Your insider’s guide to Hong Kong

Urban Playground

You don’t have to travel far from the city to enjoy outdoor adventures in the wilds of Hong Kong

Words: Steve White
Photos: Shaun Horrocks

Hong Kong

The first clue comes as you circle to land. You expect the forest of skyscrapers ringing a harbour jostling with junks, ferries and freighters. But what’s all the lush hillside below, the coastline scalloped with arcs of sand?

Fact is, Hong Kong is mostly countryside, so hilly the city has grown vertically. That’s given it that famous skyline, but also easy ways to escape it. The peaks behind Kowloon Peninsula, on Hong Kong Island and the outlying islands, are riddled with trails for runners, hikers and bikers. More vertical faces challenge climbers. Paragliders soar from ridge top launch sites, while surfers and stand-up paddle boarders share the shoreline.

Up on the hills, the views can surprise even residents. A few years ago sales manager Jimmy Denis entertained a group of clients on a much-recommended Hong Kong Island hike: “I always thought the Dragon’s Back was over-hyped,” he says, “but that day was crystal-clear – it was like looking at a panorama shot in HDR. Even the guys from New Zealand were amazed at the views of the city and all the hills.”

The “tail” of that dragon trails east into the water at Shek O’s Big Wave Bay, where surfers and body boarders are a regular sight. The action really kicks off just before (or even during) the occasional summer typhoons, when wave-riders rejoice at swells stacked up by the wind.

Hong Kong

Gentler winds see the city’s paragliders take wing at Ngong Ping plateau to savour fine views over Sai Kung town, while hikers and runners pass on the 100-km Maclehose Trail, one of the territory’s four long-distance routes.

Trail races draw hundreds every weekend from October to May. Even in the stifling summer, the territory’s keenest runners, such as property agent Claire Price, are out training early or late, plunging into streams for natural cool-downs.

She remembers the first time she ran a loop in the Central New Territories, from Shing Mun, over Needle Hill and Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s tallest peak. “We finished back at Shing Mun reservoir, squeezing into a tiny pool at the bottom of the steps for a make-do ice bath for sore knees,” she says. “Then, wrapped up our five-hour run with frozen pineapple slices at the park kiosk.”

Climbing landmarks include the iconic Lion Rock, not far from Shing Mun, while Central Crag on Hong Kong Island seemingly puts you right among the skyscrapers. Jon Butters has climbed both, but remembers too those “sunny-day boat missions” to Tung Lung Chau, an island uninhabited save for overnight adventurers and the few villagers who keep them fed and watered. Climbers and hikers sprawl together across the deck of the small ferry that put-puts out and back at weekends.

Hong Kong

Others, such as surgeon Dr Robert Stephenson, prefer to be master of their own vessel. The city has a lively race scene for outrigger canoes and dragon boats, while operators offer sea kayaking excursions – but Stephenson prefers his surfski, a slender, lightweight kayak. He describes one special pre-work paddle with the wind behind his back at the eastern mouth of the harbour.

“I was completely in the moment. My paddle reacted to the water and I didn’t have to think about balancing my boat, my body just did it. I was free to feel the waves and wind. The only other time I experience this effortless state of absolute concentration is in the operating theatre, where after years of practice my hands go about their job and I have almost the role of bystander only.”

Brushes with local wildlife can accentuate the sense of wildness. Andrew Chatterall, an avid stand-up paddle boarder recalls: “I was about a half mile off shore, when suddenly the water was alive with fish, followed shortly after by a pod of dolphins hunting. I sat on my board amazed and watched this National Geographic moment.”

Back on terra firma, bold macaques surprise the unwary with their fearless approaches. Joggers run into snakes just yards from city blocks. Spooked boar crash off through the undergrowth within sight of startled hikers.

Hong Kong  Hong Kong

Tai Mo Shan has a spectacular forest, as well as some premier biking trails. Shaun Horrocks, a creative director, describes a typical day in the saddle that involved more than just full-throttle riding.

“The banter died, replaced by the crunch of tyres, the panting of breath, and behind it all, the chatter of insects and bird song. Sometimes when biking you are so caught up in the moment you forget to stop, look and listen and take in the splendour around you,” Horrocks says.

“The climbs can be heart-pounding, quad-cramping brutal, but the reward justifies the pain. As the descent began, the foliage whipped past in a blur of green. All focus was on the trail, at one with the bike, trusting it to grip the rocks. Legs pumping, I made it to the forest road and collapsed on the cool of the concrete, spent, but with a Cheshire-cat grin.”

At that point, a rumble of traffic often announces that the city lies near once more. As Stephenson puts it: “I walk the final steps to my office, looking around at fellow workers, clutching their tall Americanos, hurrying to make the lift. I smile to myself, knowing that whatever happens, it has been a special day.”

Hong Kong

Where to start

HIKING

High West, Hong Kong Island
A little-used side-trail on the standard tourist loop of Victoria Peak

Lantau Peak, Lantau Island
Take the Lantau Trail up, test your knees on the steep descent to the Big Buddha

meetup.com
hkadventurer.com

MOUNTAIN BIKING

Tai Mo Shan, New Territories
Double black diamond on HK’s highest peak

Chi Ma Wan, Lantau Island
Intermediate circuit with coastal views

hkmba.org

CLIMBING

Central Crag, Hong Kong Island
Lion Rock, Kowloon
Tung Lung Chau

hongkongclimbing.com

SEA KAYAKING

Get up close to Sai Kung’s outlying islands

hkecotours.com

KITING

Shui Hau, Lantau Island
A shallow bay, good for beginners and improvers

www.kiteboarding.org.hk

SURFING

Big Wave Bay, Hong Kong Island
Base of HK’s surf community

surfinghongkong.com

STAND UP PADDLE BOARDING

Stanley, Hong Kong Island

www.hksupba.com

PARAGLIDING

Contact the organising body

www.hkpa.net

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