STARS ABOVE CANVAS:
CAMPING IN CENTRAL
Words by Steven Crook
Translated by Angel Pu
Traveling within Taiwan has a lot going for it. The people are very friendly. Public transportation is reliable and inexpensive, and the road network allows motorists to get from A to B quickly. Food is available almost everywhere almost any time of day or night. There are lots of museums, many of which don't charge admission. One gripe, however, is the cost of accommodation. On weekends or during holiday periods, your hotel or B&B may well account for over half your daily expenditure.
One solution is to pack a tent in your car, motorcycle or backpack. For as little as NT$100 per person you can stay in a campground with toilets and hot showers. Many have additional facilities－possibly even a karaoke machine. "Guerrilla camping" is fairly common in certain places and costs absolutely nothing. Guerrilla campers typically find a good spot during the afternoon, loiter nearby until dusk, then pitch their tent on an empty patch of land without the knowledge or permission of the owner. Usually they're gone before breakfast.
On many weekends, guerrilla campers can be spotted in parking lots beside the highest sections of the Rt. 21 New Central Cross-Island Highway (新中橫), a spectacular mountain road that runs between Shuili in Nantou county (南投縣水里) Tataka in Yushan National Park (玉山國家公園). In and around Hehuanshan (合歡山), brave campers have found prime sites where they're tolerated by the authorities－so long as they pick up their garbage and refrain from making camp fires.
These locations－many have toilets but no showers－are breathtaking places to stay. Before retiring for the night, go for a stroll and enjoy views of stars you'd never get on the lowlands. When you step outside your tent the following morning, you'll likely catch sight of a dramatic "sea of clouds" filling the valleys below.
Parts of the New Central Cross-Island Highway are 2,000 meters or more above sea level, so city-dwellers must be prepared for temperatures much lower than those they're used to. The same is true in the northeastern corner of Taichung City at Wuling Farm (武陵農場). No part of Wuling－these days officially called Wuling National Forest Recreation Area (武陵國家森林遊樂區)－is below 1,740 meters, but the campground here is 100-percent legal, not to mention comfortably equipped. Campers are charged from NT$700 per tent; every spot comes with a raised wooden platform on which you put your tent, and which you'll appreciate if there's heavy rain while you're sleeping. Each platform also has a power outlet from which you can charge your laptop, plug in a kettle or even run an electric fan!
There are a number of campgrounds near Puli in Nantou County (南投縣埔里). Some, like Greentrip Farmstead (http://www.greentrip.com.tw/), are affiliated with homestays－ reassuring if you worry the weather may turn nasty. At others, such as Puli Carp Lake Camp Site (埔里鯉魚潭露營區, tel: 049-298-8187), sleeping under canvas is the only option. The Carp Lake site charges a bit more than many other campgrounds－NT$200 per adult, NT$150 per child and NT$50 per vehicle－but it does offer a very clean environment, barbecue facilities, places where you can enjoy a campfire, paint-balling and other activities. Being less than three kilometers from the eastern end of National Freeway Rt. 6, it's convenient for those planning to visit Puli Winery (埔里酒廠) or Chung Tai Chan Monastery (中台禪寺).
There are also several campgrounds close to Sun Moon Lake. One of the easiest to find is between the village of Ita Thao (伊達邵) and Sun Moon Lake Youth Activity Center. Not only is it very near the lake itself, but Ita Thao is less than five minutes' walk away－great if you need fresh milk or want a bottle of wine to go with your dinner.
So, apart from a tent and sleeping bags, what should you bring if you're going camping for the first time? A flashlight is essential. You'll need to take your own toiletries, as unlike hotels, campgrounds provide none (although there may be an on-site shop where you can buy them).
Thin foam mats weigh almost nothing but make sleeping in a tent hugely more comfortable, so even hikers setting out on multi-day expeditions tend to carry them. Whether or not you want to bring cooking equipment depends on how close to civilization you'll be. Neither weight nor bulk are issues－a lightweight stove, including gas, takes barely more space than two soda cans. Super-light, ultra-compact pans and bowls can be found in hiking stores. Some campers heading out for a single night are content with instant noodles and instant coffee, so simply take a thermos full of hot water instead of a stove. Coolers are heavy luxuries. If you plan to bring one, you may want to telephone the campsite beforehand to see if campers can park beside their tents or have to leave their vehicles some distance away.
Whether you plan to cook or not, a Swiss Army knife always proves useful. Insect repellent is a good idea in the warmer months, or if you're accompanying youngsters likely to whine about bugs. But don't be reluctant about taking your kids camping. They'll likely love the experience even more than you!