons are likely to become stronger and more unpredictable, and Taiwan is located right in what can be described as a “typhoon alley” between Japan and the Philippines. And this isn’t just wrecking the pretty gorges that delight river tracers such as myself—they’re endangering other sorts of tourists as well. Last year, a Japanese cyclist was killed by falling rock in Hualien County’s famous Taroko Gorge, and some tourists are now wearing protective helmets when visiting the popular gorge.

It is very likely that the increased velocity of the typhoons that are slamming the island are at least partly responsible for the geological instability that is causing the increasing rock falls in Taroko Gorge, which is one of Taiwan’s most famous tourists attractions.

What I am learning is that no place is safe from environmental devastation, even the remotest corners of the farthest rivers in places where few people ever visit. The Anthropocene Era is more than Homo sapiens leveling rainforests and replacing them with oil palm plantations, filling the oceans with plastic, and killing off most of the planet’s wildlife./ We’ve also changed the weather, and the Pandora’s box that we’ve now thrown open will, in addition to putting human lives at risk, begin leveling the prettiest places you’ve never even heard of.

Gregory McCann is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel and the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID. He is the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor, and you can support his current conservation project in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park here.