The Volcanic Island of Jeju (Part 1)

South Korea > Jeju

August 2013

Jeju is an oft-quoted island, said to be of exceptional natural and cultural splendour, that virtually all Koreans are proud of it — so much so that the Seoul-Jeju air route is said to be the busiest in the world!

However what attracted us to Jeju is its UNESCO World Heritage Site listing and also its induction into the New Seven Wonders of Nature … but what really prompted us to visit Jeju was, while waiting to ascend the famed Table Mountain of Cape Town in a cable car a few months ago, we saw a poster of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, which showed, in addition to the Table Mountain: Amazon Rainforest, Iguazu Falls, Ha Long Bay, Puerto Princesa Underground River, Komodo Island … and Jeju Island! So now we have been to three of them: Ha Long Bay (2006), Table Mountain (2013), Jeju Island (2013). 

So where is this Jeju Island? For one thing it’s volcanic in origin, which gives it a rather unique but interesting geology.  We can imagine it as the peak of a huge extinct volcano which rose from the floor of the East China Sea millions of years ago. In the middle of the island, looking like a festering boil, are the peak and crater of Mt Halla, the highest mountain in South Korea at 1950m. In fact the whole island is covered with fertile black soil and hard lava rocks, and that’s why Jeju is one interesting spot.

The best way to move around Jeju is by car — either self-drive rental or a chauffeured one. We chose the latter, so that I can keep snapping pics.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site listing covers three locations: Mt Halla, Seongsam Ilchulbong Sunrise Peak and Manjanggul Lava Caves. Mt Halla entails a 4-hour hike to the top, so the next best thing is to visit this ancient crater within the Mt Halla complex. It’s called the Sangumburi Crater, and it’s just 17km northeast of the peak of Mt Halla.

Sangumburi is an ancient crater of an extinct volcano which last erupted hundreds of thousands of years ago. The problem with the displays here is the lack of geological information of the site, which is a big pity because that’s the most interesting bit.

Before the walk up the crater rim, serve yourself this pleasant spring water first.

The path up the crater rim is well laid and on a fine such as today’s, the view is breathtaking. As usual the peak of Mt Halla is hidden by the omnipresent clouds.

As we reach the rim, we can see a depression to the right, which is the crater proper.

And as always there’s a legend attached to something this grand.

A bit long-winded, but as legends go, this one is pretty much run-of-the-mill.

The deer statue, associated with the legend above, for  the hunters, though deer here is now totally protected.

The crater is surrounded by forested hills such as this one.

The crater is 130m deep while its circumference is slightly more than 2km. It is richly inhabited by local flora and fauna, some rarely found elsewhere, thus making this site a valuable living laboratory for scientists.

Peak ‘A’ below is Mt Halla, some 17km away, not so inspiring as far as mountains go. Fertile countryside this, thanks to the volcano ashes.

We stroll on the beautiful path along the rim, which incidentally is about 440m above sea level. Anything to the left is strictly protected.

Back at the entrance area, I find huge lava remnants on display.

These huge lava balls were ejected during a volcanic eruption, I’ve seen much smaller ones flying out of the active Anak Krakatau a couple of years ago. Very spectacular.

Strolling back to the main gate, it has been a wonderful morning walk. Thoroughly recommended for Jeju visitors.

I glance at this huge Jeju map, an island of plain shape but of extraordinary features — 70km left-right, 40km up-down, packed with 580,000 people, tourists extra. We are at the green patch just to the top-right of Mt Halla, which sits in the middle of the map. Our next stop is a folk village down the mountain, on the way to the coast.

After a quick drive through pastures, we arrive at Seongeup Folk Village, an open-air sort of display of  traditional houses of Jeju. Of course there’s a village wall and we just have to climb it.

Good respite from the weather for the guards on duty here.

Lots of lava rocks being used for construction — they are black and very hard. The wind turbines at the back sort of spoil the ambience, but what the heck.

I’m pretty sure there used to be an awesome moat here in the good old days.

The traditional houses of Jeju, design originating from many hundreds of years ago. No entrance fee, but some of the houses sell traditional stuff. You can go in, take a look, but no compulsion to buy anything.

They made full use of the lava rocks. Stacked them together, then sealed them with some sort of mortar or cement, to withstand the cold, wet and windy weather of Jeju.

And how could you miss this — the famous black pigs of Jeju, only found here.

Stinks like hell, but they say the meat is nutritious — of course I have no way of checking this out. Cute critters though.

Jeju is synonymous with these ‘grandfather’ figures, made from lava rocks. Only two types — one with right hand above the left (a learned grandfather), another with reverse positions (a simple grandfather). Note their mushroom-like ‘phallic’ hats — they are considered gods, placed at entrances for fertility and protection, and to ward off evil spirits. Heard this before, right?

In which case I better show this grandfather photo taken at Sangumburi just now. 🙂

Back in Seoungeup, this white fellow has become my walkabout friend. Again note the lava rocks used for the house.

The thatched roof, made of wild weeds, is very interesting indeed …

… especially the way the edges are knotted. I wonder if the black rope is a modern addition to the technology. Anyway it’s designed to withstand Jeju’s wet and windy climate.

Fertile soil is everywhere, thanks to the legacy of the volcanic ashes of yore.

We soon reach the open sea, and straight ahead across the East China Sea, just 230km away, the Japanese island of Kyushu. And of course the never-ending lava rocks. They go right into the sea, so the eruptions of Mt Halla ages ago must have been very violent.

A photogenic spot ideal for photography, as I keep admiring these volcanic rocks.

In the distance, our second query beckons — the Seongsam Ilchulbung Sunrise Peak, the second item in the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing.



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