Islander Expeditions: The Voyage to Lighthouse Isle

No sooner was my previous kayak adventure wrapped up and blog post thrown up than I began to plan my next. A long weekend was coming up and the advanced forecast looked promising, for at least two out of the four days. I scoured my maps and charts of Penghu, looking for a suitable target. I wanted to find a-road-less-travelled, an island that doesn’t normally grace the pages of tourist websites, a more far-flung, challenging, adventurous sort of adventure. It had to be within a day’s paddle from Zhongtun and preferably in the North or East Seas, where the currents and conditions were more forgiving for a solo, inexperienced sea kayaker like myself. As my eyes wandered over the charts, navigating the tans, greens, blues and whites that depicted depth and the enigma of symbols that warned of rocks, currents, hazards and buoys I noticed a small island a few miles from Jibei, at the northern extremity of Penghu. It was so small, in fact, it was marked as an islet and there appeared to be nothing there, except a lighthouse with a light that could be seen from 26 miles away, according to my chart. A quick google of its mysterious sounding name ‘Mudouyu’ brought up a handful of pictures of a barren looking rock with a striking lighthouse, with iconic black and white stripes reaching up into a stormy sky. It was, apparently, the tallest lighthouse in Taiwan and interestingly, it was manned. The satellite view on google revealed the island had a small beach where I’d be able to land and hopefully camp. It was remote, but just about close enough to Jibei to make it a feasible destination. I measured the distance of the route I’d take to be about fifteen miles. A bit of  stretch, but doable.

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Mudouyu and Jibei. Excuse the scrawl.

I fired off a few messages to other local kayakers and inquired about the island. Was it safe for me to paddle there? Were there any hazards I needed to be aware of? The responses were encouraging. It was both possible and a relatively safe trip; shallow seas, no major currents. Tick, tick, tick. I started to get excited and began planning, plotting a route, researching tide tables and all the other details. The only real obstacle seemed to be Zhongtun Bridge, a small gap where the road crossed the narrow channel separating Magong from Zhongtun islands. On one side was the sheltered Inner Sea where I kept my kayak and on the other, the North Sea where I needed to get. The problem was, a fierce current flowed under the bridge and I’d never successfully paddled against it. Until I figured out a way, my kayak and I were locked out of the North Sea.

I reasoned that the current couldn’t always flow in. There must be times where it reversed, tidal windows I could presumably use. Over the next few days I started visiting the bridge regularly at different stages of the tidal cycle, peering off the road into the torrent below, trying to find the perfect time. Yet, it didn’t seem to matter when I went, the current was always flowing in and flowing fast. The only time it ever reversed was at extreme low tide, when there was so little water in the channel paddling under the bridge would be impossible. After multiple visits, I eventually pinpointed a time, two hours before low tide, where the current appeared a little weaker and there was still enough water to navigate. That would be my window. The next day I did a test run, braving the inclement weather to see if I could get through, paddling hard into a bracing wind and surging current. With a little sweat and a lot of grunting, I paddled under the bridge, entering an ominous dark place where traffic thundered overhead, and managed to punch through to the other side where the waves of the North Sea greeted me. Success! It was possible. The expedition was on.

A week later I loaded up my kayak with supplies for the trip and my camping gear. I’d bought a new, roomier tent, a sleeping pad, camping stove and other bits and bobs to improve my campsite and managed to squeeze everything in to the Zepheryine’s hatches. I had a brief face-palming moment when I realised I’d forgotten to bring the box of food I’d carefully packed the night before, but luckily I found a tiny grocery store in the village that sold instant noodles and various other snacks. Disaster averted, I set out on time at 11.30am, two hours before low tide. The long voyage to Mudouyu had begun.

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Packed up and ready to go… after I close the hatch.

The wind was blowing harder than I’d have liked as I left the shore behind, although it was due to die down over the course of the afternoon. I nervously approached the bridge, hoping my calculations had been correct. If I couldn’t get through, the trip would have to be abandoned. I felt the current tugging at my little boat and I increased my stroke rate until I was paddling flat out, inching forward, agonisingly slow, towards the bridge. Once more I entered the darkness and powered through, emerging out the other side with considerable relief and after a few minutes escaping the current altogether.

I might have been under the bridge, but I wasn’t out of the woods. With the safety of the Inner Sea behind me and the sky a stubborn shade of grey above, the waves and wind rushed at me, demanding I turned back. I paddled into them defiantly, bouncing up and down, spray soaking through my thin rash vest. I’d found a way to set up my phone as a GPS on the deck and observed my speed carefully. I needed to maintain an average of at least 2.5mph all the way to Mudouyu, if I were to make it before it got dark. I was currently managing 3mph, but expending quite a lot of energy in the process. This wind had better die down soon, I thought to myself, grimly. Still, I’d wanted an adventure and what kind of adventure offered no adversity?

