I didn’t know about the existence of a trail on the Korean island called Jeju-do until 2012. In 2012 while walking the camino frances in Spain I met a group of 4 pilgrims, all of them girls from South Korea. They told me about the Jeju Olle, something I have not forgotten. Yet it was only in 2019 that I was able to turn my idea into realty, the idea of some day walking the Olle on Jeju-do.
In December 2018 I did start my planning for 2019. Downloading the Jeju Olle Trail Guidebook, recording every route into a spreadsheet, starting with route 1. At the time knowing nothing about what to expect on site, I assumed that the Olle would of course start with route 1. Furthermore and by my logic, I assumed that at the start of route 1 there would be an Information Office of some sort. My initial plan was to walk the island of Jeju, not including the outer islands/routes. Walking the Olle it took me some time to notice that I was wrong about a number of assumptions.
One assumption was that if there was something like a Jeju Olle information office it would be located at the start of route 1. I would soon enough find out that this was not the case. At the Jeju International Airport I have come across a small Olle information counter. It let me hope “Here I get all the information I need for a quick and smooth start to the Olle”. Well, to my surprise the lady in charge would not speak a word of English. In the following it was back and forth between the Jeju Olle counter and the Tourist Information counter (they do speak English) which was more or less next door. Since I had more than one question about the Olle and how to get to the start of route 1, there were several backs and forth’s. The lady at the Olle counter, who tried real hard to help me, ultimately got me a Jeju Olle staff on the phone. After that phone call my day turned almost easy, if not for my next surprise: the Jeju Olle Information Center was located at the end of route 6/start of route 7. This was at the very opposite of the island. Well then, let’s go there, take a bus to Seogwipo! I assumed it to be a long journey, but it was “only” an hour drive.
I arrived at the Jeju Olle Information Center around 4:30 pm and was taken care by very competent staff, most notably a lady by the name of Rachel. As she pointed out to me, rightly so, I was tense. I relaxed somehow only after my many questions were answered to my satisfaction. That first day on Jeju-do was yet to give me a little more stress. Rushing to buy a Korean simcard before the shop would close. Well, it was only the 3rd shop that was able to help me. The copy machine at first shop would refuse to copy my passport and the second shop’s copy machine was out of order. I ended up in what looked like a head office of that very same provider. That was at 5:55pm - five minutes before they would close! Yet, I got my simcard and was very relieved about that. Next problem: where to eat in a place so unfamiliar to me? It did not help me much being familiar with Asia in general, Japan in particular. Korea was different. Most of all, I did not understand a word of what was spoken!
On my way back to the Jeju Olle Information Centre I came across a grill-type of restaurant, the type of which I knew from my visit to Seoul in 2012. It looked very new. I was later to learn that they opened in April 2019. I arrived on Jeju-do on May 9, 2019.
Well, this place was perfect. Nice staff (no English though), nice meat of all kinds and a pils-type Korean beer. While I was there a Canadian boy would join me at the table. He gave me a hint the impact of which I did not grasp that evening. He said he walks the Olle routes light-weighted, each day driving back to the initial starting point by bus. I would meet him again coincidentally the next day on route 7. The big difference between the two of us was he had only a bottle of water with him, while I had to carry a backpack of some 11 kg. Gosh! Anyway, this was what I was used to from my many caminos in Spain and elsewhere. So for the next 3 or 4 days I’d carry my backpack until it occurred to me, that I should try the “Canadian” way. After having tried that for a day, I never again carried my backpack.
Following the somewhat rough start on May 9, the Olle got more easy, except for the volcanoes on the way - those are plenty on Jeju-do. Some of them it takes less than 15 minutes to reach the top, but the ascent is so steep that you wonder how can be - only 15 minutes!?
Some of the most memorable routes/places on Jeju-do, in my opinion, are:
- route 18-1 on the the island of Chuja-do - (my favourite)
- The sight of Ilchulbong, when arriving at the plateau in front of it. You instantly go wow!
- Some beaches like for instance the Hwasun Golden Sand Beach (route 10) or the Jungmun Saekdal Beach (route 8). Treat yourself to a night at the Hyatt Regency, situated at the end of Jungmun Beach. You won’t regret it. I didn’t.
- route 14-1 to the O’Sulloc Green Tea fields. Don’t miss to try their delights, like the green tea ice cream and cakes.
- For those who like it quiet and in a natural setting, I recommend route 7-1, walking past the rice fields in the crater of the volcano. I was impressed walking in a crater, which is still identifiable as such.
- The beauty of the Olle comprises a few stretches of native forests that they say, it is easy to get lost and not recommended to enter late afternoon. Indeed, in some parts there is no mobile phone connection.
Talking about getting lost on the Olle: that is near impossible thanks to the thousands of blue and orange ribbons on the way, yet once I walked in a circle for maybe half an hour. That was in one of the Gotjawal (native Jeju forest). I recommend that right at the start of your Olle you download an app called NAVER.
I recall route 9 as being one of the most difficult routes. Short but with steep ups and downs. Yet the lookouts, the sights by the sea, are worth the effort. On route 9 I missed the mid-way stamp box. Very generally, some of these boxes are easy to miss. One is so much concentrated on walking, i.e. concentrated on not stumbling, breaking a leg or worse. My experience and advice: study each route beforehand try in particular to remember the location of the midway stamp box before you start in the morning.
Talking of morning: avoid starting late, because it can get rather hot and sweaty coming mid-day.
As I hinted at in the beginning, initially I planed and concluded only the routes on Jeju-do. But as I discovered while on the way one can - upon completion of all 26 routes - get a certificate. You then will even be immortalized in their Hall of Fame, as they call it. Considering all this and knowing me, never to stop half way, so to say, I had to find a way to complete the Olle that very same year.
I returned to Tokyo on June 6 (my other “base camp”) and convinced my wife to join me for the remaining 80 plus kilometres, arguing that she ought to see the beauty of the island of Jeju.
On June 12 I was back on Jeju-do, doing route 1-1 on June 13. While you are in Seongsan, don’t miss to go up the Seongsan Ilchulbong, also known as Sunrise Peak. I may not tell this, but if you go up before 8 am, you won’t have to pay the entrance fee. It is anyway better to go early morning, actually should go up and be on top by sunrise ? which explains the name of the peak in English. Go early because later you get plenty of buses with loads of tourists, mainly from the Chinese mainland (that was of course before the outbreak of the corona virus in early 2020).