Hiking in Hong Kong
MacLehose Trail (1-4)
Distance: 52.5 km
Time: 12 hours 42 minutes
Ascent: 2630 m
Date: July 2018
Start: Pak Tam Chung (M000)
End: Sha tin Pass Road (M101)
Do this hike if:
you think the more technical, the better
you love forever changing scenery
Avoid this hike if:
you have an extreme fear of snakes
you are prone to sprained ankles
The MacLehose Trail, running 100 km across the New Territories, is one of the most famous and popular trails in Hong Kong. I had set my sights on it even before I arrived in this city, and had slowly worked my way up to it with a series of shorter hikes. Most people tackle the entire route over 4-5 days, but I aimed to finish it in two. I knew summer was probably not the best time of year to undertake this challenge, with heat and humidity at its highest and rain or storms likely, but the extended daylight hours would allow me to cover most of the trail while the sun was out. I waited for a break in the weather forecast with two consecutive non-rainy days, loaded up my pack with sweet potatoes and dates, and set out on this epic challenge.
Note time taken includes stopping for no less than 850 photos across the two days. I could have hiked this much faster.
Section 1: Pak Tam Chung to Long Ke
Summary: a long road with coastal views.
Starting a 100 km trail with a 9 km walk along a slightly undulating road was not particularly inspiring. The only saving grace was the views: High Island Reservoir on one side, the sea, studded with tiny islands, on the other. Rocky masses with green peaks jutted out from the water, disappearing into the clouds on the horizon. As I love any sort of coastal scenery, this outlook kept my spirits high during this section.
The grey clouds hovering overhead were ominous, and within 3 km it was pouring down. Thanks to the weather forecast for saying it would be clear and fine today. I can handle wet clothes. Wet hair? No problem. But wet shoes are the worst. They stay wet for hours and are a breeding ground for blisters. And it couldn't have happened at a more inconvenient time: at the start of the hike. The end would have been more preferable.
The rain came in bursts, heavy and light, for the next 30 minutes. Just when I thought it would stop, another downpour commenced. The only upside was that I was on a road, so I didn't have to navigate slippery slopes. At one point I ducked into a portaloo and hung out there for a while with a bunch of mosquitoes.
Towards the end the road turned into a stone staircase, taking me high above the reservoir that was now lined with crazy hexagonal rock columns. Crossing over the summit brought views over Long Ke Wan Beach, which of course sent my camera into overdrive. I was almost too busy staring at the scenery to see the huge cow blocking the entire path, and I pulled up a metre short of it. I still wasn't certain about the local wildlife here, but after a few clicks of the tongue and calls for it to move on it obeyed, and wandered off down the mountain.
Halfway down to the beach a sign announced that I was starting section two. This seemed like an odd place to start a new section, given there was nothing here and no road in sight, but from where I was standing it looked like I was going to enjoy the second installment.
Distance: 10 km Time: 1:57 hours Ascent: 212 m Descent: 113 m
Section 2: Long Ke to Pak Tam Au
Summary: hitting the beach and shitting my pants.
I presumed the path circled the beach but it took me right down onto the sand. I wasn't expecting to be at the water's edge, but at least it wasn't paved. Dozens of campers had set up here overnight, and many were hopping onto boats to head out for some sort of fun-filled adventure. I half wished I could join them.
The signs were a little confusing and I was off course slightly before my phone led me in the right direction. Then I was off the sand and onto the stairs. Thousands of stairs. Never-ending stairs. Every couple of minutes I would stop to take in the scenery behind or beside me, overlooking the beach, the bay and the reservoir. The latter was a brilliant turquoise colour now that the sun had started to show itself, and was almost as mesmerising as the coastal view. The climb was killing me but the scenes below made up for it. I couldn't believe I was still in Hong Kong.
The path undulated at the top, alternating between stone or concrete steps, mud (thanks rain), and rocks that were the perfect size for twisting ankles on. I could hear waves crashing below, which is possibly the best sound in the world. Eventually I headed down again on thousands more stairs, and ahead of me I could see the next lot that would take me up the adjoining mountain. It's a demoralising sight. At the bottom I crossed a road, passing people making their way to Sai Wan beach. Again, I wished I was going in their direction.