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Under the Bridge.

I followed the coastline north west, passing the mighty wind turbines – the “Giants of Zhongtun” on my left, close enough to hear their otherworldly whirring. I rounded one headland and then the next and as I paddled, the sea around me gradually calmed, grudgingly accepting I had passed its test and letting up. After a little while the sun came out and my mood lifted. I remembered I was supposed to be enjoying myself. I could soon see my first rest spot in the distance, the harbour of Chikan on Baisha Island, guarded by a distinctive coastguard station which resembled a clock tower. The tide was now very low and the water under my kayak increasingly shallow and I had to keep my eyes peeled for hazards, those annoying iron rods that jutted up from the sea bed.

 

As I rounded the final headland my paddle scraped the sea bed and realised the coral reef below was mere inches from my hull. I was in real danger of getting stuck. For a moment I considered turning and going round the area but instead decided instead to push on. I only needed a few inches of water to stay afloat and with every second wasted it would get even shallower, probably exposing the land fully within half an hour. I skulled my way over, carefully catching the surface of the water, unable to dip my paddle in fully and after a few minutes cleared the danger zone, crossed the entrance to the harbour and landed on a yellow beach of fine coral sand.

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Chikan beach.

I’d barely had chance to pull my kayak clear of the water and stretch my back when I noticed the coastguard bearing down on me, resplendent in his bright orange uniform. Wow. That was fast. I had no idea where he’d popped up from but he must have been watching me for some time. He asked whether I was alone, where I’d paddled from and demanded to see my ID, which was a first. I fished out my wallet from one of the hatches and showed him my ARC, which seemed to confuse him as he repeatedly asked for a my “Shenfenzhen”, the Taiwanese National ID. I explained several times I wasn’t Taiwanese and therefore didn’t have one and he nodded uncertainly, before having a lengthy chat with his pal on the radio. After relaying my ID number to him perhaps five times, he returned the card to me, walking off a few steps before his radio buzzed again and his colleague said he hadn’t caught it properly and needed it again. I obliged, smiling patiently. Eventually, everyone seemed satisfied that I was indeed a British citizen living and working legally in Penghu and not an illegal immigrant who had kayaked from God knows where to begin my new life on Chikan beach. He let me go with a cheery “Zhu yi an quan” (Be safe) and left me to munch down on my lunch: Half a peanut butter and jam sandwich I’d made the night before. Incidentally, if ever you’re considering what to bring on such an adventure, you’d be hard pushed to do better than the classic PB&J. Delicious, full of energy and keeps forever, even crushed into the humid hatch of a kayak.

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Nice of him to match his outfit to my kayak.

 

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Lunch of Kings.

Refreshed, legs stretched and bladder emptied, I launched back into the sea, mentally preparing myself for what I’d gauged would be the most challenging and dangerous part of the journey. A five mile crossing to Jibei Island across open ocean that would take about an hour and a half. I couldn’t even see it on the horizon, but I trusted my compass bearing and GPS and began to paddle north. The safety of Chikan slowly faded into the horizon behind me and I felt the now familiar rush of adrenaline and fear of being out in the deep blue, alone. I fixed my eyes straight ahead, paddled once, twice, a hundred, five hundred times. One thing I’ve learned from kayaking is that, no matter how calm the sea appears from the shore, once you get a few hundred metres out, it changes. The swell picks up, waves appear and you remember: This is the sea. Even on a calm, flat day, fear simmers on a gentle boil and such sections are, for me at least, exercises in managed anxiety. Perhaps the whole sea kayaking experience is. The fear of capsizing, of losing your boat, of being caught in a current, of sinking, of sharks…  fears no matter how unlikely or silly, rear large in your mind when you’re alone at sea with nobody to help. The steady rhythm of paddling, the slow but sure progress on the GPS, the gradual appearance of land in front of you and buoys you come across sliding past with reassuring speed, all go some way to alleviating the anxiety, but still, it isn’t until land is within swimming distance that I start to relax, and not until I step ashore that I can finally breathe easy.

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Somewhere in the Big Blue.

There was one possible staging post on the way to Jibei, four miles into the crossing. A sandy island called Xianjiao, nicknamed “Bikini Island”, as apparently it was once the location of exclusive, all night beach parties. There was little sign of that decadent past as I paddled alongside it, a tumbledown collection of wooden shacks and a single house. I considered stopping for a rest and a look around but there was considerable surf breaking on the beach and the thought of having to relaunch into it put me off. Besides, my schedule was tight. I only had three hours of daylight left and Mudouyu was still a long way off.

