Hiking in Hong Kong
Distance: 36.7 km
Time: 9 hours 26 minutes
Ascent: 1808 m
Date: December 2018
Start: Yung Shue Wan, Lamma Island
End: Yung Shue Wan, Lamma Island
Do this hike if:
you are after a hike with a bit of everything
you want to battle with nature
you love secluded, picture-perfect beaches
Avoid this hike if:
you prefer not to be attacked by the local vegetation
you have a phobia of dogs
you like well-marked trails that are easy to negotiate
Lamma, a sleepy, car-free, fishing island that is known more for its beaches and seafood than its trails. When people talk about hiking on Lamma, they are usually referring to the paved, gently undulating, 5 km long Family Walk. This was not what I was after. I wanted off-road, climbing, peaks, seclusion and far-reaching views across this narrow stretch of land. And that's exactly what I got.
After jumping off the ferry in Yung Shue Wan, the first thing I did was ascend a set of stairs. Even over here I can't escape the famous Hong Kong steps. I made a loop around the north side of Lamma and found it was entirely paved, which had me wondering if this was going to set the tone for the rest of the day. I severely hoped not. There were a couple of decent lookout points, but as the sun was still rising most of the scenery was poorly lit. This section was fairly underwhelming.
As I left the northern coast I spotted a narrow trail off to my left. My map indicated this path circled around a peak called Pak Kok Shan and ventured out towards the coast. I couldn't resist checking out a dirt trail. The single track was easy to walk along, with a few minor ups and downs to keep it interesting. It would be perfect for trail running. The views along the water were fantastic, with the sun rising over Hong Kong Island and the east coast of Lamma. Intersecting paths gave me the choice of dozens of routes, which I ended up choosing at random. I presumed I would return to the main road at some point, but instead I found myself continuing south along the trail, savouring the solitude and taking in the unspoiled surroundings.
Lamma Winds to Tin Hau Temple
I must have missed a turn off, because the trail narrowed into dense scrubland with no obvious way forward. I could see a road down below, so I pushed my way through the bushes, jumped a fence and landed on the firm bitumen. Looking directly up I was greeted by the giant blades of Lamma's single wind turbine, known as Lamma Winds. The base was only metres away, along with several information signs, but I wasn't in the mood for a science lesson. Instead I hopped straight onto another dirt track, which was named Snake Trail on my phone. I seriously hoped that wasn't a sign of things to come.
Snake Trail was excellent, a trail runner's dream (if only I was running). I made a few detours - I climbed to the top of a small peak for views over both sides of the island; I ventured down steep stairs to a town on the coast, hoping to take photos along the water (it didn't happen); and I paused briefly at one of the caves built by the occupying Japanese forces during World War II (there are several scattered over the island). I would have missed it entirely if my phone hadn't told me it was there. The entrance was as tall as me, and when I peered inside the end wasn’t in sight. I was a little tempted to explore it further, but without a torch I thought I would take the sensible option and move on.
Snake Trail finished at a concrete path that led to Luk Chau Village. Only a handful of buildings were erected here, and they all looked dilapidated - smashed windows, crumbling walls, no sign of civilisation except for a couple of locals on the water. I skipped right through the village and made my way towards Tin Hau Temple, one of several temples on Lamma with the same name (Tin Hau is the Chinese goddess of the sea). This one was the least well known and visited, which was as good a reason as any to check it out.
There was only one thing in my way: dogs. Big, snarling dogs, who took one look at me and decided they didn't like me. I clapped loudly and made random noises with my mouth, which had the desired effect of forcing the dogs backwards but they didn't give up the growling. This lasted for several minutes, until I had almost reached the temple. Which was where I ran into dozens of dogs, coming at me from every direction and all joining in the barking medley. I halted immediately, sizing up my options: persevere or retreat. To my relief, a local man appeared out of nowhere and took charge of the situation. With one whistle the dogs were running towards a house on the water, obediently flowing through the gate to be detained behind a fence. As I cautiously passed by I glanced into the property. My guess was that there were at least 50 dogs living there, all looking healthy and well cared for but obviously not fans of strangers. The yelping didn't cease - it persisted for about five minutes after I had left, the howls carrying through the trees. I did make it to the temple. I'm not sure it was worth it.
