Waiao Beach (外澳沙灘), Surfing and burning

Taiwan’s mountain ranges in the middle of the island divide the island in two unequal siblings. While Taiwan’s western coast is densely populated, its east is known to be wilder, more pristine, and laid-back. Yet, thanks to a network of streets and tunnels that find their equal maybe only in Switzerland, the bays and beaches of Yilan (宜蘭縣), Hualien (花蓮縣), and Taitung (台東縣) are well accessible from the busy metropolitan areas. Not knowing about this, it took me a year, a bit of luck, and the initiative of my friends Moritz and Ray to get up at 5am in the morning and to take an early 6am-ride to Waiao beach (外澳沙灘) at the outskirts of Toucheng (頭城). Arriving there an hour later, the first enthusiasts already packed their boards back into their cars from their early morning surf, showing another kind of life quality away from the big city.

Waiao hosts a few cafés and surf shops along a narrow path whose owners have a welcoming lax approach to Taiwan’s ongoing mask mandates. Opposite the shops a small path leads through a dry grove to the beach, serving as a makeshift grave for broken boards. After some 100m, the trees open to the wide desert that is Waiao, a long stretched beach of light, sticky sand, surrounded by lush green forests, throned by bald hills featuring paraglider jump-offs. The beach itself circles a turquoise bay with shoe-shaped Turtle Island (龜山島) at its hub – 10km offshore and thus a welcome distraction to the viewer, but as an invitation to any naive swimmer quite dangerous. Already at 7am, the sun roasts parasols and people, a few hours later, it will set the air to a shimmer above the scorching hot sand.

It is my first time with a surfboard that doesn’t feature a sail – and a relieve to not have to rig a sail and worry about changing winds. Rushing towards and above the water quickly floods me with an uncomplicated joy I often forget in my oh-so cerebral life. Around me in the early morning swell are already almost a hundred surfers, happy monkeys on small wooden planks, with broad shoulders and even broader smiles. And while I have prepared myself for a day of tough learning, I find fast comfort in the waves, catching a few of them for a few meters, steering my board with relative ease. And thus my biggest sin is not as expected to cut a pro surfer on their wave, but to be meticulous-but-not-meticulous-enough with regards to my sun protection, as my raging skin will tell me here and there through the next night.

Next to Waiao’s natural beauty and the pure childlike joy of unreflected play, it is the light warmth and unpretentious openness of the crowd that inspires me most. Beginners and pros share the space without much squabble, exchanging help, stories, and short chyacks, while the waves keep crushing and the burning sky-chariot continues its heavenly path.