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Head for the Hills: Sunset Peak, Hong Kong

A brisk 45-minute walk each weekday down flat city roads is a poor substitute for exercise. I’m realizing this as I sit gasping for breath on a large rock somewhere in the mountains of Hong Kong’s Lantau island, hopelessly exposed to the midday sun and delirious with nausea. If only there was a patch of shade to lie down in, I silently lament. It is much too hot for Christmas Eve. The only way I can stave off the heat is by taking swigs of lukewarm water from a reusable plastic bottle while waiting for the discomfort to pass. Bama stands patiently beside the boulder, seemingly unaffected by neither the high temperatures nor the difficulty of the trail. Then, with a mischievous smile, he whips out his phone to take a photo of me in my sorry state. Click. I’m far too weak to protest.

No visit to Hong Kong is complete without a hike, and although I’ve become terribly unfit from leading a sedentary life in Indonesia’s enormous, traffic-choked capital, I still hatch an ambitious plan to spend much of Christmas Eve on part of the Lantau Trail, a long-distance footpath running in a 70-kilometer (43-mile) loop around the island. My chosen route is Section 2, whose 6.5 kilometers (four miles) includes a traverse of Sunset Peak – Hong Kong’s third-highest mountain – and is in no way a walk in the park. It might be if you’re super-outdoorsy like Lex of One Foot Out the Door, or globe-trotting adventure cyclists Sue and Dave from Travel Tales of Life, but for the rest of us mere mortals, it is not something to be taken lightly.

Despite its challenging nature, the Sunset Peak traverse is something I have been meaning to tackle for at least the past couple of years. And getting there with the help of public transportation happens to be fairly straightforward. From the Central financial district on Hong Kong Island, we hop aboard a ferry to the town of Mui Wo, one of Lantau’s main settlements and a haven for expats wanting to live in more bucolic surroundings. The transit schedules are so well thought-out that passengers disembarking from the ferry will find cross-island buses already waiting and primed to go at a moment’s notice. The downside? We don’t have enough time for a quick bathroom break or the chance to buy snacks and a packed lunch for the hike. Against the advice of my mother, Bama and I sit on the upper deck of bus 3M, which will whisk us to the trailhead in little more than 30 minutes.

Looking north to the airport from Pak Kung Au, Lantau’s main mountain pass

The steep picnic site at the trailhead

Another side of Hong Kong

A gentler stretch on the ascent to Sunset Peak

The view down Section 2 of the Lantau Trail toward Lantau Peak

There are two ways to do this part of the Lantau Trail. Going westwards from the idyllic Nam Shan barbecue site not too far from Mui Wo involves a long, grueling stair-climbing experience I’d rather avoid; Bama and I opt to do it in reverse, starting via the mountain pass of Pak Kung Au. We arrive there around 11 o’clock, cross the road from the bus stop to a picnic area, and immediately begin the slog up the steep flanks of Sunset Peak. Given the unexpected heat and the elevation gain of 464 meters (about 1,520 feet) over the first two kilometers (1.2 miles), it’s absolutely punishing. The banner photo in this blog entry gives you some idea of what that feels like, for it shows Sunset Peak from the next mountain over with the wispy trail emerging from the trees on the right.

Bama and I are not aiming for the summit: instead, we follow the eroded dirt track that skirts it and tops out just below 800 meters (2,624 feet). It might be nearing midday but we are not the only ones here. Just ahead are a family of three – all equipped with proper walking shoes and hats and trekking poles. The son, who appears in his early teens, seems to struggle at times. I cast him a sympathetic glance. Could it be that in a decade’s time, he might be thankful for outdoorsy parents not content with air-conditioned pursuits at the mall?

Looking back on my own childhood, it was my mother who instilled in me a love of hiking. We’d visited New Zealand once on a rainy two-week holiday (for some reason, I can still recall seeing ducks frolicking in a flooded outdoor courtyard of our hotel in Queenstown), and mom intended to return someday so she could trek the Milford Track. That much was obvious from the books she amassed on the subject. Another addition to her library was Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, reflective of the time she nursed an ambition to climb Mount Everest. That interest in the outdoors translated into our occasional hikes with the fun-loving family of her best friend, Auntie Mandy.

