Hiking in Hong Kong
Tai Lam Country Park
Distance: 30 km
Time: 7 hours 50 minutes
Ascent: 1130 m
Date: July 2018
Start: Tuen Mun Trail, Tuen Mun
End: Castle Peak Rd, Siu Lam
Do this hike if:
you want to get off the main trails
precipitous, slippery paths don't scare you off
you're after impressive views from numerous vantage points
Avoid this hike if:
humidity is at an all time high
you rely on frequent route markers or information boards
using your hands to climb mountains is not your thing
The Tai Lam Country Park extends over a large stretch of the New Territories and I've explored several marked trails in this area. Yet there is a huge section out west that has plenty of unmarked trails that I hadn't touched. With a bit of research I formulated a gigantic M-shaped pattern across the park, aiming to cover as much as possible. I had no idea what state the trails would be in, or if they even still existed, but that was all part of the adventure.
My starting point was the very end of the MacLehose Trail, at marker M200. It turned out this was also the start of the Tuen Mun Trail, which I had never heard of but apparently hundreds of the locals had. There was only one way to go from here: up. Concrete paths and steps kept me climbing and climbing for 500 metres, before the rain came across and forced me to shelter under the little roof of a signboard. Ten minutes later I was back on track, leaving the MacLehose behind and continuing the relentless ascent along the Tuen Mun Trail.
The views across Tuen Mun were pretty amazing along this stretch, with Castle Peak in the background staring down over the city. Eventually the path started to head downhill, taking me through a ramshackle garden area that seemed to have more porcelain Chinese statues than plants. I have no idea what its purpose was. I turned off here, walking up hundreds, if not thousands, of steps to more lookouts over Tuen Mun. I could swear the humidity was at 100% - I have never sweated so much in my life.
The neatly built stone path carried me north along a ridgeline, away from the crowds, with frequent lookouts on either side. Rain had made the walkway extremely slippery, so it was fairly slow going along here. The other locals out for a mid-week hike didn't seem to mind (I would hate to see how busy it was on the weekend). All of a sudden the stones stopped, and I was given about five steps of dirt trail until I was dropped off on an unremarkable road. This junction was the last time I saw another person for the next seven hours.
The road took me all the way down to Lam Tei Reservoir, which didn’t have much going for it at the main wall. It was a beautiful jade colour, but the glare on the surface prevented this hue from coming through in the photos.
Alongside the reservoir was a dirt track, which followed the water as it turned into a narrow river. There was a thick wall of vegetation between me and the water, but every now and then a side path appeared that I could scramble down to reach the river. Small rock pools and cascades appeared, which I’m sure would have been popular swimming holes in other countries. Here, it was completely deserted.
Even when I couldn’t see the water I could hear it rushing over the rocks, a perfect soundtrack to my walk through the forest. I could also thunder though, making me uncertain as to how far along I would get through my journey before having to turn around. I pushed on quickly, hoping to at least make it up one mountain before the storm set in.
The trail ended with hundreds of stairs back up to a shelter, which would have been ideal if it had started raining. Here I found a sign pointing the way to the Tuen Mun Trail, leading back to where I had started. Instead I went in the opposite direction, towards the highest point of the day, Kau Keng Shan.
The peak lay way above me, and I knew it was going to be a tough slog. I started counting stairs as a way to distract myself. Sweat was still running off me in streams, and several times I stopped to catch my breath (where has my fitness gone?). One thousand exceptionally steep concrete steps later, I was standing on the top of the mountain.
From several vantage points I could see Tuen Mun, Castle Peak, the harbour, Lantau, Lam Tei Reservoir, Tai Lam Chung Reservoir, across the New Territories, Hong Kong Island (through the haze), and all the way over to the Chinese mainland. If the weather was better it would have been phenomenal, and I would have stayed here for ages. But I could also see the storm clouds coming across the water, telling me it was time to make my way down.
Leading down from the top were the well-formed stairs I had just climbed and a clear path leading south. My map told me to take another route leading east. After a quick search I found this route, by pushing aside plants and branches to locate the hidden track. It was never going to be easy, was it? It wasn't long before the path opened up and I was standing on another nearby rocky peak, providing the same views but for some reason necessitating that I take a hundred or so more photos.
The next few kilometres were some of the slowest I had hiked in Hong Kong, and several times my watch told me I was going at a 20+ minute pace. The hilly trail was lined with loose sand and gravel, making for perilous hiking conditions. My surroundings consisted of either foliage so dense I could barely see the trail in front of me, or exposed slippery inclines and declines that were so sharp I occasionally needed to use my hands to get up and down. There was close to zero flat sections. I was jumping, sliding, tiptoeing – I tried everything just to stay on my feet. I only fell once, resulting in nothing more than a cut hand. I was extremely glad it wasn’t raining at this point.
I travelled up and down numerous hills, each containing an unnamed peak with awe-inspiring lookouts that slowly varied as I made my way north through the Country Park. (Stopping each time to take photos probably added to my snail’s pace.) I was appreciative of the colourful ribbons someone had placed throughout the area, although the many side tracks that appeared still required frequent checking of my map. As I hadn’t seen any other hikers at all along these trails, I knew I would be in trouble if I became lost (or injured).
The peak I was aiming for, Kung Um Shan, was one of the lowest on my trek, and oddly I had to walk downhill to get to it. There was a sprawling view across the cities and towns below (Tin Shui Wan and Yuen Long), as well as across the water towards Shenzhen in mainland China. I’m not sure why this hill was named yet all the others I had traversed over weren’t, but it was a commanding view.