It turned out I should have. Up the stairs I headed, making it close to the peak where it flattened out. After a while I realised I hadn't seen any route markers or distance posts for some time, so I pulled out the phone. Yep, I was nowhere near where I was supposed to be. Not only was I on the wrong path, I had climbed up that last set of stairs for absolutely no reason. Instead of crossing the road at the bottom I should have turned towards the beach and followed the happy day-trippers. No mountain involved. I backtracked until I hit the right trail, realising I had missed a tiny picture icon on a directional sign (up until this point all signs had been words, not pictures). I cursed myself for adding a couple of extra kilometres (plus elevation) to my day, and wasted almost half an hour when I was already pushed for time.
Down to the beach, past a handful of shops and cafes, and onto a track that hugged the coastline. It was stunning. Leaving one beach behind I found another ahead of me, and the stairs led me down to the sand again. The sun was high in the sky now, clouds were parting and I was melting. It was tempting to stop for a swim, but that would have to wait for another day.
After the sandy path the terrain turned into flooded grasslands (thanks rain), with large stepping stones providing a dry passage across the ground. It led me to a forest, the first I had seen so far, and a welcome relief from the blazing sun. It was here that the pants-shitting event occurred.
Walking along the trail, lost in my own thoughts, I noticed a movement on the ground directly ahead of me. Less than a metre away, one or two steps at most, was a snake sliding off the path. I had come across a few snakes before but this one would have to be the biggest snake I had ever seen in the wild with my own eyes. At least two metres long and as thick as my calf, I had no idea it was there until it moved. I'm glad it sensed me coming otherwise I would have stood on it for sure, being perfectly camouflaged against the rock. My heart rate was through the roof. I stopped until it had disappeared from sight then cautiously made my way forward, my eyes peeled for any further snake encounters. That could have put an end to this expedition very quickly.
I was semi-grateful the trail ended soon after this, where I made my way through a tiny town and onto a paved path through a forest. Surely I would spot a snake much more easily on this wide path. At least I kept repeating that to myself. The route led me up and over a large hill, with the shade providing some relief from the sun. Plenty of other hikers were out on this path too, which I'm hopefully would have scared any snakes away.
I came out at the water, but there was no beach here. Instead there were the remains of a long-forgotten town, buildings abandoned and taken over by nature. Then it was another uphill segment to a road, where section 2 ended. I was relieved to find two vending machines here so I could stock up on liquids. Surprisingly neither sold water, and they were out of electrolyte drink. I settled on a sugary mango juice, which wasn't great but consuming the cold fluid was refreshing.
Two sections down, eight to go.
Distance: 16.2 km Time: 3:51 hours Ascent: 834 m Descent: 797 m
Section 3: Pak Tam Au to Kei Ling Ha
Summary: the definition of a technical trail.
Section three was described online as one of two "very difficult" sections. I thought the long climb at the start of section two was very difficult, so I was afraid of how much how much harder it would get. Again I started with stairs heading up a hill, these ones made of stone and fairly uneven. The trees stopped and the sun shone down, the sweat pouring off me in streams. I'm sure whoever designed this route found the most gruelling course possible.
The top was worth it. Although the water was further away now, the panorama of ocean views and green mountain ranges was vastly different to what I had witnessed so far today. I could have stayed there for hours (if there had been any shade), enjoying the solitude and the scenery. But many more kilometres were calling my name, and time was quickly disappearing.
I followed the trail down to a campsite (devoid of campers), then straight away headed uphill again. There seemed to be a pattern of up, flat, down, repeat, with frequent views to keep up my motivation. There were no easy parts, the rocks, roots and mud (thanks rain) preventing me from getting into a rhythm. One rocky uphill section I swore took hours to complete as I clambered over mini-boulders, my feet never finding a level surface. The sun was also doing its best to slow me down, and I wondered how much sweat a human could physically produce. I recorded my longest kilometre here, 25 minutes, although I was surprised that number wasn't higher. I didn't pass a single other person on this section, which wasn't surprising.
It ended how it started, with million of stone stairs, but this time they were going down, they were in the shade and there were no views. It terminated at a road, again with multiple vending machines that also didn't sell water. It did have electrolyte though, which I guzzled down with joy. I would have preferred an ice bath, but this was the next best thing. Once I had recovered somewhat I pressed on, the day's end within sight.
