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