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Hiking Hong Kong: The City's Best Nature Trails

Beyond the bustling Hong Kong crowds, discover a countryside in the process of re-wilding.

Long Ke beach

Long Ke beach serves up snorkelling and fishing on the rocks.

“Just let us know if we’re going too fast or if you need to stop and rest,” urges Miriam Lee, a few steps ahead as we plod up a staircase of carefully placed stone slabs. I weigh this in my exertion-addled mind: On the one hand, I’m on holiday, out of shape and not in any rush; on the other, I’m a Canadian, a summertime weekend warrior hauling packs up the Rockies and the Coast Mountains. I’m not going to ask some city slickers from Hong Kong to hold up while I catch my breath. So we keep trudging skyward, and soon the brush and low trees on either side of Hong Kong’s 100-kilometre-long MacLehose Trail thin out and a pagoda comes into view. Surely we’ll stop there, I think. “He says we should keep going,” says Lee, referring to our guide, who goes by the name of Tom. (He won’t give me his last name or pose for a photo as he’s actually sneaking out of work.) “There’s a better view farther along.”

MacLehose Trail

A stretch of the 100-kilometre-long MacLehose Trail.

Tom is right, of course. Past the pagoda, the ridgetop we’re on starts to snake its way down to a rocky headland flanked by deserted blue-water beaches. We stop to take in the view, but only long enough to let a party of Japanese tourists in caps with fluttering sun flaps clamber by. After another 20 minutes of descending, we step onto the sand at Long Ke. The larger of the two beaches we’d seen from above, it’s about 250 metres across. Some campers have pitched a tent – the beach is one of 13 campsites along the trail, an east-west traverse of Hong Kong’s New Territories – and day hikers sit picnicking under the pine trees, warily keeping an eye on a feral bull that has wandered into the scene. About 500 wild cattle roam the parkland here. “They’re descendants of the livestock from abandoned farms,” Lee tells me. The bull doesn’t stop me from taking off my hiking boots, stripping down to my shorts and wading into the gently lapping waves. The water is refreshing and clear, free of the flotsam on the beaches facing the Pearl River Delta to the west. But the coolest thing is that in this notoriously crowded city state of 7.5 million people, I’m the only one out in the swell.

Plover Cove Country Park

A family walks the walks in Plover Cove Country Park, in Hong Kong’s New Territories.

I’ve come to explore the former British colony’s wild side. Nearly three decades earlier, I’d gotten a taste of Hong Kong’s green spaces during a layover on the way home from a post-university jaunt through Southeast Asia. Some roommates in the hostel I was staying at invited me to go for a picnic with them in the mountains. I remember taking several modes of transportation – subway, ferry, various sizes of bus – to a lovely lakeside park. Since then, I’ve been wondering how many other wild, peaceful places may be found here.

A hiker in Lai Chi Wo village

Rise and shrine: a hiker in Lai Chi Wo village.

On this return trip, I don’t find untouched wilderness; the hills, denuded of trees for fuel during the Second World War, are in the process of re-wilding, and you never completely escape the haze from factories on the mainland. But I’m reminded that Hong Kong’s backyard has some advantages as an outdoor destination. Thanks to the extensive transit system, I find solitude less than an hour from the city centre and can thru-hike from one location to another rather than retracing my steps. (Established in the 1970s, the park system is criss-crossed by footpaths that in some cases are several hundred years old, the remnants of villages-turned-ghost towns when small-hold farming became uneconomical.) And with so many places to eat and drink, even off the beaten path, I don’t need to pack a lunch.

Section 1 of the MacLehose Trail

Life’s a beach: stretches of sand as seen from Section 1 of the MacLehose Trail.

Back on the trail after my swim, we’re surrounded by flowering tea bushes, butterflies and birdsong. Our morning’s excursion finishes at the High Island Reservoir East Dam, a remarkable feat of engineering. Its rock-filled walls jut out from the mainland to a couple of islands, encircling the former seabed and creating a raised freshwater reservoir. While waiting for a cab, we stroll down the dam site toward the seashore. Here perfectly hexagonal basalt columns rise 100 metres out of the sea, a reminder that Hong Kong’s eastern reaches represent the caldera of a giant volcano that blew its top 140 million years ago. I try to imagine the force of upwelling lava met by the ocean’s cooling power, which froze this buckled forest of rock columns in place.

The beach at Big Wave Bay with a blue and yellow macaw

The beach at Big Wave Bay has gone to the birds – in this case, a blue and yellow macaw.