Lantau Peak (Hong Kong’s second-highest mountain) framed between slopes covered in silvergrass

Approaching the basalt-stone huts of the Lantau Mountain Camp

None of the mountain cabins were occupied – they all felt semi-abandoned

Two very different scenes from Lantau

Tung Chung new town and Hong Kong’s airport in the haze

Cabins dotting the ridge that marks out the eastern approach to Sunset Peak

Auntie Mandy and her family lived about a half-hour’s drive from the Sai Kung Peninsula, which became our natural playground on certain weekends. There are a few experiences of those days that I vividly remember to this day: hitching a ride on the back of a farm truck more often used for transporting live pigs; the mirth of finding a gorgeous cream-colored beach after a long hike, and of feeling the cool ocean waters crashing in and pooling around our toes. But my fondest memory comes from the time when Uncle T.C., Auntie Mandy’s enterprising and sometimes-wacky husband, brought along a portable electric sandwich maker so we could enjoy freshly made mozzarella grilled cheeses on a cool, grassy mountaintop ringed by swirling banks of fog. It was heaven.

Uncle T.C. and Auntie Mandy always came prepared. By contrast, Bama and I haven’t brought any food – no cookies or chips or sandwiches from a convenience store. We have enough water to last us the rest of the hike, along with face towels and sunscreen stored in a small pack, but that’s about it. There will be no lunch. When we leave the safety of the thick foliage behind and step out into a world without shade, the blazing heat hits us like a thousand daggers. Beads of sweat run down my neck and form on my arms; my pulse is racing and I feel increasingly breathless. Then I spot the aforementioned boulder.

The spell of nausea really hits only as soon as I park myself on the warm surface of the rock. I don’t know how much time passes before the distinct urge to empty my stomach clears completely. 10 minutes? Maybe 15? When it finally does, I take stock of the view in all directions and slowly get back to my feet. We press on, continuing uphill but at a gentler pace, between swaths of golden-brown silvergrass. Behind us the shapely mass of Lantau Peak – Hong Kong’s second-highest summit at 934 meters (3,064 feet) – is perfectly framed in a v-shaped gap. The wild emptiness of the scenery is astonishing: could this really be Hong Kong? Where nearly 7.5 million people are packed into an area less than half the size of Luxembourg (and equivalent to a third of Rhode Island)?

Alone on the trail; wet moss in a shaded area

Ferns in the undergrowth; Bama, a plant aficionado, stops to admire them

A kind of pandan growing among the ferns

766-meter (2,513 feet) Lin Fa Shan, literally “Lotus Mountain”, is Hong Kong’s sixth-highest peak

A fern unfurls its frond beside the footpath

The dirt path ahead soon levels out and gradually takes a downhill course. In no time at all, we reach the Lantau Mountain Camp, a chain of squat, flat-roofed bungalows assembled from basalt blocks, each one standing amid the thick silvergrass like a military observation post. These cabins were originally built as a holiday retreat for British missionaries in the 1920s, when modern air conditioning was only beginning to take root in the United States. Back then, decamping to Hong Kong’s higher elevations was the only way to escape the pervasive heat and humidity of the coast.

For a moment I imagine how gratifying it would be to find a small café in a wooden cabin here on the ridgeline; it might be just the place to serve light bites and sandwiches during warm weather, with the menu shifting to comfort food and soup on colder days. And what could be a better reward for that initial uphill slog than the promise of a good meal enjoyed on a comfy, umbrella-shaded terrace with panoramic views? But then I consider the logistical challenge of getting supplies up hundreds and hundreds of steps on a daily basis and transporting waste down. I haven’t even thought about the issue of transporting electricity and piped water right through a protected country park, or the risk of a wooden structure succumbing to wildfires in the drier months and being stripped down to its foundations during typhoon season. It suddenly dawns on me why no one has tried to build and run such a café at these heights.

Hiking in Hong Kong at winter is often a trade-off: while cooler and drier conditions most days are a boon for any walking enthusiast, the prevailing northerly winds bring in more pollution from mainland China (some of which originates in factories owned by Hong Kong industrialists). And so, the visibility isn’t quite what I hoped for. From our vantage point below the mountain cabins, we can see the high-rise apartment blocks of Tung Chung new town and the expanding airport across a small channel. But everything beyond the runways – more peaks, two gas- and coal-fired power plants, the housing estates of another new town – are lost beneath a layer of smog.

What we find much more appealing is a shaded section of the trail where the dappled sunlight illuminates a clump of emerald-green ferns glistening in the undergrowth. There’s also a kind of pandan, not quite the same species used for its vanilla-like flavor in Southeast Asian cooking, and on the opposite side of the footpath, I run my fingers over patches of wet moss blanketing the stone. The dirt track snakes back into the open to reveal vistas of Lantau’s eastern hills and the smaller islands offshore, before dipping below the treeline and transforming into a seemingly endless flight of stone steps. Over the next hour, Bama and I pass several hikers on their way up and are silently thankful we began at the other end; the descent becomes so repetitive and tiring that both of us are left asking the same question: are we there yet? Then, after getting our hopes dashed twice, we finally see it: a large dried-grass clearing with a gazebo marking the endpoint at Nam Shan.