Tin Hau Temple to Sok Kwu Wan
I left the temple in a different direction to avoid the wrath of the dogs. In doing so I inadvertently cut through someone's backyard, but the lovely couple didn't seem to mind and gladly gave me directions back to the main path. I wandered through the ghost town of Luk Chau again then looked for a turn-off to a nearby trail. I found the turn-off - entirely blocked by a gate with a YMCA sign on it. I searched the area but there was no way through. Walking along their fence I arrived at a lookout over the beautiful forest I had planned to hike through, complete with a small lake in the centre, but it was all private property. Disappointed, I returned to the concrete path that would lead me all the way to the island's second largest town, Sok Kwu Wan. This route was part of the Lamma Island Family Walk, and was much busier than the almost empty dirt tracks I had been hiking along. But the frequent views over the fishing village, as well as the vibrant blue Picnic Bay, more than made up for this interruption to my idyllic adventure.
As I reached the coast I passed another Japanese cave called the Kamikaze Cave, a popular tourist attraction on Lamma. It was a great deal larger than the first and presently functioned as a rubbish dump. The Japanese had the cave built to hide speedboats rigged with explosives, to attack any advances by the Allies. The history was interesting; the cave was not.
Sok Kwu Wan consisted of one strip of seafood restaurants lined up along the bay, overlooking a vast number of fish farms in the water. I guess noon on a weekday wasn't the most popular time to be here, as only a handful of people were sitting at the tables. The sight of freshly caught or soon-to-be-slaughtered seafood has never sat well with me, so I hurried through the town to continue my trek on the other side.
The definition of technical
Leaving Sok Kwu Wan behind I followed a boring asphalt path looking over at Hong Kong Island. My aim was to reach Mo Tat Wan village then continue along a trail marked on my map. I found the village, then soon after saw the turn-off onto the trail. This is where the fun ended. The trail started out innocent enough, but soon became so evil that I almost swore off ever hiking again. My phone said I was on a trail. The ribbons in the trees said I was on a trail. But I didn’t feel like I was on a trail. The further I went the more dense the forest became, until I had to physically push the foliage out of my way to see where my next step was going to be. I ended up bent over double due to the low hanging branches, and I couldn't see my feet beneath the thick vegetation. Every step had me tripping over unseen, vine-like roots. I came out unexpectedly at a viewpoint, where I relished in the freedom to stand up straight for a few seconds. Reluctantly, I continued along the trail, hoping for further views at the top of the hill or a stunning coastline panorama, but neither of these appeared. Instead all I saw was the barrage of greenery that was whacking me in the face, and I was over it. Giving up, I trudged back the way I came, counting down the steps until I was free. I almost kissed the concrete when it appeared in front of me. Never underestimate the ability to stand upright while walking. My legs and arms were covered in scratches, I had collected half a tree in my hair, and numerous threads had been pulled from my shirt - this definitely was not a running-friendly trail.
Ling Kok Shan
The glorious paved path led me through the tiny village of Mo Tat before I veered off up a set of stairs. I was heading for Ling Kok Shan, a 250m peak that I hoped would more offer more rewards than what I had just scrambled through. I wasn’t prepared for all the stairs though. Hundreds of unrelenting steps climbed straight up the mountain. But I didn't mind - I could move faster than a snail's pace, the weather was perfect and the views in all directions took my mind off the burn. Although it wasn't a trail, it was a definite highlight of the day so far (except the bit where I tripped up a step and fell face first onto the concrete - that wasn't so great).
The southern beaches
I quickly descended Ling Kok Shan, then turned off towards Shek Pai Wan Bay to check out the beaches further away from the main towns. Passing through another almost-abandoned town (Tung O) I was confronted with my second dog encounter. This one was by himself, but he wasn't afraid of me. He came sprinting out of nowhere to greet me, teeth bared, yapping angrily. Luckily for me there was one family still living here, who quickly brought the mutt under control.
Reaching the water I was almost presented with a blissful, picturesque beach; the only downside was the rubbish that had washed up on the shore. The water was perfectly blue, the sand golden, and it was practically deserted. Had it been summer and a little cleaner, I would have happily stayed here for the rest of the day.
Instead I moved on, back past the angry dog (who had thankfully found something else to do) and along a quiet path over to the most southern beach on Lamma. Sham Wan Beach is closed to the public for five months of the year when it turns into a nesting site for green turtles (giving it the nickname Turtle Beach). Nesting season was well and truly over for the year, so I was free to wander around as I pleased. Which was fortunate for me, because this beach was heaven. It was far cleaner than Shek Pai Wan Beach and even more isolated - I felt like I was on an uninhabited island all by myself. I stayed here for some time, soaking up the fresh air and idyllic scenery. I wandered back and forth along the sand, searching for at least one of two paths marked on my map that could lead me through the southern reaches of the island. I found neither, but looking at the wild forest surrounding me I didn't mind not going through a repeat of earlier. I was happy enough that I had found this place, making the whole trek worthwhile.
