Heading west over the hills from Ngong Ping Road, Jason Pagliari invites you on a hike though a thick forest and then along a bushy ridgeline to the summit of Elephant Mountain, one of three ‘guardian beasts’ of Tai O
The hike I’m about to take you on is moderately difficult, off the beaten track, and best suited to hikers with a bit of experience. It involves an elevation gain of about 100 metres with a fair amount of up and down. From a bus stop on Ngong Ping Road, you take a trail over the hills towards Tai O, eventually dropping in from a steep mountainside slope on the north side of the village.
The hike starts in the thick forest before following a bushy ridgeline to reach the summit of Cheung Shan at 449 metres. There are panoramic vistas of the west Lantau mountains and over the South China Sea, plus a terrific view above Tai O at the end.
For a while the trail is overgrown and you can’t see your feet, so it’s worth wearing long pants and closed-toe shoes for this one. Don’t forget your sunglasses and hat because there’s no cover for most of the way. There’s a steep descent at the end, but this should be fine for anyone who is reasonably fit. The hike covers 5.5-kilometres and will likely take able hikers two-and-a-half to three hours to complete.
Start: Ngong Ping Road
Our team of four meets early in the morning, while it’s still relatively cool, and we hop on one of the buses (numbers 2, 21, or 23) headed for Ngong Ping. As we turn off the main road and start to climb towards the Big Buddha, there’s a bus stop (San Hoi Ting) just after a sharp U-turn to the right, where we get off.
Following my trusted Lantau Island & Neighbouring Islands Hiking Map (Lantau Countryside Series), which accurately shows this trail start, we walk back down the road 100 metres or so until we get to a junction, where we keep going straight. On reaching a fork in the road, we turn left. (The road to the right goes all the way down to Sham Wat village on the north coast. You can drive your car to Sham Wat, where there’s a secluded stretch of rocky beach, plus a few cafés that are frequented by locals for the most part, and by hikers making their way from Tung Chung to Tai O.)
Our trail starts about 50 metres down the road (the left fork), just before it heads downhill towards a monastery. The hardest point of the hike is finding the trail start, you need to scan the foliage on your right for ribbons in the trees. Once you’ve found the ribbons, you follow them through the trees and then uphill through a thick forest.
It’s summer, so the person in front carries a stick to sweep away any Golden Orb Weaver spider webs that may be blocking our path. But don’t worry, these (seasonal) spiders, with their yellow backs and long black legs, don’t bite people and they are more prevalent at lower altitudes. What’s more, the organised hiking groups that pass this way fairly regularly keep the trail clear.
On reaching an area of landslide that’s been ‘shotcreted’ over, we stop for a rest and take in a great view across a deep valley with the Big Buddha in the distance. Continuing uphill through the forest, we come to a fork close to the top, and keep right.
After about 20 minutes, we find ourselves above the tree cover near the top of a hill. Below us on our left, we spot the golden roof of Yin Hing Monastery and, looking across the valley, we see Keung Shan and Ling Wui Shan in the distance, on the other side of Tai O Road. For the next half hour or so, the narrow trail winds its way across an exposed ridge; mostly covered by knee-high bushes and ferns with taller trees in parts, it’s easy enough to follow.
Cresting Elephant Mountain
The ridgeline snakes its way west and descends and ascends three times before climbing upwards to the north. We then make a short scramble to the highest mountaintop in the area, 449-metre Cheung Shan, which translates as Elephant Mountain. This is one of the three ‘guardian beasts’ of Tai O, the other two are Sze Shan (Lion Mountain) close by to the south at 322 metres and Fu Shan (Tiger Mountain), which is just a hill, some 75-metres high, in the northwest behind the Tai O Heritage Hotel.
Reaching the summit of Cheung Shan, we take a well-earned pitstop at its trig point to enjoy spectacular views across the west Lantau mountains and down to Sham Wat village and bay, with the airport behind. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge is just offshore and it disappears into an underwater tunnel not far away to the north west. We congratulate ourselves for taking just over an hour to get to this point.
Coming down the other side of Cheung Shan, we’re now in short grassland on a chalky white trail, and we see some evidence of hill fires. When I first did this hike in early 2015, a large part of the hillside from Cheung Shan to Tai O had been ravaged by a recent fire; the outlook was pretty devastating though there were new shoots of grass poking out from the ashes. Due to the resilience of nature (and islanders’ tireless conservation efforts), it’s mostly back to normal now.
Dropping in on Tai O
From here on, we walk downhill through rolling hills all the way to Tai O, our final destination. If you have time, you can take a short detour trail to a rocky hilltop above the coast. From there, you can hope to spot a pod of Lantau’s famous Chinese White Dolphins, though you’re now right up close to the Hong Kong-Zhuhai- Macau Bridge.
Continuing on, we’re suddenly looming 250 metres over Tai O with an amazing view of the entire village and its tidal waterways below us. The descent gets steep and rocky here for about 50 metres, so we take it slowly. Soon, we join the coastal trail to Tung Chung (the Tung O Ancient Trail), passing by the North Boundary Obelisk, built in 1902
by British sailors, and the Yeung Hau Temple, which dates back to 1699 and is still a hub for local fisherfolk.
Following the waterway, with mangroves on our left and the villagers’ stilt houses on our right, we make our way into Tai O, crossing a few bridges to reach the centre of the village. We soak up the unique atmosphere and check out the dried-seafood stalls before jumping on a bus back home.