Beginning the descent to eastern Lantau

Where the trail meets the treeline

The hills of Lantau’s Chi Ma Wan Peninsula, home to more hiking and mountain biking routes

Polyspora longicarpa in bloom; a flight of stone steps through the woods

With Mui Wo’s houses and apartment blocks in sight, we knew we were nearing the end of the hike

The gazebo at Nam Shan picnic site

We don’t need to wait long to flag down a passing double-decker bus. When the driver deposits us in Mui Wo well past 4 p.m., it’s Bama’s turn to feel dizzy and weak, this time from pangs of hunger. We haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. The small South African restaurant where I was hoping to try bobotie (a spiced minced-meat-and-egg casserole) is closed until 6:30, and the Starbucks a few doors down has largely run out of savory pastries. The remaining morsels in the display case at the counter don’t look very promising. I mull over our limited options in this unfamiliar town, and briefly consider McDonald’s as a last resort before posing the question to Bama. “What do you want to eat?” His terse reply betrays a mild irritation at my indecisiveness. “I don’t care. Just something. Anything.”

I finally settle on a mom-and-pop store not far from the ferry pier. This one serves multiple purposes: it rents out bikes and three-wheel pedal cars to day-trippers, sells snacks and bottled drinks, and, much to my relief, sandwiches and simple food. A handwritten note taped to the sliding glass screen suggests that instant noodles are on the menu. “Do you want egg noodles, or rice vermicelli?” the friendly proprietor asks. She takes our orders and we sink into the plastic chairs at an outdoor table, sipping chilled oolong tea while observing a young family struggling to get their pedal car down a cycle path. Soon enough, the vendor emerges from her kitchen, carrying two steaming bowls of rice vermicelli and slices of meat in a piquant five-spice soup. Bama gulps it down with the gusto of someone who hasn’t touched a meal in days.

And that well-earned meal isn’t the finale of our little Christmas Eve adventure. Fortuitous timing on the 55-minute slow ferry from Mui Wo to Central means we sail into Victoria Harbour at sunset, just as the western sky glows a fiery shade of orange. From the open-air deck a few rows behind us, the mountains of Lantau we’d just climbed are still visible on the horizon; up ahead, the skyscrapers flanking the harbor are painted with a multitude of lights beneath a darkening violet firmament. One of the things I miss the most about living in Hong Kong is the fact that beaches, scenic waterfalls, and hiking trails are a stone’s throw away from the clamorous city streets – that pockets of untamed nature and a man-made high-rise environment coexist in such close quarters. With so many country parks and outlying islands to explore, it can give you the feeling that you’ve gone somewhere far without ever having left town.

Sunset over Green Island (left) and Lantau’s mountains

The skyscrapers of Kennedy Town, a largely residential neighborhood on Hong Kong Island

The tallest towers in this shot are part of a housing estate hilariously named “The Belcher’s”

Victoria Peak from an alternate angle

Christmas Eve in Hong Kong

41 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post 😁

    April 12, 2020
    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

      April 12, 2020
  2. James, I am still laughing at the image in my head of your uncle bringing an electric sandwich maker on your family hikes. I guess you were wishing he and his portable appliance were with you on this hike. It’s so unlike you and Bama not to bring food, good food for that matter. Despite the food situation, the heat and the steepness the hike looks phenomenal, and like you say, it is amazing to have this natural treasure so close to a mega city.

    April 12, 2020
    • It’s funny, Caroline – I set out to write about this hike and ended up dedicating big chunks of the text to food instead! The outing was a spur-of-the-moment idea so we weren’t well-prepared for it at all. I’d also underestimated the difficulty level and the time it would take to complete the trip. I’ll have to exercise more regularly before attempting my next hike. Lesson learned!

      April 12, 2020
  3. I have yet to go on a hike in HK.

    April 12, 2020
    • You should try it out sometime… just not in the summer when it’s too hot and humid!

      April 12, 2020
      • Haha… every time I go to HK for holiday it’s with family and nobody is interested in outdoor activities besides me. I plan to go HK alone and stay with friends next time who are into hiking.

        April 13, 2020
  4. I have been to Hong Kong three times roughly spaced out evenly over 45 years. On our last visit, we even saw the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau and people hiking to it.
    But I never had an idea there was such a wonderful park. I strongly urge you to get in shape and stay physically fit while you are so young. If you do not, your adventures will be sorely limited when you reach our age, mid-70s.