My next mission was to reach the top of Mt Stenhouse, the tallest peak on Lamma. Given that the map showed several paths leading to the summit, I presumed this would be an easy task. Which of course meant that it wasn't. The first trail from Turtle Beach was non-existent, so I hunted for an alternative route just north of the beach. All I found was a wall of thick foliage, with no discernible path through. With no other choice I backtracked along the concrete path all the way to the bottom of Ling Kok Shan to attempt the trek. The intersection I wanted was clearly visible and started me off in the right direction, however it wasn't long before the pavement finished and the trail started. At first it was easy going - I could stand upright, I could see the coloured ribbons guiding the way, and there were no roots to trip over. The further I progressed though, the more wild the trail became. Soon I was scaling up sandy embankments using all four limbs, making me grateful that it wasn't raining and that I wasn't going in the opposite direction (I'm not sure how I would have made it down the cliff-like drops). I was continually attacked by overgrown trees and shrubs, leaving bloody scratch marks up and down my limbs. It was tough going and seemed to last an eternity, but it was a million times more enjoyable than earlier today. The saving grace was the scenery - every few minutes I would stop hauling myself up the mountain long enough to turn around and take in emerging views over the island. It was breathtaking.
After a couple of wrong turns and map checks I was ecstatic to reach the summit. I absorbed everything I could see around me, and relished in the sense of achievement I felt for persevering through the struggle. The feelings of awe and pride didn't last long though. The sun was beginning its descent, which meant I needed to as well. I was many kilometres from my starting point, my water was running low and I didn't have a head torch. The plan was to head back to Yung Shue Wan via a more direct route, and I prayed that it wasn't as steep as the one I took to get here.
I have no idea how steep it was, because I never found it. Several times I thought I was on the correct path, but on each occasion it petered out until I was confronted with a curtain of forest that could only be penetrated with a machete. I reluctantly accepted that I would need to go the long way around, via the steep drop-offs, and I hoped I would at least make it back to the concrete path before nightfall hit. As a last resort I decided to follow a line of ribbons marking a narrow track, to see if it could work to my advantage. The route wasn't marked on my map, and becoming lost in a forest with no one around for miles was not on my to-do list. I tentatively walked on, hoping I wouldn't have to backtrack again. With the fading light (and my fading phone battery), I was praying that I wouldn't be stuck in the mountains without a torch. The ribbons kept me on track - not a well-defined one, but it was leading me towards my destination. Precipitous, technical descents had me slipping repeatedly, forcing me to use branches to control my speed. Miraculously, I made it to the initial trail I was trying to find, but the route didn't become any easier. These were some of my slowest kilometres of the day - I'm fairly certain a sloth could have moved faster than me. Fifty minutes after leaving the summit I was relieved to arrive at a paved path. The sun was still visible, I knew where I was, and I wasn't going to have to blindly navigate through a pitch black forest to reach the end.
The Western beaches
Only a couple of minutes after reaching the path I found myself at Lo So Shing Beach. Another beautiful swimming spot, but this one had people, amenities (including some much needed water) and a photo-worthy sunset. If time wasn't against me, I would have happily perched here for a while. Instead, I forced myself on, knowing I still had four kilometres to walk and I wanted to complete most of it before dark. I power walked up to Lo So Shing Village, then joined up with Family Walk that I had taken many hours earlier. Dozens of people were strolling along this trail, obviously not in any hurry like I was. Looking at them and then looking at me, it was clear who had been wrestling with nature today. The path offered frequent views over the west coast, which would have made for fantastic photos if the ugly power station hadn't featured so prominently in the pictures. I chose to focus on the sinking sun reflecting a pink beam across the water, as the surrounding landscape slowly turned to black. Almost half an hour later I arrived at Hung Shing Ye Beach, the most popular on the island due largely to its close proximity to the main town and ferry terminal. The sun was now gone but there was still light in the sky, allowing for a couple of quick snaps before I set off for the last leg of my journey.
Night had fallen by the time I reached Yung Shue Wan, where I had commenced my hike many hours earlier, and I was fortunate to have made it back without needing a head torch. There were more people here than I had collectively seen since I Fleft the town this morning, and I immediately missed the solitude. People were jumping off the ferry after a long day at work, or eating in one of the many casual restaurants, or picking up food to cook dinner at home. Outside my hiking bubble, life went on as normal. Down on the water I found the last remaining hints of a sunset, the orange glow in the sky creating silhouettes out of the foreground scenery. It was a beautiful end to a strenuous day, made even more perfect by the tub of sesame-flavoured vegan ice cream I bought in town. Then it was time to catch the ferry home, and give my legs a well-earned break.