I pushed on to Jibei, its famous, elongated tongue of sand reaching out toward me. My body was aching by this time and I was aware my strokes were no longer coming easy, each one required concerted effort and was punctuated by an intake of air and a grunt. If I paused even for a few seconds to rest and stretch, I would have to paddle with renewed vigour to regain my cruising speed so I opted to push through the pain. It was with considerable relief that I finally landed on Jibei, affording myself a brief break, firing off some messages to assure my wife and friends I had safely made the big crossing, and right on time. I’d actually sent a detailed float plan to several people, complete with my route, timings and when I would make contact. Jibei was my last possible “escape point”. If I was seriously behind my schedule at this stage, I could still camp here and abandon Mudouyu. I chomped down on a biscuit, drank some water and briefly considered doing just that. I wasn’t behind. If I left in the next ten minutes, I’d still be able to make Mudouyu with a comfortable margin for error. But, I was tired and Mudouyu was another four miles or so paddle with aching muscles. Stopping now was the safe bet, the easy option, but it would mean my trip would end with failure.

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Made it to Jibei. Was a bit knackered at this stage.

I dragged my boat back into the water and wriggled back inside, for the last time that day. The sun was hanging low in the sky now, and the water was flat and calm. I regained cruising speed of 3.5mph and prepared to round Jibei. Once on the north side, I should be able to see Mudouyu. That would help. High on the cliffs above me, a couple stood under a wooden gazebo, looking out to sea. They spotted me and, under their watchful gaze I rounded the headland, once again aiming Zephyrine northwards. And, sure enough, there it was. A smudge on the horizon, but unmistakably a lighthouse, rising up from a hazy looking island. The GPS told me it was three miles away. Digging down into my reserves, I paddled on, eyes locked onto the mystical shape which slowly expanded in front of me. Black rock glinting in the sun, the stripes of the lighthouse which jutted skywards from its centre now visible. The view looked like something from a movie, the triangular shape of my bow mirrored almost perfectly by the shape of the island. My tired arms were momentarily forgotten as I drew closer, mesmorised by the majesty of the scene. I took photos periodically, wanting to capture the moment, this blog entry already forming in my head. When I could make out the beach ahead, knew I’d make it. A feeling of elation and immense satisfaction swelled inside. I’d made the right decision.

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The stuff dreams are made of. Mine, at least.

As I approached I saw figures watching me from the base of the lighthouse. Clearly, they hadn’t been expecting a visitor this evening. The lighthouse glowed in the rapidly dipping sun and I felt amazed people lived in such a wonderfully isolated spot. I waved and they returned the gesture. Waves were rocking my boat but I reached the sheltered water without incident and a few moments later I was ashore. Happy, tired and relieved, I pulled my kayak up the beach and quickly dashed around taking photos before I lost the glorious, golden hour light. I found a kind of path through the jagged rock and up to the lighthouse, where I went to introduce myself. Apologetically, the man who greeted me told me I couldn’t enter the lighthouse area, but was welcome to camp on the beach. I was a little disappointed with the reception. After my marathon of a journey, I’d hoped to be greeted as a triumphant explorer, offered a cold beer maybe, and a tour of the lighthouse. Instead, I returned to my landing without even a cup of tea to ward off the impending chill.

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Success.

I had little time to enjoy the sunset, as I went about rapidly unloading my gear, all of which had stayed mercifully dry, and setting up my tent for the night. With everything sorted just in time for the arrival of night, I gazed up at the lighthouse I was now camped under, and as the sky deepened into a navy blue, the light on top came on. Twin beams of brilliant, concentrated light were cast out in opposite directions, slowly rotating. A beacon of safety that would be seen for miles around. Snap snap, I took more photos, before I set up my little Primus stove and brewed myself a cup of tea. Not just any tea, but Yorkshire Gold, sent by my mum all the way from England. I guessed I was the first person ever to make such brew on this barren piece of rock and sipped the scalding liquid with a feeling of smugness and vindication. I’d made it.

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The lighthouse, doing its thing.

 

I followed up with a nourishing cup of instant noodles, organised my gear for morning and crawled into my tent for the night. Despite feeling very pleased with myself for making it to this isolated outpost, I was already crucially aware of the fact I’d have to make the return journey in just a few hours time. The weather was set to change the following afternoon, so I needed to leave at first light, with the high tide. My body was a mess of sore muscles and blisters were already forming on my hands. The thought of propelling myself and my boat another fifteen miles on the other side of a night trying to sleep in my tent preyed on my mind as I watched Netflix and texted friends. I turned out my light at 11pm muttering the simple adage “Cross that bridge when you come to it” and fell into a restless sleep.

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My modest little camp.

