The late afternoon sun cast warm shadows along Jeju Island’s rocky coastline, and as I approached the harbour my legs ached beneath me from the relentless, pounding descent. Behind me, with sloping ramparts thrusting skyward and covered in its colourful autumnal thatch, Mt. Hallasan marked the beginning of the journey, its thorny crater like an ever-visible lighthouse guarding against any possibility of retreat. In front, a scattering of rocky islands were visible along the horizon beyond an expanse of blue sea. They marked the route of the challenge ahead.
Christened the “Han Challenge,” the aim of the quest was to travel from the summit of Korea’s highest peak, Hallasan (1950m), across the Jeju Strait and up the peninsula to the summit of Namsan and its famous tower in the centre of Seoul.
Since I moved to Korea in the autumn of 2010, life itself has been a challenge. The frenetic bustle of a new city, culture and language are more than enough to occupy the senses from dawn until dusk and beyond. However, as my roots here have spread deeper and the daily blast of novel situations becomes more manageable, I have found myself increasingly drawn to undertake fresh adventures in my new country. Korea is a country full of natural beauty across a diverse range of environments and there is no shortage of opportunities to experience it. In this spirit, I decided to create a mini-expedition that would take in the length of the country and open my eyes to some of the endless list of places I have yet to see. Christened the “Han Challenge,” the aim of the quest was to travel from the summit of Korea’s highest peak, Hallasan (1950m), across the Jeju Strait and up the peninsula to the summit of Namsan and its famous tower in the centre of Seoul. With a total distance of just under 600 kilometres, the goal of completing the event in less than 100 hours under only my own power and that of nature is what ensured it would be a challenge.
The challenge was split into three major sections, the first of which consisted of climbing Hallasan to reach the summit start line, followed by a rapid 25km descent to the coast where the second stage would begin. As a shield volcano, the mountain retains the classical conical shape, with tapering sides that more or less maintain a constant gradient from the sea to the summit crater. The paths that lead to and from the peak’s bleak crescendo above its spectacular crater lake first travel through dense and rocky forest before emerging onto the wind-blown and treeless summit slopes. The trails are obvious and well trodden, but this removes neither their beauty nor their persistent rugged gradient, and it is this that requires abundant concentration and energy to safely navigate.
Stage two commenced from the previous evening’s finish line, rowing out of Dodu harbour a few kilometres west of Jeju City. It’s a pretty location, well-protected from the weather by a wooded headland and high breakwater. Contrary to the stormy conditions that had capsized me on a practice run a few days earlier, the inshore sea state was serene and my biggest concern as I glided my 6-metre coastal scull through the water, was avoiding sunburn beneath a still fierce and rising sun. As I began to pull away from land, I revelled in the stern-facing position that a rowing boat provides. With every stroke a wider view of the island was possible, and the smaller volcanic parasite cones that litter the island became obvious, transforming Hallasan’s smooth profile into a variety of lumps and bumps as it tumbles towards the sea. This is a much rarer view of Jeju, and one that inspires an air of magnificence, the true size of the island’s cloud-piercing centrepiece on full display.
Unfortunately my enjoyment of the landscape was short-lived. As the shoreline retreated, almost as if to replace it, the wind and waves grew and I found myself struggling to keep direction and push the boat through messy seas. As I took a rest break and a stretch in the safety boat the waves conspired against us and battered the rowing boat into a support vessel, breaking a stability device and rendering the scull unusable. Fortunately, we had planned contingencies and recommenced the journey by sailing yacht. The wind, blowing from our destination, combined with uneven seas meant we were slower than the rowing boat as we continued our steady progress into the evening. A flaming crimson sunset lit up the sky and picked out the gigantic silhouette to the south one last time, before a cloak of darkness descended and we sailed into the void ahead. The inky black canvas was punctuated by a half moon, which provided barely sufficient light to pick out the jagged rocks that cluster together to form the remote islands of Chuja. Navigating towards a lonely constellation of street lights that marked the harbour and shelter for the night was a fraught experience, made more anxious by the strong winds and ominous dark pinnacles that littered the entrance.
The inky black canvas was punctuated by a half moon, which provided barely sufficient light to pick out the jagged rocks that cluster together to form the remote islands of Chuja.
At sunrise the following morning we were on the sea again, and in the shimmering morning light the rocks felt less imposing but there were many more of these vegetated outcrops than I had realised the preceding night. It was with distinct regret that we sailed onwards so quickly, as the archipelago had a rugged and magical feel, seemingly at odds to the high-tech country to which it belongs. As the remnants of land faded away in our wake, a sea mist engulfed the boat and hid our goal from view. The south coast of Korea is subject to intensive sea farming, and this was perhaps the least aesthetic moment of the trip. There were buoys and nets as far as the eye could see, occasional clumps of which had become tangled and floated in ugly aimless circles collecting further debris. It was a relief to find safe passage through this seemingly unregulated mess and emerge beneath the imposing yet impressive headland that marks the peninsula’s southernmost point. Atop the mountainous bulk, reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue, sits a sleek viewing tower protruding skywards in the shape of a sail.
In the chilly darkness, well before dawn, we made preparations to depart on the final leg towards Seoul. At this southern extreme of rural Korea, traffic is a rarity, and cycling into the glow of twilight was a profoundly peaceful experience. Just prior to sunrise, the water has an iridescent quality that serves to define the eccentric landforms that rise out of it. The golden pre-harvest fields gently swayed in the breeze, as the tree-lined road swept through a series of small farming villages. It was one of those extraordinary moments that are seldom possible in everyday life. As the sun brought long shadows and light to the world, my overused and complaining muscles submitted to a tired but steady rhythm as hour by hour miles were stubbornly dispatched. The towns grew larger and more familiar in style with northward progress and soon after lunch we had dispatched of Gwangju and were heading into the mountains above it. The road wiggled through picturesque valleys and over low mountain passes before returning again to flatter pastures to the west of Jeonju. Evening fell quickly over the patchwork of farmland and hedgerows, and like the day’s beginning, it came to an end some 290km later beneath an all-engulfing night sky.
The last day began gloomily, the world beyond the grey tarmac obscured behind a frigid bank of fog. The first four hours past in a cold monochrome blur, before the misty depression was sliced by the faithful autumn sun and we emerged into a more hope-inspiring Gyeonggi-do. Here, gently rolling hills surround the increasingly frequent urban pockets. The horizon, dotted with dense clumps of high-rise apartments drew ever closer as we entered the Seoul metropolitan area. To avoid the throng of Saturday traffic clamouring through busy intersections, we joined a cycle path along side the Tancheon stream, which winds its way over 30 km from south of Bundang to join the Hangang at Samseong-dong in central Seoul. As with many of Seoul’s municipal streams, the area has been transformed into a delightful urban park, acting like a great green artery serving the city center.
As with many of Seoul’s municipal streams, the Tancheon stream area has been transformed into a delightful urban park, acting like a great green artery serving the city center.
As we rounded the corner, Namsan’s tower, shooting skyward like a giant futuristic trophy, came in to view. It appeared strangely ethereal in the afternoon glow. Across the broad river and perched high above the squall of concrete on its tree-lined pedestal, it represented all the sweat, pain and exhaustion of the previous four days. Cycling the final stretch across the river, the conurbation sprawled along the riverbanks to either side as far as the eye could see, it struck me how magnificently this modern monument focuses its surroundings. As the final stretch to the summit banked up sharply and I strained to turn the pedals a few last times, I was permeated by a calm sense of realization, followed by happiness. At last, 99 hours and 30 minutes after setting off from the Summit of Hallasan, I had arrived exhausted at my finish line, aloft of Seoul.
The Challenge had given me a wonderful chance to experience a thin transect of this fascinating country, and yet, almost immediately, this taste had left me hungry for more. And so, with this aim, new adventures are on the planning table for the coming year. Ultimately, that is the essence of adventure, to see new places and immerse oneself in novel situations. Life itself is a continuous adventure and we can choose which direction it takes. I believe it is important to remember this, to see existence for the beautiful opportunity that it is, and to appreciate it fully by pursuing our ambitions with ceaseless energy and curiosity. Where better than Here, When better than Now?
A TV documentary of James Hooper’s Han Challenge aired on MBC on October 22, 2011. For more information, visit Han Challenge on Facebook.