By Katharine and Eric Fletcher
Birdwatching, kayaking, hiking... in Hong Kong?
Skeptical? We can’t fault you if you are! We couldn’t believe it either because Hong Kong is hardly associated with the great outdoors. So we were astonished when we discovered that 40% of Hong Kong’s land mass is a network of country parks.
But the experience was amply rewarding. So much so that we both want to save our hard-earned dollars and return before too long.
We noted many positive changes since our first trip to Hong Kong in 1983. In particular, both the streets and harbour of the “City of Life” are far cleaner, and English signage even more evident.
Our trip this past April was six consecutive days of hiking, which gave us an opportunity to sample a variety of options. Whether you go on a strenuous hike with a personal guide, a self-guided day hike, or stroll along paved pathways in a bird sanctuary, Hong Kong can offer an outdoor experience well-suited to any capability.
All the while, you will be marveling about this hidden aspect of Hong Kong. The countryside offers compelling views, presents fascinating glimpses into local customs and culture, and a wide variety of birdlife- so pack both your cameras and binoculars.
Here are some suggestions.
1. Strolling Ma Po Nature Reserve
Suffering from jet lag? Catch your breath and head to this nature reserve.
Perhaps best-known for its spring and fall population of migratory black-faced spoonbills, Mai Po is comprised of several shrimp ponds - gei wai- surrounded by marshland. Today these artificial ponds are closed to the shrimp industry, instead offering welcome sanctuary for migratory and native waterfowl, feeding, breeding, and nesting grounds.
Against a backdrop of fifty-storey apartment buildings that are quickly encroaching upon the 380 hectare refuge, we were lucky to spot several of the graceful spoonbills. Our guide, expert birder and professional naturalist Samson So, works at the reserve and, on his days off, leads lucky tourists like us on tours of Mai Po. He pointed to a spoonbill that had an antenna on its back. The data it transmits provides much-needed scientific data on the endangered species: the 75 individuals we counted represent a sobering 25% of the world’s population.
Mr. So accompanied us to several “hides” or long huts built in the marshland, from which avid birders can observe and photograph wetland species. Although we came across several groups of birders, we never felt encumbered by crowds. Avid birders, however, should avoid weekends when Mai Po is more crowded.
2. Sai Kung Peninsula
We opted to hire a guide for the hike to explore the Sai Kung Peninsula northeast of the city. Born in Yorkshire, Paul Etherington grew up in Hong Kong and, when his parents retired to England, he opted to stay. As a long-time resident, he had interesting insights about the former British colony and the impact of the handover to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. A keen walker, he has worked variously in both the International Hostel Association as well as Hiking Association of Hong Kong.
Now Mr. Etherington operates his own guide service, and can pick you up in his air-conditioned van and drive you to your trailhead of choice.
Learning that we are avid hikers, he suggested a challenging peak hike up 485-metre Sharp Peak. The trail starts at a small fishing village, Wong Shek, and gains elevation right away. Even though it wasn’t summer, late April’s humidity was torpid enough for us, especially as we clambered up the last 100 metres or so to the peak. Plan to do as we did: select your own pace and stick with it, stopping frequently for sips of water.
But what a reward! The view was, well, breathtaking. So was the refreshing wind, which whipped our clothes and hair about us. We could turn and witness splendour at every glance, from surf-pounded blond beaches to the east and south to undulating mountain ridges to the north.
In the distance, we glimpsed the two moving specks that were the only other hikers we saw that day.
It took an hour to clamber down to the beach where we had lunch at a surprisingly good “restaurant.” But don’t expect the Ritz: although the food was welcome, the soft drinks and iced tea delicious, the “ambiance” left much to be desired.
If we can make one strong recommendation to Hong Kong residents, it would be to tidy up the remote villages. Garbage tends to be strewn everywhere, so we practiced “selective viewing,” fixing our gaze on the surf and beach instead of the heap of refuse behind the café.
Australian and French surfers were tenting on the beach, obviously enjoying the solitude, the waves and “the scene” to the hilt.
So will you. As we returned to Wong Shek, we paused often to search the overhanging branches and forest floor for the birds we heard singing. Mr. Etherington introduced us to the common white-browed laughing thrush and magpie robin.
After the 12 kilometre hike, we were tired but happy, well-exercised, and well-informed about the countryside, culture and wildlife.
3. Dragon’s Back Ridge
Guides are wonderful, but sometimes it’s nice to experience the countryside on your own, at your own pace, making your own conversation when you want. Mr. Etherington had recommended the Dragon’s Back Ridge as a good day-hike and introduction to a different part of Hong Kong.
Is it easy to find your way around in Hong Kong? The answer is a definite yes and this hike proved the point. The combined ground infrastructure of buses, subways and ferries make it easy to find your way to many different trailheads.
