Hiking in Hong Kong
MacLehose Trail (5-10)
Distance: 50 km
Time: 11 hours 43 minutes
Ascent: 2211 m
Date: July 2018
Start: Sha tin Pass Road (M101)
End: Tuen Mun (M200)
Do this hike if:
stair climbing is your favourite pastime
you're after big ascents and descents
Avoid this hike if:
long climbs are your worse nightmare
fighting a monkey isn't on your to-do list
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 3-4 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.
If you haven't read day one's adventures (sections 1-4), click here to check it out.
Note time taken includes stopping for no less than 850 photos across the two days. I could have hiked this much faster.
Section 5 (minus a bit): Sha Tin Pass Rd to Tai Po Rd
Summary: city views and angry monkeys.
With only four hours of sleep I was not feeling especially energetic this morning. I caught a taxi back up the hill to where I finished yesterday, about 3.5 km of the way into section five. Once again I soaked up the views of the city, this time admiring them in the early morning light. The monkeys swinging through the trees on the side of the road also seemed to be enjoying the scenes below.
It took all of one minute before I was off the road and climbing up stairs. I needed more of a warm up than that, my legs still stiff from yesterday's efforts. Is this what it felt like to do a stage race, getting up day after day to push your tired body into achieving more than you think it's capable of? I don't know how they do it - my legs felt like lead. Over the first kilometre I had gained an agonising 120 metres in elevation (plus descended 20 metres) and I wondered if this was going to set the tone for the day.
Not long into the walk I passed a turn off that pointed to Lion Rock. It was right there, waiting to be explored, and I didn't know if I would ever be out this way again. I knew it would involve more climbing but my map said it was only 300 metres to the lookout point, so how hard could it be? Extremely, it turned out. It was 300 metres of the steepest stairs I had come across so far, giving me another 90 metres of elevation. The sun was barely up and already buckets of sweat were pouring off me. Why would I choose to do this when it wasn't part of the MacLehose Trail? Well at least the view was decent, although not much different to what I saw from the road. I caught my breath, took a few photos and bounded back down the stairs to continue along the trail.
At least the path flattened out after this, gently undulating through the forest. Every now and then I would come to a clearing, with groups of local men and women exercising or practising tai chi. I thought it was great that they were out there being active, but what annoyed me was the loud traditional Chinese music they had playing from their various devices, the noise carrying through the otherwise quiet forest. I was grateful when I was eventually out of earshot, back to the serenity I was after.
Beacon Hill provided yet another lookout, before a long decent brought me to a flat nature trail. The path was shady and beautiful, and several other hikers and runners were out enjoying the morning. I was daydreaming (as usual) at one point when I sensed movement up ahead. I glanced up and saw a huge troop of macaques, both on the track and perched in the trees. Of course I stopped to take photos, being careful not to get too close in case they came searching for my food. They moved away as I approached, and I walked through with no difficulties. Just as I passed the last one I heard a loud scream. I turned around to see one monkey glaring at me, baring its teeth, only two metres away. Instinctively I started shouting back, hoping I would scare it away. This just made it scream more. I cautiously walked backwards, not wanting to turn my back on it. When I felt I had enough space between me and the macaque I turned and power-walked my way out of there, praying it wouldn't follow or attack me. I don't think I've ever made a monkey angry before.
A minute later I passed a sign that said what to do if you see a monkey. Two of the points were, "Do not make loud noises" and "Do not stare at monkeys". Good work by me.
Distance: 8.2 km Time: 2:13 hours Ascent: 410 m Descent: 543 m
Section 6: Tai Po Road to Shing Mun
Section six started on a road down to Kowloon Reservoir, which was nothing special. From the bottom I followed the long, hot, unshaded road all the way up the hill, where all I saw was the asphalt in front of me. I could hear monkeys in the trees beside me, and I frequently glanced around to make sure none were within striking range.
At the top I started to go downhill before turning off onto a trail through a dry forest, very different from the nature walk I was just on. It was sort of reminiscent of Australia, which was the only redeeming feature of this section. There were plenty of stairs but none too strenuous, a few wartime tunnel entrances (oddly named after London streets), plus a little bit of wildlife to keep me entertained. I saw another snake, this one the tiniest I had ever seen. At no more than 20 cm long and as thin as a pencil, it didn't raise my heart rate anywhere near as much as yesterday's beast. I did get a slight scare when I heard a rustle through the trees, then saw a pig shoot out of the forest and cross over the stairs in front of me. It happened so fast I barely had time to react. A few steps later there was more rustling, but nothing appeared. Once I reached the bottom another pig slowly made his way across the path behind me and ventured off down the side of the mountain.