Distance: 9.2 km Time: 2:42 hours Ascent: 618 m Descent: 660 m
Section 4 (and a bit of 5): Kei Ling Ha to Sha tin Pass Road
Summary: mind-blowing views.
This was the second "very difficult" section of the MacLehose, and I wasn't looking forward to a repeat of section three. The hours were flying by and I knew I had little chance of reaching my finishing point before the sun going down. Few breaks were taken, and most of my meals and snacks were consumed on the move. I wanted to see as much as I could while there was still daylight.
A short trail took me up to a road, which rose and fell steadily for the next two kilometres. Then it was on to a dirt trail again, meandering through a flat forest briefly before the inevitable climbing commenced. Up, up, up I went, on an uneven path that started the rivers of perspiration all over again. More rocks, more roots, more mud (thanks rain). I continuously looked behind me in the hope of catching an amazing view, but they were few and far between.
After about 30-40 minutes of continuous ascent I made it to the top. What was waiting for me on the other side was nothing short of breathtaking. I was walking along a ridgeline (the best place to walk), with views out over Sai Kung and the water beyond on one side, the sun setting over the town of Ma On Shan on the other, and tall green peaks stretching out in front of me. I felt on top of the world, and walking along the top of the mountain range gave me a sense of freedom and empowerment in a way I can't describe. It was an incredible sight, and a perfect way to end the day.
Except that I wasn't at the end yet. I still had over 10 km to go and the sun was sinking fast. I hurried down the hill, the stairs making for an easy descent. At the bottom the trail was mostly undulating, allowing me to cover the distance quickly. Occasionally the forest opened up and I could steal quick glances out to the towns as I came down towards their level. I almost missed a great lookout, as the trail for some reason ran 50 metres parallel to it. Other people staring out into seemingly nothing altered me to its presence.
I passed several groups of people heading towards mountain, all carrying large packs on their back. I wondered if it was possible camp on the ridgeline, and if that's where these groups were heading. If it was, that would be awesome.
The forest was becoming increasingly dark, but not dark enough for me to notice an animal on the path ahead. From 20 metres away it looked like a calf or small cow, with no family in sight. As I continued walking towards it, it leapt away. Cows don't leap. It was a deer, quickly disappearing into the trees. I had no idea that deer even existed in Hong Kong.
Nighttime was falling, but I didn't feel I was missing much. More rocks, more mud, more stairs. At least this part was easier than the technical terrain of section three. Also the sun wasn't burning down on me anymore, although I don't think I had any more sweat to give anyway. Four kilometres before the end I had to pull out the head torch to light the way, which also lit up the frogs on the path. With every few steps another would hop out of the way, and I hoped that they could see me coming so I didn't step on one.
I came out at a short road section, marking the start of section five. This road was nowhere near anywhere, so I continued on to reach the next town. As I was walking along in the dark I noticed the trail starting to narrow, become more overgrown and strewn with litter. It looked like nothing I had seen so far on my hike. This could only mean one thing: I was off course again. I pulled out the phone and yep, I had missed a turn off about 400 metres back. I quickly retreated and wondered how I had gone wrong. When I reached the intersection I realised that I had stupidly taken a side path off the MacLehose, but in the darkness I hadn't even noticed that main trail curved around to the left. I could have done without the detour.
Just for fun the forest ended with several hundred more stairs going uphill before depositing me out onto a road. Here I was met with the most stunning sight: I was looking down over the lights of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island below me, which I had never seen at night before. Several others were also here enjoying the lookout point, but I'm sure none of them had covered 50 km that day. I followed the road down the mountain, every twist and turn providing another view of the bright skyscrapers. I arrived at distance post M101, my finishing point for day one. From here it was only another thousand or so steps down to the district of Wong Tai Sin, then a long walk downhill to the train station (because another 3 km walk is what my legs needed). I found a vegetarian restaurant still open, and ate the world's largest meal before finally catching the train home. I was tired, thirsty, exhausted, but I knew I had to get up tomorrow and do it all over again.
Distance: 17.1 km Time: 4:12 hours Ascent: 966 m Descent: 768 m