I can smell Kenting before I can see it. Our tyres have been rolling for about 5 hours and I’m hoping my hostel can shut out the smell. My plan was to go straight to sleep and get up at the crack of dawn before the crowds begin to swell, but Kenting is having a party and everyone’s invited (including the stray dogs — that’s right, our four-legged friends are everywhere in Taiwan).
The streets are lined with makeshift market stalls, vendors frying up food and sweet treats. Hordes of children squeeze past me hoping to master one of the many fairground-style games on display. It is only now that my nose recognises where the smell is coming from: it’s called ‘Stinky Tofu’ and it has engulfed Kenting’s main street! This stuff smells like durian mixed with 3-month-old Limburger cheese — trust me, it is not your friend. Even the guide book is telling me not to eat this stuff, but most significantly the street dogs are avoiding it.
I watch the sun start to break through the darkness over the golden beach, but my tranquillity is quickly interrupted. My legs spring into a full sprint as I see a body on the beach; why would anyone surf in the dark? I feel the panic beginning to spread through my body, can I remember CPR? The dead weight takes me by surprise as I roll her over, but my not-so-gentle tactic produces a watery cough and a reassuring sign that this surfer chick is alive!
Recovered and fast forward a few hours, here we are sitting in a café drinking. Surfing (along with cycling) is gaining popularity in Taiwan, and night surfing is the new thing. As a reward for my morning’s heroics, Surfer Girl drives me down the coast and I see yet another side to Taiwan. The coast line stretches for miles and its beauty would give California’s Big Sur a run for its money.
On our way back, Surfer Girl asks if I want to see fire rise from the ground. Sure, what else am I doing — not that I really know what exactly is being suggested. I follow Surfer Girl through the darkness, passing a sign that says: NO LIGHTERS, FIREWORKS OR BARBECUES — and of course immediately we see several small stalls selling fireworks! The forest overhangs the trail and it’s making me nervous. I’ve seen more than a few large black and yellow spiders in Taiwan and I am still trying to find someone who can tell me if they are dangerous or not.
As we break through into a clearing, it’s like a scene from an 80s movie: everyone sat around the campfire cooking popcorn over the naked flames whilst fireworks are sporadically being set off. Surfer Girl seems shocked that I am reluctant to get involved, and I ask her about the Eternal Flames coming from the ground.
“Natural gas!” she squeals with excitement. Alarm bells start to ring in my head; true, it’s one of the world’s great natural wonders, but I want my hair and eyebrows to stay on my face. Surfer Girl has nearly died once already in the last twenty four hours, so something tells me she might not be the best person to be looking out for my well-being. Health and Safety in Taiwan seems to stop at putting up a sign.
Waiting for my ride out of town, Kenting is less California Hells Angels and more… 90s Newquay. The past twenty four hours has been one hell of a beach party!
My journey through Taiwan continues, so check back in to join me as I embark on an eerie trip on the Alishan forest railway.
All photos are the Author’s own