Passing through the tea farming area of Pinglin just south of Xindian and New Taipei City, the jagged mountain peaks and lucious rivers of Taiwan’s Northern Central landscape emerged from the long, winding highway interchanges packed with weekenders getting a relatively early start on the long weekend, in observance of Tomb Sweeping Day.
Organizing and preparing for a camping trip is a lot easier when your friends invite you along in their van and all you need is a tent, change of clothes, and a bathing suit. Our driver happens to work for Taihu Brewery, so the cooler was stocked with craft beer to look forward to once we got to the campsite to boot. It took us a while to collect our friends in the maze of Taipei in an attempt to caravan our vehicles and arrive at the same time at the campsite, but we lost them quickly in the holiday traffic.
From the passenger seat of the van, the sight of a man weed-whacking a traditional half-circle shaped tomb and mournful talk of loved ones who were no longer with us drifted in the air for a moment. This was interrupted by a Taiwan Bluebird (the national bird) swooping through the trees and a Taiwan hill partridge scurrying across the road into the brush as we took a sharp turn up the mountain.
The hairpin turns and steep inclines of the mountain roads indicated that we were approaching our destination: Hei Long Tan 黑龍潭 (Black Dragon Pool) for a two-night stay. My friends had set up a campout gathering and packed everything we would need in the back of their vans. Although it was a holiday weekend, there were only a handful of other groups camped nearby, and we basically had our pick of campsites when we got there. Our friends who we had lost in traffic had already started setting up by the time we pulled up, but most of them had been there before and knew where they wanted to establish basecamp. Tye-dye tapestries and lights were hung to the sound of an amplified electric guitar and laughter.
Throughout the weekend, more friends joined us from Taipei and Taichung in overlapping shifts. Having such a big group, we took turns on kitchen duties, fire building, and playing music while enjoying each other’s company in the midst of nature rather than our usual city dwelling encounters.
It rained briefly the first night as the wind picked up, and I was happy to have brought my coat. At our basecamp, we had ample shelter from the elements and sat around barbecuing, and playing music until the wee hours of Friday morning, trying to keep the fire stoked.
Spring in Taiwan can be really hit or miss when it comes to weather. Fortunately, we lucked out. The sporadic rain let up pretty quickly, and the camping next to the steep valley’s incline kept our tents in the shade until just before noon.
The weather stayed perfect throughout Friday and into Saturday. It even got hot enough to go swimming in the river’s current just a stone’s throw away from our basecamp. Down the dirt road and around the bend of the river on the same property were even more campsites- but they were located further from the facilities. Alternatively, there is space to camp directly next to the riverbanks, but the owners have built permanent structures in the past few years, so there is more privacy on the nearby hillside, which is set up for glamping with tarped shelters and electricity. My phone didn’t manage to get a signal the whole time, but some others had no issues. There was even Wi-Fi provided by the owners of the campgrounds, but I chose not to use it and unplug to experience nature and live in the moment instead.
After breakfast and a nap, another group of my friends arrived. Incidentally, I was on a stroll and met them when they were crossing the bridge over the river to the campgrounds in their van, which is also a vanlife, the same model as the one I had rode in on. Later, my friends traded van modification tips, since one of them had built a bed and storage rack for the back of van and his roommate’s rides and the other had a cardboard box fashioned into a cup holder for the front seats.
They had chosen a different site to camp, slightly further up the hill, but just as close to to the river from another access point. As certified Hei Long Tan regulars, my only other visit a few years ago had been with them, and they told me about previous visits with a real sense of love for the place and the memories they had built there.
Another barbecue ensued after swimming in the late afternoon and firewood missions wandering the grounds looking for dry logs to keep the coals happy before nightfall. While walking between campsites to retrieve my headlamp and raid the cooler, a family of fireflies illuminated for a moment in the darkness of the jungle. Looking up, a shooting star fell overhead from the clear night sky.
Away from the campfire smoke, conversation and music, surrounded by the sounds of frogs and insects and fresh air feeling of being in the mountain valley where two rivers intersect, a feeling of peace washed over me. Although having familiar company and making new friends on the spring break camping trip was invaluable, being alone and witnessing the raw beauty of nature was an experience worth relishing. When I told my friends about it, they reminisced about another springtime camping trip they had in HeiLongTan and seeing thousands of fireflies surrounding their campsite and besparkling the thick jungle of trees, and even reflecting their light in the river while swimming at night.
A vanload of friends got a late start from Taipei arriving before midnight, and were greeted with hugs, food and drinks aplenty. Around the campfire, we shared stories and caught up on life under the stars.
Come Saturday, it was clear who had been there for two days and nights, and who was still settling in. We packed up our gear and meanwhile, a few of my friends who came on Friday went for a trail run, reporting that the back way into the campsite traced the river and went on to another small mountain town with several large houses overlooking the water. Before heading out, we cooked what was left of the marinated pork and enjoyed the sun briefly, before it cooled off and became overcast. Having consumed almost all of the food and beer we had brought, it was time to go. Of course, our driver stayed sober and handled the drive back with a level head. Many of our friends tried to convince us to stay another night, but she had plans in the city, and I had my bed to look forward to. On the way back, we retraced our drive, stopping at a rest area that was flooded with people and nowhere to park. We circled the parking lot, but were forced to leave the van running while one of us ran inside to get coffee for the last leg of the trip. I took one last look back at the mountains as we entered the tunnel to Muzha and back to Taipei.