    April 12, 2020
    • I haven’t been to the Tian Tan Buddha for at least 15 years… as far as I know it’s become quite the tourist trap, with a faux-traditional “shopping village” and cable car station as well. I’d much prefer hanging out in nature with less crowds!

      Thanks very much for the advice on staying fit – the good news is that I’ve been eating more healthily and exercising more often these days. It’s especially important now that we’re all on lockdown and largely confined to our homes. Hope you two are keeping well!

      April 12, 2020
  5. Mmmh, interesting! Who knew there was a trekking trail in Hong Kong. The landscape looked remarkably non-Hong-Kongese, if you see what I mean… Almost like Liguria in the summer. I’ve trekked consistently for the youngest part of my life and I’m now missing it a lot… Unfortunately if it wasn’t for the ‘rona it’d be London: flat as a pancake, ages to go anywhere.

    April 12, 2020
    • Oh, Hong Kong is full of hiking trails! There’s even an epic 100-kilometer one that hosts a long-distance race every winter (usually held in November) to raise money for Oxfam. Running teams from all over Asia fly in to join the event. I face the same problem as you here in Jakarta… the nearest mountains are about 3-4 hours away by car on a good day without too much traffic.

      April 12, 2020
  6. I’ve always been meaning to spend more time in Hong Kong. All I have done until now is a couple of 8 hour lay overs when I took a train into the city for lunch, and walked around TST. That’s nice, but then the views that you show here are so beautiful, I think I’m really missing something. That view of the city from Lantau is wonderful.

    April 12, 2020
    • You could fill a week in Hong Kong with plenty of sightseeing, hikes, and half-day excursions to the islands and still not see it all. I lived there almost 20 years and to this day I don’t think I’ve visited every part of the territory. There are a few tiny rural islands on the eastern side that I would love to explore the next time I go back… hopefully that will happen in December after the pandemic passes.

      April 13, 2020
      • Stay safe until then. I hope I get to HK soon

        April 14, 2020
  7. Alison Hutt #

    I love Lantau but not for long hikes, just the beaches

    April 12, 2020
  8. I’ll still start my comment with heartfelt thanks for the mention (and to give you your own pat on the back for such a steep and rigorous hike!), but I have to segue straight to the grilled mozzarella cheese sandwiches out in nature! THAT would be my idea of heaven right there also! You were so wonderfully helpful with all your ideas (and directions) for the Hong Kong hikes we hoped to take in February … alas, that will have to wait a while, but I really can’t wait to see this city that combines so many of my favorite things all in one metro area.

    In spite of my extensive hiking experience, there are still plenty of times that I feel sick-ish during a tough ascent, especially in the heat and without enough fuel. I learned on my 36-hour endurance climb just how much food I really need to take in when pushing my body to extremes. On normal days, I’m a light eater, and so I rarely take enough food when I hike; after that event, I now remember to pack a lot more calories along with my water. Anyway, thanks again for the shout-out, and I loved seeing this trail for both current entertainment and future reference!

    April 12, 2020
    • You’re welcome, Lex! I have a feeling that when you do get to Hong Kong and hike this trail, it will a breeze. My general advice is that you wear a hat and don’t attempt this at the height of summer (or if you must, go very, very early in the morning). I’m hopeful that when all this is over, the postponed Southeast Asia trip will be a go… maybe you’ll even have the chance to add a couple days in Hong Kong on the way back. Am keeping my fingers crossed for you and J!

      April 13, 2020
  9. That’s what impressed me most about Hong Kong — all that greenery.
    Is Silvermine Beach in Mui Wo? I stayed there once but can’t recognize the place from your photo since it was over ten years back.

    April 12, 2020
    • You’re right – Silvermine Beach is in Mui Wo, and that low-rise beachside hotel you stayed at is still up and running. You can just about see the roof of it in my photo, right behind the boxy building in the center, to the left of those apartment blocks.

      April 13, 2020
  10. What a wonderful story, and story within a story about those grilled cheese sandwiches! Such a treat! I’m always shocked when I read about hiking in Hong Kong because it’s so unusual that such great terrain exists right next to a huge metropolis. You and Bama would probably really enjoy Vancouver for the same reasons — it has a similar setting and loads of nature within close reach of the city. Thanks for sharing this journey — every grueling step. Curious why your mom warned about sitting on the upper deck of the bus? Hope you’re enjoying the weekend.