The next day, in search of a little more human history, I hike to Lai Chi Wo, a still (but barely) inhabited Hakka village in the northeastern New Territories, close to the Chinese border. Hakka means “guest people,” referring to waves of migrants fleeing wars farther north and settling on the less productive vacant land around Hong Kong about 300 years ago. These days, many of the Hakka have resettled in London and other northern European cities, but they come back like snowbirds in the winter to their ancestral homes, mostly two-storey stucco structures slotted cheek by jowl into a walled compound that’s only about 100 square metres. I talk to one man dressed in well-worn work clothes as he attempts to fix a waterline entering his family’s home. “We have electricity from the city but no water,” he explains, gesturing toward the reservoir nearby. “We keep our own system to draw water.”

Hikers take a break at Fook Lee’s

Hikers take a break at Fook Lee’s.

As I pass back out of the village and turn to admire its whitewashed wall, a Lycra-clad runner with hiking poles and a hydration pack appears through the arched main gate. Then another. Before long, whole groups of adventure racers flow past me like a river in flood looking for its course around the buildings. The North Face 100 ultramarathon is at stake, but without good signage, the racers are all finding their own path to the finish line. Travelling at a more leisurely pace, I have time to stop at Fook Lee’s, a family-run restaurant in the middle of a marsh. Fortunately, I’m here on a Saturday; the place is only open on weekends because the sparse weekday traffic makes it hardly worth hauling in supplies by boat or on foot. I grab a table on the shaded patio, which quickly fills with hikers, a few speaking English, most Cantonese. I order lunch made the Hakka way – deliciously slow-cooked pork belly in a hearty sauce, noodles and sweet-potato leaves.

Trail markers in Plover Cove Country Park

Trail markers in Plover Cove Country Park.

To escape the habitual snarl of downtown traffic on my final day, I board a ferry from Central on Hong Kong Island to Lamma Island. My guide, Yammy Tam, tells me the territory has some 200 islands, 40 percent of them inhabited. Lamma, the largest after Hong Kong and Lantau, is home to 6,000 people but not a single automobile. A mere 40 minutes later, the catamaran drops us at Sok Kwu Wan (Picnic Bay), and, suddenly, engine sounds are conspicuous by their absence. We stroll on paved trails through quiet villages, banana groves and elaborate gravesites, where the feng shui is just so. The only movement along the undeveloped beaches comes from a fisherman in a rowboat and the occasional bark from lazy beach mutts. All I can hear is my own breath as we climb a series of switchbacks over the ridge that runs the length of the island. From its top, a sweeping view of the South China Sea, studded with freighters, unfolds silently at our feet.

The village of Sok Kwu Wan, on Lamma Island

The village of Sok Kwu Wan, on car-free Lamma Island, is a 40-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong’s Central neighbourhood.

We make our way north, crossing the whole island, to the ferry pier in Yung Shue Wan. Evenly balanced between shabby and gentrified, this sprawling village – our departure point for the return to Central – has become a semi-retirement haven, especially for Western expatriates with no better place to go back to. The narrow streets are lined with tightly packed houses and shops, some draped with flowering vines. With half an hour to kill before the ferry’s arrival, Tam and I sit at one of several patio restaurants nursing a beer, watching the bay shimmer in the afternoon sun. Black kites swirl overhead, then suddenly dive into the sea, emerging with small fish in their talons. In less than an hour, we’ll be back in the concrete jungle. But right here, right now, the pace is slow, the living is easy.

3 Reasons to Go Off-trail

1

Stop at the seaside town of Sai Kung on your way to Long Ke and the MacLehose Trail. It’s charming, plus it houses the main visitor centre for the Hong Kong Global Geopark, where you can learn about the region’s volcanic landforms.

geopark.gov.hk
 

2

The April-to-October rainy season is the ideal time to visit the Sheung Luk Stream waterfalls. The short detour off Section 2 of the MacLehose Trail is dotted with a succession of picture-perfect swimming holes.

3

Trade in your hiking gear for some wheels to scale the volcanic rock trails of Tai Mo Shan, the territory’s highest peak. You can rent a mountain bike from the Friendly Bicycle Shop on Lantau Island.

18 Ferry Pier Rd., Mui Wo, 852-2984-2278

Fast Facts for the Slow Road

In the 1970s, the British colonial administration started adding hundreds of scenic trails to the network of ancient footpaths outside Hong Kong. The longest can be done in sections or as a multiday backpacking trip.

The Great Outdoors Hong Kong booklet is available free of charge from the Hong Kong Tourism Board, and includes maps and directions to the most popular hikes and bike routes. discoverhongkong.com

Trails are signposted in Chinese and English, and you’re never far from public washrooms. The best-trodden paths also feature numbered markers every 500 metres.

The Oxfam Trailwalker has been held every November for 30 years. Teams of four have 48 hours to run or walk the 100 kilometres of the MacLehose Trail. oxfamtrailwalker.org.hk

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HIKING     HONG KONG    

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