Along the Walami Trail—A Pristine Natural Ecosystem


2017 / October

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Phil Newell

The Taiwan Railway Administration’s Pu­yuma Express races along the East Rift Valley. We get off at Yuli in Hua­lien County, where we transfer to a bus that goes to the end of the asphalt road that is Taiwan Provincial Highway No. 30, where it meets the unpaved Wa­lami Trail.

This expanse of mountain forest, in the eastern part of Yu­shan National Park, was in days gone by an important living and hunting area for the Bu­nun indigenous people. During the Japanese era (1895‡1945), the area experienced an incident of fierce resistance against the Japanese by indigenous people. The trailhead is also the point from where for the last decade and more, “Black Bear Mama” ­Hwang Mei-hsiu has been going deep into the Da­fen oak forest to study the Formosan black bear. Countless scholars have studied the ecology and explored the history of this place, and the long trek to visit Yu­shan itself also starts from here.

Today this region is protected in the name of conservation, and we have come here to visit the fascinating ecology of this mountain forest.

From military road to ecological trail

“Walami” comes from the Japanese wa­rabi (fern or bracken), which sounds similar to the word ma­ravi (to follow) in the Bu­nun language, and it can be surmised that this place got its name from the similarity in pronunciation. Today’s Wa­lami Trail is part of the Ba­tong­guan cross-mountain military road, which opened in 1921. The road was built by the Japanese to secure their governance over the area’s indigenous peoples and to connect Eastern with Western Taiwan.

Stepping with us into this pristine mountain forest is Gao ­Zhongyi, who has served at the Yu­shan National Park for over 28 years. A member of the Bu­nun indigenous people, in days gone by he was a hunter, but today he is a national park conservation ranger. His hunter’s temperament has by now disappeared, but the acute powers of observation that are the trademark of a hunter have not declined. Scanning the trail and forest with eagle eyes, he points to a rock face and says, “Those are hoofprints from some Reeve’s muntjac that passed by here this morning.” He also identifies the marks where a Formosan black bear dug into a tree trunk for honey. Seeing the world through Gao’s eyes, we suddenly become aware of the powers of a true “detective,” and the forest comes alive for us through his explanations and descriptions.

From the trailhead to the Wa­lami Cabin, the trail mainly follows contour lines. The total distance is 13.6 kilometers, but the change in elevation is only 700 meters. When the road was constructed, bridges were built whenever a river or stream was encountered. The path rises gradually, and is easy and comfortable to walk—this is a trail made for traveling on foot. Animals seldom take this broad and open road. Gao ­Zhongyi points toward the mountainside, at a small track that is barely visible amid the vegetation, and says: “That path is like a freeway: all the animals go that way.” Another track—the “provincial highway” in Gao’s parlance—is the path taken by mountain goats, sambar, and muntjac. This humorous description helps us to imagine the way of life of animals in the mountain forest.

At the next smooth rock face in the valley, Gao ­Zhongyi tells us that occasionally you will see mountain goats sunbathing there, and Formosan macaques also enjoy taking a breather at this spot. Though we don’t have the good fortune to see muntjac, sambar, or wild boar with own eyes, they come alive in our minds, like an animated film, and it’s as if we can see the sambar lapping water from a stream with their tongues, or the macaques climbing and jumping in the trees.

Imagining these images, and the daily lives of animals, we cannot but thank the conservation work of Yu­shan National Park for enabling us to experience these scenes and these feelings.

Gentleness that doesn’t interfere

Yushan National Park was founded in 1985, though the Walami area only became an ecological conservation zone in 2000. Before the park was established, because the area contains natural resources such marble and sapphire, for a time it was planned to divide it into several mineral extraction zones, with mining and quarrying concerns eyeing the area greedily while waiting for the completion of the New Central Cross-Island Highway—which was slated to follow the route of the Japanese military road—after which they could take possession. Fortunately, the creation of Yu­shan National Park preserved this natural primeval forest.

Gao Zhongyi says that in days gone by, before hunters went into the mountains they would light a match to see which way the wind was blowing. If the wind was blowing toward the place they wanted to go, they might as well call off the hunting trip, because the animals would smell them coming and run away. In ­Hwang Mei-hsiu’s book Black Bear Notebook: The Story of Me and the Formosan Black Bear, she writes that the Bu­nun had many taboos relating to hunting, which had the effect of limiting their hunting activities, making them effectively a code of conduct governing the indigenous people’s coexistence with nature.

