Maolin after Morakot

24 Nov
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DuoNa Mountains in the morning

Maolin Township is located in Kaohsiung County in Southern Taiwan. The Maolin township is intersected by the picturesque JuoKuo creek and lies between 230 and 2700 metres above sea level. The area has long been famous in Taiwan for it’s incredible natural hot springs that are set against stunning mountain backdrops as well as being the winter resting place for the purple crow butterfly. The township is composed of several small villages that are connected to one another and the rest of Kaohsiung County by a single, small road that weaves and winds its way through the steep mountains and over the creek. Almost all of the 2000 people who call Maolin home are members of the Rukai tribe of Taiwan aborigines.

Taiwan’s geographical location means that every summer the small mountainous island faces the threat of typhoons and tropical storms. The already potentially lethal weather conditions created by these storms are made much more deadly by Taiwan’s unique geography. The steep mountains created by the collision of the Philippine and Eurasian tectonic plates are the major danger zones and with every major storm in these areas comes the devastating threat of mudslides. For those living in these mountainous areas, the storms that seem little more than an inconvenience in the capital Taipei, become a matter of life and death.

On the eighth of August this year, Typhoon Morakot ripped through Taiwan with devastating force. Morakot hit Taiwan with winds of upto 180 kmph and over 1400mm of rainfall in just 24 hours in some areas. To put that into perspective, the so-called ‘rainy’ city of London has an average annual rainfall of less than 600mm. The result was catastrophic. In the days after Typhoon Morakot, news broke almost hourly of mudslides in the southern mountains of Taiwan, most devastatingly in the village of XiaoLin in PingDong County. 90% of the houses in the village were buried by the mudslide and over 100 residents lost their lives. During Morakot’s two day reign of terror it took the lives of over 400 people and the homes and possessions of many more.

Maolin Township - A building buried in the riverbed

Maolin Township was not spared from the destruction. The road that provides the lifeline for the area was wiped out due to several large scale mudslides and all of the bridges that cross over the JuoKuo creek were also completely destroyed. Power lines and water supplies were knocked out and the residents were trapped for four days until rescue crews were able to get to them. This weekend we took the opportunity to visit Maolin township and witness first-hand the after-effects of this devastating event and also talk to the villagers about their experiences and the reconstruction effort.

We really had no idea what to expect as we drove our motorcycles through Kaohsiung County and in truth, I think none of us envisaged the total destruction that we were about to see. Before we even made it into the valley we had to make an unexpected diversion. We crossed over a bridge and looked back over the river to see what the problem was and that is when it first hit us. An entire mountainside had completely collapsed, there was just no sign of the road that previously lay at the base of the mountain. As we continued further up the road, as the full scale of the mayhem caused by Typhoon Morakot became clear, it was still hard to imagine the scenes of those few days as we looked over this breathtaking valley on a calm, mild winter afternoon. We came across several buildings that had been knocked over and were now buried several feet deep in mud and debris. At some points we would cross over the river bed and see traces of where buildings on the riverbank used to be, now a full 15 metres away from the shore.

Maolin Valley Suspension Bridge

We made it up to DuoNa village before nightfall and in just enough time to visit the famous hot springs. However, when we arrived in the village to ask for directions they informed us that the hot springs had been completely buried in the mudslides caused by Typhoon Morakot and now were simply unreachable. When researching the trip, we became aware that the road to the hot springs was damaged by the typhoon so we were expecting an adventure to get there, it never crossed our minds that the entire hot spring area could be buried under the mudslides, too. Although it was a Saturday evening and the weather was just about as close to perfect as possible, we were the only visitors to DuoNa village. The friendly guesthouse owner told us that tourists had simply stopped coming after the tyhpoon, even though the roads and bridges have been restored, tourists are unwilling to make the long journey now that the hot springs are no longer there.

DuoNa village - Road taken out by Mudslide

The village of DuoNa is like many of aboriginal villages in Taiwan, a mixture of modern and traditional style houses with narrow lanes, colorfully painted with aboriginal designs running in between them. The contrast of old and new is a theme that runs throughout the village, with four-wheel drive cars parked in front of paintings depicting hunting scenes and children dressed in traditional clothes watching Spongebob Squarepants in the living rooms. The main thing that makes DuoNa stand out is the fact that it is impeccably clean. There is no litter anywhere on the streets, no broken motorcycles rusting away by the side of the road and not even the the almost ubiquitous sight on aboriginal villages of empty run-down houses.

