My friends and I spend many a summer weekend looking for relaxing swimming holes to cool off in. However the first one we found several years still has a special appeal and we find ourselves there every few months. This particular time was a Saturday morning and the weather was looking less than ideal, thick grey moody clouds rolled in above us, looking on intimidating as we set out on a narrow treacherous fisherman’s trail that follows beside the river, winding and weaving it’s way through the dense, teaming undergrowth.
After a testing fifteen minutes we reached the river and were stunned by the sight before us. The sun was just peering through from behind the clouds and showering a glimmer of sunlight through the forest canopy onto the gleaming stream below. We wasted no time, easing ourselves quickly down the slippery rocks and into the icy waters of the mountain stream. Previously this point was always the turning around spot on our trip, but today we were to explore further upstream into unknown territory.
We headed upstream carefully hopping between the stones that we could just make out submerged beneath a few inches of clear blue water. After about an hour of walking we reached a small waterfall that was brimming due to the recent ‘plum rain’ that had washed over the island. We climbed up as far as we could but eventually had to submit to the will of nature and admit defeat. Just as we decided to turn around, the weather decided to make a turn of its own.
The sunshine that highlighted the greenery and sparkled the surface of the water was already a very distant memory when we heard the sound. Within a second of hearing the thunder crash around upon us like a jumbo engine preparing for take-off the rain came lashing down in droves, literally washing the smiles off our faces. The tropical paradise that we were absorbed in an hour beforehand seemed to change entirely. Now the stream was much more like a scene from Apocalypse now rather than The Beach. We headed back, heads down so as not to breath in the rain water and constantly looking back to check the water levels behind us.
We’d been walking for only ten minutes when I heard a cry of pain coming from behind me. When I looked round, Jeff was lying flat-out in the water, clutching his leg, his face contorted in agony. Walking through a wet, slippery riverbed is always hazardous, even in felt-bottomed river tracing shoes, but Jeff was wearing trainers which compounded his in ability to get any purchase on the slimy, moss covered rocks below the surface. As we were picking him up, we heard a strange plip-plop noise coming from downstream and as I swiveled my head to see what was heading towards us I was amazed. Looking back, I saw an elderly Taiwanese man running through the water, bouncing gracefully off each stone and hopping to the next like a cross between a ballerina and a triple jumper. He saw our predicament and stopped to help.
In a mix of broken English and Chinese he offered to swap his shoes with Jeff to make the journey back smoother for us. It was a kind gesture, particularly welcomed by Jeff who was still stinging from his fall. Amazingly the change of shoes didn’t slow our new friend down at all as he continued to dodge his way through the river talking as fast as he was walking. We could barely keep us – in both respects! He told us that he has been coming down to this river for over 40 years, every Saturday morning even in the winter. I was just working through the math to discover our new-found friend must be in his sixties, when he decided to give of a demonstration of his technique.
“The secret is to land the middle of your foot on the pointy edges of the rocks, go on, you try running over these rocks!” he said to me confidently. I smiled weakly in return, hoping to laugh it off but my self-appointed coach persisted. As much as I feared falling over on the rocks and hurting myself, I feared being perceived as a coward more and took a deep breathe and leapt on to a nearby stone. I landed comfortably and was soon springing off on one foot on the next stone. Soon I was running over the rocks, growing in confidence with each step, perhaps not as elegantly as my elderly companion but still enough to get a cheer out of my friends.
Content with my performance and having avoided ridicule I slowed back to a walk and noticed that the rain had let up somewhat and the sun was once again peering through the gaps between the trees overhead. We had just reached the end of the stream and were back at our starting point, where there is a small waterfall that you can just off into a pool of cool, deep water. As I turned to ask my new friend if he had ever just jumped off before, he was no longer standing behind me. Hearing a scream of joy and a big splash we looked down over the waterfall to see him waving us to follow him. One by one we leapt into the jade green water with childlike excitement.
“Same time, next week then?”
If you would like to find out more about river tracing in Wulai, please visit Hiking Taiwan