Hump Day Hikers – Hong Kong

When I first moved to Hong Kong I was most surprised by the beautiful hiking trails and immediately wanted to explore them, but I didn’t want to hike alone and I wanted to make friends. Several attempts to coordinate busy schedules became frustrating, so I had an idea.  I sent an email to my friend Pascale telling her that I was thinking of starting a hiking group on Wednesday mornings called Hump Day Hikers. She replied, “Great idea. I’m in.” and that officially launched it. That day I sent an email to about a dozen friends telling them that I intended to hike every Wednesday at 8 am for one of the eight different roughly two-hour loops over Violet Hill and The Twins that can originate from the HKIS Lower Primary at South Bay Close and invited them to join me whenever they could.

To my delight I had a good response and with one email had launched what would become the deepest source of happiness for me in Hong Kong. Friends began to ask if they could bring other friends and if I would add their friends’ names to my list. Within a few months the list had grown to sixty women!   With this response, I formalized it a bit, sending a description with a stated purpose to “catch up, enhance friendships, get some exercise and to have a regular hike on the calendar, but with total flexibility. As always, this is open to anyone who would like to join us, whenever you can, without pressure.”

I sent a reminder email every Monday morning, and longer ones for excursion hikes, but otherwise left them alone. “Call or text me if you’re planning to hike but are running late so we can wait for you, ” I instructed, “otherwise, you don’t have to let me know if you’re coming or not. That’s up to you!”

A core group of about a dozen came every single week. Another dozen came twice a month, yet another dozen once a month, a few came once or twice a season and some never came, but insisted on being kept on the list just in case they ever motivated. One woman never hiked, but came to our end-of-the-year party. Eventually we added a Facebook page that we could use for exchanging the information we shared on the trails. The biggest hike was 30 women, the smallest was just me and a friend. They were equally satisfying and fun.

Beyond the opportunity to explore the place we all called home, the biggest benefit was the new friendships that emerged. Women act a little differently on hikes than sitting at lunch at a club. Dressed in casual workout gear, hair up in messy ponytails or covered with baseball caps, most wore no makeup and the ubiquitous telephones were tucked away in the pocket of the camelback water systems, out of reach for the lull in conversation that inevitably happens when hiking up a mountain. I love the pace of hike conversation. There is space for silence, and it’s never awkward. Women are less guarded and more open when out on the trails. We push our bodies. We sweat, smell, hurt and get tired. We share more secrets too. I was the first to learn of my friend’s pregnancy when her regular quick hiking pace was lagging and she offered her secret as a means of explanation.

Another unanticipated benefit of the hiking group was the opportunity to meet women with children of different ages and stages of life. Typically expats group with others with kids the same age, on the sidelines of sports or at birthday parties. But our group drew women with kids of all ages, so we could learn from each other. We followed along on boarding school and college admissions deliberations, counseled health and relationship issues for each other, compared notes on trips, commiserated, laughed and shed tears every once in awhile too.

Thankfully we only had one injury that required medical attention. One woman slipped and punctured her palm, but fortunately we had reached Violet Hill and were a quick taxi ride from Adventist Hospital. Her dear friend Pam accompanied her and we kept going.  She was fine.

The wildlife on the trails was amazing. Spiders the size of a man’s hand and snakes scared many away, but not all. We occasionally ran into even bigger creatures like wild dogs, a dead porcupine, wild boar and cattle. We learned the network of trails around the south side of Hong Kong Island; how to access the water catchments and secret cobblestone trails enabling us to walk from Repulse Bay to Stanley or Tai Tam to Stanley without ever walking on the dangerous sidewalk-less roads.

