Hiking in Hong Kong
Stone Dragon Waterfall
Distance: 14.25 km
Time: 4 hours 15 minutes
Ascent: 693 m
Date: June 2018
Start: Castle peak Rd, Tsuen Wan West
End: Allway Gardens, Tsuen Wan
Do this hike if:
you love rugged terrain on unmarked paths
orienteering is part of your skill set
you are keen on waterfalls
Avoid this hike if:
you prefer well-marked trails with little chance of becoming lost
you have a fear of birds or spiders
perseverance is not your middle name
My first day living in Hong Kong and nothing was going to stop me hitting the trails. I researched routes near where I was living (Castle Peak Road) using an app called Maps.me. There were dozens all within striking range; the only hard part was choosing which one to hit first.
My map told me there was a waterfall, Stone Dragon, only a 3.5 km walk away from home, so that sounded like as good a place as any to start. I set off along the road, admiring the harbour views, thinking I would make it to these falls in less than an hour. I couldn't have been more wrong.
My first turn should have been up a side street, but I missed the overpass to take me to the correct side of the road. Not too far up ahead was another overpass, so I crossed over there and only needed a couple of attempts to find the right street. Up, up, up this road went, past signs reading "Private. No vehicles allowed". Well, I wasn't a vehicle, so I continued on.
I made it up to a pedestrian-only paved street called the Catchwater Jogging Trail. There were two others here, walking, so I presumed I was allowed on this trail too. From here my map advised me to take a left turn into the forest running alongside the road. This turn didn't seem to exist. I couldn't see any way of getting off road, mainly because of the flowing water (the catchwater) separating me from my target. With not much choice I continued on, locating the next entrance and finally taking my first steps on a trail. I was actually doing it: hiking in Hong Kong.
The sign at the entrance to the trail wasn't encouraging: Warning - Dengue Fever. I didn't have insect repellent with me, my arms and legs were exposed and I was about to go walking through bushland. I feared my hiking endeavours in Hong Kong might be short lived. From then on I was constantly brushing myself down, making sure nothing was attacking me, and tried not to stand in one place for too long. Hiking vs. health: hiking wins.
From my location the map highlighted the route I should take the reach the falls, only slightly adding to the distance I had originally envisaged. The path wasn't entirely clear, but I followed what I thought was the most obvious route and persevered through the scrubland. Occasionally I turned around and admired the view over the harbour, in awe of the sheer number of buildings lining the water with green mountains jutting out from behind. I couldn't wait to explore it all.
My first steps on the trail.
Looking back at the view.
Trying to find my way.
After a while I decided to check my location on the map to see how far I had gone. It was not what I wanted to see. If anyone has read my Nepal adventures, you will know I am notorious for getting lost. It looked like Hong Kong would follow this pattern. From where I first entered the trail I could have gone right or left. with the latter being towards the falls. Both paths turned towards each other and met again several kilometres later, forming a diamond shape. I was in the dead centre of this diamond, where there wasn't supposed to be a trail. Orienteering at its finest.
I picked a direction that would get me on the correct trail the quickest, and went overland as much as I was able. Eventually I came out at what looked like a proper path, and headed off in the direction of the falls. This path didn't last long. I backtracked, found another trail that crossed over the one I was on, hoping for more success. It wasn't to be. It petered out into nothing too. This happened several times. Every time I thought I was on the right trail it either ended in a wall of vegetation or my phone let me know that I was wrong. I wondered how long I could do this for.
Checking my location again I still found I wasn't anywhere near a trail or my target. At this stage I decided to cut my losses and follow some sort of natural "trail" away from the falls and towards one of the main trekking routes nearby, the Yuen Tsuen Ancient Trail. I was heading in the right direction when I spotted ribbons hanging from branches. I quickly checked the map and was surprised to see that I was on a route that could lead me to the falls. Not the original one I was after but didn't matter, it was the same destination. Gleefully I followed these ribbons up and down the mountain, over boulders and under low branches. I had all but given up hope of seeing these falls, but now nothing could stop me.
I shouldn't have been so confident. The path stopped. The ribbons stopped. My phone couldn't help me. I couldn't see a way through. Once again, I turned around and walked back the way I came, now certain that I wouldn't be seeing any waterfalls today. Generally I would have been frustrated or upset under circumstances like this, except that I was loving every minute of being out in nature, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Just me, alone with my thoughts, admiring the beauty surrounding me. I would have preferred to have been running (an injury preventing me from doing so), but with the state of the trails and the steepness of the mountain I doubted whether I would have gained much speed anyway.
After only a couple of uncertain twists and turns I found the Ancient Trail and immediately spotted other hikers. Until this point I hadn't seen a single other person on the trail, which slightly added to my fear of being lost for eternity. The path was paved with large stones, which made me certain I couldn't become lost. There were also signs at every intersection, a feature that would have come in handy over the last hour or so. The view over the harbour towards the city was magnificent, and I could see why people had chosen to walk up this route.
