Stretching over a sizeable expanse of the southern Taiwan hinterland, some 45km east of Kaohsiung, the MAOLIN NATIONAL SCENIC AREA (茂林國家風景區; màolín guójiā fēngjǐngqū) offers an enticing combination of mountain scenery and aboriginal cultures. Sadly, the area was badly affected by Typhoon Morakot, which struck the region in 2009 (35 people were killed in Liugui alone), and some of it may remain off limits to visitors; check wwww.maolin-nsa.gov.tw for information. The Rukai aboriginal community was especially hard hit; many settlements have now been relocated to safer areas. Virtually every concrete bridge in the area was destroyed and the famous Duona Hot Springs have been lost, buried by mounds of debris. White-water rafting at Laonong and Baolai has ceased indefinitely; note also that paragliding from Saijia Aviation Park is now only permitted through associations approved by Pingdong county authorities. The Scenic Area headquarters and visitor centre at Maolin Village, as well as the visitor centre at Liugui, were both washed away by Morakot. A new visitor centre is planned near Maolin Village (wwww.maolin-nsa.gov.tw). The seldom-visited Rukai village of Wutai was spared destruction and remains one of the highlights of the south.
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Twenty-five kilometres east of Kaohsiung is SANDIMEN (三地門; sāndìmén), an aboriginal community nestled where the western plains meet the mountains, and the heartland of the Paiwan tribe. Sandimen is also the gateway to the spectacular 19km stretch of Provincial Highway 24 leading to the remote Rukai village of WUTAI (霧台村; wùtái cūn). The area was devastated by Typhoon Morakot, and eight smaller communities beyond Wutai were evacuated; only Shenshan and Wutai itself remain. However it’s well worth the effort to get here (a permit is no longer required) – the road winds through some truly amazing scenery, with steep roadside drop-offs framed by rushing waterfalls at almost every turn. And Wutai Village is a real treat, with Taiwan’s most undiluted Rukai culture, stone-paved lanes and several friendly homestays.
Winding County Route 132 climbs the 15km from Maolin Village to the Rukai village of DUONA (多納; duōnà), one of the last bastions of the traditional Rukai slate-slab houses. This area was hammered by Typhoon Morakot in 2009, with the Duona High Suspension Bridge (多納高吊橋; duōnà gāo diàoqiáo) one of the few bridges to survive; it yields sweeping views of the river valley. About 6km past the bridge is the village itself; time will tell if tourism here recovers from the loss of the hot springs that used to draw them in, but for travellers interested in a slice of Rukai life it’s hard to beat. Duona is a great place to try Rukai cuisine, with outdoor barbecue stalls serving up an assortment of meat grilled on smooth, fire-heated slate slabs.