Escape the urban jungle
Contrary to popular opinion, behind Hong Kong’s neon-lit skyscraper skyline, the monotony of high-rise apartment blocks and an overdose of air-conditioned malls there is a substantial chunk of nature waiting to be discovered. In fact, nearly 40 per cent of the region of Hong Kong, or 415 square kilometres, is designated country park or nature reserve.
Those willing to veer away from the main built-up areas of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories will witness the urban terrain morphing into the kind of natural habitat befitting of an archipelago just south of the Tropic of Cancer. What’s more, even the most remote areas offer a taste of Hong Kong’s history and culture at no extra cost.
The MacLehose trail, stretching a hundred kilometres across the New Territories, is the antithesis of what you would expect to find in a city where leather-soled work shoes and Jimmy Choos are more common than trainers. Named after Crawford Murray MacLehose, Hong Kong’s longest-serving governor and a keen hiker, the trail traverses beaches, scrubby bush escarpments, local villages and mountains including Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest peak. In the months leading up to November, Hong Kongers kitted out in the latest hiking gear infiltrate the winding dirt path to train for one of the city’s biggest outdoor events, the Trailwalker, where participants attempt to complete the 100-kilometre trail within 48 hours.
Given that the trail was formerly used as a training run for Gurkha soldiers, completion of the Trailwalker is no mean feat, and tales abound of over-zealous competitors giving up the ghost in the first 15 kilometres. If that deters you somewhat, Hong Kong’s other major walks – the Wilson (78 kilometres), Lantau (70 kilometres) and Hong Kong (50 kilometres) – are shorter but equally scenic. All four trails, the MacLehose included, have been divided into smaller sections so that the more sedate among us can pick and choose how hard and how far we walk.
The start of the Hong Kong trail, with its show-stopping view of the city, is one of the easiest segments and one of the most impressive, given its proximity to the city centre. It starts mere metres from one of Hong Kong Island’s busiest tourist destinations, the upper terminal of the Peak Tram. Visitors can sidestep the throngs of snap-happy mainland tourists and follow the Peak Circuit signs for a nature-lovers’ walk along a tree-hugging footpath, with interpretive signs detailing the local flora and fauna.
The Hong Kong trail views are nothing short of spectacular. Towards the southwest, the watery expanse of ocean is dotted with cargo ships, docked before making their way up the Pearl River Delta to mainland China. In the other direction, the skyscrapers rise almost as high as the Peak Circuit itself. The most prominent edifice is the 2IFC, tickling the clouds at 415 metres.
The views don’t abate as the trail continues. At the other end of the Hong Kong trail is the eight-kilometre Dragon’s Back, so called because it extends along the undulating ridge of a mountain range. It has been dubbed one of the world’s best urban hikes. Hong Kong’s only Aussie Rules club uses the route for training, but if this sounds like it could generate more sweat than enjoyment, three hours is probably time enough to take it in your stride. At the peak of the trail, walkers have a bird’s eye view of Shek O Beach on one side and Clearwater Bay on the other, before the trail descends through a canopied path to end in the back alleyways of Big Wave Bay.
Did somebody mention Shek O and Big Wave Bay? For a region with 260 outlying islands you’d want to hope there are plenty of beaches worth bumming on. Hong Kong doesn’t disappoint. Shek O and Big Wave Bay are two of the nicest and most accessible – a short ride in one of Hong Kong Island’s cheap red taxis will get you there in half an hour. The laidback beach of Shek O is one of 41 Hong Kong beaches fastidiously staffed with lifeguards and secured with a shark net. It is also a hangout for boardshort-clad Hong Kongers who have shed the shirt and tie for some leisure time. The easygoing atmosphere of the local seaside village, with its maze of meandering alleyways, makes it the perfect spot for a post-swim beer or bowl of Thai-Canto noodles.
Around the next bend is Big Wave Bay, which shares a reputation for good water quality with Shek O but wins hands down when it comes to swell – especially when a typhoon is imminent. (Hong Kong is geographically located in an area known as Typhoon Alley.) When a signal eight typhoon flag is raised, schools, public transport, government departments, offices and even the stockmarket close down. Sane folk usually head home to batten down the hatches but eager surfers, waveboarders and bodysurfers make a beeline for the beach and a chance to catch the kind of waves you would expect in Hawaii.
On calmer days village shops in Big Wave rent surfboards and there’s a beachfront cafe that provides the ideal spot to watch the waves roll in. A short walk across the white sands to the rocky peninsula reveals 3000-year-old Bronze Age rock carvings laboriously chiselled into the stone. The carvings symbolise the ancient gods and tribal totems of Hong Kong’s earliest settlers, who relied on the sea for their livelihood. Similar carvings, some dating back to Neolithic times, can be found on nine of Hong Kong’s outlying islands.
Hong Kong beaches tend to improve the further afield you go. The half-hour ferry from Central on Hong Kong Island to Lantau Island stops in Mui Wo, where Silvermine Bay Beach has pristine water and plenty of restaurants to satiate an appetite for Western fare. Better still, for a measly few dollars punters can jump in a cab and head to Pui O Beach. The palm trees send shadows across the white sand and give this strip of beach its tropical-island ambience. If it weren’t for the herd of water buffalo and the incense emanating from the little temple amid the trees, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in Fiji.
