The island is home to the Tao, an ethnic minority group who migrated to the island from the Batan Archipelago 800 years ago.And here's a map taken from the Taitung County Government website:
The island was first mapped on Japanese charts as Tabako-shima in the early 17th century and Tabaco Xima on a French map of 1654. The Chinese who had no contact with the inhabitants of the island, called it Hongtouyu (紅頭嶼 Red-headed island), from which it was called Kōtō-sho during Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan. The Japanese colonial government declared the island an ethnological research area off-limits to the public. This restriction remained in effect when the Republic of China took over in 1945, but was lifted in 1967. It was because of the restriction that the Tao have the best preserved traditions among the Taiwanese aborigines. Since then, schools were built on the island and education in Mandarin became compulsory. Tourism to the island has also increased. The island is known by the Ami as Buturu and by the Puyuma as Botol.
We were lucky enough to have our friend Craig generously agree to drive us down to Houbihu harbour early on Friday morning. Houbihu is the name of a fishing harbour across South Bay from Kenting Beach. It is a couple of kilometres down the road from Maobitou and situated within the boundaries of Kenting National Park. It is also, apparently, the "outfall of The Third Nuclear Power Plant" (Sinotour.com website). Nice.
When I say us (as in ...Craig generously agree to drive us down to Houbihu...) I mean Andrea, myself, and our friend John who lives across the street in another apartment building and works at the same school as I do. John's friends would also be joining us for the trip to Lanyu, although we would be meeting them later at the harbour.
When I say early (as in ...early on Friday morning...) I mean that Craig met us outside our apartment block at about four o'clock in the morning. We needed to leave especially early so that we could catch the 7am ferry to Lanyu that leaves from Houbihu harbour. You can find Houbihu in the Lonely Planet Taiwan guidebook, although of the ferry from there to Lanyu they have only this to say: Ferries are said to leave from Houbihu Harbour for Lanyu during the summer months. (p. 287; Lonely Planet Taiwan, 2007) I can personally attest to the existence of the ferries in question. They do exist and after being unable to find the harbour while watching the clock ticking, we finally found the aforementioned ferry and made it on to the boat in time to depart with it. About five minutes after we arrived John's friends arrived; three Taiwanese girls he used to work with were coming with us to Lanyu. Altogether then, we were a party of six bound for the orchid isle.
Here, Andrea and I stand on the upper deck of the ferry prior to the departure. The harbour building in the background reminds me of one of the ships from the Movie Dune, I think.
Once we were sure that we were in the right place and that the ship was indeed departing shortly for Lanyu, Craig said goodbye to us, climbed back into his blue van, and began the journey home to Tainan where he would continue to work in earnest on his MBA thesis. Meanwhile we took some Gravol to deflect any potential sea-sickness and sat back to enjoy (or endure) the hours-long ferry ride around the southern tip of Taiwan to the island of orchids (apparently now almost extinct from over-harvesting).
Our first impressions of Lanyu were of looming mountains. As usual, upon debarking, we were hit upon by locals offering rental of scooters and vehicles and other touristy things. We didn't need any of those as we were to be picked up by somebody from the place we were going to be staying at. After a short wait spent watching other tourists organising themselves and their belongings on the wharf, a van arrived to take us to our lodgings.
Our lodgings turned out to be a big room under a church (which was pretty cool). The church itself stood at about ground level. Underneath it and dug into the ground in an excavated recess was a lower floor containing several large rooms, a kitchen, bathroom and shower blocks, and a communal living area. Our room was large and unfurnished. There was a pile of mattresses and bedding sitting next to the door which were intended for spreading all over the floor in a "bed" kind of way.
Time out for some more background about Lanyu.
Here are John and the girls on something that looks like the traditional canoes constructed and used by the Yami people. The style and motifs of the people are quite distinctive and turn up on postcards, t-shirts, trinkets, and other souvenirs sold on the island. The actual canoes are smaller than this oversize facade.
In this shot you can see some of the key motifs of Yami culture: there is the canoe again; flying fish are an important part of Yami life and there is a special flying-fish-calling-ritual held in the middle of the year before the seasonal flying fish hunt; the Yami man depicted on the right is wearing traditional armor made of rattan.
After organising our accommodation scooters miraculously appeared outside the church for us. However, a quick inquiry revealed the source of the scooters to be a scooter rental place down the road and not some supernatural power emanating from the church above us. To make things more prosaic, the girls claimed responsibility for the procurement of said scooters leaving no room for my own theories regarding divine intervention. Then we took a short walk to see the man who was going to take us snorkeling. I harboured grave doubts about whether he would be able to supply me with all the accoutrements of our intended endeavour in a size that would be big enough and comfortable enough. As it turned out he was able to fit me out in the gear I needed although you can see from the photo that the wetsuit was a little short on the legs and arms (as was John's).
This shot was taken after we returned from splashing about in the water for a while, looking at the corals and the fish. It was wonderful. It brought back old regrets of not having taken my father up on his offers of teaching my brother and I how to scuba dive when we were teenagers.
After returning to base camp and showering and changing we headed back out to a beachside bar we had seen on our way to and from the snorkeling expedition. It turned out to be a perfect place to be at sunset.
After dark the six of us joined a birdwatching tour. The main target of the tour was a glimpse of the endangered Scops Owl; native and limited in its range to Lanyu. The tour consisted of a man leading about 30 people around to several locations imitating the owls' call and searching for it, with a bit of local history and exposition thrown in whenever the environs cued it. We never did see the Scops Owl, despite the guide's calls being returned a few times by them. I suspect that after being hunted down and bothered every night it found a better place to be. To be fair to the whole enterprise it was interesting enough for me just to learn about the other things around us. Besides, we did find one kind of bird nesting in trees: chickens. Andrea and I never officially finished the tour with the group. We both felt ambivalent about harassing the endangered owls and so we returned to the church early and went to bed, thinking about the promise of the day to come.