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September 24, 2017

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The amazing basalt columns in the Penghu archipelago

As I traced the short footpath along the coast of tiny Tongpan Island in the South Sea islands of Penghu (澎湖), I was finally fulfilling one of my smaller but longest held ambitions. Not that I'd even heard of this little island until I started planning my first trip to the Penghu archipelago. No, it wasn't the island in itself that interested me, but rather the astonishing and rare phenomenon that is exhibited in plenty here, and on several other islands in Penghu.

I've long known (through photos in various travel books of my native Britain) of the extraordinary natural formations of Fingal's Cave and the Giant's Causeway in Scotland and Northern Island respectively.

Both places are famous examples of a weird, but completely natural volcanic process, as lava spewing from the Earth cooled rapidly, contracting and cracking as it cools into the many thousands of breathtaking basalt columns (many of them perfectly hexagonal) seen at those two places today. Both are such extraordinary places that it's no surprise that they were once thought them to be the work of giants, super-strong Scottish heroes, or perhaps even the Devil.

Formations such as these are uncommon, but famous examples can also be found in the States (one, the Devil's Tower in Wyoming even placed a central role in the move "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"), and in places as far-flung as Iceland, Mexico, New Zealand and South Korea.

Far less well-known are the many similar sites scattered around the Penghu (澎湖) archipelago in Taiwan. Some of the archipelago's most impressive column sites, such as Jishan Island (雞善嶼) and Bird Island, are remote and uninhabited and can only be reached by hiring your own boat, but several fine examples are within the range of the casual visitor on Penghu for just a weekend or so.

The easiest to reach (and most famous) basalt formation on Penghu is the strange natural arch known as the Whale Cave (鯨魚洞) on Xiaomen Isle, a short and easy detour off the solitary highway which links the five main islands at the center of the archipelago, although the columns here are rather crude, and more square than hexagonal.

For some much more refined natural basalt sculpture, motor southwards a few kilometers further to the village of Neian (內垵). Neian Recreational Area nearby lies on the coast, and boasts one of the best areas of basalt cliffs on Penghu reachable by two (or four) wheels.

After coming this far (and it's a long, monotonous drive here from Magong (馬公), the main town on Penghu), take a short detour along local route 5 nearby to pass Mount Niusin (牛心山), a stumpy little dome of a hill crowned with an elaborate flourish of basalt columns that look almost as though they were stacked there by hand, an appearance which perhaps explains its alternative name, Devil's Mountain.

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