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Hike for the holidays: Exploring Lantau’s remote ‘West End’

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Lantau’s seldom-visited ‘West End’ provides the intrepid explorer with deserted beaches, a Qing Dynasty fort and even a megalithic stone circle. Where better to celebrate the winter solstice? Jason Pagliari reports.

The isolated village of Fan Lau is accessible only by boat, bike or on foot. Situated at the south-western tip of Hong Kong, in the most remote part of Lantau, it is the proverbial ‘village that time forgot’. Most of the dwellings are abandoned and slowly being reclaimed by the forces of nature. Most of the inhabitants moved out in the 1990s, some to neighbouring Tai O and Pui O, others further afield. Of the current population of around three, one sells cold drinks to visitors.

While hiking groups pass through on weekends, it’s a different story during the week. Even the neighbouring beaches are utterly devoid of human presence. The only signs of civilization are the jetfoils speeding past offshore to Macau and a police launch that maintains a patrol station off Kau Ling Chung beach, keeping a watchful eye at the edge of territorial waters.

Local legend has it that the isolation of the area lends its numerous beaches to a certain type of nature lover – those who prefer to
spend time ‘au natural’.

The Hau temple at Fan Lau Mui Wan

Fan Lau Promontory

Hiking to Fan Lau, you’ve committed to a long day out, so start early. You can make your way from Tai O along the coast, or take the water catchment road leading from the prison at Shek Pik Reservoir. Another route is over Keung Shan Peak and around Sham Hang Lek Peak; this is an excellent hike starting from the bus stop at the turn off to Ngong Ping Road.

Most visitors start the hike at Shek Pik Reservoir. From the offset, there are regular signposts directing the intrepid explorer to an abandoned fort and stone circle, all highly intriguing. Visions of megalithic standing stones and cloaked figures engaged in ancient Pagan rites loom large in the mind, as you make your way towards Lantau’s seldom-visited ‘West End’.

The water catchment road gets monotonous after the first hour and you’ll want to find a trail. It’s well worth dropping down to Kau Ling Chung beach and campsite, while looking for the old boundary obelisk that’s signposted down there. The trail up the other side of the valley takes you back to the Fan Lau route, bypassing 1.5 kilometres of road but adding extra distance (and climbing) to the walk.

To find the fort and stone circle, head along the crescent-shaped beach towards the giant split boulder on the far promontory. Sliced through as it is by an enormous crack, it seems a given that the boulder’s top half will shear off one day, splashing brutally into the sea.

Downtown Fan Lau

Fan Lau Fort

Hike on, past the giant boulder, and you reach Fan Lau Fort. Confronted by its heavy stonework walls (the 10,500 square-foot structure is rectangular), you instinctively follow the east wall to its only entrance. Going through the gated threshold with its granite lintel, you’ll see that all internal structures are missing.

It’s fair to surmise that the original interior was made of wood. History buffs will tell you that the fort was built early in the 18th Century; documents from the Qing Dynasty describe its proposal in 1717. It had eight cannons for defence and served as a troop garrison with 20 barracks for 48 soldiers. Part of a network of forts in other strategic locations, its purpose was to defend this important sea passage and trading route into the Pearl River Estuary from pirates.

Fan Lau Fort is believed to have been occupied by pirates at the end of the 18th Century. In 1810 all the major pirate gangs in the area surrendered and the Qing troops were reinstated. It was finally abandoned around 1900 after the lease of the New Territories to Great Britain.

It’s worth having your picnic lunch in the fort and spending half an hour soaking up the views, while reading the information plaques put up by the Antiquities Authority. All the while, your impending encounter with Fan Lau Stone Circle and its attendant dancing nymphs draws near. Anticipation mounts as you head further along the Fan Lau trail.

Fan Lau Fort

Fan Lau Stone Circle 

In the 1984 mockumentary movie This is Spinal Tap, the story of a touring rock band, an error written on a restaurant napkin results in a stage prop replica of a Stonehenge arch being built in inches instead of feet. Unawares to the band, it’s lowered on to the stage during their hard-rock anthem about the ancient druids, Stonehenge. The megalith then finds itself in danger of being crushed by a pair of dancing midgets. This scene can’t but spring to mind when you reach Fan Lau Stone Circle.

You find a fenced off area with what looks like a large oval barbeque pit in the middle. OK, it’s 10 feet in diameter at its widest point, but the stones themselves are really pretty small. There’s no evidence of charring or burnt chicken wings, but can this really be the megalithic, standing stone circle your girlfriend has hiked all this way to see? Surely there’s some mistake…

An information plaque reveals that it’s at least reasonable to assume you are looking at a megalithic structure of a type which became common during the late Neolithic Era (somewhere between 5,000 and 2,000 BC). And that its purpose was probably ritualistic in nature. You learn that this kind of stone structure crops up throughout China and that Hong Kong is rich in Neolithic (New Stone Age and Early Bronze Age) artefacts. Further Wikipedia sleuthing turns up that Fan Lau Stone Circle was discovered in 1980 and that there’s another one on northern Lamma, unearthed in 1956.

After a bit of a dance around, it’s time to get back on the trail which leads you past an active, 1820’s built Tin Hau temple and into Fan Lau village. Here, with luck, you’ll be able to sit down and enjoy a cold drink at the house which has a sign reading ‘BEER WATER’.

At this point, someone in your group, who is new to the joys of hiking Lantau, will ask: “Where’s the bus stop?” Explain gently to that person that they’re looking at another three hours’ hike to Tai O or heading back to Shek Pik Reservoir. Happy holidays!

Fan Lau Stone Circle

Images: Jason Pagliari

Lead image: The stone pillar – giant split boulder at Fan Lau

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