Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

The MacLehose Trail Is Hong Kong's Great Escape

Adventure
High-rises, power lines and cell towers punctuate the view along the Maclehose Trail. Tse Hon Ning

By Mike Ives

Gauzy lights flicker in the fog, outlining a summit. Otherwise, darkness. The only sounds I can hear are my breathing and the rustling of my windbreaker. A rocky chasm yawns below me, just steps from the trail. For a moment, I imagine that I'm watching a search party traverse a remote wilderness.


But no, I'm solo hiking in Hong Kong, and the lights are the head-lamp beams of three other travelers on the MacLehose Trail. Beyond them, through occasional breaks in the fog, I can just barely see some of the blinking lights on the apartment towers—the edge of a global financial center where 7.4 million humans squeeze into an urban area roughly the size of Boston. Soon I'll be pitching a bright-orange tent on a seaside bluff, as far from that madding crowd as possible.

Hong Kong, a former British colony and now a semiautonomous Chinese territory, has some of the world's densest urban districts. But less than a quarter of its total land is inhabited. Another 40 percent—a noncontiguous area twice the size of Seattle—is divided into 24 country parks that receive more than 11 million visitors a year. The parks' peaks and ridges are known for their panoramic views of skyscrapers, but that's only part of their appeal: They also ease the stress of living in a crowded city wracked by soaring inequality.

It's hard to survive here without a generous corporate salary. Every month, my wife and I, both of us journalists, stretch our budget to rent a tiny walk-up apartment. The price of food and basic services always makes us cringe, and we never manage to save money. Our standard of living could be far worse: One in five Hong Kongers lives below the poverty line, and the affordable-housing crisis is so severe that some locals live in stacked cubicles called "cage homes" or "coffin cubicles." Hong Kong's extreme wealth disparities get under our skin. In our neighborhood, Ferraris and Lamborghinis whiz by a welfare office as the poor queue around the block.

Which explains why I often feel like escaping the grid for a few hours, to a place where trees outnumber people, the cellular signal can be hit or miss, and the Darwinian struggle is mainly waged by other species.

Map by Steve Stankiewicz

The future of the country parks is uncertain, however. The British established many of them in the 1970s, often on lands that bordered streams or reservoirs. Now, as Hong Kong's property market soars, a few local politicians are beginning to talk of carving up some of the parks to make room for housing. The initial cuts, if they ever occur, would likely be modest. But the mere suggestion has rattled conservation groups. Cutting into the parks would set a dangerous urban-development precedent, they warn, and the authorities should focus instead on developing idle sites near existing skyscrapers.

A key feature of the country parks is a nearly 200-mile network of four hiking trails. The longest is the MacLehose Trail, which runs for 62 miles and is named for the British official who governed Hong Kong in the 1970s. I like it because it takes me furthest afield.

The trail begins by edging along the South China Sea, darting through scrubby forests and along sandy bluffs. The air here is heavy with humidity and sea salt, and the location—the far corner of a vast country park—is free of condominiums. One summer afternoon, the only human presence I see from a bluff is an oil tanker cutting through whitecaps. Otherwise it's just me, the breeze, and a sea the color of my wife's engagement ring.

Farther on, the MacLehose passes through a village with surfboard rentals and open-air restaurants that smell of seafood and garlic. Nearby lies a white-sand beach that's tucked into a rocky cove and partially sheltered from the wind. Some local surfers say that the best break in the territory is here, though only in the winter typhoon season, when the swell picks up and the crowds of fair-weather weekenders thin out.

After its seaside leg, the MacLehose hooks west, brushing past the 2,303-foot summit of Ma On Shan (Horse Saddle Mountain) and across a miles-long ridge dotted with graffiti-spattered concrete pillboxes. British soldiers built this so-called Gin Drinkers Line of fortifications in the 1930s to protect nearby Hong Kong Island from invasion. Japanese forces seized the territory anyway, in 1941. Britain regained control after World War II, and the pillboxes still bear London-inspired names like Charing Cross and Shaftesbury Avenue.

"Artillery observation post," a sign on one of them says. "No playing war game."

