A Hong Kong Hike-
Finding the Beaches of Sai Kung
Not many people think about wonderful beaches when they hear about Hong Kong. Even fewer know about the really secluded and idyllic ones hidden behind the forested hills.
Visiting Hong Kong is like shrinking to ant size and going into the middle of a bustling bees’ nest. Huge marvelous structures everywhere, tiny strange food places and a never ending stream of quiet but dedicated inhabitants. Astonishingly, this insane culture that has evolved here at the shores of the Southern Chinese Sea is embedded in green hills with an abundant multitude of plants and animals. It feels like the energy of the urban life is essentially connected to this vivid belt of wild nature. Lying just south of the Tropic of Cancer at the same latitude as the Caribbean, the climate of Hong Kong is warm and humid. It is best to avoid the rainy summer months of the northern hemisphere and visit in autumn or spring. In October for example there can be weeks without rain at temperatures between 24 and 28 degrees.
Let’s Go to the Beach
I was woken up by one of the Dutch design students. “The others already went down. Hurry, if you want to join!” Man, I didn’t think that they would actually stick to their plan of leaving at eight in the morning. I crammed everything useful I could think of into my backpack, skipped the bathroom and rushed out of the hostel. With no contacts of the guys and no idea where we will be going I couldn’t be late anywhere. I just overheard their plans the day before and spontaneously decided to join them. The group left our place in one of the rickety buildings in Sham Shui Po and went to Mong Kok Station where we met up with the native girl who would guide us through Sai Kung.
After a 90 minute public transport ride, we arrived at the “Pak Tam Au Management Centre” bus stop. A sign showed our group an entrance to the Sai Kung Country Park in the peninsula north east of the Hong Kong centre. We wandered down the stone path together with other groups of people, mainly Hong Kongers. My concerns that we would have to share our whole route with hordes of others vanished after a couple of hundred metres, when everything spaced out.
Fascinated by the depths and variety of the vegetation, I let my gaze wander around the deep green panorama. Always having an eye out for unusual crawling or flying insects, I sighted a bright speck about seven metres away from me. It was an orb weaver, a spider as large as my hand, sitting in the middle of a man-sized web.
Exploring the Green Hills
The people in Hong Kong are aware of the importance of the natural ecosystem surrounding their metropolis. 43% of the area are under statutory protection. The country parks with their jungle-like vegetation, mountain ranges, grass lands and sandy beaches are vital organs for a gigantic organism. The amount of biodiversity in close neighbourhood to such a dense urban area is exceptional and astonishing, especially for unsuspecting city tourists. Around 3,000 plant varieties are home for tens of thousands of fascinating insect species. Even those who are not particularly interested in the life of small creatures will be stunned by swarms of glittering butterflies the size of small birds, dancing damsel- and dragonflies in every shade of the rainbow and gigantic wood spiders, sending shivers to the spine of everyone who discovers them for the first time.
Our group went up and down through the hills. It was ideal summer weather and under the thick canopy of the trees we were protected from direct sunlight. I couldn’t imagine getting any better air than here, pure forest atmosphere infused with the mild breeze from the ocean. Some of us who had been stuck in the Kowloon concrete jungle for weeks wondered why they haven’t made it earlier to one of the country parks. Despite the undulating hike we became more relaxed as we went on and listened to the songs of the tropical birds.
One of the reasons why this city is radiating with energy is the fact that once you feel depleted from the relentless urban life people can recharge in no time by going into the green. The quick change of atmosphere from the crowded streets among futuristic skyscrapers to the luscious jungle landscape is a positive culture shock on its own.
There are hundreds of hiking paths just a few minutes away from the centre. It is possible to just get a breath of fresh air in the afternoon and to go on a challenging hike for the whole day. There are good online resources with information about locations and difficulty levels. Generally the hiking paths are paved. This takes a bit away from the pure nature feel but considering that one is still in a metropolis with over seven million inhabitants, some fixated structure is probably not a bad idea. The cleanliness of the paths and the lack of trash along the way also shows the respect the people here have of their environment.
Nevertheless, the fact of a well organized hiking infrastructure shouldn’t make one careless. Warning signs are not there without reasons. People new to the region can get lost if they haven’t got a hiking map or at least a GPS app like Google Maps with them. Losing orientation on a hot day with not enough water can turn a comfortable walk into a desperate search for civilization.
