Into the Wild: what you need to know about hiking in Lantau Island

Hiking reveals Lantau’s beating heart in all its barefaced beauty. It also affords the enthusiast with the space and freedom to overcome physical and mental challenges and experience true camaraderie. Martin Lerigo reports.

Many of you who read my Hit the Trails column in Life on Lantau have asked me what, in my view, is the big draw of hiking. It’s many things really but perhaps my starting point is the peace and quiet it affords, far away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Don’t get me wrong, the sheer dynamism and exuberance of Hong Kong were a major part of tempting me to live here. I remember first seeing Hong Kong in the James Bond film, Man with the Golden Gun – the amazing skyline, neon signs, bars and shops bursting with life looked totally exotic to a young kid back in southern England during the 1970s. I couldn’t wait to visit and sample the fragrant harbour, with its East meets West fusion of culture, cuisine and cosmopolitan sophistication. But what I found equally entrancing on arrival was another side of the then colony all together – its great natural beauty.

The other side of life

By 1998, I found myself working here and throwing myself, headfirst, into all the experiences Hong Kong had to offer. I quickly grew to love the outdoor life – particularly the country parks and walking trails, so intelligently established by some of our forebears. How I long to shake their hand for having the foresight to recognise that green spaces would come under so much pressure from the overbearing hand of development and commerce, an ever present and growing part of the Hong Kong story.

The countryside too features in the rich historical tapestry of Hong Kong’s success. While Hong Kong exploded into manufacturing in the 1960s, and its banking and insurance sectors burst into life shortly thereafter, the land has also played a major role in shaping its unique heart and soul. From the salt pans of Tai O to the farms established by Kadoorie, to the huge fleets of fishing boats at Aberdeen, Hong Kong owes much of its current commercial success to the land that helped sustain it in the past.

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For me, this relationship is one that we neglect at our peril. The remaining green spaces are the lungs and nostrils that help us breathe, that let us get away from the razzmatazz of downtown, so that we enjoy it again when next we are there. Like Yin and Yang, both have their qualities and attractions, and they are best enjoyed in equilibrium. Take one away and Hong Kong loses its appeal.

Reasons to live curious

We are most fortunate on Lantau to have easy access to some of the last hidden wildernesses of Hong Kong, the ones that to this day aren’t widely acknowledged or talked about. High mountains and lush valleys, groves of banana trees nestled around deserted hamlets, sparkling mountain pools stretching out like the folds of a skirt – there are still places you can walk without sight nor sound of the dense conurbations just a few kilometres away.

From when I began hiking, I wanted to take on all the well-known Lantau trails but also wander off the beaten track and find the hidden pearls that lay hidden to all but the most inquisitive eyes. I hiked all over, soaking in the tall mountains, rolling glens, pristine beaches, waterfalls, brooks and glorious jungle canopies. To this day, I still find new things to draw my interest – hidden houses, old farmsteads, colourful doors and ornate railings left to the elements, boundary stones, relics from the Second World War and more besides.

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I encourage all of you to ‘live curious’, as National Geographic would say. Have a look along that path whose destination you always wondered about, seek out the view over that ridgeline you always thought about climbing up to, follow that stream to see if there are rock pools along its course.

A taste of freedom

Hiking gives me time to reflect, as well as plan for things yet to come. Although I take my phone I seldom check emails or other messages, preferring instead to let the incoming alerts wait for my return to ‘reality’. For those few hours, when I am ‘with nature’, the pressures of modern life take a back seat and the more contemplative side of my mind can come to life.

Hiking provides you with the time and space to think about life’s journey and the steps ahead – successes, challenges, things you got right, things you won’t do again. There’s no need for an agenda, meeting notes, objectives, you can allow your mind to tick at its own pace, moving from one thought to the next, without filters, channels or controls. Freewheeling, unfettered, unhindered, unblocked and free, this is when we can dream dreams, think the unthinkable, become champions of the world… just for a few hours, until we are ready to wend our way back into the world we left behind.

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Academic studies have shown that we think more freely amongst nature – what we hear, smell, see and touch acts on the part of the brain that drives emotion and feeling. So not only is hiking ‘good’ for our bodies, it is also good for our brains. The increased blood flow and oxygen intake through our lungs also helps produce the endorphins that promote a sense of wellbeing and vitality. We may ache afterwards but whilst out on the trails, our bodies are strengthening and toning, just so long as we work within our limits.

Modern life is so physically comfortable that climbing a steep hill or descending a rocky gully is, for many of us, as arduous as it’s ever going to get. Hiking, getting into the wild, provides us with the opportunity not only to appreciate nature but also to test our mettle against it. The human spirit is raised by meeting a challenge and overcoming hardship, even if they are of our own choosing.

A pleasure to share

Hiking is also the most sociable of pastimes, being indifferent to age, gender, culture or social background. Hong Kong has seen an explosion of hiking groups over the last 30 years, taking in all ages and ability ranges. In fact, it is an amazing leveller, often bringing together people from totally disparate walks of life, who would not normally mix.

Walking in groups can be great fun. People feel just as comfortable whether talking or moving along quietly together; there are no awkward pauses, and continuous conversation isn’t expected. Many people find they have conversations whilst hiking that they do not have when partaking in other social activities. Possibly the sense of joint purpose and endeavour brings out the camaraderie in us all.

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Living in Lantau, we have so much natural beauty around us but who knows how long this will last. If we all give our best efforts to ensure it is looked after then hopefully future generations can enjoy what we are so lucky to have.

Find it

• HKhiking.com, www.hkhiking.com
• Hong Kong Hikers, www.hongkonghikers.org
• Hong Kong Hiking Meetup, www.meetup.com
• TrailWatch, www.trailwatch.hk

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