A once in a lifetime cliff hike; beware killer bees, bears and snakes; and coffee served with a side of sausage.

Day 192: Hualien, Taiwan. We were up at crazy o’clock to get ourselves together and catch an early morning bus to Taroko National Park for some hiking.

There’s a brilliant shuttle bus service running from the station up and down the valley for a daily fee. The bus left on time at 6.30am, and we reached Taroko just before 8am.

We had plans to do a few hikes, but were particularly excited about having permits to hike the Zhuilu Old Road trail, a breathtaking trek high above Taroko Gorge.

The Old Road Trail was originally built in the 1800s as a hunting path by indigenous local people. At that time it was a mere 30cm wide. When Japanese forces reached Hualien in the early 1900s, they needed a way to move artillery through the mountains. They decided to use the Old Road path, widening it to its current 90cm.

Thankfully despite the rain that had lashed Hualien overnight, the Zhuilu Old Road trail was still open to hikers. We handed over our permits and passports and the guy at the trail checkpoint unlocked the gate to the trail – and we were off.

The original Old Road trail was 10km. These days only 3.1km is accessible as a 2016 typhoon wiped out the rest of it. However the remaining 3.1km is still stunning, and unlike anything we’ve experienced before.

We started with a swaying walk across a suspension bridge, then a very steep climb up steps (yes, more steps) and across rocks, followed by a kilometre along the very narrow cliff path with a sheer 700m drop on one side, and a rock face with a rope on the other.

The Old Road trail is an ‘out and back’ walk – once you’ve completed it you need to retrace your steps, so we had time to gather our wits before getting a second opportunity to quiver on the cliff path, with views in the other direction. The rain started to clear on the return journey, giving us spectacular views down Taroko valley.

We were very happy to complete the Old Trail in one piece.

When we got back to the main road, we caught the shuttle bus to check out a couple of smaller trails, the Swallow Grotto Yanzikou trail and the Tunnel of Nine Turns, which has great views down into the chasms carved by the Liwu River as it comes off the mountain. Finally we caught the shuttle bus back down the valley to the visitor centre, where we walked to the Shakadang trail.

The Shakadang trail is also great – it’s 4.1km each way, through nature reserve and lands still occupied by indigenous people. Signs at the entrance warned of the various dangers of hiking the trail, including killer bees, venomous snakes and wild animals. And they say hiking is good for you.

The ‘killer bees’ they refer to are Giant Asian Hornets – terrifying huge bees that are 1.5 to 2 inches in length, and pretty deadly. Around 40 people die every year in Japan from them (we haven’t got figures for Taiwan), and about 5 or 6 years ago 42 people died in China in one single attack. They’re the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. Even if you only get stung once, you need to head to hospital. And if you get stung multiple times, things get more serious – even for people who are not allergic there’s a high risk of kidney and other organ failure.

Here’s a picture of Giant Asian Hornets from an article online, to give you an idea of just how big they are.

Image copyright: Devon Henderson

Thankfully we managed to complete the trail without encountering any deadly creatures, though Lil did spend more time scanning the ground and nearby bushes and trees than enjoying the scenery. And it rained the entire way. The trail follows a stream below with stunning blue water, and huge poinsettia trees growing in the surrounding jungle.

When we got back to the visitor centre, we ordered two coffees to help warm us up. A very enthusiastic young sales guy tried to upsell us to coffees with peach honey, then informed us that they have ‘very good indigenous sausage today’. Quite how that goes with coffee, we have no idea.

Then we caught the bus back home, had a very hot shower to thaw out, grabbed some beef noodles at a nearby restaurant and plonked ourselves down in front of the TV for the rest of the evening. We could hear the rain lashing against the windows and a gale start to whip up (and it’s supposed to be dry season here).

Tomorrow we might rent bikes and pedal along the coastal path, depending on the weather (and our legs). Or we might just explore some more of the town and surrounding area. Whatever we end up doing, hopefully we won’t encounter any killer bees or any other deadly creatures along the way.

More then.