All along the route Gao ­Zhongyi stays out in front, using his machete to do a little pruning whenever he runs across vines or branches that would obstruct walkers, and moving aside any fallen rocks to keep the path level. Following the rhythms of nature and keeping interference to a minimum is the current ethos of conservation.

We halt our steps at the Walami Cabin, planning to head back down to the trailhead the next morning. Let’s leave the rest of the mountain forest for black bears to play in, leave it to the living things that reside in this paradise! Two days of journeying allow us to understand that non-­interference should be the way humans express gentleness towards nature.

Organic Walami

After completing our 28-kilometer hike, we visit the organic farms of nearby La­muan, a Bu­nun indigenous community. Although they lie outside the national park, these are the first fields to be irrigated with water from the La­ku­laku River after it flows into the lowlands.

This land has been cultivated by the Bu­nun people for many generations. For many years they used conventional farming methods, and during the busy season the air often carried the acrid smell of pesticides, which created quite a contrast with the environmentally friendly conservation practices of the national park. Therefore the Yu­shan National Park headquarters invited E. Sun Bank, the Yin­chuan Sustainable Farm, the Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation, and the Hua­lien District Agricultural Research and Extension Station to help farmers to switch over to organic farming. They started with technical guidance and demonstrations by experienced organic farmers, and proceeded to certification, purchasing, processing and packaging, for a product they named “Yu­shan Wa­lami Rice.”

Lin Yong­hong is a farmer who led the way in responding to the call for organic cultivation.

Asked whether organic cultivation doesn’t require more labor, Lin replies: “Not necessarily.” If you go about it the wrong way, then naturally it’s arduous. When you first prepare the land, he explains, you have to make sure to get the soil very flat, so that depth of water in the fields is uniform, because only in that way will weeds not spread easily.

As for the dreaded channeled applesnail, the bane of rice farmers’ lives, nowadays Lin Yonghong peacefully coexists with it. “When the level of cellulose in the rice plants rises, the snails no longer want to eat them, and they switch over to eating weeds, which are softer. So they help us out with weeding along the way,” says Lin with delight.

Another farmer, Lai ­Jinde, and his wife Gao Chun­mei, have often gotten out from under the covers on a winter’s night to sleep among the paddy fields, to keep ducks from messing up their freshly planted rice seedlings. Lai takes the organic rice he has cultivated and harvested himself, and dries it in the sun himself, and hulls it himself, and cooks it into sweetly fragrant rice, saying “It’s especially delicious—it has the taste of sunlight.” This is a footnote to the arduous work of a farmer.

“After the hard work, there comes a feeling of peace of mind.” These words of Lin Yong­hong’s encapsulate the mindset one must have for organic farming. When striking a balance between crop yields and health, what is most important is to peacefully coexist with nature. Liu Bao­hua of the Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation says that he doesn’t like to call unwanted plants “weeds,” because “although they affect the growth of the intended crop, the environment doesn’t belong exclusively to us humans, and they too have the right to exist.” This is surely the most important spirit to have for coexisting with nature!

The intention of being friendly to the earth earns rich returns from nature. Besides the fact that the volume of organic rice production has been increasing year after year, an ecological survey by Professor Peng Jen-jiun of the Department of Life Science at National Tai­tung University showed that organic agricultural practices had restored the natural abilities of the land, and that within the organic fields a rich array of species had re-established an ecological defense network, with enough predators to keep pest insects in the fields under control.

Farmers have even found in their fields a Taiwan endemic freshwater fish that is listed as endangered, Ki­ku­chi’s minnow (Aphyocypris kikuchii).

As the Yu­shan Wa­lami brand name has gradually become better known, in the past year or two the community has started to promote ecological experience tours, with farmers one after another joining the ranks of guides to introduce the story of organic rice.

Walking barefoot through the soft mud of the paddy fields, feeling the warmth of the water from the La­ku­laku River on our skin, when we see amidst the rice stems and leaves a ladybug of the species Micraspis discolor in its red and black garb, a strange flutter runs through our hearts. We hope that you too can go and share the same experience.                 


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