Hong Kong’s best kept secret
The Sai Kung peninsula is the most remote tip of the islands that form Hong Kong. Covered in forestland and moulded of steep mountains protecting forgotten crystal beaches, the wilderness of the national park here is largely unvisited by the hoards of tourists that descend on the town. There are towns and villages in this area that were born from the visceral stench of the fishing trade. Now they have grown up and they offer another side of the Hong Kong bustle. The town of Sai Kung is the gateway to a national park of beauty and seclusion and very few of the hundreds of visitors who flow through the city ever make it this far.
We set out to hike to Ham Tin beach, one of four bays that make up Tai Long Wan bay. The path is steady, a well-maintained dirt serpent wending through the greenery and up and down the peaks. It’s not long until we see the sea in the distance, a large bay below us amongst the wooded mountain giants. The path continues down, descending steadily, the view now hidden by the verdant canopy that cradles us.
As the valley bottoms out the path flattens. Our shaking knees are like jelly already. We come to a cluster of houses, deserted and ghost ridden. Greyness pervades this place in the molecules of the air itself. The warmth of the day brings no joy here. Through a window pane constructed of dust and cobwebs, a room lies abandoned. Plastic chairs are left idol and an empty coca-cola bottle stands forlorn on a cracked, forgotten wooden table. An old bar, its moss patterned doors cracked and fallen from their hinges, displays a dismal hollow façade. We hurry on. As we have been walking we have passed the occasional hiker, but we meet no one here. The fascination which causes us to peer in through the windows of empty buildings is tinged with an eerieness that now quickens our steps.
And then we reach the sea. The wooden slatted path navigates the undulating edge of the water. A handful of painted wooden fishing boats are tied up to a jetty with fraying knotted twine. A pier, straight and strong and proud, juts out into the azure water. At the end of it you inhabit the place where the mountains meet the sea. Concrete steps lead down into the water. I take off my hiking shoes, peel off my socks and step in. The water laps around my calves. It is warm as bathwater. I sit back on the end of the wooden pier, stumble and cut my heel open on a barnacle. The blood, dark and crimson against the clear sea, spills out and away with the waves.
We leave the valley and climb up, up a never-ending slope. The mountain seems to grow as we climb always taller, always bigger, laughing down at our dogged pursuit. Breathing heavily in the incessant sun, each twist in the path promises a hidden crest and each slope shows us a false summit. We fix our gazes on these points only to reach them and look up, with a sighing, thumping heart at the next one to be conquered. Eventually we reach the point where the path briefly flattens before plummeting once more. From here, we can see the beach we are aiming for. It lies coaxingly in the distance, a golden cove curled protectively in the arms of the jutting peninsula of green that stretches so boldly out into the white foaming crests of the waves. Motivation renewed, we hurry down the path towards the promised refreshment of the seething sea.
When we finally arrive on the beach there are only 3 other people on it. It is a long expanse of perfect white sand, un-marked by footprints or litter – empty and vast and wonderful. The sea is crashing in, great cymbols of celebration. Despearate to feel the water, we change and run down the gentle slope of sand and into the crashing world of white and blue foam. It is warm and soft and made of bubbles. It is spray and fire and power. Each wave is enough to knock you from your feet. They pick you up completely with their force, then throw you churlishly back towards the shore. The only thing to do is to embrace it; to jump as the swell takes you, to ride the sea’s magnificence and feel its power course through you. With your back to the waves, it is as if you are flying. You are taken over by a force much greater than your own. You can play within it, but always stay aware. Never underestimate the power of the sea.
Waves that catch you off guard immerse you in a seething world of white rushing water and seeping, skin-coating salt. Without the waves the water is barely knee high, but when they strike the broiling surface reaches twice over my head. It swells and ebbs with such immense power and direction. How is it so warm and soft yet so powerful and fearsome at the same time? This is the wonder of the sea. It is nature’s great plaything. We let it toss our tiny bodies on its huge whims. We are free.
As the light slowly changes, we drag ourselves out and sit on the warm sand to dry, watching the waves as they come and go. I could stay forever, but we have a long hike back to civilisation before darkness blankets this place. We dry and dress and set off with reluctant but happy hearts. Without a doubt, this has been my favourite experience in Hong Kong so far.
First you need to get to Sai Kung town – we found the easiest way was to get the MTR to Mong Kok then take the red minbus that departs from outside Kwong Wah hospital on Dundas street, off Waterloo road. Then get a green taxi to Sai Wan pavillion where the trail starts. You can get the 94 bus back from Pak Tam Au where the hike finishes to Sai Kung town. You can also start from Pak Tam Au, but if you do its best to re-trace your steps and finish where you started as its the only place with a reliable bus stop. Take plenty of water as there’s not much along the way, although you will come across one or two shops selling cold drinks which can be a welcome relief after all that hill climbing!
Words copyright of Bonnie Radcliffe.
Photographs copyright of Liam McCarthy.