One of the best things about an island is the fact that it is surrounded completely by water. And, when water meets volcanic rock, you have instant beauty: Beaches. Tidepools. Rocky Coastlines. Estuaries.
Hence, we have the inspiration for the Jeju Island Olle trails. The Olle trails go along the entire island, moving through some of the scenic areas. Over 20 Olles link together to round the island, with a few excursions inland, and each can be walked in about 5 hours.
In other words, if you had an endless amount of free time in 5-hour chunks, you could walk your way around the entire island.
I started my Olle adventures with the most well-known of the walks: Olle number 7, which starts from the Waydolgae pools just west of Seogwipo and ends at Jungmun, near the Yakcheon temple. We chose to do the Olle backwards, starting from the 600 bus stop in front of Yakcheon and ending at Waydolgae to finish the walk with a nice swim.
The first part of the walk took us through a quiet village, where we perfected the art of searching out trail markers. Usually these took the form of blue and orange ribbons tied to telephone poles, or metal arrows of the same colors. I quickly realized the necessity for following these markers, because unlike most trails the Olles don’t always have their own paths. Instead, in the villages and cities your path is the road on which you’re walking. I liked this approach; it made the walk more intimate, less of a sightseeing excursion and more of a casual meandering. And, if we were to misplace one of the markers, then the walk would just continue casually in a new direction.
Once we made it to the water, though, I was glad we hadn’t lost the trail. The first arrow toward the water brought us to a small harbor with two or three fishing boats waiting in the blue water. Then the path opened up onto a low coastline where fishermen patrolled the outer rocks. The trail meandered along the blue horizon, then passed another small harbor and turned inland.
We walked for a ways along some low fields. As we were about to enter another village I heard some singing up ahead. The music was overly amplified, and I started to get curious about the source of the sound.
We entered the village and were met by an onslaught of sun-faded color. Along a long wall banners hung limply in the heat: “No (US?) Navy Base,” one yellow sheet repeated over and over, alternating between Korean and English. A few men and women sat in an open wooden shack listening to a woman sing into a microphone. They didn’t move in the heat; only the singer swayed slightly with her song, and a man with a long, white beard walked purposefully along a row of empty plastic chairs.
It took me only a moment to realize where we were. I didn’t even need to see the sign to know the name of the village: Gangjeong. The village that had been displaced to make room for a nominally South Korean naval base that has very little strategic benefit for Korea, but which happens to provide a convenient military base to strengthen the US’s presence in Asia.
I didn’t have anything to say to the men and women as we walked along the row of faded colors. I was overwhelmed by the fact that they would still gather in the stifling heat on a holiday weekend, all to protest a wrong that has already gone beyond stopping. And I was angry at my country, which could destroy this stunning coastline and the lives dependent upon it, all to put this beautiful island full of beautiful people in the crossfires of someone else’s future war.
We crossed the river that ran past the wall of the naval base, then walked toward the sea. The river ran through shallow pools, moving out through volcanic rocks and redeeming the unaltered coastline. We walked with the naval station’s jetty to our backs. The trail led along a small hill where we refilled our water bottles, listening to the wind moving through messages people had hung from a gazebo. Then the trail led down into another small river that pooled above a berm of black pebbles mixed with driftwood. A barrel bridge led across the deep blue pool.
For the next while the path led along the rocky coastline, or wove through grass on top of the hill. It turned back into a field, then moved back onto a seaside road. Then came more grass, more rocks, more roads. For a while we walked along the streets west of Seogwipo, then turned back down towards the water after passing the Seogwipo Girls High School bus stop.
At this point, the path entered its final, most-traveled phase. The dirt/rock/pavement gave way to a wooden boardwalk that led along the top of a cliff with breathtaking views of the nearby point. Two sets of stairs led down to salt-wet rocks, hexagonal rock formations, and some beautifully smooth waist-deep tide pools that I had explored the day before. Later came some coffee shops, even an art gallery. We continued walking along the cliffs, then rounded a sheer-sided point with views of a tempting but inaccessible sea cave.
On the other side of the point waited one of the most photographed views of Jeju: a rocky cove with a high stone pillar said to resemble a woman waiting for her lost lover, although the resemblance of the stone is open to interpretation. Apparently this is also the backdrop for a well-loved scene from a Korean drama, and a wooden cutout paid tribute to the show’s star.
Finally, after almost 10 miles of walking over about 5 hours, our excursion along Olle 7 came to a close. But the day was not over: the trail ended at Waydolgae, a series of deep rock pools with sides perfect for cliff jumping. I catapulted into the water where the day before I had gone snorkeling with gorgonians and squid, and where the night before I had searched for bioluminescence beneath a full moon. I hit the water; the cool saltwater felt delicious on my muscles. My legs were sore, but ready: with time would come the next Olle, the next exploration of the island’s rim.