MR LIAO AND MS YANG, a young couple from the city of Taichung, have staked out a comer of Baisha Beach. A line of seashells stuck in the sand marks the limit of their miniature kingdom, and just beyond it is an awning covering two beach chairs, two coconuts stuck with straws and two Pomeranians on supposed guard-dog duty. The beach covers a quarter-mile stretch of the Hengchun Peninsula – the southern goal of many weekending Taiwanese. ‘We come here twice a year,’ says Ms Yang. ‘We like this beach as there are fewer people here than the others.’ She joins her boyfriend in a sea painted several shades of beckoning blue, while the dogs blink their way to sleep.
The peninsula is centred on the small town of Kenting; lying 100 miles into the tropics, its beach season lasts for most of the year. The coastal road passes resorts where surfers and scuba divers suit up in front of houses painted in eye-popping colours. The novelty architecture that seems ever-present is matched by nature’s own quirks: the flames of Chuhuo are an eternal fire fed by natural gases, while on the southern shore, the giant boulder called Sail Rock is also known as Nixon Rock – its stubby-nosed shape appears to show the former US president glowering at the South China Sea. Most of the land here has been listed for the past three decades as Kenting National Park. For every stretch of development, there are more untouched tracts.
At the Longpan Cliffs, a path leads to a lookout over a wild shore where the wind comes in from the Pacific full in the face. Back inland are meadows grazed by sika deer, and forests home to Formosan rock macaques, wild boars and endangered pangolins. The jungle is largely inaccessible to visitors, but at the Kenting National Forest Recreation Area, trails and boardwalks make matters easier. Today, forest specialist Davie Chen is driving around, checking for storm damage after a recent typhoon. He stops by a venerable weeping fig that’s passed through unscathed. ‘We call these walking trees because they look like they’re moving,’ he says. Spindly air roots hang down from the branches, gathering ambient moisture, but when they touch the ground, they become rooted and turn into new supporting trunks.
Further on, Davie points out a looking-glass mangrove with giant buttress roots that resemble flags waving in the wind, and a hefty bishop wood that is slowly enveloping another tree. These are the superheroes – or supervillains – of the plant world. Another bishopwood seems on the point of being throttled by a strangler fig, but Davie think the fight isn’t over yet. ‘I’ve been here 22 years, and the battle has been going on all that time,’ he says. ‘And look, in the meantime the bishopwood has sent out another two trunks.’
From the forest park’s observation tower, with its 360-degree views over the canopy, a little white lighthouse can be seen five miles away. Cape Eluanbi is the southermnost point of Taiwan. Its historic beacon stands in a walled compound, a legacy of the days when aboriginal tribes were hostile to such stamps of officialdom. The sun dazzles the pilgrims among the whitewashed buildings, and after a stop at the pillar that announces Cape Eluanbi in graven calligraphy, there’s welcome refreshment back at the park’s entrance. Coconuts are stacked up by a stall, some still on their stalks. The stallholder picks one up, lops the top off with a machete with a practised swipe and offers a straw. The taste that’s carried on the road back north is cool, and wonderfully fragrant.