Wheels in the Wild: Taiwan’s Off-Roading Adventurers

Though not technically legal, off-road driving and motorcycling are popular activities among certain outdoor enthusiasts in Taiwan, where rugged jungle and mountainous terrain still constitute a significant portion of the land.

When it comes to taking his 1993 Jeep Wrangler off the beaten track in Taiwan’s remote wilderness, Dave Johnson is the first to admit that he often acts against his own advice.

“I like heading into the hills by myself, but I’d strongly urge people driving off-road to do so in a group that has a minimum of two vehicles,” the British businessman says. “That way, if one gets stuck, the other can pull it out.”

Several of Johnson’s expeditions into the hills were inspired by his ongoing research into sites connected to Taiwan’s indigenous people or to the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonial rule. Some of his discoveries have been featured in the TraX videos he presents on Guan Xi Media’s YouTube channel.

“I’d say that an electric winch with an anchor is essential, but I don’t have one,” adds Johnson, who splits his time between Taipei and Taitung. Instead, he carries ratchet straps (a manual winch) at all times. These have come in useful on several occasions. “It seems like every time I drive to the coast, I have to pull someone off the beach. Last time, it was a rental in Hsinchu. It was an all-wheel drive vehicle, but it still got stuck,” he recalls.

Occasionally, off-roaders have to be rescued by the authorities. On February 28 this year, a convoy of firefighters and volunteers was dispatched to the mountainous interior of Kaohsiung after deep water trapped a family trying to reach Shidong Hot Springs (石洞溫泉). The Kaohsiung City Fire Department later appealed to the public to avoid driving on riverbeds, saying that typhoon-induced changes to the landscape often make such places “extremely dangerous.”

Johnson’s familiarity with Taiwan’s rougher roads is due to both a love of the outdoors and his occupation – running a company that supplies railway and aircraft components. Taipei Metro, Taiwan Railways Administration, and the Taiwan High-Speed Rail Corp. are among his clients. Often, he has to drive to remote stretches of track to check on work.

Before attempting anything ambitious, such as following a river upstream, drivers should have a decent amount of experience on unpaved and uneven surfaces, Johnson says. They should also allow plenty of time to avoid having to drive after the sun has set. “You should be fit enough and mentally prepared to walk back to civilization if you get stuck,” he adds.

“It can take three hours to get yourself off a rock,” Johnson warns. And if a wheel gets stuck in a rut or in mud, there is no five-minute fix. The SOP is to lift the wheel using a tire-changing jack, fill the hole with gravel, and then position a traction board.

Johnson explains that he bought his Jeep 10 years ago because “road conditions in East Taiwan can be pretty bad, especially after typhoons.” One of his pastimes is storm chasing, a hobby that inevitably involves negotiating debris-strewn roads.

In Johnson’s experience, keeping a Jeep Wrangler on the road isn’t expensive. There are lots of old Jeeps around, so replacement parts are easy to obtain. A decent 30-year-old vehicle can be had for less than NT$100,000, he says. Those willing to spend upward of NT$400,000 can get a Jeep with a winch, air lockers (which stop the wheels from spinning when 4WD is engaged), and other modifications for off-roading.

According to Johnson, some drivers of heavily modified vehicles are overly reliant on their vehicles’ capabilities. He favors technique over hardware. Common mistakes, he says, are failing to consider just how deep a creek might be before attempting to cross it, or not properly sealing the engine snorkel (a component that allows the vehicle’s engine to “breathe” when crossing rivers or water-filled roads).

Johnson has a strong preference for vehicles with manual transmission. Compared to automatics, they provide better control of torque, which is useful if you get bogged down. Moreover, he says, they make it possible to engine-brake in descents, thus reducing the risk of skidding.

Notwithstanding his liking for solo drives into the wilderness and his desire to hike rather than drive to minimize his impact on the environment, Johnson occasionally joins groups of Jeep drivers on outings to undeveloped hot springs. “They offer camaraderie and immediate help if you get into trouble. But they’re noisy!” he says.

Johnson has noticed that off-roading groups are usually defined by vehicle types and the garages that specialize in them. “Jeep drivers head out with other Jeeps,” he says. “Toyotas stick with Toyotas, Land Rovers with Land Rovers. People get to know each other because they go to the same mechanic.” Noting the surprising degree of rivalry between mechanics, he observes that “this can be annoying if you want a component your regular mechanic doesn’t have.”

Two-wheel traversing

Like Johnson, Glenn Panozzo Jr. prefers to go it alone when exploring the unpopulated parts of Taiwan. For the past eight years, he has been exploring the hill country near his home in Kaohsiung on his Kawasaki KLX250 motorcycle. The former U.S. Marine did some off-road riding while growing up, but he says that experience was entirely different because the terrain in Indiana is quite unlike that of Taiwan.

Panozzo, a voice-over studio owner and voice talent, sums up his equipment philosophy as “ATGATT: All the gear, all the time.” With the changes he has made to his bike – he upgraded the suspension and replaced the handlebars with a stronger set that will not bend if he falls – the cost of his hobby has begun to add up. But good gear is worth every New Taiwan dollar, he stresses.

“Without the gear, you’ll fall and hurt yourself,” he says. “Even with all the gear, you’ll still probably hurt yourself, just not as badly.” The right footwear is particularly important, he explains. “Buy proper motocross boots. Don’t buy comfortable boots that seem good enough. I did that and broke my foot.”

Since breaking his foot in a 2017 accident, Glenn Panozzo wears motocross boots every time he rides his motorcycle off-road.

