Most people who visit Penghu want to get out of Magong and see some of the myriad islands that speckle the seas around the main island. As you come in to land, you’re treated to a tantalising glimpse of the archipelago through the window, islands surrounded by shimmering aquamarine, sand spits that stretch their fingers through shallow reefs, fishing vessels and pleasure boats slicing through the waves in between. Trying to figure out what you’ve seen or how to get there, is another matter of course. The most popular island tours are Jibei in the Northern Sea, and Chimei in the Southern Sea, but an often overlooked area of delightful islands lie strewn across the fascinating Eastern Sea. Despite having made multiple trips to Jibei, Wangan and Chimei over the last few years, I had, until last weekend, yet to delve into this treasure trove. Having just got back from a two day exploratory trip, I’m eager to share some of Penghu’s best kept secrets with you.
It was a yearning to get out and visit as many islands as possible that spurred me, last month, to realise a lifelong dream and buy a boat. I wanted to travel under my own steam and at my own pace in my exploration, rather than rely on ferries and chartered pleasure boats. My choice of craft wasn’t quite the fifty foot yacht I had in mind when I was ten years old and on a family holiday in St. Tropez. Anything that arrives on your doorstep in a cardboard box is unlikely to be capable of crossing the Pacific Ocean or hosting extravagant, celebrity-attended parties. No, there was definitely no room for a helicopter or a swimming pool on my Sea Eagle 330 inflatable kayak, I thought as I lifted out the heavy duty plastic craft and unrolled it on the living room floor. It didn’t even look like a kayak, but rather the groundsheet for a tent. Three hundred pumps from a tired foot brought her to life, inflating the floor and side chambers, spray skirts and seats. The method of propulsion, not a 6.2L V8 outboard motor but a heavy aluminium paddle which clipped together like bricks of Lego. Still, it was a boat. It would float (I assumed) and carry me and my stuff across bodies of water. It was advertised as slow but stable, a pack horse with a load capacity of 500lb, unlikely to capsize and unsinkable (Its manufacturers clearly hadn’t been paying attention when they watched the Titanic). It would do, very nicely. I quickly set about acquiring the gear and accessories I’d need to make the sorts of trips, I had in mind: A life-jacket, dry bag, paddling gloves and umpteen other bits and bobs. I took the kayak out for a few practice runs in sheltered bays and Penghu’s inner sea, racking up a few miles and building confidence before doing some longer distances along the coastline.
The boat performed as advertised, slow, slightly cumbersome, but as solid as a rock. More buoyant though, obviously. I was already in love with kayaking, the tranquility of gliding through the water with no engine droning in your ears, the only sounds being the slapping of water against your hull and the cries of seabirds that wheeled from the cliffs. This is the way to travel I thought to myself, digging in for another stroke, shoulders burning but an implacable smile on my face.
It wasn’t long before I had my first expedition planned. A two-day trip in the Eastern Sea, leaving from harbour village of Qitou in Baisha, and paddling across to Yuanbeiyu (Seashell Island), before heading to the Pengpeng, an alluring expanse of sand lying less than a kilometer from its coast, which I’d spotted on a drone flight the winter before. From there, another short, northeasterly hop would bring me to Niaoyu (Bird Island), where I’d camp the night, before exploring the area to the north, a nature reserve of unspoiled islets with beaches of pure white sand. Armed with google maps, marine charts and wind forecasts, I eagerly set about planning the trip, measuring distances and scanning for possible camp sites and rest stops. I arranged to meet kayak-less friends, Aaron and Tess, on Yuanbeiyu, who, equipped with flippers and snorkelling masks would join me on the Pengpeng leg of the journey.
After work finished on Friday night and the customary Mexican pizza had been devoured, I packed up my gear and supplies and rose early, dragging my ever patient wife out of bed to drive me to the launching spot. A short while and numerous photos later, I paddled away from the shore, my kayak loaded with everything I’d need for two days on the water as well as my trusty hammock and my DJI Mavic Pro, safely tucked inside dry bags. It’s a strange and exhilarating feeling, to cast off into the ocean in a blow-up boat, eyes set on a distant island and make those first few strokes. There’s a moment of fear as the shore behind you recedes and nothing ahead seems to get any closer, the sounds of traffic fading away, the seabed no longer visible, surrounded by a limitless blue expanse. Bobbing up and down with only my own thoughts for company, hundreds of meters from the shore, I listened to the sound of the sea for a few seconds and frowned. A few seconds of tapping through the waterproof case my phone was ensconced in and Spotify lit up by boat with a cheerful album from Frank Truner about political turmoil and surviving the apocalypse. I’d be listening to it throughout the trip and at various points lyrics would jump out at me with eerie relevance. Struggling in a patch of choppy sea on one of the more challenging crossings, as I was buffeted by waves, Frank helpfully crooned at me from somewhere behind where my speaker was buried.