It took me four hours to get to this point, only 12/13 km into my hike. I wondered if I was going to make my planned 30 km before nightfall.
Not long after summiting a light rain commenced, and I knew it was time to make it to lower ground. My map directed me to a series of obscured wooden steps, each only about 10 cm high. Hundreds of stairs zigzagged their way down the mountain, dropping me off next to a handful of large shacks/houses. They looked inhabited but I didn’t see anyone about. I spent a few minutes here, mostly because I couldn’t find the path out. All my attempts either led to a dead end or to someone’s front door. In the end I discovered I had to walk through an open-walled room of one of these shacks, past all the furniture and clothing that was spread about, to find the trail continuing on the other side. There were no helpful ribbons in this section.
As soon as I emerged from the house a large dog started growling at me. I turned to face the danger and immediately saw that he was blind. I knew it didn’t stop him hearing or smelling me, so I turned and hurried off down the road.
It didn't take long to come to another point where I would have been lost without my phone. The map clearly showed a path going off to my right, yet all I could see was a large boulder lining the road I was walking down. A few steps back and forth revealed no obvious trail, so I looked skyward. On top of this boulder I could just make out a track heading into the forest, and with closer inspection I could see faint grooves chiseled into the rock. I don’t know how this route made it onto my app. I climbed up the boulder “steps” and came out at an overgrown path that I’m sure very few people ever used. The next 10 minutes were spent bashing my way through trees and up sandy inclines, using my arms to drag my body up the vertical slopes. It's not often my upper body gets a workout. Fortunately the rain had stopped at this point, otherwise I'm not sure how I would have made it up the hill.
Suddenly the thick vegetation stopped and a road appeared. This was not what I had planned. Checking my map it said the road would take me all the way to Wong Nai Tun Reservoir, 2.5 km away. When formulating this route I obviously hadn’t looked closely enough at the line markings on the map, as it was clearly labelled as a road. With no other direct route to the dam, I cut my losses and started walking along the bitumen.
The road followed the side of a mountain, with a catchwater drain on one side and far-reaching views over Tai Tong and the northern New Territories on the other. I guessed this was a service road, as I only saw one other vehicle for the entire 30 minutes I was on it.
The reservoir was small but again contained the same stunning jade green water as the first dam. I crossed over to the other side and made my way down the eastern edge, only occasionally gaining glimpses of the water through the trees. The road continued further south and eventually met up with the MacLehose Trail, and for the first time since I commenced this morning I had route markers to follow.
I had seen a hiker tracking service advertised online, where hikers can SMS a unique code on each 500 metre distance post to a free number. This keeps a log of where you have been and at what time, in case anything happens to you. It’s a great idea, but only works on marked trails, which I had not been on all day. Now that I was on the well-marked MacLehose I wanted to give it a go, so I keyed in the code and pressed send. Almost immediately a text came back: “Message received. Have a safe hike!” Cheers!.
On several of my past hikes I had met up with the MacLehose Trail, and each time it was a road section. This did not make me excited about trekking the 100 km route one day. But here the MacLehose was perfectly unpaved, starting out covered in fine gravel but then turning into the dense, green, wet forest I was used to in this section of the Country Park. For such a popular trail I was surprised I didn’t see anyone else hiking out here. I was also surprised when I passed a tiny Chinese makeshift temple in the middle of the forest that had a giant bronze horse statue out the front. It was adorned with numerous signs, none of which explained what the horse was doing here.
The trail didn’t last long, turning into road again near Tai Lam Chung Reservoir. I had traversed this section before, and knew the Tai Lam Nature Trail broke off from the road to walk through the much more picturesque forest. A quick, spiderweb-filled jaunt through here brought me back out to the road and to the dam.
I had hiked several trails in this area but wanted to take a different route back to the main road, so I investigated the mountain bike path that started here and closely followed the water’s edge all the way to the bottom. After my last efforts at cutting through on a MTB track I wasn’t keen to attempt another, but the sign at the beginning of the trail clearly stated that pedestrians were welcome here. I decided to take the chance, especially as the weather was terrible and I presumed no one would be out riding their bike today (a presumption I made last time that turned out to be incorrect).
The sandy path initially led me through a cool bamboo archway, before opening up to tall shrubs on either side. The path was mainly flat, wet and muddy in parts, and only occasionally did a short section of forest or a set of stairs appear. The water views were sporadic, and there was little inspiration to get me through this 8 km section. It was a loooong grind, and I found myself daydreaming about all the food I was going to eat once I got home. If I ever got home.
A note about the SMS service: it did not work on the MTB tracks. These trails had the same distance posts with the same information on them, but typing in the specific code only resulted in an error message in response. I guess cyclists aren’t going to be stopping to type an SMS, but if hikers are allowed along here, shouldn’t the code work for them?
Right near the end I passed a solo cyclist, the first person I had seen since the 2.5 km mark of my hike. All these mountains and trails around and no one is using them. I don’t understand.
I reached the end of the MTB track and took the stairs/road out to Castle Peak Rd. Almost eight hours up and down countless hills, litres of sweat lost, my legs aching, and somehow avoiding the storms. It’s a fantastic feeling, like finishing a race I had trained hard for (although I really hadn't trained for this). I always tell myself that I will never do a route like that again, but within a couple of hours I will be planning the next trek. I truly appreciate having the trails here in my backyard, and being able to do explore the mountains any time I want. Hong Kong really is an amazing place.