A long set of stairs delivered me to Shing Mun Reservoir, marking the end of underwhelming section six. Here I found the only vending machines on today's leg, which also didn't supply water (doesn't anyone want cold water here?). I stocked up my liquids and continued on, hoping the next segment would be more inspiring than the last hour.
Distance: 4.1 km Time: 58 minutes Ascent: 197 m Descent: 151 m
Section 7: Shing Mun to Lead Mine Pass
Summary: bloody hell.
A short walk along the reservoir took me to the bottom of a set of stairs. I was not prepared for what was to come. Thousands, if not millions, of stairs, heading straight up Needle Hill. It was torture. There was no shade, no relief, no respite. It was nearing midday and it felt about 100°C. I have never sweat so much in my life (I know I say that a lot, but this time it's true). It could have rained and I wouldn't have been any wetter. It made Lion Rock look like a walk in the park. I continuously questioned why I chose to undertake this trek.
After what seemed like hours I made the summit and was met with a 360 degree panorama of the New Territories. The reservoir below, towns/cities in the distance and mountains all around. The heat left a haze over the land, disturbing the clarity of the scenery. It was an incredible feeling, standing on the narrow peak, trying to appreciate what I had just undertaken. I was elated to reach the top but too hot and exhausted to take it all in. The other hikers up there with me didn't look half as shattered as I felt.
Once I had regained some composure I made my way down the steep staircase on the other side of the hill, ending in an empty road (I didn't see a single car the whole time I was on it). The road climbed steadily, the sun doing its best to slowly kill me. Eventually the road led into a forest, where the shade provided immediate relief. The difference was like day and night, and I could instantly feel my body temperature decreasing.
The forest disappeared but the uphill didn't as I made my way up Grassy Hill, which lived up to its name. Just before the top the route turned off to a set of stairs heading down the mountain. On either side were grass fields dotted with rocks, and straight ahead were towering mountains. It transported me back to the Alps or the Himalayas, a far cry from the comparatively small hills of East Asia where I actually was. The lengthy descent ended at a picnic site, and gave me a much needed break before tackling the next equally torturous section.
Distance: 7.1 km Time: 1:55 hours Ascent: 627 m Descent: 428 m
Section 8: Lead Mine Pass to Route Twisk
Summary: my favourite part of day two.
Guess what this section started out with? Stairs! Stairs for eternity, pretty much ensuring that I would be dreaming about stairs for the next week. By this point the steps had become routine and I just put my head down and got on with the job. At least they started out in the forest, the trees protecting me from the intense sunlight.
After an indeterminate amount of time (but close to eternity) I exited the forest and was met with another grassy hill full of boulders. This didn't mean the climbing stopped, it just meant the route was not as well defined. Hands were definitely used here, and the sharp ascent made for laborious work.
Eventually the path levelled out, with gentle slopes and less rocks to climb. Once again I was transported to European mountain ranges, and I immediately fell in love with the surroundings. This segment lasted a while but I could have walked through it all day. There were far-reaching views out to the city and water beyond, but the heat of the day caused the scenery to become blurred. It didn't worry me - I was enjoying what was in front of me rather than what was way down below.
The trail ended in a road, marked by a dozen or so cows and bulls, two of who were locking horns. As long as they were fighting each other and not me, I didn't mind. I took a wide berth around the herd but they didn't seem too fussed by my presence.
To say the road was steep was an understatement. There were no stairs here but there was a never-ending sweaty climb that once again made it look like I had just stepped out of a shower. Much of the road was over 20% incline, but knowing that this was the final big climb of the day had me powering up the hill.
In my mind Tai Mo Shan, the tallest peak in Hong Kong, was going to be the culmination of the entire trek, however the summit was underwhelming. Not that I actually made the summit - that's occupied by a weather station and some military installations, and is fenced off to the public. The road circumnavigating this area offered similarly indistinct views as the grassy hill, although now more of Hong Kong and Lantau islands were visible. If it had been clear day it would have been spectacular, but fuzzy cities and mountain ranges wasn't what I had in mind. There was no official "You have made it!" sign, no purpose-built lookout area, nothing noting the feat of reaching this point, just a road around some ugly buildings. Like I said, underwhelming.
I followed the road down the massive hill, each switchback providing slightly clearer views as my elevation decreased. Looking out I could a large proportion of Hong Kong in my field of vision, reminding me just how small this region is. It feels huge when walking or driving through the city, but up here I could see that it was only a tiny blip on the world map. Don't get me wrong, the outlook was fantastic, just not as awe-inspiring as I had hoped. Maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe I was comparing it all the stunning scenery I had already witnessed on this trek. On reflection I probably judged it too harshly, and I planned to return one day when the thermal readings weren't off the chart to see how the views compared.
