Hiking in Hong Kong
Wilson Trail (1-6)
Distance: 40.9 km
Time: 9 hours 29 minutes
Ascent: 2160 m
Date: September 2018
Start: Stanley Gap Road
End: Shing Mun Reservoir
Do this hike if:
you have an unnatural obsession with stairs
you want to see diving monkeys
Avoid this hike if:
you want to avoid an altercation with the macaques
catching a train midway ruins the serenity for you
The Wilson Trail runs from the south of Hong Kong Island all the way up to the north of the New Territories, a distance of officially 78 km (my watch said a little less). The trail runs through eight different country parks, each offering something unique to attract your attention. As one of Hong Kong's four long hiking trails, it was on my bucket list as soon as I arrived here. When a rain-free gap finally opened up in the weather forecast, I seized the opportunity to explore a side to Hong Kong I hadn't experienced yet.
Section 1: Stanley Gap Road to Wong Nai Chung Reservoir
Off the bus and onto the stairs. There was zero warm up time; it went vertical with the very first step on the trail, which started right at the bus stop. And that's all I saw for the first 20 minutes of the Wilson Trail. The stairs were concrete, so there was nothing technical to navigate, but my legs usually take a little while to get going so this was tough. Every now and then I would pause to take in the emerging views behind me, overlooking the town of Stanley and the sea beyond, with the sun rising above the surrounding mountains. Beautiful.
After an eternity I left the concrete behind and hit the dirt, which was where the adventure truly commenced. Uneven rocks, slippery surfaces, and plenty of mud meant I wasn't going anywhere in a hurry, but I loved it. Unfortunately they didn't stick around long, and I was back on the concrete steps before I knew it. The rest of this section alternated between paved and unpaved surfaces.
Section one is all about hills. First the Twins, which, as the name suggests, is a hill with two peaks. It was only slightly demoralising to push all the way to the top of the first Twin and bound down the stairs other side, knowing that I had to climb back up to reach the next Twin. Every hundredth step was numbered along this part, although I stopped looking at the numbers after 1200 so I have no idea what the final figure was. What was even more demoralising was heading down, down, down off the Twins and seeing all the steps going up, up, up the third peak, Violet Hill. The 300 metre gain in altitude just on this last summit was a decent way to get the legs burning.
The mountainous scenery along the way was breathtaking. In between the peaks rugged green hills surrounded me every way I looked, with no buildings or roads in sight. Tai Tam Reservoir shone silver in the early morning light. Grey clouds dissipated to reveal patch of blue sky, bringing with it the sun's warmth. Coming down off Violet Hill I spotted the skyscrapers of the city ahead of me, reminding me that civilisation wasn't all that far away. I could see why this section was raved about by other hikers.
Section one finished with a long descent off Violet Hill, along a partly paved, partly muddy trail. It was a fantastic start to the day, and I hoped the rest of the trail lived up to the high standard that had been set.
Distance: 4.9 km Time: 1:28 hours Ascent: 622 m Descent: 427 m
Looking back from the first Twin.
Nothing but hills ahead of me.
A glimpse through the trees.
The silver reservoir.
Section 2: Wong Nai Chung Reservoir to Lam Tin
The start of section two overlapped with part of the Hong Kong Trail, so I had covered this section before. I remembered it being torturous, with stairs taking me up and over two steep peaks. I was slightly dreading doing it again, especially after just conquering three hills in the previous section.
As a distraction I started counting stairs all the way up to Jardine's Lookout. I was surprised to hit the top after 740 - I swore there were at least twice as many on my first attempt at this hill. Not that 740 steps is ever easy, but it didn't even begin to compare to what I had already achieved this morning. At the top was the familiar sweeping view over the city, from Hong Kong Island across to Kowloon. The sheer number of buildings packed into a tiny space never ceases to amaze me.
I took the stairs all the way down the other side of the hill and up Mt Butler, traversing over rocks and sand (and thankfully no more mud). The path led me around the reservoir I had spotted this morning, appearing blue now that the sun was higher in the sky. I would have appreciated it more if I wasn't puffing and panting away up yet another climb - I had been going about two hours and already summitted five peaks. It was slow going, and at this rate it would take me all day and most of the night to reach today's destination.
Just before the peak I turned off from the Hong Kong Trail to head north, offering more skyscraper-filled views. A final descent then commenced, at first on trail and then on concrete, before depositing me on a flat section. Flat? I had almost given up on seeing level ground; this was the first occurrence of it all day.