It goes without saying that you should learn how to use the tools you carry. “Of course, the more people you ride with, the fewer tools you’ll need,” says Panozzo. “If riding alone like I do, at the very least learn how to fix a flat tire. That’s the problem you’re most likely to have. If you ride on riverbeds, learn how to ‘de-water’ or undrown your bike, as you’ll fall in at some point.”

He points out other good reasons for riding with a group: “They’ll introduce you to some of the best trail networks, and you’ll probably learn a thing or two.”

Off-roaders like Dave Johnson recommend that newcomers to the activity travel in groups, rather than alone, in order to have help close by in the event of getting stuck. Photo: Courtesy of Wade Gilliam

Those who prefer to explore by themselves must be aware of their limits. If you make it up a steep hill, Panozzo says, you need to be able to get back down. “If your bike slides down the mountain, it’s up to you and you alone to get it back.”

With a GPS recording device, you can keep track of where you have been, which can help you find your way home at the end of the day. “That’s doubly true when you’re on a riverbed, as the trail can sometimes be difficult to find, especially in the dark,” adds Panozzo. “And, of course, let someone know where you’re going, and when they should expect you back.”

In addition to riding up riverbeds in search of waterfalls and swimming holes, Panozzo and other back-country motorcycle enthusiasts like to explore dirt roads that were cleared for the construction and maintenance of powerlines. “There are also roads made by farmers and old logging roads that used to be restricted to Forestry Bureau teams, but which are now open to the public,” he says.

Some roads and trails are frequented only by hunters, who often mark them with ribbons. On such routes, there is a danger of getting caught in a trap, Panozzo warns. “I was once stopped dead in my tracks by a wild-boar snare while riding downhill at around 30kph,” he recalls. “If I wasn’t wearing proper motocross boots and gear, I’d have had a real bad time. It took me 45 minutes to free myself.”

“Sometimes the line between what’s a road, what’s a hiking trail, and what’s private property can be blurry,” Panozzo says. “If you find yourself on a hiking trail – and getting angry looks from hikers – I recommend turning back. And obviously don’t ride on private property, though landowners generally don’t seem to care that much so long as you’re not ripping up their property.”

Yet it’s Mother Nature, in the form of a landslide or a fallen tree, that often forces Panozzo to turn around. Gates and security guards have brought other expeditions to a premature end. But he has never been threatened with a fine for riding somewhere, and he can remember only one testy exchange with a local.

 “I was riding on a riverbed near Sandimen (三地門), when a man on a motorcycle with a large machete on his side stopped and yelled at me, saying these lands belong to indigenous people and that I shouldn’t be there,” he says. “Later, after a chat, we ate some barbecue together with his family by the river. So a happy ending!”

In many places, off-roading is technically illegal. In the vicinity of waterways, driving on roads “other than designated ones” is specifically prohibited by the Water Act. Yet every off-roader contacted for this story confirms that enforcement is far from strict.

Navigating a gray area

Mitsubishi Delica owners, among them YouTuber Asher Leiss, relax beside Lakesi Creek in a mountainous part of Kaohsiung. Photo: Courtesy of Asher Leiss

Asher Leiss, who has taken his Mitsubishi Delica L300 van all over Taiwan, gathering content for his Follow Xiaofei YouTube channel, complains that “this law is ignored, rather than modernized. Where you can drive off-road changes every year, based on how much they enforce the rules.”

Popular and relatively easy-to-reach off-roading destinations include Wanda North Creek (萬大北溪) and Wanda South Creek (萬大南溪) in Nantou County, says Leiss. “They’re occasionally closed, but recently I’ve seen cars going in, so the trench the authorities dug in the river to stop vehicles must be gone,” he adds.

According to Leiss, residents of Wutai Township in Pingtung County have taken control of access to Hayou Creek Hot Spring (哈尤溪溫泉). “They only allow their own cars in, so you have to hire an ‘off-road taxi,’” he says, questioning if there is a solid legal basis for the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Water Resources Agency’s acceptance of this arrangement.

In Taiwan, modifying one’s car or motorcycle for rougher terrain while remaining within the law is nearly impossible. As a result, there are thousands of illegally modified vehicles around the island, Leiss says.

A local mechanic who preferred not to have his name published says there are two ways such vehicles can pass mandatory inspections. Car owners use garages known for being cooperative, or they buy a second vehicle of the same model and same color, and switch over the license plates whenever they need to take it to be inspected.

Asked about the environmental impact of off-roading, Leiss says that vehicles tend to flatten and compact the surface, and they can leak fluids into a river. However, he also points out that very few waterways in Taiwan are without some kind of dam or weir. “They aren’t really healthy ecosystems,” he says. “Also, typhoons completely reorganize the riverbed every year anyway. So I’m skeptical that off-roading has much impact.”

Compared to hikers, people in cars can carry much more, and thus leave behind more trash. “I’ve seen offroad groups leave big piles of trash behind, even though they have cars that can drive it out,” says Leiss. Dave Johnson has also noticed that some groups are less than fastidious when it comes to hauling out their garbage.

Well-heeled city folk are not the only people who use robust or modified vehicles to access the wilderness. “You can do a lot of things when weight isn’t a problem,” says Leiss. “When a hunter hikes in, he’ll come back with one or two animals. But if people drive up the river to hunt, they might kill a lot more. This affects animal populations.” He says he has also seen drivers transport electrofishing equipment into the mountains.

“There’s no reason why we can’t have responsible off-road driving,” says Leiss. “Since it’s currently illegal, or operating in a gray area, it’s hard to address the challenges it presents. I think the authorities would be better off making it legal, defining rules for it, and then strictly enforcing those rules.”

Johnson is in broad agreement. “I’d be happy to see restrictions on numbers or some kind of a permit system,” he says. “Groups should at least guarantee they’ll take out their rubbish.”