Hiking in Hong Kong
Tap Mun (Grass Island)
Distance: 7.5 km
Time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Ascent: 330 m
Date: October 2022
Start: Ferry Pier, Tap Mun
End: Ferry Pier, Tap Mun
Explore this place if:
you want to escape city life for a while
you want to see cows (and cow poo)
Avoid this place if:
you're expecting never-ending grassy plains
you want a sandy beach to relax on
Tap Mun, a tiny island located in the north-east region of Hong Kong, has a population of roughly 100 people and dozens of cows. While it was formally home to a bustling fishing industry (as well as hideouts for pirates and smugglers), the few residents that remain now mostly run restaurants or stores for tourists. Everyone talks about the amazing scenery and grassy meadows (a rarity in Hong Kong), and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
I arrived at the ferry terminal at 8 a.m., expecting to leave at 8.30 a.m (as per the timetable). We left at 8.05 a.m. I guess there were several ferries and they leave once they're full. I was the last person to board this boat and it was standing room only. This didn’t worry me though, as I gazed around at views of Hong Kong that I rarely see.
75 minutes later we arrived at Tap Mun. My aim was to make an anti-clockwise tour of the island, so I turned right and headed south. Walking through first Yung Shu Village and then New Fisherman's Village (they seemed to blend into one to me), I passed dozens of restaurants and shops, all starting to set up for the day. The stench of dried seafood was nauseating, causing me to quicken my pace to escape the horrendous odour.
Tap Mun is also known as Grass Island, so I presumed I would see grassy plains everywhere. It was nothing like that. The first patch of grass I came across was a cemetery, with only a handful of ancient graves. Otherwise it was just buildings, concrete walkways and the sea.
The path was easy to follow, with only the occasional set of stairs thrown in for variety. The shores beside me were all lined with large rocks, some of which had been utilised to make a seaside swimming pool. Across the water was the Sai Kung peninsula, with the iconic Sharp Peak clearly identifiable in the background.
Coming up the east side after rounding the southern tip, the first main sight for the day was Balanced Rock. It was easy to spot in the distance, even without knowing what it looked like beforehand. It wasn't the most interesting rock going around (just one rock sitting on another rock), but the rugged coastal scenery more than made up for this.
Along this stretch I came across a few grassy fields, but not enough to name an entire island after. It would have made more sense to call it Tree Island, Rock Island, or even Cow Poo Island. The large patties were everywhere, requiring me to carefully watch where I placed my feet at all times. By this stage I hadn't seen a single cow, but the evidence clearly told me they were around here somewhere.
Following a sign to Pebble Beach, I descended down a set of stairs that took me out to the water. At the end was a beach without a single grain of sand, and I would argue zero pebbles as well (unless I was looking at the world's largest pebbles). Like Tap Mun, I think Pebble Beach was a bit of a misnomer. Apart from a load of rubbish, the beach was completely empty.
Back at the top I found the large grassy area that's featured in all the advertising photos for the island. I don't think I saw it at its best, as there were large patches of dry, bare ground interspersed with the grass. It also wasn't as big as I was expecting. The best part was a pavilion at the top, allowing me to cool off momentarily in the shade. With a forecast top of 33°C, it was going to be another sweat fest.
After passing a helipad that doubled as a soccer field and several tents set up overlooking the water, I ascended a long staircase up to Dragon View Pavilion. There was no view, nothing to see. I have no idea why this one pavilion, out of many on the island, was named, but it was unworthy of the title.
Passing by the pavilion I hit a dirt path, which finally put my hiking shoes to use. Not long later I turned into a side trail that would carry me down to the coast. The path changed continuously: first it was completely overgrown, then I emerged at a clearing before finding myself in a beautiful forest, filled with trees with thin, twisting trunks. Given the number of spiderwebs I passed through, I doubt many had been this way today. The final stage involved a near vertical drop down to the water, where thankfully a series of ropes had been installed (I’m not sure I would have made it without them).
Once I eventually arrived at sea level, I was presented with yet another uninspiring rocky beach. My map said if I walked around to the right, I would reach Lung Keng Kan. I had no idea what that was, but as I had come all this way, I was going to find out. After climbing over a series of large boulders I found a jagged rock formation, which allowed water to rush down an inlet on either side of it and crash onto the rocks in front of me. I found myself captivated, waiting for the strongest waves to create the highest splash.
Making good use of the ropes to haul me back up the hill, I returned to the main path and continued on. Not long later I turned down another minor trail that was heading towards the same stretch of coast I had just come from but slightly further north. This time the path was wide and easy to follow, with no ropes required.
Just before I hit the water I spotted my first herd of cows. There were only half a dozen and could not possibly explain the amount of cow poo I had walked past today. They were happily munching on the grass and didn't pay me any attention as I walked through the middle of them.
The shore was filled with large, loose rocks, making it difficult to walk over without losing my balance. I ventured only far enough to take a photo of the view down the coast before carefully proceeding back towards solid ground.
My next destination was the highest point in the island, Mau Ping Shan. At the turn off to begin the climb, I passed a sign telling me the route was dangerous and should not be undertaken. In general, I don't pay attention to many of the signs I see when hiking in Hong Kong, and today was no exception.
I have no idea why the sign was there. The route was straightforward, there was no precarious climbing involved, and I didn't find myself fighting with the vegetation. While there were sections that required me to clamber up large rocks, it wasn't as difficult as other segments I had tackled today. The only challenge for me was finding the correct path. Several times I went off course, causing me to backtrack until I found the right trail. My overall distance today would have been about 7 km if I had bothered to read the map a little more often.
The peak, at a measly 125 m high, barely offered a view. I was the only one there. I guess everyone else either obeyed the sign or knew not to bother. I backtracked the way I came until I reached the ‘safe’ section of trail, then followed the sign towards the ferry and the main village.
Before reaching the village I passed a school that had been abandoned since 2003, when there was only one student remaining. There wasn't much to see due to the tall fence and even taller trees. Given the gradual decline in the population here, I can’t see it being reopened anytime soon. Nearby was the 400-year-old Tin Hau Temple, where people still worshipped the goddess of the sea. It wasn’t the best Tin Hau Temple I have seen (there are about 100 in Hong Kong), although the wall of scaffolding across the front entrance probably didn’t help.
Back in the village, it was immediately clear that I had returned to civilisation. Hundreds of people filled the seafood restaurants, and the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong started to return to my ears (on a positive note, at least there were no motorised vehicles on the island). I rapidly passed through here to arrive back at the ferry pier, ready to undertake the long journey home.
Overall, Tap Mun wasn't my favourite island in Hong Kong. I didn’t see anything that would draw me back again, and the 5-hour return travel time for a 2 hour 20 minute hike didn’t exactly feel worth the effort. But now I can tick it off the bucket list and make plans for my next adventure.