A podcast about Hong Kong hiking

Last month I was pleased to be invited onto TravelZoom, a new podcast. This episode is all about Hong Kong and it’s out now. Here’s the blurb:

The host, Aga Skoczypiec, interviews Pete Spurrier, the author of an exceptional series of guidebooks to Hong Kong. Pete takes us on a tour through Hong Kong’s colonial past, and tells us how the city has changed since he moved to Hong Kong in the early 90s.

She also talks to Jowett Yu, the Executive Chef of Ho Lee Fook – a popular contemporary Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong. Jowett shares his thoughts on Cantonese cuisine and the gastronomic scene in the city.

Finally, a trip to Hong Kong would not be complete without experiencing its many islands – over 250 to be exact. We visit the vibrant island of Cheung Chau to hear how an unexpected discovery led to Hong Kong’s first and last Olympic gold medal.

You can listen here or find links to the podcast on Spotify and other platforms: https://www.travelzoompodcast.com/1571713/7820062-1-hong-kong

Hong Kong hiking: High Island’s East Dam

A reasonably new transport link offers easier access to the remote East Dam of High Island Reservoir, opening up opportunities for different walks in the Sai Kung area as well as visits to its unique geological features.

Once you are there, this walk is short and rather easy, and you can take your time on the uphill sections. Walking time: 1.5 hours.

To start, you must get to Pak Tam Chung in the Sai Kung Country Park. Here there is an informative visitor centre, a snack shop and a road barrier preventing unauthorised vehicles from entering the country park. You can get here by bus 94 from Sai Kung town or bus 96R (Sundays only) from Diamond Hill MTR in Kowloon. Both of these buses go further than this point, so be sure to alight here. You can also take a green taxi to this point from Sai Kung town.

To get from here to the dam, you have three choices: walk along Stage 1 of the Maclehose Trail, which will take about three hours; board a green taxi, which will take 20 minutes; or, if it’s a Sunday afternoon, take green minibus 9A. This holiday route commenced two summers ago as a way to improve access to the Hong Kong Unesco Geopark, which is a scattered collection of ancient landforms mostly found along the coasts of the east and northeast New Territories. The 9A departs every 20-25 minutes from 3pm to 5.30pm.

Whichever transport you choose, you will skirt the south side of the vast High Island Reservoir, crossing its West Dam first and having glimpses of the waters and islands of Port Shelter. The minibus terminates at the near end of the East Dam; if coming by taxi, ask the driver to drop you off here too. Here a blue-painted dolos (a giant concrete block of a complicated shape) stands as a monument to five workers who lost their lives during the reservoir’s construction. We will see more of these dolosse later.

Set off north across the dam. You can now follow the High Island Geo Trail, named for the Geopark. On your left, the reservoir occupies what was once a sea channel between mainland and islands, but was dammed at both ends and then filled with fresh water. The massive project took 10 years to complete, and it opened in 1978. To your right, a lower dam protects against the ravages of the sea. You can see the vertical nature of the rocks that form the cliff edges all around; these are hexagonal basalt columns formed by volcanic action 140 million years ago.

At the far end of the dam, there is a rest pavilion. On our visit, taxi drivers were filling tubs of water for members of the herd of wild cattle which roam this area. Turn left and follow the signs up to the Biu Tsim Kok viewing point. This is well worth your while, as it gives you beautiful views of sandy Long Ke Wan, the next bay north. The path leads you in a loop around the hilltop, offering lovely views of sea and reservoir in each direction.

Back at the pavilion, carry on downhill to the smaller dam, which is a long line of giant dolosse. There are more than 7,000 of them, and each one weighs 25 tonnes. These blocks are designed to reflect and diffuse the impact of ocean waves, and thereby protect the structure behind them. Anyone who has lived through a severe typhoon in Hong Kong knows the awesome destructive power the sea can exert.

If you bear right and walk around the lagoon, you can visit a sea cave which has been marooned between the two dams. Wave erosion over thousands of years whittled it out of these columns of volcanic rock. There are many of these caves along the shores of this region.

If it’s a Sunday and you are intending to take minibus 9A back to Pak Tam Chung, the last departure from the dam is at 7pm; if you want to double-check, you can call the hotline on 2792 6433.

Hong Kong hiking: Kai Kung Leng

A little-visited peak in the northwest New Territories is a true wilderness which offers wonderful views in all directions.

This hike is not signposted at all, and it has some tricky slopes to negotiate on the way down. It should only be attempted by people with a reasonable level of fitness and good directional skills. Take a map and wear shoes with good grip. Time required: 5 hours.

Take the East Rail all the way up to Sheung Shui, and walk the short distance to the bus station underneath Landmark North. Board bus 77K. This double-decker swiftly leaves Sheung Shui for the rural Fan Kam Road, and the greens of the Fanling golfcourse extend on both sides. Sit upstairs for a view, and hope a flying golf ball doesn’t strike your window.

