Friday, June 17, 2011

WELL-OFF THE BEATEN PATHS of an OFF-THE-BEATEN PATHS of the MATSU ISLANDS: Dacau Island, Gaudan Island, and two Bird Sanctuary Isle

Just like in the fence rows and walled regions of formerly divided Germany--where wildlife flourished untouched by man during the Cold War years, thus preserving all kinds of species for decades, the same has occurred on the China and Taiwanese islands of Matsu.

WELL-OFF THE BEATEN PATHS of an OFF-THE-BEATEN PATHS of the MATSU ISLANDS: Dacau Island, Gaudan Island, and two Bird Sanctuary Isles

By Kevin Stoda, Beigan Island , Taiwan

This past week I went to places that even Richard Saunders never traveled to. I [1] made it to Dacau (Daqiu 大坵) Island, [2] passed very near by Gaudan ( a military only fortress on an island that is often left off of regional maps for secrecy reasons), and subsequently observed hundreds of sea terns and other birds—for which Matsu is renowned –while [3] still viewing and passing by a series of tiny islands en route.

I hope you all have such adventurous days when you go on holiday. (As fate has it, though, I live and work here, so the wonder of Matsu is around me on a daily basis.)


When I first arrived on Beigan Island to teach last summer, I came across several excellent websites and blogs on the Matsu Islands .

One such blog is a 5-part series on the Matsu archipelago—which is only a stone’s-throw from mainland China . This series on Beigan was called “OFF THE BEATEN Richard Saunder’s Explores Taiwan ’s less trodden paths.

Saunder’s began his journey by looking at the largest island in Matsu— Nangan Island . He then proceeded on to Dongjyu and Jigyu and Islands --where my pastor and his wife live three days a week. These are “the southernmost islands of the Matsu group, and with only four boats each day from Nangan Island, they’re much less often visited than …[Nangan], the main island of Matsu, which is about an hour’s boat ride away.”

Concerning those two islands, Saunders added,, “[B]est of all, [the residents are] even more friendly on these southern Matsu destinations]. Not that the folk in Nangan are distant or unhelpful in any way (the owner of the hotel I stayed at last night gave me a free lift on his motorbike across the island to the ferry harbor this morning), it’s simply that on Dongju (東莒) the folk are unbelievably friendly, constantly breaking through that personal curse of mine, my awkward shyness, with offers of food, comments on where to go and what to see, and, a bit scarily, some really odd shellfish (at both lunch and dinner time today) which they’d only moments before collected from the beach nearby. “

Later on during his journey through the areas, Saunders would visit some other distant islands in Matsu: namely, Dongyin and Siyin Islands .

Of Dongyin, Saunders took time to write, “Dongyin is generally regarded as the most scenically stunning of the Matsu islands, which, at its best, it certainly is. The island’s easternmost peninsula, on which can be found the famous ‘Suicide Cliff’, the island’s historic lighthouse, and the extraordinary formation ‘A Thread of Sky’ (among other amazing natural wonders) represents some of Taiwan ’s most fabulous coastal scenery: it’s quite simply stunning. “

Saunders then went on to post, “Unfortunately, however, until the [Taiwanese] military finally relinquish their still almost paranoid grip on the island (and there are signs that they are letting go, although slowly), and nature is allowed to take over and soften the cruel blemishes and scars, as it has in Nangan and the two ‘Dog’ islands, visitors to these spots of dramatic beauty will have to put up with some pretty unsightly country in between, and play along with the military as it continues to enforce a number of simple but irritatingly unnecessary formalities.” A colleague of mine who visited the island recently said that this criticism is still fairly accurate of the military and Dongyin Island .


Saunders notes in the “essentials-for travel-section” of his 5-part series on Matsu the following important help. “The easily accessible islands of Matsu can all be reached by ferries leaving from Fuao Harbor (福澳港) on Nangan Island (which is also the terminus for ships from Keelung and boarding place for boats on to China). Boats between Beigan and Nangan run every hour from about 7 am to 7 pm, and the trip only takes about 15 minutes. Ferries to Dongju and Xiju leave three times a day, calling at both islands before looping back to Nangan. The trip takes fifty minutes. Further small ferries link Dongju and Xiju (15 minutes) several times a day.”

The author also notes that one particular island near Beigan can be approached by a special local charter on Beigan. This very long island is just across from the village of Quizau but is an island that is wholly government regulated as a nature sanctuary—as are many other islands near Beigan are.

