It was a crisp, cloudless morning when we started our journey and stepped from the comfort of our hotel rooms out into the street. We could smell the salty breath of the ocean mixed with the pungent odors of fish and gasoline. Don and I had already made the short walk to the Mokpo Passenger Ferry Terminal at 6 AM that morning to purchase tickets for the ferry. Because there is no way to book tickets in advance, it was important to get to the ferry terminal early enough to beat the throngs of passengers sure to be there later in the morning. At 7:15, the room was packed with people ready to embark. There were several boats being boarded that morning, and we were herded in the correct direction and secured our seats. We were cheerful, the sky was bright, and we had no idea the hell that was to come.
The first hour of the devilish 2-hour journey went smoothly as we sailed past the many islands just south of Mokpo. Then the announcements began to come: “Rough seas in 15 minutes… Be prepared for waves in 5 minutes…” We laughed as a crewmember began handing out sick bags, thinking there was no way it could be that bad. It was that bad. The first waves sent the boat flying in the air, and then crashing back down into the sea. I screamed with terror and held onto Don’s hand as though it was going to save me from the sea. The other passengers squealed with delight, wrongly supposing the severe motion to be a carnival ride rather than Poseidon rising from the depths to snatch us into the ocean. Soon, however, the cheering stopped, as wave after wave continued to pummel the boat.
Up, down, up, down. There was silence as people realized that the fun was over.
Up, down, up down. The silence soon gave way to the unmistakable groans of nausea, as the first passengers succumbed to the incessant thrashing and rolling.
Up, down, up down. For nearly an hour, the sea battered the boat as wave after wave after wave threw us into the air. The sounds of sickness echoed throughout the entire cabin, and while I was able to find inner strength by silently chanting “Stomach of Steel” and by planning my future life on the island (since there was no way I was getting back on a boat the following day), Don was not so lucky. He made it about 45 minutes into the assault before he was scrambling for a bag. When the boat finally docked, I wanted to kiss the ground.
Upon disembarking at Heuksando, I thought there was no way anything could be worth the horrendous ferry experience, but thankfully I was wrong. As our nausea began to subside and we regained our ability to walk in a straight line, we soon set out to find a suitable place to camp. The downtown area, if you can call it that, was rather small with several hotels and restaurants lining the bay. Already we realized the slow-paced lifestyle of the island made it different from almost anywhere we had been before. The bus, which acted more like a public taxi, arrived at 11:00am, and we told the driver the name of the beach we were aiming for, Baenanggimi. After a short 5-minute ride, we hopped off the bus at our private, secluded beach.
After setting up camp, Suzie and I wandered across the street to try and find information about hiking. The main office of the Dadohaehaesang National Park just happened to be located behind the beach, and the enthusiastic park director, Mr. Sim, was ecstatic to have a group of foreigners as guests. I suspect he didn’t speak much, if any, English, so we were so lucky to have Suzie there to act as translator. He talked to her for nearly half an hour, non-stop, about all of the amazing things the park had to offer. He was disappointed that our visit was so short, but he was still very glad to have us. He gave us all sorts of information and brochures about the park and island, including a national park scarf, bookmark, and a big, beautiful book on the Korean National Park system. Since we didn’t have a lot of time, he suggested that we hike the mountains that made up the island, as you could see the entire island from the top. He also suggested we take a ferry around the island, or to the apparently more beautiful island nearby, Hongdo. He reminded us that Dadohaehaesang was a huge national park comprised of many islands. We had picked the island of Heuksando randomly by looking up places to visit on a map. While the national park is huge and we had a lot of options, Heuksando seemed both accessible and exotic. Mr. Sim assured us that there were many other beautiful islands to visit, and was sad to hear we were only visiting the one.
Although we had read that camping on the beaches was illegal at this time of year (May), we had no trouble setting up camp. When we asked Mr. Sim about camping, he said it wasn’t a problem at all. The beach was in a perfect location. It was close to bathroom facilities and the road, which made it both convenient and accessible by bus. It was also close enough to town so we could walk there for supplies if we needed to. The camping area was also equipped with sitting areas and picnic tables, making it an ideal place for groups. The water was rather shallow, so we could wade out quite far, but it was still a little too chilly for swimming. As the tides came in, so did the fish, leaping into the air, almost begging someone to come out with a net and swoop them up. Mr. Sim told us that during the summer, there are so many fish that all one has to do is walk out with a net, no fishing gear required.
