Solitude In The City
Hundreds of chiselled hexagonal columns soar gloriously towards the sky, glistening with a red-brown tinge under the scorching sun. This is not another sleek skyscraper hemmed in by Victoria Harbour in densely populated Hong Kong. Instead, I am kilometres away in a volcanic geopark in Sai Kung, a secluded coastal zone in the north-east of the territory. The 100m-tall rock columns, stacked symmetrically like gargantuan matchsticks, are a geological marvel in Hong Kong Unesco Global Geopark (www.geopark.gov.hk).
Overlooking the sea and the East Dam, the columns were formed in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption that occurred 140 million years ago, says my guide Cindy Choi, a volunteer with R2G Tours (www.hkr2g. net). The eruption spewed so much ash and lava that the magma chamber in the volcano collapsed, creating a depression or caldera, she explains. Over time, volcanic tuff, a rock formed from the ash, consolidated and cooled down to form the alien hexagonal columns.
On the other side of the East Dam are views of rolling emerald hills and more hexagonal columns. A basin of placid midnight-blue water in the middle of these hills belies Sai Kung’s fiery volcanic past. These hexagonal columns pepper the craggy volcanic coastline, which I see during my morning hike in Sai Kung. It is amazing that they would have remained out of sight if not for the construction of the High Island Reservoir – Hong Kong’s largest reservoir – that was built in the 1970s to alleviate water shortage. It was only then that the columns were discovered.
In some ways, Sai Kung sums up Hong Kong’s bounty of natural attractions, which have remained inconspicuous amid its massive urbanisation.
The metropolis is certainly known more as a shopping and dining haven than a nature hot spot. When I think about it, this is surprising, given that about three-quarters of its land is countryside. Hong Kong is rich in country parks and hiking trails, including the renowned 100km MacLehose Trail that spans much of the New Territories.
This is my third trip to Hong Kong and it is vastly different from my first two. This time, I trade shopping bags for hiking shoes to explore geological sites, waterfalls and lengthy wilderness trails over five days. I also sojourn to Cheung Chau Island, where I sleep beneath the stars in a geodesic “glamping” tent. In recent years, hiking has become more popular among Hong Kongers. Ms Choi, who goes on monthly hikes, says with a chuckle: “Our homes in the city are so crammed, that’s why we find peace and tranquillity during our hikes.”
In November last year, the Hong Kong Tourism Board released a nifty free e-guidebook, Great Outdoors Hong Kong (bit.ly/2CPfIGq), which maps out 15 hiking and cycling trails, complete with transport guides and hiking tips. To ease myself into hiking action, shortly after I arrive, I begin with an easy green urban trail from The Peak to Lung Fu Shan Country Park. I take two hours, starting at Lugard Road, a stone’s throw from The Peak Tower mall on Victoria Peak and ending near hip dining enclave Kennedy Town. Just five minutes in and I enter a leafy retreat lined with vantage points to see the glitzy skyline. It is exciting to see the city’s skyscrapers peek beneath my feet at the lookout points.
This warm-up prepares my legs for stages one and two of the 10-stage MacLehose Trail. My two stages, which comprise one-fifth of the 100km trail, start at the East Dam, which is flanked by sprawling slopes of gigantic dolosse – concrete blocks used to protect harbour walls – and volcanic boulders. It is an enigmatic scene that evokes a sense of being stranded in a barren desert. The hike is blessed with panoramic views of coves, ridges and uplands that are carpeted in dense grassy vegetation and open out to the silent seas.
I detour for a few moments to Long Ke Wan – an idyllic inlet of pearl-white sand beach near a drug rehabilitation centre. I am delighted at the silky softness of the fine sand and harbour thoughts of lolling around and taking a dip in the clear blue waters, but I have to move on. The hike takes a challenging turn on the ascent to the trail’s highest point, Sai Wan Shan, which is 314m tall. Instead of concrete slabs, the path is now riddled with rocks and steep steps, some of them knee-high.