It lasted less than 10 minutes. The path returned to downhill, taking me all the way to almost sea level. By this stage I was walking through a beautiful shady forest, with pockets here and there of clear spaces filled with locals out exercising and socialising. It was the most amount of people I had seen along the trail, having only passed a couple of other hikers out on the mountains. I can definitely say I preferred the quieter sections. The path twisted and turned continuously, testing my navigation skills at several unmarked intersections, but somehow I remained on the right track (a rarity for me).
At the bottom I hit a road, which I followed out to the nearest train station. Victoria Harbour separates sections two and three, with the quickest way between the two being a train ride. It does disrupt the momentum and serenity a bit, but at least there's a chance to stock up on food and drinks. I would say there's also a chance to rest the legs, but if you've ever caught the train in Hong Kong you know the odds of nabbing a seat are highly unlikely.
Distance: 6.8 km Time: 1:33 hours Ascent: 289 m Descent: 543 m
Circling the reservoir.
View from the top.
On my way down the hill.
Section 3: Lam Tin to Tseng Lan Shue
From the train station I needed my phone to direct me to the start of section three, which ended up consisting of three distinct parts. Amazingly it didn't immediately start with steps, but it did ascend sharply along a road and path before hitting the inevitable staircase. The top brought an undulating paved route with views out both sides towards the city on one side and the sea on the other. Despite the scenery (and the directional signs every 50 metres, meaning I was never going to get lost), I was a quickly bored with the mundane concrete.
Luckily the concrete turned into trail, with stone stairs leading me up and over a series of small peaks. The views didn't change but my mind was distracted by having to think carefully about foot placement. The sun was well and truly high in the sky by this stage, and the one significant climb on the dirt had the streams of sweat pouring off me.
The descent of this hill carried me through a wonderfully cool forest that I could have walked through for hours, but quickly ended at a road. I walked along the pavement for a few kilometres, passing through a quiet town with a few people milling about but otherwise there wasn't much going on. It reminded me of several races I have completed in Asia, where there is often a local village or two to run through, giving me a glimpse of a more traditional way of life. I was fairly close to the city and several major roads, but I felt far away from any of it. A short off-road section up and over a hill brought me to another town, this one bigger and busier. Then I did actually hit a main road, which again provided an unglamourous end to a section of the trail.
Distance: 8.0 km Time: 1:49 hours Ascent: 439 m Descent: 296 m
... and another...
... and another.
Section 4: Tseng Lan Shue to Sha Tin Pass
The town I started in, Tseng Lan Shue, was a maze of housing, construction and laneways. I needed signs every few steps to have any idea of which way to go, and thankfully the town delivered. Once I had navigated my way through the labyrinth I was rewarded with a beautiful forest section, full of lush greenery, moss-covered rocks, root-lined dirt tracks and several river crossings. It was pretty much my ideal trail. Coming out to a local road ruined the idyllic experience.
The road only lasted a kilometre before I hit forest again. But this forest was vastly different. Firstly, it was nowhere near as picturesque, with muddy paths and irregular stone steps guiding the way. Secondly, it was entirely uphill. The midday sun was at its fiercest, draining me of all the liquid my body contained. I had no idea where the summit was, and it took all the mental strength I had to keep pushing forward. It became so disheartening after a while that I was ready to quit and curl up into the foetal position. I continually tripped up the uneven steps, my legs sapped of energy. Near the top rocks covered the path, meaning I was unable to get a rhythm going to push me to the summit.
I didn't quit, and the summit did eventually arrive. I ended up gaining about 360 metres in 1.5 km, which only took 30 minutes but it felt like I was climbing for hours. A brief, welcome flat section followed, then a short descent down to a quiet road. Which was where the uphill started again. At least this time it was an easy, manageable hike and the view from the top made it all worth it. I was staring down over Kowloon and over to Hong Kong Island, looking back at where I had come from this morning. The heat of the day left a haze over the panorama, but it didn't stop me staring in awe at the scenery all the way down the asphalt hill to the end of section four.
Distance: 7.8 km Time: 1:54 hours Ascent: 505 m Descent: 410 m
Loving the forest. Not loving the stairs.
Terrain like this made the going slow.
Almost at the top.
Looking out over Kowloon.
Section 5: Sha Tin Pass to Tai Po Road
After a gruelling section four, section five felt like a walk in the park. It started with a brief undulating track followed by a never-ending staircase descending through an ordinary forest, which in no way made up for all the steps I climbed an hour ago. Despite going downhill I was still getting baked in the relentless heat, which my body wasn't coping with after not seeing the sun for the last few weeks (gotta love wet season).
