Years ago Sam and I did a road trip to Adelaide via the Great Ocean Road along Victoria’s rugged coastline. Sam quite liked the Twelve Apostles, but for the most part he thought it all a bit ho-hum. How could anyone possibly find the drive along that spectacular coastline ordinary? Once I travelled to Hualien along the coastal road I began to understand.
Highway number 9 travels along Taiwan’s rugged East coast. The particularly spectacular part is the 118km stretch between the town of Su’ao in the north, and Hualien. The mountains pretty much drop down to the sea, and so until the highway was built Hualien was quite isolated from northern Taiwan. The building of the highway was a feat of pure will. In part, it was designed to put to use KMT army manpower laid idle following its retreat to Taiwan following the civil war. Many soldiers died in the construction of the road, and there is a memorial to the fallen at a rest-stop along the road.
Up until the late 1980s, the road was a narrow one-way path of less than 4 metres in width. Cars (and trucks) had to travel single-file, and had to wait to be sent through in batches. Most of the track hugged the sheer cliff-face, without safety barriers or other protection. Sam’s Mum hadn’t been along this road in almost fifty years, and remembered the trip to Hualien being a long and dangerous journey. In places parts of the original track can still be seen, but now it has mostly been replaced by a wider, two-way road that in parts has been tunnelled directly through the mountain paths. But for the most part, it is still a long way down the other side. And yes, there are bad Chinese drivers everywhere, many of them in a screeching hury.
Our road trip to Hualien was very much in the Taiwanese style: Mum, Dad, Brother, Grandma, and baby were all crammed into the back. With lots of snacks on hand in case anyone got hungry. (Because there is nowhere to buy food in Taiwan, you know!) It was raining lightly when we set out, and had I been thinking more rationally would have suggested a less ambitious weekend getaway. But thankfully my brother-in-law is a careful driver. Mother-in-law’s constant Buddhist chanting at every twist and tun might have played a role in keeping us safe, too, although it kind of heightened the sense of anxiety inside the packed car.
Anyway, we enjoyed our trip, took lots of photos and lived to tell the tale. Not so 25 people who travelled on the same road two weeks later. As Typhoon Megi barreled down deluges of rain, flooding towns to the north of the road, convoys of mainland Chinese tourist buses continued their scheduled itineraries. That was until a whole section of one of the mountains completely collapsed, washing away the road and all that stood in its path. In some parts, giant boulders were left to mark where the road once was. Emergency rescue crews and the military have been working since the 21 October disaster. They have recovered the remains of some missing tourists (under a temple that was also swept away in the mudslide), and a body part of a missing tourist (found at sea). They are still looking for a further 19 tourists, including searching the seabed in case they were swept completely off the cliff, but have recently issued death certificates to the grieving relatives. This news report gives some indication of the scale of the recovery efforts. http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2010/10/29/2003487194
The government has promised that the road will reopen this month. There is also mounting pressure to forge ahead with plans to redevelop some of the more dangerous sections of the road, despite environmental concerns. Angry residents in Hualien, cut off from Taipei since the closure of the only road north, protested yesterday waving banners demanding to be able to “go home” safely.
In the meantime, I think we may alter our plans to back to Hualien in January when our good friends Stewart and Rose visit. But then again, as this is one of the world’s most spectacular coastal roads, perhaps the risks are worth it.