River tracing in Taiwan By Jason Robertson


Huang Yan-fei was standing in five feet (1.5m) of water with foamy swift flowing water humming along under his armpits. "River tracing is a sport perfectly suited for Taiwan," he commented. "We have steep and abundant mountains, and nobody could doubt that we have enough rain to keep the streams exciting." Indeed, with a mountainous terrain filled with streams, creeks, and rivers, Taiwan possesses a multitude of accessible waterways in which to swim, raft, fish or, in the case of a few hard-footed aqua-mountaineers, to trek. River tracing or su hsi is a sport which combines the exhilaration of technical rock climbing, the wild-wetness of white water rafting, and a healthy dose of the quiet solitude enjoyed in back-water fishing.


Italian Roots
River tracing came to Taiwan in 1981 via Japanese sportsmen who had brought the activity from its roots in Italy. Begun 40 years ago by Italian mountaineers trying to reach some of the less accessible peaks in the Italian Alps, river tracers have come to view their sport as a distinct endeavor. Adding the extra excitement of thousands of gallons of rushing water to the already hair-raising sport of free-climbing, river tracers are some of the most ambitious risk-takers in all outdoors. River tracing in Taiwan is still in its early stages. As most of the more thrilling rivers are in sparsely populated areas, there is a dearth of adequate mapping. Furthermore, all of the necessary equipment and developments in climbing procedures continue to come from Japan. Japanese tracers have developed a close relationship with interested groups in Taiwan through which they share years of experience in the fledgling sport.
The Taipei River Tracing Club of which Mr. Huang is president, is one such group. It sponsors trips through the less explored reaches of the island's mountain areas in search of challenging waterways. As most of the more isolated and challenging peaks are in the central part of Taiwan, many of the group's excursions take tracers into the lush mountains that rise above the tea-growing foothills near Puli. A club-sponsored trip to the area two years ago involved a hike up Taiwan's highest mountain, Yushan. Unlike conventional climbers of the peak, the river tracers climbed the 3,952 meter summit largely through rivers and streams. The journey involved scaling waterfalls hundreds of feet high, some of which took entire days to conquer. After 12 days of stomach-wrenching (not to mention sleeping-bag-drenching) climbs through waterfalls and thick foliage, the summit was reached. "That particular ascent was only for the most qualified amongst us and involved quite a bit of technical climbing," notes Yen Yi-ming, a Taipei policeman and club member.

Love for the Outdoors
River tracers come from all walks of life but have a common love for the outdoors and strong feelings about protecting the environment. Cho Shu-ching, a longtime river tracer, believes, "Most Taiwanese don't realize that environmental awareness begins with packing for a trip to the outdoors. All of the piles of plastic bags and discarded cans will have to stop if we expect to preserve the beauty of Taiwan." Other members of the Taipei River Tracers include a computer technician, a cartoonist, a construction worker, a student, and a teacher of chikung. Another common thread amongst group members is their fervent belief in the Taoist idea of living "in nature." This belief, more than any other, seems to bring them together in their quest for excitement in the form of ropes, rocks, and water.

For those not willing to risk life and limb in the interest of leisure, there are abundant opportunities for river hikes of a more casual bent. The Taipei River Tracing Club offers less strenuous hikes for student groups or interested amateurs. More similar to the creek exploring of one's childhood, these monthly "training hikes" give the novice a chance to delve into semi-tropical forests not accessible by other means. Nevertheless, as most of Taiwan's waterways traverse steep terrain, even low-key climbs involve wading and swimming through some exciting rapids. As climbing gear and provisions must be carried along, river tracers waterproof everything they carry and use their specially designed backpacks as floatation devices when the water gets deep.

A Training Trip in Wulai
On a recent training hike in the mountain village of Wulai near Taipei, more experienced climbers led the way while novices gamely tackled the slippery ascent of Ayu creek. Safety is a watchword for the group, and all climbers were required to wear helmets while deep or fast-moving areas were crossed with the help of secured ropes. Some members of the group were inexperienced swimmers and added life-jackets to their motley attire.

Beginning in the early morning hours, the group climbed past weekend fishermen into areas where calm tree-lined pools alternated with thundering rapids. Wildlife along the shores included a varied host of birds and colorful butterflies as well as the occasional (and tactfully distant) snake. True to the Chinese reputation for finding a culinary use for everything under the sun, one hiker claimed that a particularly bulbous slug crawling along a nearby boulder was, in fact, "extremely tasty when cooked correctly."

After a midday stop for a relaxing lunch, the climb continued to a deep mountain pool fed by a 20-foot waterfall. Hikers shed their gear and donned goggles to explore. A variety of fish were spotted in the pool while the more ambitious tested the thickness of their backsides on a natural water slide. Surprisingly, a group of fishermen in bathing suits came along the shore with small three-pronged fishing spears. By late afternoon, signs that the daily monsoon rains were coming sent the group up a steep climb out of the creek valley to a trail leading back to waiting-four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Groups interested in river tracing can contact the Taipei River Tracing Club (02-296-7042) or a similar club in Changhua (04-769-0453). Also, river tracing expeditions are organized by many local outdoors clubs or stores for a small fee (usually around NT$500). More advanced climbs usually take place in the fall and early winter, when river flooding from heavy rains is less likely while training climbs take place year-round.

Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.