When we decided to go for a hike, we waited until we saw a bus drive by and waved it down. The driver of the bus suggested that we pick up the trail from the downtown area. When we got off the bus at the port, we walked up the road behind the main strip. From the bus stop, it was very easy to find and there were signs pointing towards the trailhead. We walked along the winding coastal road for several hundred meters, careful to peek around the curves to make sure there was no oncoming traffic. The trail was clearly marked, and we began our ascent. It was a wonderful trail with multiple vistas overlooking various parts of the island. In between the lookout points was a small winding path through dense forest. Naturally we assigned ourselves character names from our favorite war flicks and pretended we were on an important mission to flank the enemy. Don was that one guy from Full Metal Jacket and I was Captain Winters.
At every lookout point we would stop and enjoy the scenery. Each stop was more beautiful than the last. Our final stop was at the first peak, Chillaksan. From here, we could see all of Heuksando and the many small islands that surrounded it. The weather was glorious, and the sun’s rays were shining down upon us. It was here that Don and I had one of those rare “holy shit I’m in Asia” moments. It is amazing how quickly the strange becomes normal, and a place halfway around the world from everything that you have known can become a home. But here, at the top of a mountain in the middle of the of the East China Sea, surrounded by water and islands, we realized that we were a long way from home, even the home we have created while living in Korea. Here we were, a girl from Georgia and a guy from Wisconsin, sitting on top of an island with two of our closest friends in Korea, a Canadian and Korean, enjoying the same sun that would rise in the west in several hours. It was a cathartic experience, and suddenly the pains of the ferry and the stresses of work washed away. It was a long journey, but I am glad we made it.
After we reached the first peak, we decided to climb back down the way we had come. There were other options, but we decided this would be easier, since transportation on the island, while available, wasn’t very frequent. I, personally, didn’t like the idea of being stranded in a town with only hongeo (a local delicacy of rotten fish) to eat. When we made it back down, we saw Mr. Sim driving down the road. Of course he insisted on driving us back into town. We asked him for a restaurant suggestion and he drove us to a small alley/street close to the ferry terminal. He said it was nothing special, but he had lunch and dinner there from time to time. From there, his assistant walked us to the restaurant. Though the restaurant was closed, the woman opened it up just for us. We had a delicious meal of some of the juiciest, thickest cuts of samgyeopsal I’ve ever had. We also decided to try some Heuksando makgeolli, which tasted like a combination of chocolate milk and dirt.
We were stuffed and happy when we left the restaurant. We stopped by the pharmacy for some anti-sea sickness medicine and the ferry office to make reservations for the ferry the next day. After that, we walked through town and to the grocery store to get some food and beer to take back to the campsite. We walked home along the water’s edge, enjoying the last of the day’s light. Once we got back to the campsite, we cuddled up in our sleeping bags until we eventually fell asleep.
The next morning we woke up bright and early in order to catch our 9:00 A.M. ferry. Luckily the waters were much calmer that day, resulting in a smooth ride back to the mainland. The wonderful Mr. Sim drove us to the port, stopping to show us some of the important places along the way, such as the Center for Migratory Birds. Scientists on the island catch and tag various birds on their journeys south in order to study the migration patterns of the birds. Mr. Sim also imparted his gratitude for our visit. His love for the island and for the national park system of Korea really left an impression on us. He told us not to look at the beauty of the national parks with our eyes, but rather with our hearts. There is so much more to the parks than mountains to climb or scenery to see. It’s a journey, an experience. We live in one of the most beautiful, unique places on this earth, and it would be a shame to merely look with our eyes.
Dadohaehaesang is a huge national park comprising seven large groups of islands. While some of these islands may be reached via land routes, many others are not. One of the main jumping off points for these more remote islands is the ferry terminal in Mokpo. Getting to Mokpo is easy as it is a big city. Buses and trains, including the KTX, are available from most big cities. Once in Mokpo, city bus #1, which can be caught in front of both the bus terminal and the train station, will take you to the Passenger Ferry Terminal. Four ferries to Heuksando leave the terminal every day starting at 7:50 A.M. and cost 34,300 won. Be sure to get there early because tickets can only be purchased the day of. Once on Heuksando grab a city bus at the bus stop a block in from the docks, you can’t miss it. The bus runs around the island and there’s really only one road. Good luck.