▲ Looking over the Jeju landscape on a misty day from the summit of Geomun Oreum, at the shoulder of the rainy season, it’s easy to imagine Jeju’s primeval past. The island is dotted with more than 300 “parasitic volcanoes,” like these seen here. Photo by Brian Miller
It was the day all Jeju tour operators and minbak owners had dreamed of. On June 27, 2007, UNESCO granted Jeju a place on the elite World Natural Heritage list. Some 1.2 million years after it was born, Jeju Island had finally come of age, oreum and all!
With the second anniversary approaching, UNESCO boasts of Jeju’s unrivalled geological wealth, which astounds even experienced hands. As the mother of the famous lava system, which snakes its way down to Gimnyeong-ri, Geomun Oreum, in Seonheul-ri is the jewel in Jeju’s UNESCO crown.
Formed by volcanic activity some 280,000 years ago, Geomun Oreum issued forth dragon-like lava flows, which solidified upon exposure to the air. The inner flow continued to force its way seaward, forcing a tunnel through the hardening outer rock for some 7km.
This oreum’s very name is testimony to its otherworldly mystery, with scholars suggesting a root of ‘Gam’ or ‘Geom’, meaning God, or alternatively it reflects the blackness of the swarthy, menacing rocky forest populating the oreum-side.
Trekkers start the hike at the new World Natural Heritage visitor center in Seonheul-ri (on route 97) and are introduced to the Korean-speaking guide for the walk. Visitors, herded by the guide, wind through the village and ascend. Rich red soil leads into lush green forest and the visitor is spirited away into an enchanted woodland.
Singing birds tease visitors towards revelations beyond. To either side proud thistles rise above the grasses, often ringing flowers of an incredible electric blue. Butterflies are happily toyed with by the wind, while attempting a petal-edge perch.
The winding path becomes enshrouded by drooping trees, the thickness of which shields the rustle of badgers and deer. As hikers reach the first viewing platform, it is immediately apparent why this oreum has a social history every bit as fascinating as its natural heritage.
The panorama is breathtaking, as the vista extends up to Mt. Halla and down to the sea, with oreum bubbling up throughout the landscape. Geomun Oreum was used as a defensive position during the Japanese colonial period and tunnels penetrate the volcanic rock, reworked into a fortress.
▲ A long-abandoned stone kiln on Geomun Oreum no doubt holds many stories of the people who once used it as part of their daily lives and livelihood. Photo by Brian Miller
As the walk resumes, the path begins to skirt the inner bowels of the earth. The oreum verges tumble into what was once a violent chasm of molten rock, but the violence today is limited to the peck of woodpecker on cedar.
To the non-geologist, the approach to the ‘volcanic bomb’ could be both worrying and exciting, but explosions are left to the imagination. A few thousand years seem to have taken the steam out of Mother Nature’s weapon of mass destruction, which now sits wisely, as a 4ft black stone.
The guide treads happily round, taking in the abandoned kiln and decaying stone walls. Both remind of more recent history, as these lands were more populated before the tragic 4.3 massacre between 1947-54. Refugees in their own land, Jeju residents sought oreum such as Geomun as safe havens from the violence, before buildings and woodland were razed to the ground.
Thoughts immediately return to the present as the cedar woods cushion visitors’ steps on the descent. The variety of life is enough to enthrall even the most restless mind, as caterpillars, hornets and spiders pepper the vegetation around.
As the birthplace of the lava tunnels, Geomun Oreum should be on all visitors’ itineraries, but a trek around its cratered womb is much more than an educational field trip. Like so many places in Jeju, it seems to capture the fiery essence of this varied island, from conflict to nature, to the people and the sea.
By public transport
The Beonyeongro bus to Geomun Oreum via Bonggae runs from Jeju Intercity Bus Terminal at 10 and 50 minutes past the hour between 06:10 to 19:50. The last two buses depart at 21:05 and 21:30.
Geomun Oreum is at around the midway point between Pyoseon in Seogwipo City and Geonip-dong in Jeju City on Route 97, also known as the Beonyeongro.
Geomunoreum, San 102-1, Seonheul-ri, Jocheon-eup, Jeju-do
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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