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.
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.
This is a quiet road, and through gaps in the buildings you get glimpses of boats moored in Aberdeen Harbour. Pass the Wong Chuk Hang Service Reservoir Rest Garden and carry on until you reach a roadside shrine with dozens of ceramic gods and goddesses sharing a shelter. The road narrows a little further on, and then your steps uphill appear on the left, marked with a sign saying “WP 12”.
As soon as you reach the garden at the top of the steps, you can hear fairgoers at Ocean Park shouting and screaming as they ride the rollercoaster, even though it is a fair distance away across the hillside. From here you can also see the southern end of Lamma Island, and if the weather is clear, the Lema Islands of Guangdong Province on the horizon.
Carry on uphill, past another morning walkers’ garden full of figurines and flowers, to the next rest pavilion. You have views of Mount Kellett and the Peak. From here on up, the steps give way to a stony path. It reaches a rubbly plateau where gardeners have also been at work, and then arrives at a paved helipad with sudden views over Deepwater Bay, Repulse Bay and across to Stanley. You can watch pleasure boats speed through the water far below.
The last section to the peak is once again on a set of stairs. After this, retrace your steps to finish the hike. On our way back down, we found a vantage point overlooking Aberdeen Harbour was busy with a crowd of photographers waiting for the “golden hour” before dusk.
When you get back to Wong Chuk Hang, the cooked food market is a possible destination for dinner. It serves Thai as well as Chinese dishes.
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.
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→
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.
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.
An easy walk north of Yuen Long, there’s an area of wetlands which has become well known in recent years due to a campaign against a proposed housing development. For now, the watery beauty of Nam Sang Wai is safe from the developers, and it’s popular with bird watchers, cyclists and photographers.
This walk is completely flat so it is suitable for all. Time required: two hours.
Take the West Rail to Yuen Long station, and make for Exit A. North of the station, all the land you can see is occupied by half a dozen sprawling villages with many old-style houses. It’s a bit of a maze. Bear left to find Yuen Long Kau Hui Road, and follow it more or less straight ahead to Shan Pui village. A few signs, some painted and some hand-made, point you to Nam Sang Wai. If you don’t see them, just follow anyone who looks like a hiker or biker.
Here at Shan Pui village there’s a ramshackle wooden jetty. Pay HK$5 and a boatman will ferry you across to the wetland.
Far away in Hong Kong’s northeastern waters, at the entrance to Tolo Harbour, Tap Mun island has mostly avoided the sprouting of three-storey village houses which affects so much of the New Territories. In fact it retains its old-world charm so well, a walk down its main street can feel like stepping onto a film set. You can make an easy circuit of the island.
This walk is gentle and suitable for all. Time required: 2 hours.
Take the MTR East Rail to University Station and follow the signs over the bridge to Ma Liu Shui pier, ten minutes’ walk away. The morning ferry leaves at 8:30am, and there is an additional 12:30pm departure on weekends. (Don’t take the 3:00pm sailing, as it will give you no time to explore). You can call Tsui Wah Ferry on 2272 2022 to confirm the timetable.
The journey through Tolo Harbour takes 90 minutes, plenty of time for you to eat a packed breakfast and watch the scenery go by. The ferry calls in at two deserted villages before arriving in the small harbour at Tap Mun.
The summit of Hong Kong’s highest mountain is a wonderful place to visit on days of clear weather. On your way up and down, you enjoy bird’s-eye views of the valleys of the New Territories, and the ridges of mountains which separate the area from Kowloon.
This walk involves some sustained climbing and passes through uninhabited areas, so is suitable only for fit adults. Time required: 5-6 hours.
Take the MTR to Tai Po Market station and find green minibus 23K. The bus drives up through the Wun Yiu valley, and terminates before it reaches the highest point of the road. Get off here, just past San Uk Ka village, and carry on walking uphill.
It’s official – the best hike on Hong Kong’s Southside is the Dragon’s Back! That’s according to Southside Magazine readers’ votes. And Theadora Whittington has illustrated it in her children’s book, The Dragon’s Back, newly reprinted.
Read more, and see more of Theadora’s sketches and illustrations, on her blog.