The artillery is long gone. Today, high-rises, power lines, and cellular towers hover in the not-too-distant background along nearly the entire sweep of the trail. An "unspoiled" wilderness this is not; I'm never more than about 90 minutes from a bus stop or train station. Yet the juxtapositions of urban life and natural scenery are beautiful in their own right: A mountain view framed by a halo of smog, say, or packs of elderly joggers who blare Cantonese opera on handheld radios. Who am I to ask them to turn down the volume? Sometimes, and in some places, it's easier to appreciate wildness if you are reminded of its limits at practically every turn.

Where: MacLehose Trail, Hong Kong

Getting there: The trail traverses a total of eight country parks, mainly in the New Territories, a vast area north of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. Most trailheads can be reached by a mix of bus, train, or ferry. A taxi or private car will often, though not always, get you there faster.

When to visit: The best time to hike Hong Kong's country parks is late fall through early spring. From late spring through early fall, bring lots of water if you hike on especially hot or humid days.

Camping: There are 41 campsites in the country parks, and a few are scattered along the MacLehose Trail. The campsite at Ham Tin Wan, on the second of the trail's 10 sections, is especially popular because it sits steps from a pretty beach.

Pro tip: Consider a varied range of hikes. The MacLehose, Wilson, Lantau, and Hong Kong Trails are all spectacular in different ways, with offshoots connecting back to the city.

Further reading: The Serious Hiker's Guide to Hong Kong by Pete Spurrier (FormAsia Books, 2007)

More: bit.ly/hongkonghikes

This article appeared in the May/June 2018 edition with the headline "Hong Kong's Great Escapes."

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons. Curtis Palmer / CC by 2.0

By Ashutosh Pandey

Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons (Mt), or 7.3 kilogram per person, a UN report showed on Thursday.

Read More Show Less
A women walks with COVID-19 care kits distributed by Boston's Office of Neighborhood Services in Boston, Massachusetts on May 28, 2020. The pandemic has led to a rise in single-use plastic items, but reusable bags and cloth masks can be two ways to reduce waste. JOSEPH PREZIOSO / AFP via Getty Images

This month is Plastic Free July, the 31 days every year when millions of people pledge to give up single-use plastics.

Read More Show Less
The south Asian paradise tree snake can launch itself into the air and glide from one tree branch to another. Thai National Parks, CC by 2.0

Did you know that some snakes can fly?

The south Asian paradise tree snake (Chrysopelea paradisi) can launch itself into the air and glide from one tree branch to another. And when it does, it moves its body in waves in something known as aerial undulation. Scientists have long known how the snakes moved. But they didn't know why. Until now.

Read More Show Less
A diver swims with sharpfin barracuda, one of the many ocean species under threat from global warming, in Australia, Queensland, Great Barrier Reef. Pete Atkinson / The Image Bank / Getty Images Plus

The oceans could look much emptier by 2100, according to a new study that found that most fish species would not be able to survive in their current habitat if average global temperatures rise 4.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, as The Guardian reported.

Read More Show Less
Women walk from Santa Monica beach after a social media workout on the sand on May 12, 2020 in Santa Monica, California. Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Independence Day weekend is a busy time for coastal communities as people flock to the beaches to soak up the sun during the summer holiday. This year is different. Some of the country's most popular beach destinations in Florida and California have decided to close their beaches to stop the surge in coronavirus cases.

Read More Show Less
Daily fireworks in many U.S. cities in recent weeks have no doubt been interfering with the sleep and peace of mind of thousands of veterans and others who suffer from PTSD. Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Arash Javanbakht

For some combat veterans, the Fourth of July is not a time to celebrate the independence of the country they love. Instead, the holiday is a terrifying ordeal. That's because the noise of fireworks – loud, sudden, and reminiscent of war – rocks their nervous system. Daily fireworks in many U.S. cities in recent weeks have no doubt been interfering with the sleep and peace of mind of thousands of veterans.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Koala populations across parts of Australia are on track to become extinct before 2050 unless "urgent government intervention" occurs. Mathias Appel / Flickr

Koala populations across parts of Australia are on track to become extinct before 2050 unless "urgent government intervention" occurs, warns a year-long inquiry into Australia's "most loved animal." The report published by the Parliament of New South Wales (NSW) paints a "stark and depressing snapshot" of koalas in Australia's southeastern state.

Read More Show Less