Pui O has a campsite for anyone keen on a weekend getaway, and those with more time on their hands can drop into Po Lin Monastery. The monastery, atop a hill overlooking the South China Sea, is the home of Tian Tan, at higher than 30 metres, one of the world’s tallest seated bronze Buddhas. It got pipped for title in 2007, but that doesn’t undermine its stature – some people swear they can see it from as far away as Macau on a clear day.
Further still from Hong Kong, but equally worthy, is Sai Kung town in the eastern part of the New Territories. From this laidback little township, old-fashioned Chinese sampans ferry daytrippers to Hap Mun Bay, Hebe Haven, Trio Beach and a number of deserted islands dotted in between. Flotillas of sailing boats, unspoiled beaches and clear water make this one of the most scenic destinations in Hong Kong.
But perhaps the real beauty of this excursion is the opportunity to top off a hard day on the beach with a delicious local dining experience. Along the promenade in Sai Kung, outdoor restaurants with lazy susan-style tables specialise in seafood, the likes of which you might not have seen before. Each venue has dozens of bubbling tanks crawling with fish, crustaceans and other denizens of the deep. Be warned, it’s not for vegans or the faint-hearted. Diners eyeball their selected catch then discuss in stilted Cantonese how they want it cooked. Before you can bat an eyelid it gets whisked from the tank. Within fifteen minutes it’s on the dinner plate.
Tell a city local that you are going camping for the weekend and they will likely scoff at you. In fact, Hong Kong has 39 designated campsites, not to mention a handful of places where rough camping is an option. The ‘easy’ designated sites for beginner campers have mod cons such as barbecue pits, running water and toilet blocks, while the ‘experienced’ sites might require a bit of legwork. Chances are if you hike in you’ll have the whole campsite, not to mention an entire white sandy beach, to yourself, Robinson Crusoe-style.
If a tent isn’t high on your list of things to pack (and carry), you needn’t despair. Hong Kong’s most adventurous rough campsite requires little more than insect repellent, sunscreen and a good book. Head to Tai Long Wan, one of Sai Kung Peninsula’s natural wonders, and trek from there to the local campground where tents, camping mats and sleeping bags are all available onsite.
One of the few villages on this expansive natural reserve is Ham Tin, a tiny town in the scrubland. In the 1950s Ham Tin had a thriving population, but lack of transport, communication infrastructure and education saw the younger generation depart for the urban areas of Hong Kong or to foreign lands. Today, the village is almost deserted save for the few villagers who occupy a cluster of pre-war houses and the handful of tourists who can be bothered making the journey. From the village cafe’s shady tables, campers can feast on noodles and fried rice or sip on a cool beer with a view to their tent pitched right on the beautiful white sandy beach. Ten minutes over the next hill, the gentle swell is ideally suited to surfers getting their sea legs – no need to wait for a typhoon.
Hong Kong has only ever won one Olympic gold medal and it wasn’t for table tennis or badminton. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Lee Lai-Shan from Cheung Chau Island took home the gold medal for windsurfing, becoming one of the city’s few sporting celebs. Twelve years on and the golden sheen of her sporting prowess has not dimmed. With just the right bay wind conditions, Cheung Chau, Hong Kong’s largest fishing island, is regarded as the place to windsurf. Lai-Shan’s family run a cafe on Tung Wan Beach, a serene little bay where you can hire kayaks, rowing boats, windsurfers, umbrellas and deck chairs or book in for a windsurfing lesson.
For those who prefer wakeboarding or waterskiing, there’s no shortage of options. The ideal way to get involved is to combine the activities with a junk, one of Hong Kong’s timeless social institutions and a form of networking par excellence. It is basically a daytrip out among the islands on a fully catered boat with staff oh-so-eager to top you up with cold beer all day. Though the name derives from the Chinese sailing vessels that originated in the Han Dynasty, today’s junks are motor-powered with a contemporary fit-out. Even so, the sight of these huge wood-hulled boats cruising the waters around Hong Kong still harks nostalgically back to a time when real junks, with sails aloft, could be seen on Victoria Harbour. Junk daytrips may require a very organised friend with the nous to book a boat, send out the requisite email and collect cash on a per-head basis. Most of these daytrips involve putting down anchor in the middle of nowhere and lapping up the scenery. Those skyscrapers couldn’t be further away.
Air New Zealand flies to Hong Kong from Australian capital cities.
Cheung Chau Windsurfing Centre
Hiking and designated camping sites
Further General Information
Peak Circuit walk
Hop on the Peak Tram from garden Road or bus 15 from Exchange Square. Red taxis also go to the Peak.
Dragon’s Back walk
Take the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) to Shau Kei Wan, exit at A3 and jump on bus 9, which goes along Shek O Road. Look out for the lay-by on Shek O Road. The walk starts next to the map, heading uphill.
Lantau and Cheung Chau islands
Ferries leave from the piers on Victoria Harbour in Central.
Sai Kung town
Take the MTR to Diamond Hill then catch bus 92 to Sai Kung town.
Take a taxi or bus (94 or 96R from Sai Kung town) to Wong Shek Pier in Sai Kung Country Park where speedboats convey passengers to Ham Tin or Chek Keng from where it’s a 45-minute hike over the hill to Ham Tin.