Ever wondered where Maokong (貓空), that ever-popular hillside area of tea gardens on the southern edge of Taipei where everyone goes to drink tea, got its name? Despite including the character for “cat,” its original Taiwanese moniker, “Niaokeng,” (“teapot hole”), had nothing whatsoever to do with our feline friends, but is instead an allusion to the many potholes eroded into the rock of the riverbed in the valley below. For many years this fascinating sight was visited by few visitors to the area other than local geologists, but now the potholes are easy to get to, thanks to a new, well signposted path that begins not far from the upper station of the Maokong Gondola.
Potholes (otherwise known as kettle holes or giant’s kettles) occur when small stones or gravel, spun in a circular motion by eddies in the water, gradually erode smooth-sided, circular depressions in a stream or riverbed. These examples at Muzha might not look especially big or impressive, but they’re of great interest to geologists, as they’re quite uncommon.
Perhaps the most beautiful examples of this strange and rather beautiful form of water erosion in northern Taiwan, however, lie at Shibadongtian (十八洞天) on the Dabao Stream south of the town of Sanxia, in the far west of New Taipei City. Although it lies right below the road to the popular tourist attraction of Manyueyuan (Full Moon) National Forest Recreation Area, Shibadongtian is little-known, because the only safe way to see the potholes is to walk down from a small, easily missed side road on the opposite bank of the river.
To get there, take route 7 south from Sanxia towards Manyueyuan, but keep straight ahead (towards Sanmin (三民) when the Manyueyan road branches off to the left. Follow the Sanmin road for another 300 meters, and take the first small lane on the left, through a metal temple gate. Stop at a tiny roadside parking place opposite a large inscribed rock, about 400 meters down the narrow road.
Follow the steps beside the rock down, and the sheer-sided cleft of Shibadongtian will immediately come into view below. This beautiful place was somewhat disfigured many years back when locals erected a shrine of corrugated iron and metal supports above the gorge. The worst of the eyesore was removed a few years back, making it easier to enjoy the view into the shallow but sheer-sided ravine through which the river courses, carving the finest collection of pothole formations in the region.
Richard Saunders is a trained classical musician and writer who has lived in Taipei since 1993. He has written several books (available at the Center and in bookshops around Taipei), including Yangmingshan: the Guide (a complete guide to the National Park on Taipei’s doorstep) and Taipei Escapes 1 and 2, which together detail sixty day trips and hikes within easy reach of Taipei city. A fourth book, a guide to Taiwan’s offshore islands, is out now.
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