Once I was well and truly baked in the sun while walking down the long road, I was sent onto a trail for the last couple of kilometres. The short ascents were surprising and unwanted, my legs having had enough of climbing for one day (or two days). There was one thing that got my legs into gear though: a snake. My fourth snake on the MacLehose and it was another biggie. Not quite as long or thick as yesterday's, but its size had my heart pounding. It was lying alongside the stone path, enjoying the afternoon sun, and didn't flinch as I came along. It probably knew I was there though, so I hopped off the path and walked through the dirt on the opposite side, determined to give it as much space as possible. It didn't react at all. I really should research if there are any deadly snakes in Hong Kong.
Distance: 9.3 km Time: 2:24 hours Ascent: 580 m Descent: 510 m
Section 9: Route Twisk to Tin Fu Tsai
Summary: skippable #2.
When an entire section is on a wide road and there isn't a view or noteworthy landmark in sight, you can guarantee I'm not going to be raving about it. It was entirely within the forest, which was admittedly lovely, but it became a bit same same after a while. The tall trees provided relief from the sun, and the light created mottled patterns as it filtered through the leaves.
It started with a few short, sharp inclines, followed by some gentle ups and downs, and ended with a long descent towards Tin Fu Tsai Campsite. The most exciting part was seeing a mumma pig out walking with her tiny piglet, but they ran as soon as they heard my footsteps. Other than the pigs, three cars and a bazillion mosquitoes, I have nothing else to report about section nine.
Distance: 6.5 km Time: 1:15 hours Ascent: 138 m Descent: 370 m
Section 10: Tin Fu Tsai to Tuen Mun
I have no idea where section nine finished and ten started, but it continued in the same fashion: road through the forest. A few kilometres later I hit the Tai Lam Chung Reservoir, a site I have visited more than anywhere else on my hiking adventures through Hong Kong. As I was familiar with the place I didn't linger, but instead continued along the road which was now taking me uphill (my legs weren't too happy about this). Finally, at last, after hours of paved surfaces, the road ended and I was on a trail again, for the final time on the MacLehose.
The trail started with stairs. Damn stairs. I hadn't climbed stairs since section 8 and I thought I might have seen the last of them. But no, here they were, torturing me again. The non-stair sections were fantastic, exposed and sandy/gravelly at first, but then delving into a beautiful dark green forest. It wasn't my first time through here, and I anticipated the small Chinese temple up ahead, in the middle of nowhere, with a giant sculpted horse out the front. I had Googled it the first time I saw it and came up empty, and my second encounter brought no further clues as to why it was here.
After a short two kilometres the trail finished, and I was on another road leading down to the bottom of the reservoir. There were one or two lookout points, but otherwise it was forgettable. At the end a short hill carried me up to a path running along a catchwater. It really wouldn't be a Hong Kong trail if there wasn't a catchwater segment. The sun was getting low in the sky, the heat was dissipating and I was ready to finish. But six kilometres of flat, deserted, concrete path was between me and the end point.
It was a tough slog, one that I swore took longer than any of the hills I had to climb. There was nothing to look at, other than the city of Tuen Mun as it came into view, and the colours of the sky changing to orange and pink as the sun slowly set. Dozens of exercise stations had been set up along the path, yet they were all empty. I had blisters on my toes, my brain was in autopilot, and the monotony was testing my patience. Incredibly my body still felt like it had loads of energy, but my mind was telling me it was time to stop. The end couldn't come soon enough.
The final descent was - guess what? - stairs! A long, zigzag staircase, taking me through a collection of ramshackle houses and buildings, until at last I hit street level, just as the final light was disappearing from the sky. Distance post M200. I made it! 100 km, two days, unimaginable sights and experiences, and all I could think about was food (not an uncommon thought for me). It was going to take some time to comprehend what I had just accomplished, and at that moment I was too spent to reflect on the experience. I was elated, I was proud and I had that wonderful exhausted feeling like I had just finished an ultramarathon (a feeling I had been missing for months now). But mostly I was hungry, and ready to celebrate the achievement with copious amounts of food.
Distance: 14.8 km Time: 2:58 hours Ascent: 259 m Descent: 455 m
Final Stats for the entire MacLehose trail
Distance: 102.5 km
Time: 24 hours 25 minutes
Ascent: 4841 m
Descent: 4795 m