Why Hong Kong is one of Asia’s best-kept outdoor secret and top urban natural playground — a hidden hiker’s paradise!
By Dave Stamboulis.
Ask anyone to tell you their impressions of Hong Kong and you’ll hear: “skyscrapers, density, neon, architecture, and dim sum” in almost every reply. Pick up any magazine and you’ll read the latest on Michelin restaurants, rooftop bars, and the best panoramas for viewing the iconic Hong Kong harbor and its dazzling light show. What you won’t ever hear about are the pristine white sand beaches, turquoise bays, challenging mountain hikes, and empty campgrounds set in stunning locations. Yet all of these are part of Hong Kong, making it Asia’s best-kept outdoor secret and top urban natural playground.
Hong Kong has a wealth of hiking trails almost all accessible within thirty minutes or less from downtown on its superb mass transit system. It also boasts four long distance trails that cover almost every square meter of each island and the New Territories making up all of Hong Kong. The MacLehose Trail is the best of the bunch, divided into 10 sections and running 100kms, traversing beautiful white sand beaches at the deserted far east-end of Hong Kong, as well as climbing over its highest mountain, 957m-high Tai Mo Shan.
My girlfriend and I spent our last New Year covering the first few stages of the MacLehose, which take in some of Kowloon’s most terrific scenery. The trail passes through Sai Kung Country Park and along the High Island Reservoir, rising up and down and hugging the cliffs over beaches and bays that look right out of Hawaii, surrounded by pointed mountains like Sharp Peak, which provide scramblers with phenomenal views over the entire coast.
Despite the fact that it was the New Year, and the busiest time on the calendar and a holiday period, we spent several nights camping on Ham Tim Wan beach, a long stretch of dazzling white sand, where we encountered only one other tent. The Country Parks Department has 36 free campsites scattered along the trails in Hong Kong, and as the transportation around the islands is so good, most folks just come out for day trips, preferring to leave their heavy packs at home, yet for those willing to be self sufficient, the rewards are incredible. Some of the beaches are next to old fishing villages that are mostly abandoned, although there are still a handful of residents who tend their gardens, and even set up small restaurants to serve visitors, as well as renting out tents and bedding to trekkers who don’t have their own gear.
For those looking for day hikes, the most popular is undoubtedly the Dragon’s Back, a panoramic ridge hike along the spine of Hong Kong Island, and part of the 50km- long Hong Kong Trail. Easy access points and superlative views ensure crowds up here, not to mention that triathletes, trail runners, and fitness lovers use this as their backyard, but it’s a fun trail nevertheless, and on our journey upwards, we hiked alongside an old Japanese man, carrying a pack so large it made him look like a Nepali porter, ferrying clients’ loads to Everest Base Camp.
Asking him whether he was training for some Himalayan epic, he chuckled, and told us that he was almost seventy, and far too old to be doing such things. Twenty minutes later, hitting the summit ridge, he stopped to open up his humongous bag, revealing an elaborate paragliding setup, and grinning at us, said, “I take the scenic way down!”
The trails here present Hong Kong in a completely different light than it is normally seen. While several nights before we’d been watching the light-and-sound show light up the Hong Kong harbor and surrounding high-rises, out along the MacLehose Trail we had a sky full of stars and almost zero light pollution, something I’d never thought possible here.
There are also great sunrise and sunset spots along the trails, the best of which is probably up on top of Lantau Peak, Hong Kong’s second highest mountain. Part of the 70km- long and 12-section Lantau Trail, a several hour slog will bring one up to 934 meters, from where a magnificent sunrise panorama unfolds. The giant Buddha at Ngong Ping lies below, and it is hard to believe that this is the same island that houses the wildly busy Hong Kong International Airport, less than 30kms away as the crow flies.
With these three trails, along with the 78km-Wilson Trail that crisscrosses Hong Kong Island, one could spend months hiking, exploring, camping, and getting phenomenally fit at the same time, making all those dim sum buffets back in the city all the more inviting. Returning home from our journey and showing friends photos of the beaches and mountains, most could only look on with their mouths open in amazement, asking if it was really Hong Kong.
The Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department has extensive information on country parks, hiking trails, and camping on their website (www.afcd.gov.hk), while the government hiking site has abundant information on all the different trails (http://hiking.gov.hk/chi/index.htm).