In the evening we wandered around looking for somewhere to eat and passed several restaurants that were all closed. When we finally found somewhere, the owners told us that because of the lack of tourists these days many of the villagers had to go to the nearby cities to find work, which meant that most of the towns businesses were no longer functioning. Although, the restaurant was not really open, the owners were happy to cook up some food for us and happy to sit with us and discuss their frightening experiences in Typhoon Morakot. As we sat enjoying the fried rice and locally grown vegetables that Mrs.Lee cooked up, Mr. Lee showed us the point on the wall outside, marked off with a rough charcoal line, which showed the extent of the flooding in the village. With the entire village pretty much underwater, the residents had little choice but to stay in their homes listening to the rain crash against their ceilings and the wind whip through the empty streets. Every now and then they would hear a roar that built into a crescendo, the sound of a nearby mudslide, and all they could do was listen as the roar increased and hope that their mountain wouldn’t be next.

Maolin Suspension Bridge - Collapsed

Despite the absolute devastation of the surrounding areas, amazing nobody in the the village of DuoNa was hurt in the typhoon, something that the mostly Christian thank God for everyday at their daily service. The road leading to the village was fixed, albeit temporarily, within a few weeks but the damage to the area’s precious hot springs can not be repaired so easily. The villagers have been told that it will take between two and three years before the road to the hot springs is restored and they are able to bring in the equipment to dig the springs out from the mass of debris that covers them at present. But despite everything, there is no sense of bitterness at the harsh hand nature has handed the village people. They are well aware of the risks of living in this area and have learned to take setbacks like this one in their stride and are willing to adapt to get by.
Life is getting back to normal in Maolin Township now and the villagers are busy preparing for next weekend’s Harvest Festival – the most important event of the year for the Rukai people.

However, other villages weren’t as lucky as those of Maolin. In QinHe village, Taoyuan County villagers were evacuated during the typhoon and the village has since been deemed by the government to be unsafe to live. As a result the government has offered them a sum of money to relocate to another area on the plains, away from the dangers that the mountainous areas possess. This has caused somewhat of an uproar amongst the villagers, some of which have lived in these mountains for decades and have no desire to leave their home, and their ancestors home, no matter how dangerous life there can be. The conflict shows no signs of dying down and one can only feel that it is a topic that is going to rage on in future years. The aboriginal people of Taiwan have long lived in these areas, but the building of modern roads and deforestation that has taken place during recent development has taken it’s toll on these mountains. One thing is certain, these typhoons will continue to ravage Taiwan in future years and the cost to rebuild these roads and facilities is a large strain on the budget.

Purple Crow Butterfly

There has been some much-needed good news for the area recently, though. Despite conservationists worries that the purple crow butterflies would not return to their winter resting place in Maolin after the typhoon’s destruction wreaked havoc with their habitat, recently the butterflies have began to turn up in droves. When we walked around Maolin Gorge early on Sunday morning, these beautiful creatures fluttering around created quite a contrast to the backdrop of broken bridges amidst a debris-clogged stream. At least the people of Maolin are able to, like the purple crow butterfly, enjoy a peaceful winter in this alluring part of Taiwan. Come spring, when the butterflies fly back up North, no doubt their will be some anxious waits and sleepless nights to come over the summer. But the people of Maolin assured us that whatever fate the weather gods have in store for their valley, as sure as the purple crow butterfly will return the following winter, the people of Maolin will also always return to their home.

If you would like to know more about Maolin Township, please visit the following sites:

Official Township Website

Maolin Scenic Area Website

If you would like to donate to the Typhoon Morakot relief fund, please visit this site:

Morakot Relief Fund

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One Response to “Maolin after Morakot”

  1. Miaoliren December 13, 2009 at 8:16 am #

    Miaoli is a good place for biking and mountain-climbing,too.
    If you have a chance you should give it a try.

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