On our way we met mostly small groups of Chinese people, western tourists were a minority. You can tell when someone doesn’t give a damn when he is sitting alone on a bench in the middle of the forest, bare chested, a smoking pipe in his mouth, reading the newspaper and having a transistor radio turned all the way up. It is a curious thing, numerous people were actually walking around in nature with small radios that blasted out traditional Chinese music mixed with static.
Discovering a Lost Place
At one point Cynthia, the girl who led us, spotted someone. It was an old man riding an old bike. He had white scruffy hair and a friendly, wrinkled face. Cynthia laughed and hugged him like she couldn’t believe to see him. As they spoke in Cantonese, tears of happiness ran down her face. We accompanied him downhill to a couple of overgrown building shells at a small bay: Chek Keng.
Chek Keng lies at the northern coast of the Sai Kung peninsula. This place only consists of a handful of derelict houses near the water but it is fascinating that such a lost place still exists at the edge of Hong Kong. Looking inside the crumbling walls, one can discover tools and furniture, even kitchen utensils from a time long gone. The place was built about 200 years ago, before the first Opium War. The last inhabitants have left for the big city around the beginning of the new millennium and now only a few people still know the story of Chek Keng. One of them is William Chan, who has spent the last two or three decades lovingly refurnishing a catholic chapel. Built in the 19th century, it is one of the oldest Christian churches in Hong Kong. It would have probably been long forgotten if it wasn’t for William. His dedication to a place that everybody else has left and his merry personality made him sort of a celebrity here.
Finally Tai Long Wan
We traversed a swamp landscape with almost black water infused by the aerial roots of palm-like trees. It reminded us of Yoda’s exile Dagobah. We came out in another small village. People were sitting outside and eating merrily while dogs were romping around. Small garden patches with fruits and vegetables on them gave me the impression that the folks here are at least to some degree self-sufficient.
Then, the ocean, at last! A broad beach, Ham Tin Wan, awaited us in the Tai Long Wan bay. But it was still not our main goal. Cynthia pointed towards a small hidden trail back into the vegetation. Here we actually had to scramble and climb uphill for a while. A rope was fastened to a tree which we used to pull ourselves up. Then after we surmounted the small headland we stumbled down the slope and finally we were there.
The Tai Wan beach lay before us like a crescent moon resting on the border between the sparkling blue sea and the vivacious green jungle. It actually was worth the long hike, even the most tired ones in our group had to admit this. After we were finished admiring the view, we went down onto the white plain of the finest sand, and ran into the water. It had the perfect temperature and gigantic waves. After letting myself being thrown around by the forces of the ocean for a while, I went out and laid down on the sand. As I was resting, I could feel the waves crashing onto the coast. Perfect. The beach was about 700 metres long and on this Saturday afternoon there were no more than 30 visitors.
It is a good advice to always take a swimsuit with you if you go hiking on the shores of Hong Kong and its islands. The beaches here are absolutely clean and well cared for, toilets, showers and changing rooms are usually available.
Protip: Night Hiking in Hong Kong
There are a couple of good reasons to wait for the night to fall over Hong Kong to go out for a hike. Unlike parks in many other large cities, no one needs to be afraid of going outside after dark. Street crime is almost nil and a robbery on the hiking trails would be quite a novelty. Just carry a torch or a headlamp with enough battery and a phone with GPS. At times the moon and the stars are the only source of light, which can be amazing, especially because stargazing is not really possible in the light polluted city. And if you think that the view from the hilltops onto the skylines is spectacular during daytime, just wait for nightfall.
The rise of the mosquito swarms in the evening hours is certainly not one of the good reasons to go out in the forest at night, but fortunately I had brought some long trousers with me, so my legs were protected. At first I was slightly annoyed because we would take the same route back, but the return was exciting nevertheless. As the sun went down sounds and sights changed. The air became cooler, crickets chirped and every rustling in the bushes startled our group.
On our way up we have seen bats hiding in thin pipes, but those turned out only to be the small ones. More than once a bat larger than my head tried to find out how close it can fly up against me without touching me. Blue and green fireflies turned up and illuminated our path. I had to think about the giant spiders that tend to let themselves down from the trees in the middle of the paths. Fortunately I was spared the experience of having a monster arachnid trying to embrace me in the dark.
By now everybody in our group was tired but we kept marching together at a steady speed and were able to reach our bus stop. An hour later we were back in the bee’s nest and although we were exhausted we felt surprisingly energized from this very pristine experience.