    April 13, 2020
    • I love Vancouver, but have never done a real hike in the times I was there as a teen. A lot of those visits were spent eating and hanging out with family friends in the city. I don’t even recall doing any proper sightseeing except for a short excursion to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. My mom was a bit paranoid about double-decker buses because she’d read about a spate of fatal accidents last year in Hong Kong. I remember seeing a photo of one particular collision a few weeks before our visit and half of the upper deck was basically a tangled mess.

      April 13, 2020
      • Oh, wow, I didn’t know that about the buses. I’ll make a mental note not to go upstairs next time. I always love the view up top!

        April 14, 2020
      • To be fair, I don’t think accidents are so common in Hong Kong… it just so happened that there were two or three that took place within weeks of each other last year. My mom has become super-cautious about travel in the past few years!

        April 14, 2020
  11. Wow… that was an enjoyable read (at your expense…). Next time I visit HKG, I’ll have to be in better shape if I want to try one of these hikes. How is it that Bama doesn’t seem to be affected by the heat and humidity?

    April 13, 2020
    • That’s a good question! Well I would say that Bama’s tolerance for heat and humidity is very high – he grew up in a tropical country and never had (or needed) air conditioning until he moved to Jakarta a few years after graduating from college. I’m the opposite as I can withstand cold weather much better.

      April 13, 2020
  12. Wonderful photos James, and wonderful storytelling. It sure sounds like both a challenging and rewarding day. And I can just about imagine how good that meal was!
    I’d love to go back to HK one day and hike this trail.
    Alison

    April 14, 2020
    • Thanks so much, Alison. I’d say Dragon’s Back is a pretty good warm-up for this particular hike… there are some similarities as long stretches of the trail don’t have shade. Just make sure you bring food and more than enough water and a sunhat!

      April 14, 2020
  13. James I have to say I almost choked on my morning coffee when I saw you referencing us as being able to do the hike as a walk in the park! These days we feel quite like sloths I’m afraid but thank you for the kind thought. Even in my fittest days, I have always been a slow hiker. After one irritable and unforseen lengthy hike without food or water ( can you imagine) I now carry enough that we might survive for a week. Your post is fascinating in that I have always thought of Hong Kong as all urban. Such a gorgeous, albeit grueling hike, come as a lovely, gasp-inducing surprise.

    April 24, 2020
    • Sue, after reading about a few of your long-distance cycling adventures all over the world, I’d assumed you and Dave were just as adept at hiking! So much of Hong Kong is still somewhat wild – if I remember correctly, about 40 percent of its total land area is protected as country parks with a plethora of beautiful walking routes. There are even some mountain biking trails but they obviously cannot compare to the ones you have in Canada!

      May 1, 2020
  14. Nice site you have here, James! Will follow! Cheers!

    April 24, 2020
    • Thanks, John and Susan! Glad to hear from you both through Sue’s blog!

      May 1, 2020
  15. It’s a shame that the nearest proper hiking trails from Jakarta are a few hours away, although at one point in the future I do want to try one or two of them. At a time like this those trails must be really quiet, which would’ve been ideal for hiking. But then, they must be closed at the moment, and leaving Jakarta is almost impossible now (for good reason). When this pandemic is over, I think we should plan a trip to Gede-Pangrango or Mount Salak, or even a bit further to the southeast (around Purwakarta).

    May 1, 2020
    • Absolutely, Bama. That is a great idea – I’m really looking forward to exploring those mountains when it’s safe to do so and travel restrictions have been lifted. Either one sounds like a perfect place to escape the city for a few days while getting some fresh air, though we’ll obviously have to go outside of weekends, given the crowds and traffic jams on the way out of town!

      May 1, 2020
  16. Well-written post about your trip and hike in Hong Kong, James. Really like how you weaved in your hikes from your younger days in the post too. The cheese mozzarella toast sounded heavenly back then. It sounded like quite a hike up and feeling light headed didn’t sound good, but I guess its all part of acclimitising. Amazing photography all round. These are views that will keep you going 🙂

    May 2, 2020
    • Thank you, Mabel! In hindsight I should have brought a hat to wear on the hike (as I tend to overheat easily) and also a packed lunch of some sort. I hope you’re keeping well and staying sane over in Melbourne. Fingers crossed some of the restrictions in Victoria will be eased these next few weeks. 🙂

      May 2, 2020
      • A hat would have been handy during a hot day hike. Make sure you choose the right hat for next time. Some hats I’ve worn just make my head way too hot lol. We’re doing alright over here in Melbourne. There’s talk about restrictions is easing here soon, so hopefully it goes that way. Hope you are alright, James 🙂

        May 3, 2020
  17. Wow amaxing

    May 17, 2020
    • Cheers – thanks for reading.

      June 10, 2020

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