It didn't take long for me to become bored of this stone path. I followed it away from the city, hoping it would turn into a trail eventually. A kilometre later I gave up on that and turned to my map to see what else was around. Immediately I saw that up ahead was a turn off onto yet another route that led to my original destination: the waterfall. Did I take the chance? You bet I did. Being lost on a dirt trail was way more fulfilling then walking along a groomed path, disconnected from the earth. So off the stones I stepped, in one final search for these elusive falls.
Lost, but the views aren't bad.
Apparently there's a trail in front of me.
The view from the Yuen Tsuen Ancient Trail.
Learning from my previous mistakes, I made sure to check my map often to see if I was on the right track. Within a minute, I wasn't. I had missed a turn-off, so I backed up and found the correct trail. I soon realised that there were coloured ribbons here as well, guiding me in the right direction. It appeared as though they had been there for a while though, as most were dirty and discoloured, making them difficult to see. But every time I needed them, there they were.
The path was heavily overgrown and at times I was pushing aside branches and plants with my hands and legs. The scratches up and down my body attest to the ruggedness of the terrain. I seriously wondered whether I was on the trail at all during these moments. But there were patches where the path cleared and I could see the way forward, as well as over the surrounding mountains, harbour and other islands. I could also see all the spiderwebs and spiders waiting for me - giant black and yellow ones, sitting right in the middle of their home, stretched out across the path. I'm guessing it had been a while since anyone had travelled down this path, given the number of webs and the intricacy of their patterns. I did my best to duck carefully underneath each, although I missed a few and walked straight into a silk wall. Each time I shook my head wildly and brushed my entire body, hoping a spider hadn't decided to jump ship onto me. I came out unscathed.
Amazingly this path was taking me closer and closer to the falls, and I actually thought that I might reach my goal. About 500 metres from the end I started to hear gurgling water, so I knew I must have been on the right track. The track eventually spat me out at the top of the waterfall, which was not where I had planned on ending up. I couldn't see a way of going straight down without killing myself, so I had to find another route. Then I spotted it: a ribbon told me the path continued on the other side of the river. I carefully crossed the rocks and persevered, the end almost within reach.
The trail up until this stage had been undulating up and down continuously, with almost no flat sections in sight. But from the top of the falls there was only one way to go: down. It was a steep descent, and I was glad it wasn't raining. At the bottom I turned a corner and directly in front of me was the Stone Dragon Waterfall, only a few metres from the end of the path. The sound of the water was deafening, and the height of the falls was much greater than I was expecting. Underneath the water was a small, clear pool, but there was no way I was jumping in. Instead I sat on a rock in the dark, dense forest, staring up at the top between the branches, in disbelief that I had finally made it.
My 3.5 km, "less than an hour" journey had taken me 10.5 km and three hours.
Now I had to make it back to civilisation. I climbed back up the steep hill and decided to push my luck by following a different trail back towards the Ancient Trail, one that I was searching for earlier. It was a shorter route and it started right at the top of the hill I had just hiked up. It turned out to be fairly simple to follow from this direction, with only one wrong turn and a period of uncertainty while scrambling up through a rocky field. Luckily the ribbons continued, ribbons I was sure I was tracking earlier when I continually lost the trail. The trail was beautiful, coursing through various types of vegetation, and the whole experience would have been serene if not for the planes flying low overhead every few minutes. The lack of a single other person on these unpaved trails, while slightly disconcerting, was also one of the reasons I was loving this trek.
Just before making it back to the Ancient Trail, the birds found me. Black birds. Cawing birds. Swooping birds. I guess I had walked too close to their nests and had unsettled them, as every few moments another bird would fly down from the tree top, swooping low enough for me to feel the air rush over my head. I did my best to speed through this section but given the state of the trail I wasn't setting any records. I made as much noise as I could, shouting and clapping my hands, to keep them as far away from me as possible. Maybe this was why no one else was on these trails.
Once I had passed the birds I discovered I was in an area where I had been lost a couple of hours ago. I had been on the right track! I knew my way from here and it was only a couple of minutes before I stepped foot again on the smooth surface of the Ancient Trail. This time I turned towards Tsuen Wan, heading down the steep hill on the paved path. Once more I found other walkers out enjoying this manicured walkway, I guess not adventurous (or stupid) enough to face the real trails that lay only metres away. The view of hundreds of skyscrapers met me at every turn, my jaw dropping each time at the enormity of the city.
Near the entrance to the trail I found a map of the area, with popular trails highlighted different colours. I struggled to find the route I took to the falls, before realising that my trail didn't have any colour. It was just a thin, dotted line, which according to the key meant, 'Unmaintained/impassable'. Maybe it was a good thing I hadn't seen this map at the start of the day, or I may never have reached the waterfall and had such a memorable journey. Although I was not in a hurry to do this particular hike again anytime soon, I think it will stay with me for a long time to come. Next time I hope to find a balance between an easy stroll on man-made footpaths and wild bush-bashing through the harsh Hong Kong countryside.
Back on the Ancient Trail
I picked a good one.