Our “Octopus Pass” gave us access to all three modes of public transportation. We left our Kowloon hotel at 9:00 and by 10:30 we got off the double-decker bus at the trailhead on Hong Kong Island, above Shek O Village.
Again, we immediately gained the elevation to the top of the ridge: a hike of perhaps twenty minutes. There was no problem in finding the trailhead, nor did deciding when to terminate the hike pose a problem. Signs in both English and Chinese lettering indicated the many descent options.
Returning to our hotel in Kowloon was equally simple. Within fifteen minutes, a bus pulled up to the stop at the end of the trail and deposited us back at the Chai Wan subway station in half an hour.
Feeling a bit hungry, we decided to explore the outdoor market, where we found familiar-looking root ginger as well as exotic fruits we had never before seen. The most amazing, the dragon fruit, was hot pink and emerald green. Its flesh was pure white with tiny black cumin-shaped seeds creating a dense speckled effect. Although refreshing, it was disappointingly watery. But, who knows, perhaps it wasn’t quite ripe: without a guide, you’re not always 100% sure of what you actually should be doing, which is all part of the fun.
Within the hour we were back at The Regent, the most opulent hotel we’ve ever had the pleasure to stay in. Here we totally indulged ourselves with a massage and spa: the best we’ve ever experienced and a real treat after our six days’ holiday of hikes.
Other things to do
Following the easy directions in our guidebook, we used our Octopus card to take the Star Ferry to Lantau Island where we caught a local bus to the Shek Pik reservoir. After gaining most of the elevation on the bus, we got off at the well-marked trailhead and followed a good trail to the largest seated bronze Buddha in the world. The Po Lin monastery is open to the public and we enjoyed wandering the precinct, observing the devotions of the Buddhists. Swirling images of dragons, peaceful lotus blossoms and gilt statues of the Buddha intrigued us. If you decide to enjoy a hearty vegetarian meal served by the monks, the cost contributes to the upkeep of the monastery.
Night life in bustling Hong Kong never ends. Leaving your hotel and walking the streets is a “must-do” here, for the crowds, the sounds and night markets evoke the mood of Asia. For a real treat, try sipping a James Bond martini (shaken, not stirred) at the Regent’s opulent lounge overlooking Hong Kong harbour and watch the neon signs set the city to life come nightfall. The juxtaposition of vessels against the backdrop of the city provides an unforgettable image of the City of Life.
When you go
September through March are the coolest seasons. If you want to birdwatch, April is not overly humid and you can see the migrating spoonbills at Mai Po. And although it is undeniably sticky, May is Buddha’s birthday, so festivities further enliven Po Lin monastery.
English is spoken to some degree almost everywhere. We experienced no problems on the public transportation. If you take a taxi, ask your hotel receptionist to write down the address of your destination in Chinese to avoid problems.
The Hong Kong Tourist Association publishes several indispensable brochures covering restaurants, nature walks, architecture, shopping- you name it, they seem to have published an appropriate pamphlet. Contact: HKTA, 9 Temperance Street, 3rd Floor, Toronto ON M5H 1Y6, Tel (416) 366-2389; website: www.hkta.org
Paul Etherington operates Natural Excursion Ideals. He’ll help you design anything from a hike up Sharp Peak to a custom tour of the country. We found Paul to be a superb guide who hiked at our speed (not his). Contact: Paul Etherington, tel: (852) 2486 2112; e-mail: email@example.com
Samson So was our guide at Mai Po and nearby Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve on his day off. Contact him c/o Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, GPO Box 12460, Hong Kong; website: www.hkbws.org.hk; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
You need to reserve if you visit Mai Po Nature Reserve on your own. Contact: World Wildlife Fund Hong Kong, GPO Box 12721, Hong Kong.
Friends of the Earth publish a series of booklets and maps on Hong Kong trails, such as the one depicting Sharp Peak, called The Sai Kung Peninsula, ISBN 962-8119-08-07. Contact: Friends of the Earth, 2/F, 53-55 Lockhart Rd., Wanchai, Hong Kong.
Edward Stokes wrote a superb guidebook called Exploring Hong Kong’s Countryside, ISBN 962-7534-03-X. When we showed it to the Regent Hotel’s receptionist (who was astonished that we wanted to hike in Hong Kong- yes, even residents are skeptical), he announced, “I don’t believe it. They can do anything with photographs.” He was wrong; Stokes is right: Hong Kong boasts some superb natural scenery, remote villages and deserted beaches. Get this book even if you are an armchair traveler.
Our outbound flight was 13 hours from San Francisco and 15 hours direct back to Chicago on United Airlines - plus the connecting flights. That’s a long time to sit in a plane so ask about the aircraft’s seating configuration. The two of us were able to sit at the rear of the plane, in a row comprised of only two reclining seats. That meant we could snuggle up together, as comfortably as possible, with no stranger beside us...