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.
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.
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)?
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.
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. ◊