To explore the wilder side of Hong Kong, you needn’t travel to the far-flung New Territories. Instead, you can experience its rural wonders by simply leaving the north shore of Hong Kong Island and heading south, up and over the hills.
I set myself the following challenge: suppose you had just one day, from around dawn to almost sunset, where might you go for a rewarding and varied journey? Here’s a tour, taking in five places in a single day, now that the weather is ripe for hiking.
Early on a clear morning, from a vantage atop Tai Tau Chau – an islet by Shek O – you can fully appreciate Hong Kong’s superb location on the south China coast. To the east, the rising sun casts a golden glow, silhouetting the tip of Tung Lung Chau. South lies craggy Waglan Island, which you mostly hear of in weather reports when typhoons approach.
Viewed from here, the coast of Hong Kong Island is backed by steep green hillsides; a lighthouse is just visible at Cape D’Aguilar, the southeastern headland, beyond which are Beaufort Island, Po Toi and the Dangan Islands. The only high-rises in view seem far off, in Tseung Kwan O. With its hotchpotch of mostly two- and three-storey buildings, Shek O looks almost like a Mediterranean village.
Take a path down, then a footbridge to the Shek O headland that’s topped by a cluster of expensive-looking buildings behind walls and sturdy gates.
Just inland is the old village, with older, tightly packed houses. Barn swallows swoop after insects, adding to the rural atmosphere, and are surely nesting close by. When I arrive, despite the fine weather we find just a handful of swimmers and strollers on the beach – one of the best in Hong Kong.
Getting there: From just outside Shau Kei Wan MTR station you can take bus 9 or a red minibus.
Tai Tam Tuk
From Shek O I travel up, round, and down to Tai Tam Tuk, the innermost area of the inlet between Cape D’Aguilar and Stanley peninsulas. Just above it, the largest reservoir on the island is set amidst wooded hills. Buses, taxis and even supercars slow to a crawl on the road across the mighty dam – not because drivers are admiring the view, but the fact there’s barely enough room for two lane traffic.
Stage 7 of the Hong Kong Trail starts here, leading down to a water catchment channel, then following this southwards above Tai Tam Harbour.
On the morning I visit, two metal sluice gates are diverting the flow to a side channel, where a roaring torrent pours down towards the sea.
A narrow trail drops through the woods, to the edge of the inlet, and a jungle-style path above the last mangrove forest on Hong Kong Island. Crabs scuttle for cover, gaps in the foliage afford glimpses of the shore with small boats moored close by, a simple looking hamlet next to the water, school buildings rising beyond.
The path reaches a stream swollen with the diverted flow, its waters foaming down a cascade sliced through granite. Normally, it must be easy to cross, leading around towards an eco education centre. But now, it’s a dead end, so it’s back up the slope, to cross a road and walk on Stage 6 of the Hong Kong Trail.
Getting there: bus 14 from Chai Wan (via Shau Kei Wan, and Tai Tam Rd and Shek O Rd roundabout).
Tai Tam country park
With the sun now high overhead, there’s some welcome shade as the trail tunnels through dense woodland that clothes the hillsides of Tai Tam country park – and helps moderate water flow to the three reservoirs here.
Since it’s rained recently, a side trip to Tai Tam Mound Waterfall seems essential. There’s no sign to the falls; just arrive at the third footbridge from Tai Tam Road – the one with slender wooden planks – and you scramble down a tiny stream channel. It’s a beautiful waterfall with a cool, shady plunge pool.
The trail meets a narrow road that’s off limits to most vehicles. Choices for hiking and strolling abound, in a wonderful landscape of rolling hills, streams, forest and reservoirs. They include the Tai Tam Waterworks Heritage Trail, which covers dams, aqueducts, bridges and other structures that date from the late 19th and early 20th century. There are also uphill routes, including the Hong Kong Trail climbing to Mount Butler, with fabulous views from the top.
An easy walk passes the west shore of Tai Tam Tuk Reservoir. It’s a well travelled route, so we opt for another trail towards Repulse Bay. There’s a chance to gaze at the dam of Tai Tam Intermediate Reservoir, which was completed in 1907. Then we take a path by the reservoir’s southern shore, and up to a pass, Tsin Shui Wan Au. On a map, short trails from here to Repulse Bay look appealing, yet a sign beside one warns it’s “treacherous”, while another is overgrown, with big golden orb weaver spiders suspended from a succession of webs at waist height.
So, the simplest “escape” route is alongside a catchment, hugging a steep hillside and aiming for Stanley, before taking a flight of steps to the road below. It’s time to head to the beach.
Getting there: Bus 14 from Chai Wan (via Shau Kei Wan, and Tai Tam Rd and Shek O Rd roundabout).
Chung Hom Kok Beach
The map indicates Chung Hom Kok Beach could be worth a try. It’s below a headland west of Stanley that’s shown as intense green – a nature park, free of housing or other developments.
A taxi seems the best way of getting there swiftly, though the driver is hardly encouraging when told the destination. “There’s nothing there,” he says. “Maybe you can try Stanley Plaza.”
Ah, a shopping mall, jam packed with places to spend, spend, spend. While very Hong Kong, that’s not what we’re after today, so Chung Hom Kok Beach it is.
There’s still some more hiking required, down steps and past a large children’s playground, before arriving at the beach, which proves to be a wonderful stretch of sand in a small bay set between steep bluffs. While there are some houses above, the setting is mostly green, with fine trees behind the lifeguards’ place, and views across to Ocean Park, Lamma and Lantau hills.
Repulse Bay may be crowded today, yet here we are with fewer than 10 other visitors (so if you ever know any crowds in search of a beach – send them to Repulse Bay, not here). The relatively clean water is refreshing after the walk.
Getting there: Options include minibus 40 from Causeway Bay.
Onwards and westwards – and upwards – via Victoria Peak. A short walk along Lugard Road is enough to leave most Peak Tram tourists behind, with woodland and shrubland alongside, views over the city and Victoria Harbour below.
A sudden rainstorm arrives, dark clouds rolling in over the skyscrapers. Thunder booms and lightning flashes; the scene a reminder that even urban Hong Kong is in a wild part of the world.
At the end of Lugard Road is a small park, from where a path leads towards what may be the wildest summit on Hong Kong Island: High West. It’s a good trail, though somewhat tough with steep steps up to the top. The start of it would be easy to miss, and I don’t notice any signs, as if to avoid encouraging too many visitors.
This is an outstanding viewpoint. Not so much for admirers of the city – which is partly hidden by The Peak, but more for appreciating hills to the north, Lantau dominating the western horizon, and Lamma across the channel from Pok Fu Lam. As the sun dips lower, it illuminates a billowing cloud above the far horizon that looks the sort of place a god might live.
Right, that’s enough scenery for today. After the steps down, Harlech Road offers a shorter route back to the Peak Tram station, with only a brief stop for photos of the small but picturesque waterfall. Time to leave the wild side, and embark on a new, crucial quest: the search for cold beer.
Getting there: While the Peak Tram is fun for visitors, you can avoid queuing by taking a bus, such as No 15 from the Central Ferry Piers.