The bottom of the stairs ended at a catchwater. I think it's impossible to hike in Hong Kong without walking along one of these long concrete drains. There were sporadic views of buildings and mountains through the trees, but they were forgettable. The only saving grace was that it was flat and my legs could take a much needed break for this monotonous 6 km segment.
One part of the catchwater was overtaken by monkeys, my first real wildlife spotting today. On the MacLehose Trail I had seen numerous types of animals all the way along, but the Wilson Trail seemed to be devoid of anything except insects and a few birds in the trees. Most of the monkeys were hanging in the trees or sitting on top of the metal railing. But some were obviously feeling the heat like I was, and were having a great time scrambling up the sides of the catchwater and diving into the shallow water below. It was hilarious, and distracted me momentarily from the mind-numbing path in front of me.
Distance: 8.1 km Time: 1:33 hours Ascent: 41 m Descent: 172 m
Not the best views of the day.
6 km of this.
About ready to jump in.
Monkeys diving into the catchwater.
Section 6: Tai Po Road to Shing Mun Reservoir
By the start of section six I was fairly exhausted and seriously thought about calling it quits, with a bus stop only metres from me. But I knew that would leave me with a massive amount of kilometres tomorrow, and I wanted to finish this trail in two days. So I pushed on, once again commencing up a set of stairs. I am certain there must have been a stair law in place when these trails were devised.
The path started up through a pretty forest, and wasn’t overly strenuous. The trail undulated for a while, with a few uphill sections thrown in that didn’t last too long. On one of the flatter sections I spotted a pack of monkeys up ahead, sprawled out across the trail and the sitting in the trees beside it. I cautiously walked through the troop, doing my best to pretend I had nothing of interest to them (although they probably would have loved my dried fruit). Many of them scampered away as I came near, but a couple didn’t move. I kept my eye on them as I passed, not trusting their lack of fear. Sure enough, as soon as I walked past they started following me. I kept moving forward but they obviously wanted something from me, and two of them lunged at my feet. I jumped out of the way, turned around and shouted a loud ‘no’, as if I was scolding a toddler. That didn’t stop them. They tried again, and this time I broke into a shuffling sprint, attempting to put as much distance between us as possible. They lost interest here, and went back to doing whatever it was they were doing before I arrived. My thumping heart didn’t forget the incident that quickly.
The monkey saga wasn’t over yet. Besides the slightly terrifying macaque event, I loved the forest I was walking through, and was hoping this would take me to the end. Unfortunately it ended at Golden Hill Road, but I had another name for it: Monkey Street. The entire 200 metre stretch of road that I had to walk along was covered in dozens of monkeys. This was going to be interesting. While I was standing there thinking about my options a taxi drove slowly past me. Right in front of me, only 10 metres away, one of the monkeys jumped onto the hood of the taxi and went for a ride down the hill. The taxi didn’t seem to care, didn’t stop, didn’t shoo it away. I followed the taxi, wondering how I was going to make my way through without being pounced upon. If they were happy to jump on moving vehicles, what would they do to me?
In the end I didn’t need to worry, as the monkeys didn’t even give me a second glance. I walked right beside them, and none felt threatened enough to make any defensive (or offensive) manoeuvres. At the bottom of the hill I caught up to the taxi, who had now stopped and was completely surrounded by the creatures. Some were on the roof, while otheres were standing up on their hind legs, peering through the window. Maybe the creatures didn’t care about me because the car was more exciting, and possibly contained more rewards than I was ever going to give them. I walked on past the taxi and into the safety of the forest, wondering how the driver was ever going to push his way through the crowd.
The forest provided me with one final steep set of stairs, making sure I had fully drained all the strength from my legs, before a long descent took me down to Shing Mun Reservoir. There were no views along here, nothing noteworthy to write about, but it was a lovely end to an arduous day. The reservoir was teeming with people, most out exercising in some form or another. I followed it around to the end of section six, a little over the halfway point of the Wilson Trail. I would have been happy to collapse right there, but it was another 2 km walk to the bus stop. I was so brain dead by this stage that I just went into autopilot and knocked it out in record time. Day one: done.
Distance: 5.3 km Time: 1:12 hours Ascent: 264 m Descent: 226 m
There's always more stairs.
Nothing but me and nature.
"Hey, mate, can I get a ride?"
Finishing the day at Shing Mun Reservoir.