The wind blew both of us to sand and sea
And where the dry land stands is hard to say
As the current drags us by the shore
We can no longer say for sure
Who’s drowning, or if they can be saved
But when you’re out there floundering
Like a lighthouse I will shine.
“Shut up, Frank.” I muttered to myself. Why did you have to go and bring up drowning? On another section, returning against the wind and caught in a strong current, he had this to say:
When you’re just a stone’s throw from where you started and you’re going nowhere
When everything you had that was solid is melted into air
When you worked your fingers down to the bone but didn’t get your fair share.
Really, Frank? Come on.
But anyway, back to the expedition. After perhaps 45 minutes, I made it to Yuanbeiyu, steering my little craft into the quiet harbour and mooring it before clambering ashore and kissing dry land. I then did what any adventurer does on reaching a new port, and bought a couple of beers from a tiny shop before waiting for Aaron and Tess to arrive on the ferry.
Once they’d arrived we walked a lap of the island, following the well maintained path around the steep cliffs, marvelling at the basalt cliffs and gorgeous, azure sea. Yuanbeiyu is a gem. The harbour village is tiny and there’s only a handful of residents. There are no cars and almost no scooters, nor any need for them as it only takes half an hour at a leisurely pace to complete a loop of the island. If you plan to make a trip there, bring your own food as the shop only sells a handful of basics and there are no restaurants or food outlets, although the friendly shop owner will add hot water to some instant noodles for you.
Having filled up on said instant noodles, I returned to my kayak and paddled around the island, meeting Aaron and Tess in a stony cove, from where we set out to make the 800m crossing to Pengpeng. Strong swimmers and equipped with fins, they had no problem making the distance and I stayed close in the kayak, keeping a constant eye out for approaching boats and paying attention to any currents. At one point a small boat approached and a slightly concerned man offered to take us the remaining distance to Pengpeng. We politely declined, arguing we were almost there and he left us be.
Pengpeng, we soon discovered, is a strange little place made up entirely of sand and with no vegetation. When flying over with my drone the previous year, it had seemed deserted, with a few tatty buildings indicating it had once been inhabited or used for something. Google Maps showed an ‘Aquatic activity centre’ with no further details. From Yuanbeiyu we could see jetskis racing around its length. Clearly, it wasn’t deserted in the summer months. Once we reached its sandy shore, ringed with sparkling green water, we dragged the kayak up the beach and then wandered around the ghost-like island, taking photos of various oddities, like rusty stairs that climbed to nowhere and the aquatic centre, tables and chairs set out under a shade, awaiting someone to come and make use of them.
We now realised what Google Maps had not revealed, that you could actually walk from here all the way to Niaoyu, along a narrow spit of sand. Aaron and Tess decided to take the walk, while I returned to the kayak and paddled alongside. From here, Niaoyu was clearly visible, a larger collection of buildings crammed around its southern side and a harbour, accessible by a slim channel that I didn’t notice until I was almost there. As I approached it, a small fishing boat, returning home, stopped beside me and a betelnut-chewing man on its deck began berating me, gesturing and yelling that my companions should not have been walking on the sand spit, as it was protected. Then he bizarrely asked if I wanted to call the police and report them, saying we could split the reward. As I explained they were friends and declined his offer he grew increasingly irate, repeating the fact it was illegal and he was going to report them. I shrugged and repeated we didn’t realise, that we were sorry and that we hadn’t caused any damage or harm. Eventually, grumbling that it ‘was too much bother’ he chugged away, leaving a slightly sour taste in my mouth. It seemed preposterous that an island frequented by boat loads of tourists to race around in jetskis and banana boats was actually a nature reserve as well, or that this fisherman, who flicked a cigarette butt off his boat as he departed, was some sort of environmental guardian.
