In the late-1990s, I hopped on my "New City Nobleman" 150cc Kymco motorcycle and began a ride over Taiwan Provincial Highway 20 (also called the Southern Cross-Island Highway or 南橫公路). I had a map, but little common sense.

Long on confidence and short on research, I wasn't aware the highest point of Route 20 is more than 2,700 meters above sea level, and I was woefully unprepared. One item glaringly missing? Gloves. Operating a clutch bike on top of a mountain in February requires fingers that are not frozen solid. By the time I made it to that highest point – the Yakou Tunnel – I was in pretty bad shape. Kind locals offered me gloves and warm rice wine, and the next morning I sputtered my way down into Taitung County (台東).

My idiocy aside, the trip was astounding; stunning vistas unlike anything I'd seen in Taiwan before. The mostly indigenous people I met along the way were wonderful, and unless I was hallucinating, I spotted deer, pheasants and even a wild pig or two.


Credit: Eryk Smith

The view from the now re-opened Great Buddha in Luigui.

I've longed to retrace my youthful misadventure this time in a sturdy 4X4 if possible but on Jan. 15, 2018, UDN reported that I'll need to wait at least another three years if subsequent typhoon seasons are merciful.

Running some 200 kilometers, the South Cross-Island Highway is noted on Wikipedia as "one of South Taiwan's major tourist attractions," but someone needs to update the page. The road was out of of commission for roughly a decade before becoming completely impassable – during many years, parts were reduced to mud ruts.

The nail in the coffin of Route 20 was Typhoon Morakot, the deadliest typhoon in recorded Taiwanese history. Visit Kaohsiung's Liugui (六龜區), today and you'll still see pieces of houses along riverbeds, construction debris in places that make no sense and boulders the size of mini-buses in odd locations ... all relocated by the power of the “8-8 Flood,” so named for the Aug. 8, 2009, series of mudslides and floods triggered by Typhoon Morakot that buried alive at least 400 souls in Jiasian (甲仙區) District's Siaolin Village (小林村). Thousands in and around the Liugui area were stranded for days while parts of Route 20 were erased from the map.

Then-president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration, under heavy fire for a perceived slow and inadequate response to Morakot, allocated some NT$2 billion (US$68 million) to repair both Route 20 and Kaohsiung County (local) Road 133, part of a nearly NT$120 billion special reconstruction budget passed about three months after the devastation. But after setbacks due to another typhoon in 2012, enthusiasm for the repair work waned and work slowed. The new government voted into office in 2016 apparently has had some misgivings about the repair plans. As of 2018, experts say a further NT$1 billion will be needed should the government decide to repair Road 133, which would bring the total bill for both roads to NT$3 billion.

Kaohsiung City cannot afford to pick up the tab for Road 133 and has requested the central government to pony up. Repairing Route 20 was an easier sell as it is a “national” road that connects Tainan, Kaohsiung and Taitung, but getting a central government budget for a local Kaohsiung Road (133) is proving more difficult.

Kaohsiung County highway 133 (also named Xinkai (新開) or Xinbao (新寶) Road), branches east off Route 27 in Kaohsiung's Liugui District (六龜區), taking tourists to the well-known hot spring areas of Bulao (不老), and further north to Baolai (寶來). But, since the "8/8 Flood," Road 133 no longer connects the two areas.

As it stands, folks visiting Bulao need to reverse course, head back down to 27, cross the Laonong River (荖濃溪) and then go north to connect with Route 20 to get to the more famous Baolai hot spring town. We're talking about a 30-plus minute detour, which I concede is hardly the end of the world.

But tourism in the area is far from fully recovered, despite the hard work of people like Jimmy Chen (陳建男), a Taipei native who returned to manage his family's hot spring resort in Bulao after his father heroically left a safe area to try and rescue some of his fellow villagers and never returned. Body parts were later found in trees dozens of kilometers downriver.

The remains of the majority of those lost in Liugui that sad day are believed to have been washed out to sea and were never found. Chen and others have bravely forged on since 2009, but all these years later, he still can't drive guests up to see friends in Baolai without the detour, and the detour itself makes Bulao a less attractive spot than it could be.

Some question why Taiwan taxpayers should foot the bill for Road 133. It’s a fair question. So many millions for a few kilometers is a hefty price tag, but I say we owe it to the local people who have suffered so much for so long. Liugui (六龜區) is the third-largest district of Kaohsiung, but is home to just under 14,000 people. That number drops daily and the district stands close to zero chance of stabilizing or rebounding if infrastructure around hot spring sites remains in their current state.

I spend a lot of time up in the "East Nine Districts" of Kaohsiung, which actually comprise 70 percent of the territory of Kaohsiung City. These districts are officially "farm zones" and no factories are currently allowed. While there is an over-abundance of natural beauty in the far north east of Kaohsiung, other tourist attractions are somewhat lacking.

Bulao, Baolai and Duona (多納) in neighboring Maolin (茂林) District desperately need investment money to fund renewal work that's needed to meet the expectations of tourists in 2018. Old wooden cabins and less than aesthetically pleasing, 40-year-old hot spring facilities found in parts of Kaohsiung's major hot spring areas are finding it hard to compete with the gleaming spots you can soak up mineral-rich waters in say, Taipei's Beitou or New Taipei's Wulai.

Route 20, or the Southern Cross-Island Highway, has been and is being repaired at costs that are truly staggering, but the most seem to agree that we need this road. Humble Liugui, a large number of whose residents are indigenous Taiwanese, has so far unfortunately been put on the back burner. But hope is not lost.

Some say Road 133 is technically a Kaohsiung problem, but I agree with those who say having taxpayers fix it will bring benefits to all of Taiwan, as well as help balance the scales a bit for Liugui, a district from which loads of river sand are hauled away daily for construction projects that bring sweet rewards for builders, but hardly trickle down to concrete improvements for Liugui residents.

As debate continues over County Highway 133, hopefully forward-thinking folks in the Tsai Administration will realize the additional billion New Taiwan Dollars are a necessary investment in the future of Liugui, it's people, and tourism in South Taiwan in general.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston