‘Roughing it’ on a Korean island

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It’s finally starting to get warm here in Australia after a prolonged winter, and with the warmer weather comes memories of summers past as well as excitement for the adventures that lie ahead. While New Zealand and Fiji lie just three short weeks away, I’m tiding myself over remembering past summer excursions while listening to the very chill Bruno Mars.

Last summer Fallon and I were in the midst of saving every spare penny for my six week tour of the United States, so while others were jetting off to Mongolia or the Philippines – we were sticking closer to home. A side journey to the beautiful Daewonsa temple outside of Gwangju, the weekend junket to Jejudo, and a weekend long camping trip to the island of Bigeumdo – just off the coast of Mokpo.

For the foreigner community in Gwangju and Mokpo, the islands were a short boat ride away and offered some of Korea’s better beaches as well as the opportunity to drink copious amounts of beer in a place that wasn’t the local foreigner bar or the roof of a fellow teacher.

My sister and her husband were in the country at the time trying their hands at the teaching gig and having a bit of a rough time of it, so Fallon and I decided to take them away for a weekend to help them get their minds off of the hustle and bustle of Korean life.

So it was that we found ourselves emerging bleary eyed from Fallon’s apartment at the crack of dawn to traipse down to the Mokpo ferry terminal with bags full of groceries. We’d gone for a rather pricey shop the night before and come back with more than we’d expected. Not only did we have all of the fixings for a few nights of ‘roughing it’, but we’d also acquired a rather large inflatable chair and a veritable horde of cheap Korean fireworks. My sister’s husband David was particularly excited about the fireworks, since it’s nearly impossible to get your hands on them in Australia.

The ferry ride out to Bigeumdo takes about two hours, but when you’re moving out past hundreds of islands you’re too busy snapping photos and soaking in the hot summer sun to really notice. I’m not a big fan of the way Koreans treat their waterways, and you’ll see evidence as to why in the photos I’ll post in a moment, but out there amongst the islands and the green waters – I could almost forget that this was a country with perhaps the worst beaches and waterways I’d ever encountered.

Our rather cute 'pension' on the waterfront
Kids frolicking in the 'surf'
A bridge to nowhere on the way to Bigeumdo

We arrived out on the island at around the same time as the storm clouds, and spent a while looking around for the van that was supposed to pick us up and take us out to our waterfront minbak. After buying a few refreshments to save us from the humidity, we managed to find a helpful local lady who was kind enough to call the minbak’s owners from her mobile phone. Too often the Korean people get a bad wrap for being a little insular and xenophobic, but it seems like their good qualities are rarely highlighted. I had far more experiences with friendly, curious, and helpful Koreans than I did with racist ones.

Soon the van arrived and we wound our way through the farms and empty lots and out to where we’d paid for a night in a waterfront minbak. ‘Waterfront’ was perhaps a bit of a misnomer. There was most definitely water in front of our minbak, but with the tide low it was about two hundred metres of muddy sand away from us. The muddy stretch of beach fairly roiled with hundreds of tiny crabs swarming all over it – so much so that it looked as if the sand was home to a massive nest of spiders. With the sun now firmly entrenched behind a wall of dour grey cloud, the scene wasn’t the island paradise that I’d been hoping for.

Still, we’d come this far and had no intentions of not having a good time – so we hastily unloaded all of our stuff into a surprisingly nice minbak. Usually these consist of bedding materials on the floor and some creature comforts – but this one had a double bed, a small kitchenette complete with fridge, air conditioning, and even a television set tuned in to the arbitrary nine hours a day of NCIS reruns. The weather wasn’t exactly beach weather, but we hurriedly changed into our swim wear and made our way down to the beach.

South Korea doesn’t have much in the way of surf or white sandy beaches. In fact, we had to negotiate our way around a discarded fridge to get to the water. It was icy cold and utterly still, like swimming in a large bath-tub that has sat for too long. Our feet churned up clouds of dark sand. I tossed my inflatable throne into the water and that enlivened things a little. We were soon fighting over the honor of not being entirely submersed in the water – and that got our spirits up. To our left a long sea wall ran out to an island popular with the locals for fishing, and to our left we could make out the distant wind turbines as well as a newly developed area for Korean ‘campers’ wishing to spend their nights in pre-erected tents with electricity and furniture inside.

A fridge on the beach. I assume it's working on its tan
A run down tent restaurant on the water front
The ominous road out to the fishing island
Mongolian style tents on the beach

Soon our enthusiasm for the water wore off and we made our way back towards the minbak. Fallon’s dream of getting a little sun had been dashed  by the weather. A lunch of Fallon’s delicious (and healthy) lentil and black bean burritos made us all a tad drowsy – and we’d soon dozed off in front of the television. By the time Fallon and I woke up the post apocalyptic sun was dipping below the horizon, so we grabbed our cameras and snapped some photos of the beach and its surrounds. We braved the walk out to the fishing island, shuddering at the swarms of cockroaches that would flee the road as we approached in order to seek refuge in the rocks. I’d never encountered insects on the beach until I came to Korea. They seem to go hand in hand with a day at the beach.

Back at the minbak we fired up the BBQ for some hobo stew and busted out the beers we’d brought with us from the mainland. Mosquito coils and liberal applications of repellent are a must in South Korea during the summer. The one area I forgot to cover, my ankles, were completely devoured by the time we’d eaten our dinner and turned our attention to making some s’mores. By this point I just wanted to crawl into bed and forget the day had happened, but David was so damned excited about the fireworks that we made our way down to an unoccupied stretch of beach and went to town on those bad boys. I’m ashamed to say I was completely sucked in by the fun of playing with potentially hand shattering explosives.

Delicious hobo stew
David is far too excited about fireworks
Avada kadaver!

After our brush with accidental dismemberment, we retired to the minbak for some late night Phase 10 before calling it a day. We’d decided against spending a second night on the island. Of course, as these things go, the day turned brilliantly sunny as we boarded the ferry back to the mainland.

Figures.

Would I recommend a visit? You know, in spite of how uninspiring our trip might have sounded, I would. It was an adventure and we found our fun in the company we kept and our determination not to be bummed by a rainy, muddy island retreat. I’ve got friends who swear by a weekend on Bigeumdo (Fallon had been before and loved it) – so I’m not ready to write the place off just yet. Maybe 2011 holds a return visit for me.

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