“Five, six …. jump!” I’m shouting out over the rolling waves. Between my feet I can see the drop, in front of me a giant boulder of sandstone too steep to be climbed. The only way on is through the water.
Like Steve McQueen in the classic 1970s film Papillon, I’ve been counting the waves before jumping off the cliff. As one wave after the other rolls in, I’m desperately waiting for the optimal moment.
Me and my wife, Esther, have been trekking, climbing and swimming along Hong Kong’s rugged coastline for the past few hours: our adventure started in Chai Wan, at the final stop of the MTR’s Island line. Where the residential towers and concrete paths give way to the green hills and cliffs we simply jumped over a little fence and continued along the coastal rocks. Usually these rocks are only frequented by fishermen, but increasingly the cliffs and hidden beaches of the city are becoming a playground for our passion: coasteering.
Coasteering provides a unique way to see Hong Kong’s spectacular shoreline up close. The sport is a combination of rock climbing, swimming, and optional cliff jumping, with the goal being to move along the waterline. Its birthplace can be traced to Wales, where on the coast of Pembrokeshire several operators started to offer commercial guided tours in the 1990s. In the meantime the activity has spread across the world, with tours offered in UK, Spain Canada, and Australia.
The goal is to stay as close to the waterline as possible. If the rock gets too difficult to climb, then an alternative route is sought. This can mean deviating higher up the cliff or jumping into the sea to swim around the obstacle. The surf can sometimes make this a tricky affair. When big waves are rushing up to the rock, getting safely into the water and out of it can be dangerous. Its no fun to get smashed against the rock, as there are a lot of barnacles below the waterline that will cut fingers or legs very easily, so it’s essential to wear gloves and knee protectors.
Even on Hong Kong Island there are a multitude of adventures to be had. Jumping from one boulder to another requires a good sense of balance, and also upper arm strength for the climbing. It is important is to have good awareness of when a cliff is too difficult to climb. While regular rock climbing is usually done vertically, most movements in coasteering are horizontal traverses, meaning you can’t rely on ropes for safety. It all comes down to good judgement, so it helps to go along with somebody experienced in coasteering if you’re new to the sport.
Good preparation is also important: before we head out we usually examine detailed maps and Google Earth, and check the weather report.
Our reward is a great adventure in an extremely varied environment. Hong Kong’s coastline is full of deep sea caves, some of them used in the past by the pirates of the Pearl River Delta. Around Sai Kung these caves are usually also filled with marine life. There are also surprising glimpses into Hong Kong’s violent past. Around Hong Kong Island several pillboxes meant to defend Hong Kong against Japanese invasion in the second world war remain.
When to go
It’s best to go coasteering when the weather is mild: in winter the sea waves get too choppy and the sea too cold, and in the heat of the summer the temperature on exposed rocks that have barely a glimpse of shade can be unbearable.
Despite our preparations, earlier this year my wife and I ended up in a tricky situation. We decided in rough February conditions to climb from Big Wave Bay to Shek O. We reached a huge drop-off that we couldn’t climb down. Unfortunately the waves were so big that day that jumping into the water was not an option either. We noticed a house higher up the cliff, less than fifty metres away, so decided to try our best to reach it. But the bush was so dense, and there were so many thorny bushes and branches, that it was impossible to get there.
At one stage Esther got stuck in a bush, almost upside down, not even touching the ground. In the end we had to give up and slowly climb all the way back. It taught us that, even on Hong Kong Island, so close to civilisation, you can still have a real adventure.
Where to go
Sai Kung and Hong Kong Island offer a multitude of opportunities to climb along spectacular shores and cliffs. A good beginner’s route is at Shek O headland (Tai Tau Chai), which offers great vistas, sea caves, cliffs and easy access. Another good route is around Tung Ping Chau, the furthest outlying island in Hong Kong waters, which can be reached by ferry on weekends.
What to take
Most important is to have shoes with a good grip that works even in wet conditions. Canyoning or approach shoes are a good solution. You’ll also need a durable, waterproof backpack or bag (seatosummit.com do good ones), to keep your belongings dry. Bring a hat and sunglasses, as well as gloves (climbing or sailing gloves are best) and knee protectors (foam pads like the ones used for volleyball are available in most sport stores). A whistle, short rope and perhaps even a life vest or flotation device can be good in case of emergencies.
What to do before you set out
Check tide and swell before climbing around the cliffs of Hong Kong. A good source of information is the marine weather forecast of the Hong Kong Observatory (hko.gov.hk). Never head out when there are high swells, as the combination of rough sea and big waves can put you in great danger. Also, always be aware of potential exit routes, should you want to cut your trip short.
Where to get information
There are as yet no guided coasteering trips offered in Hong Kong, but the Hong Kong Hiking Meet-up group organises trips from time to time. More information and maps can also be found on hkadventurer.com and scrambling.hk.
Paul Niel is a Hong Kong-based adventurer and traveller. He has climbed extensively around all the big mountain ranges on the globe, including Mount Everest.