Shaking my head I paddled into the surprisingly large Niaoyu harbour, consisting of perhaps ten different wharves which sheltered a wide range of fishing and pleasure boats. It was considerably less sleepy than Yuanbeiyu, with groups of tourists decked out in orange life-jackets and snorkels being shepherded this way and that by guides with loudspeakers, and stalls selling snacks and cold drinks. Having packed up the kayak, which now required lugging around, we found the perfect spot to spend the night, a tiny beach behind the dilapidated but picturesque Junior High School, a ramshackle collection of classrooms laid out around a running track. There was shelter, somewhere to hang a hammock and set up a tent and even sinks with running water. Perfect. Dinner consisted of a bowl of beef noodles from the only place that seemed to serve food on the island, which we ate in the open air. We bumped into Charlie, the vet with who I had done my night watch duty with on the Rainbow Warrior, who was currently doing military service on the island and he told us a little more about Niaoyu, which had an unusually large population for such a small island and housed a large fishing fleet.
After a slightly chilly night in my hammock, during which I regretted not bringing a sleeping bag or more warm clothes but was treated to a dazzling night sky criss-crossed with shooting stars, I awoke to a beautiful day and stumbled across our private beach and into the sea. An hour or two later, having warmed my bones by snoozing in the sun, I pumped up the kayak, bid farewell to Aaron and Tess and set out for the nature reserve to the north and the island which had inspired the trip, Xiaobaisha. As I rounded the coast, passing towering columns of basalt guarded by all manner of seabirds, the island appeared, seeming tantalisingly close. Steep rock topped with green and bordered with snowy white beaches; it was an island straight out of a James Bond film. As I paddled out to it, I encountered a patch of tumultuous sea, where inter-island currents collided and the water churned. Making progress was tricky for a while and I was momentarily distracted when a large sea turtle emerged from below, metres from my boat, gliding on the surface for the briefest of seconds before plunging back down. My skin tingled and I pulled out my camera, waiting for it to resurface so I could capture it on film. Needless to say, it didn’t, choosing instead to remain invisible beneath the waves. Buoyed by the encounter, tired muscles momentarily forgotten, I dug in and paddled hard through the current, until I neared Xiaobaisha and things calmed down again.
Xiaobaisha is protected and visitors are not allowed to go ashore, unless they have special permission, so I had to content myself by floating just offshore, snapping away with my Gopro and marvelling at the contrast of colours, dark cliffs rising up from the blue-green water, dazzling white sand and lush green vegetation. A real jewel, I thought, and considered that not being allowed ashore was a price worth paying to keep this place pristine. Having filled my eyes and SD card with images, I turned and paddled back towards Niaoyu, battling the brisk wind that had sprung up from the south. I planned on taking the ferry back to the mainland from Niaoyu, and checking my watch, I realised I was making poor progress. Inflatable kayaks, though wonderful for their portability and convenience, do not perform well in the wind. I tired quickly and made an unplanned stop on a small island between Xiaobaisha and Niaoyu.
Crossing the beautiful, sheltered lagoon and landing on an idyllic little beach for a breather I took the opportunity to launch my drone and take some aerial photos and video. The place was stunning and the beach entirely hidden from view from the south, which is why I hadn’t noticed it on my way. Colourful shells littered the beach and startled seagulls squawked indignantly at my presence.
Refreshed, I headed onwards around the eastern side of Niaoyu, struggling once more against wind and currents, but making it back, just in time for the ferry. I met Aaron and Tess on the wharfside, we cracked a beer or two before setting off for home. Despite being slightly disappointed with myself for not having the energy to paddle home, my body was happy enough to let the diesel engine of the small, noisy boat do the work. The expedition had been a success and we reached Qitou in a paltry 20 minutes. It would have probably taken several hard hours of paddling.
Thus concludes my first kayaking expedition, but as summer is still young, expect to read about lots more island-hopping adventures in the months to come!
If you’re interested in visiting any of the places I mentioned, here’s what you need to know. Yuanbeiyu and Niaoyu are accessible from the port of Qitou, located on Baisha Island. The boat to Yuanbeiyu leaves daily at 11am and returns at 2pm. It’s a ten minute journey. The boat to Niaoyu leaves at 11.30am and also returns at 2pm. There’s also an early morning boat back at 7am. Tickets are less than 100NT. Check the timetable I’ve linked below before you travel in case anything has changed since I wrote this. Bring any food or snacks you want with you as there’s limited options on the islands. Be careful if you’re swimming or boating in between islands, as there are strong tidal streams and rough water. Please be safe, let people know your plans and don’t take unnecessary risks.
Ferry timetable for all ferries between the islands in Penghu:
Some more photos from the trip…