Emerging back into the darkness at 5am, I packed up camp with mechanical grogginess, brewed a cup of coffee, changed into my damp paddling clothes, loaded my boat and set out into the still water as the first streaks of light washed the night sky away. It was a fine morning and I ignored my complaining muscles, which were not even close to recovery after their night resting on the hard ground, and enjoyed the stillness. I made good time, leaving Mudouyu and the Lighthouse behind and rounding Jibei, where I stopped for the other half of my PB&J sandwich. It made as a fine a breakfast as it had made lunch the previous day.

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A rare Islander selfie. Sittin’ in the morning sun.

The crossing awaited me again and there was no putting it off. The wind picked up somewhat suddenly as I left Jibei and a glance over my shoulder brought a jolt of surprise. Dark clouds had appeared on the horizon without me even noticing. The sea was changing rapidly around me, the tranquility of dawn replaced by grey waves which were getting bigger by the moment. The only saving grace was that they seemed to be going in the same direction as me and I felt the wind push me forward with a surge. The anxiety returned as the visibility worsened and the first drops of rain began to fall. Kayaking in a storm has most certainly not been part of my plan for this trip. Today’s forecast had been good. But, as I keep discovering, things don’t play by the rules at sea. Conditions change quickly and dramatically, with little warning and that’s why you go out prepared. I could barely make out Xianjiao now and, as I paddled south towards distant sanctuary, I was grateful for my compass and GPS. When it appeared, I briefly considered stopping and waiting for the squall to pass. However, there was no saying it wouldn’t get worse and I was critically aware I was paddling against the clock to get back in time. a 20mph north wind was due to hit at 3pm. Also, the current weather was actually propelling me towards home; I was going at twice the speed I’d been doing the previous day.

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A stretch of water calm enough for me to risk getting the phone out its case. The return journey was wet ‘n wild.

I made the decision to press on and put my head down, paddling and steering the kayak, trying to keep it facing the same direction of the waves so I would ride them, rather than be rolled by them. Whereas some parts of the previous day had been tedious, today I had no time to feel bored. The following sea, whipped by its master the wind, was nipping at my heels like a pack of hungry wolves. I focused and I paddled, paddled and focused.

Before long, the clock tower of Chikan was visibile through the spray and rain. I set a course for it and, aided by the still cooperating wind and waves, made it back to the beach. I was way ahead of schedule and after a very quick rest decided to make the most of it. The remainder of the journey home was similarly fast, scary and adrenaline fuelled, dampening the soreness of my muscles. I’d worry about them later. There were spells of calm, when the sea smoothed itself like a carpet being pulled flat, before more dark clouds appeared. The good news was I was nearly home. The bad news was the weather was definitely getting worse. I decided to make an early dash into the relative shelter of the Inner Sea, choosing a different bridge to go under. It was a gamble, as I’d never so much as scouted out the route before, but a quick check of my chart confirmed it would work. The alternative was pushing around an exposed headland in worsening conditions and I made the call.

I paddled through a fierce crosswind, which pushed me at an angle towards the bridge I was aiming for. The water was flooding under it and a current much stronger than the one I’d paddled against the previous day was now sucking me in. It was like paddling in whitewater rapids down a river. I was fully committed, I realised, and couldn’t escape it now if I wanted to. With a few last minute corrections, I straightened up just as the current swept me under the bridge. For a moment I fought to keep from capsizing, my kayak besieged by competing forces. The next I was shot forwards like an arrow. My GPS read 10mph but it felt faster as the current spat me out the other side of the bridge and I paddled on into the Inner Sea. Things were a bit better here, but I still had to fight wind and waves coming from the side as I skirted the shoreline and saw home. Clapping eyes on the red roof of the boathouse brought me great relief, but the tide was too high to land at my launch spot so I used the adjacent fishing harbour, taking advantage of its shelter to moor my kayak and clamber out, mentally and physically exhausted. It was only 11am. The journey which had taken nearly seven hours the day before had only taken 4.5 with the weather behind me. My wife turned up with a friend she’d just picked up from the airport and I was glad for the extra pair of hands to help lift my kayak out and sort my gear out, as I was all but spent.

Back on dry land, my trials behind me, I was giddy with the last few hours excitement and the success of my trip. It always takes me a little while to decompress and get used to the stark difference between land and sea. The danger which had seemed so close on the water was now a distant memory. There really are two worlds out there, and only those who choose to venture out into the sea, leaving behind safe harbours, get to see that duality. A few days after this trip, and I’m already planning the next Islander Expedition. Stay tuned for more adventures.

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One thought on “Islander Expeditions: The Voyage to Lighthouse Isle

  1. Good lord! What an adventure. I felt my heart in my chest reading that. Your words really had me feeling it with you. I’m much too much of a coward to put myself out on the open seas like that, but even in the mountains, this little place has many challenges to offer. I’ve felt that whole range of emotions you describe on some of the longer, wilder walks I’ve done here.

    Like

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