Soon the golfers are left behind and you are driving through a valley of farming villages. Alight at Kiu Tau, just before the bus goes over a narrow bridge. Walk back in the direction you have come from for a minute or two, and then cross the road to find steps which lead down to a wide stream. A bridge leads across to a farmhouse on the far side, and steps then lead immediately up the hillside. Your hike has started.

At the top of the steps, the path bends to the left, and then soon afterwards you must take care not to miss an important turning: when the path is about to cease its climb and start a descent, turn immediately right onto a track which heads into the trees. This turning is marked with orange and red ribbons, and you will know you have missed it if you start descending.

The path doesn’t stay amid trees for long. Soon you are climbing the open hillside, and you can see the trail extending over slopes ahead of you. Behind and below, you can see the village where you got off the bus, and the foothills of Tai To Yan above it.

More views await. As you reach a rise, suddenly you can see everything to the north: a plain of villages and fields, the towers of Fanling and Sheung Shui, a further line of hills, and then the megalopolis of Shenzhen behind them.

As you climb, your panorama of far-off hills and valleys is made even nicer by tall, slender grasses which wave in the wind and catch the sunlight. It’s quite easy to follow the path, as it sticks closely to the ridgeline most of the time. To the south, you have views of the Pat Heung plain, and the peak of Tai Mo Shan overlooks it. As you approach the 585-metre summit of Kai Kung Leng, your view opens up to the west too, and you can see the placid waters of Deep Bay and the fishponds which still extend up to the border.

A little further on, you reach a trig point which is the second-highest point on the ridge. Carry on westwards. At the following fork in the trail – a clump of large rocks – you have a choice: carry on straight ahead and finish near Yuen Long, or turn left and finish near Kam Tin. We choose the latter, so we turn left and follow the trail down the hillside.

Keep an eye on your route ahead: it keeps to the line of the ridge which stretches to the southwest all the way. This descent is rather steep and has plenty of loose earth and pebbles, so take care as you walk. (This is not a hike to attempt in wet weather).

When you reach the valley, you meet a complex network of footpaths and village roads, but if you bear generally left or straight ahead, you will eventually find your way to Kam Tin, where there are restaurants; or you will cross the path of a green minibus which will help you along. Buses from Kam Tin go to Tsuen Wan, Tai Po or to the Kam Sheung Road West Rail station.

Serious Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong is in the top 10

Many thanks to Michele Koh Morollo at Culture Trip for choosing The Serious Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong as one of the 10 best books about the city.

“The uninitiated often think of Hong Kong as just an urban metropolis, packed with concrete high-rises and shopping malls,” she says. “The territory is, in fact, also home to mountain peaks, verdant forests, waterfalls, beaches and rocky bays, and those who live here often spend their weekends out enjoying the abundant nature on their doorstep.”

Read the full top 10 list here.

Paper maps and printed travel books are back, says Prestige magazine

It was never really true that life was all about the journey, not the destination – because the destination had sun (maybe), sand, sea and ice-cream – but Ordnance Survey maps certainly put some fun, and some heated discussions, into working out where one was going. Those were the days.

And what, you might wonder, does any of this have to do with literature? The answer is that in these fraught years of what I’m calling Digidom, the OS map, possibly the most cumbersome, old-fashioned bit of kit imaginable, has become not just a pointer to Prestatyn or Polperro, Canterbury or Carlisle, but a wider health indicator helping to signify the condition of the two basic types of travel book: the “literary” volume artfully mastered by the likes of Alexander Frater and Jonathan Raban; and the travel guide, made wildly popular not too many years ago in, for example, its Lonely Planet and Rough Guides guises.

I was interviewed for this Prestige story about guidebooks and hiking maps. Read the full article here.

Hong Kong hiking: Brick Hill

You have probably seen the hillside above Ocean Park which bears the image of a seahorse sculpted into the greenery. That hillside is the north slope of Nam Long Shan, known in English as Brick Hill. You can climb this small mountain without entering Ocean Park, and the views in good weather are outstanding.

This walk does rise from sea level to a height of 284 metres, but it is a steady climb and reasonably easy. Walking time: 2 hours.

Take the new South Island MTR line to Wong Chuk Hang station, and descend to street level by way of Exit B. You need to bear left, uphill on Nam Long Shan Road, past the cooked food market. Take the third right turn, which is still Nam Long Shan Road, and walk up past the Singapore International School. Continue reading Hong Kong hiking: Brick Hill

“The air out there”: Lufthansa magazine goes hiking in Hong Kong

Two reporters came from Germany to Hong Kong to explore our mountains and trails, and I was pleased to meet them. They wasted no time, hiking out to Sai Kung, Lai Chi Wo, Kowloon Peak, Tai Tam and Lantau Island in their few days in the city.