Dacau or“(Daqiu 大坵) [Island] can be reached by joining one of the regular charter trips laid on for tourist groups, running from Baisha Harbor on nearby Beigan during the summer. This is what I was able to do for the first time yesterday—i.e. with the assistance of the Chung Shan Junior High graduating class of 2011 and my helpful colleagues at the same institution.

Dacau or“(Daqiu 大坵) Island actually now has a B & B on it during the summer months--so as of this year visitors can stay over night. However, this was certainly not always the case as most of the offshore islands around Beigan Island are off limits to visitors—except military personnel-- to this very day! Dacau is most famous for the hundred or so white spotted deer that graze on the large island sanctuary.

In short, “with the migration of the residential population and the pullout of the Armed Forces, Daqiu has become the largest 9normally) uninhabited island in Mazu which may be visited. In recent years, with the restoration of the footpath around the island and the successful breeding of the Formosan sika deer(Cervus nippon taiouanus) has turned the island a deer-watching paradise; if you arrive on Daqiu early in the morning, there's a good chance you'll see the beautiful sika deer. During the summer, you can also see terns soaring above the island, as well as nearby mainland China .”

Besides takng the opportunity to feed some deers the leaves and branches from nearby trees and shrubs yesterday afternoon, the students, teachers, and I from CSJH were able to observe many tremendous views of Beigan and neighboring islands, which many of us had till now been forbidden to observe. (Moreover, the island has a large black-boned chicken ranch on it not far from the aforementioned bed-and-breakfast. I had never before seen so many living specimens of this very special form of Taiwanese culinary poultry.

Saunders wrote of Beigan and vicinity, “Taking a ferry back from Dongju to Nangan, then another from Nangan onwards to Beigan (北竿) island today was [and is still] itself an experience. Here are none [or very very few] of the modern yachts that speed tourists comfortably to touristy places such as Keelung and Turtle Mountain Islands, around the Blue Highway off Danshui, and out to Xiaoliuqiu in Pingdong Country.”

Saunders adds, “Refreshingly, the boats here [in Matsu] aren’t intended for tourists at all, but as an essential means of daily transport for local people, so there’s none of the plush upholstery, sparkling hull, and captain dressed in bleached whites. The boats here are old but sturdy, the cabin arrangement reminds of the seating inside Taiwan’s intercity buses a decade or so ago, the pilot chews betelnut or smokes, and the passengers are mostly soldiers, with a sprinkling of locals and the occasional tourist from mainland Taiwan (easily distinguished by their new, fashionable clothes and sun hat). “

In short, our ferry to Dacau island was nothing extravagant—it was simply an aging and lumbering water device painted in blue—out for a uncommon day with tourists to see some seldom experienced corners of East Asia yesterday. However, like Noah’s ark, it succeeded in taking us on a fantastic voyage.


In 1999, the birding world was astounded when a species of sear tern, which had been thought to be extinct for over 130 years turned up in and around the islands of Beigan. That event of the year in the 1999 birding world was the discovery of 4 Chinese Crested Tern (Thalasseus bernsteini), which—up till that time had been called “a bird of myth” by many international birding organizations.

“According to Republic of China Wild bird Association's investigation, the areas [or groupings] of Beigan’s birds have [and do include] 42 branches or 178 kinds.” Among the Tern family are the Family Laridae, Bridled Tern (Sterna anaethetus), Black-napped Tern, (Sterna sumatrana),Roseate Tern (Sterna dougalli)—as well as the now-famous Chinese Crested Tern. The latter family of birds can now be observed in numbers of just over 100 each summer on the islands in and around Beigan. This is one reason why our journey yesterday was so special—many fly from all over the globe to see this speicies.

As our boat took us from Dacau Island towards the military-only-controlled island of Gaudan , we saw more and more terns on the rocks and islets of the region. The last island or islet which we visited had a over 400 terns on it and they were over various sorts.

Although many of my graduating junior high students had made a trip to Dacau when they were in elementary school, almost none of them had undertaken this marvelous birding experience and none had ever experienced the close-up views of Gaudan (Golden) Island—a green monster which rises like a mammoth tortoise shell directly out of the sea.

NOTE: In order to make the journey, we needed special permission from the county and the military to near any of these islands. ( I had to show my passport even to get on the boat.)

If you’d like more information on the SEA terns of Matsu and other birds in Taiwan , please go to this website on birding in Taiwan for up-to-date information.

Here is also a great site sponsored by the local government for photos on Matsu’s birds.

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