We set off at a brisk pace, climbing up steep steps and through undergrowth until we pierce the first cloud. Colorful jacket collars bob up ahead as, gasping with unwonted exertion, we learn their owners’ biographies. There’s a French businessman who’s brought along some chocolate bars to keep his energy up, an Irish missionary and a Filipina housekeeper, who has taken a day off. Many come for the company, to escape the loneliness of city life. Others are here for the scenery, for the view that is blurred by some last swathes of mist. Or is it smog? Above the clouds is also above the smog.

Photographer Fabian Weiss took the above photo of the famous “Suicide Cliff” on Kowloon Peak. Read their story here.

Hong Kong hiking: Bride’s Pool

This easy hike visits Bride’s Pool, a longstanding local beauty spot in the northeast New Territories. The walk is short and quite easy, but the stone steps may be slippery after wet weather. Walking time: 1 hour.

From Tai Po Market railway station, board bus 275R (Sundays and public holidays only) and ride it all the way to its terminus on Bride’s Pool Road. This is a quiet road that runs beside the vast Plover Cove reservoir. (You can also get to this point by green New Territories taxi, or green minibus 20R which passes the bus terminus on its way to Wu Kau Tang village, a bit deeper in the country park).

From the bus stop, walk ahead a short distance, passing the Lions Club pavilion, and then pass through the archway to start on the trail. Very quickly, your path crosses a wide, rocky, fast-flowing stream. Away out of sight to your right, the stream cascades over a ledge and falls steeply into a plunge pool. This is the setting for a tragic local legend. Many years in the past, a bride was being carried in a sedan chair to her wedding in a neighbouring village. The stones were slippery, and the sedan chair bearers lost their footing, pitching the chair and the woman to a watery end far below. The locale has been known as Bride’s Pool ever since. Continue reading Hong Kong hiking: Bride’s Pool

The thermal springs of Nisyros

This travel story about a little-visited Greek island originally appeared in Encounters magazine.

The sea is bubbling off the pebbly southern shore of Kos, and a small but noisy crowd of people are bathing in a patch of shallow water marked out by stones. What’s going on?

We didn’t expect to find thermal springs at the end of our hike across the island. As we join the crowd and lower ourselves into the strangely warm seawater, laughing as hot currents mingle with cold, one of the bathers tells us that this coast is volcanic, and warm waters spill forth at temperatures of up to 60 degrees.

An idea is planted. Days later, we are boarding a morning ferry for the two-hour crossing to Nisyros, a tiny island to the south which is a sleeping volcano.

As part of the Dodecanese islands, Nisyros has been controlled by the Ottomans, the Italians and the Knights of St John, but its character is undeniably Greek. As our boat pulls into Mandraki, the main town (population 600), we check off the icons of Aegean island life: a domed church, waterfront cafés with wooden chairs and moustachioed patrons, blue-and-white flags, fishing boats, a whitewashed monastery on the hillside behind.

With no airport, Nisyros is not visited by package tourists. We call in at the first hotel we find on the promenade – it’s a family-run place that includes a breakfast of coffee, fruit and yoghurt, and we get a room with a wrought-iron balcony overlooking the water.

On a little beach opposite, we watch a gaggle of white ducks go for a paddle in the sea. The island has little fresh water, and every resident must adapt. When we walk past again an hour later, the sun is stronger and the ducks are taking shade together under a beach umbrella.

Continue reading The thermal springs of Nisyros

Windows into the past: Hong Kong’s abandoned villages

I have written a piece about exploring Hong Kong’s abandoned villages for the SCMP’s Post Magazine, and you can read it at this link.

The text is below, minus the villager interviews which were conducted by Elaine Yau but plus some description of the villages, and with a few pictures different from those published in the magazine.

The rain was incessant, the skies a greenish grey, and my Sunday hike across the northeast New Territories was taking far longer than I thought it would. It was now late afternoon and getting dark, and yet I was still walking an exposed hillside miles away from the nearest road. I wouldn’t be able to make it back to town before night fell.

It was time to make other plans. My sodden paper map showed a village called So Lo Pun in the valley below. I would get down there, knock on a door and ask if I could sleep on someone’s floor.

The descent was quick, but only because the steep path was a rivulet of slippery clay. And when I reached the forest at the bottom, I was knee-deep in water. It was dark already. Where was the village? I couldn’t even see any lights.

I suddenly realised that I had arrived. The tall trees of the forest were growing up through the dark windows and broken rafters of what had been a terrace of single-storey houses. Nobody had lived here for decades.

It was my introduction to the abandoned villages of Hong Kong.

Continue reading Windows into the past: Hong Kong’s abandoned villages

Author of the bestselling Hong Kong hiking guidebooks