The excursion hikes were the most fun. I spent hours plotting the maps and figuring out the directions, and sometimes had to double back and question the route, but their patience and encouragement kept me going and we always made it to our destination. The excursions always included a culinary destination so that we could not only explore the trails, but also try a new restaurant in a different part of town. These were usually all-day adventures, from the time the school bus departed, to just before its return. I had it down to a science and only came back later than the school bus a few times. We would carpool or rely on generous friends with drivers to get us to the trailhead.  Some of our favorite excursions included:

Maclehose, Stage 2 – The signature excursion hike is the second stage of the Maclehose Trail coupled with crispy tofu and a beer at Michelin starred Loaf On in the heart of Sai Kung. Getting to the trailhead is the hardest part of this adventure, but well worth the effort. We usually carpooled to the parking structures in Sai Kung then got into green taxis instructing them to take us into the country park to Long Ke in Sai Kung Country park, across the reservoir to the pavilion. Getting out there the trail continues up and over a steep pass and meanders along three separate beautiful beaches before turning inland for the second half of the hike through the jungle. There’s a perfect pitstop on Dai Long Wan that sells beer and French fries, but we mostly ate trailmix and replenished our water. Emerging from the woods fifteen kilometers and about four hours later, we’d catch the bus back into Sai Kung for lunch. Our group did this hike at least four times.

“Taco Truck Hike to Quarry Bay – The Taco Truck hike was the most popular of all. Hiking from Repulse Bay over Mt. Butler past the relics of World War II infrastructure to Quarry Bay we arrived like clockwork at 11:20, 10 minutes before the now defunct Taco Truck opened. After the Taco Truck closed we hiked to Frites and ate moules frites one time, but it wasn’t quite the same. Still, that route provides myriad options for dining and is a quick taxi ride back to the start.

“Lardo’s  & T.C. Deli Hike” – We hiked over Sha Tin Pass, stages four and half of three of the Wilson Trail in reverse to Tseung Kwan O for a meal at Lardo’s steak restaurant on a minibus roundabout in a housing development.  After a steak, a quick shopping trip at the T.C. Deli to load up on restaurant quality meats at shockingly reasonable prices for HK makes you really feel like a local.

“Dragon’s Back Backwards” – Another favorite excursion was the Dragon’s Back, but done “backwards” starting at the bus stop half way down Shek-O Road and hiking the trail back to the prison, but then turning right and hiking along the catchment, past the first sign to Big Wave Bay to the second one which has a trail of stairs that cascades down the hillside to the sand. When it’s open, the pink café at the far side of the beach has great brunch, but when that was closed we’d continue on the road to Sai Kung to eat at Chinese Thai Seafood place on the roundabout.

“Tai O” – Our furthest afield was Tai O. The fog was relentless and we got a little turned around and, truth be told, we didn’t see very much of the trail. Taking a photo at the top of the rise we couldn’t see two feet in front of us and had a start when we nearly sat on a grazing bull. Eventually we made it to town, checked out the Heritage Hotel and the boats to see the pink dolphins, then caught the city bus back to the outlet malls where our cars were waiting.

“Mui Wo Family Hike” – One school holiday we took a family hike on Lantau from Discovery Bay to Mui Wo inviting husbands and children to join the fun. We took the ferry from Central to Discovery Bay then followed the trail, past the stages of the cross leading to the Trappist Monastery to Mui Wo. My friend’s daughter carried a pile of newspapers while wailing the entire route, but everyone made it and enjoyed the crescent beach of Mui Wo and ended with a great Turkish meal at Bahce before perfectly timing the ferry back home.

“Big Buddha” – The Big Buddha is a popular tourist attraction in HK, but a pain to get to.  Finding the trailhead was challenging, but satisfying.  We parked at the Citygate Outlets at Tung Cheung on Lantau by the airport and skirted the housing estates until the urban center gave way to trails and eventually the staircase at the trailhead.  The staircase follows the path of the cable car high above. None of us felt well that day as we started out fast and it was hotter than we had anticipated, and one even turned back and went home early, but we completed the trail and grabbed an Ebineezers sandwich at the top before my friend’s driver picked us up (alternatively we would have taken the cable car down to the cars!).

“Paddle Boarding Hike” – Once we arranged to hike Violet Hill to Stanley Main Beach and then take everyone paddle boarding. It was a pretty windy day and many had never tried paddle boarding before, so we had lots of fun and got a great photo, but never did that again.

“Green Power” – Hong Kong hosts many adventure races, but the one I love is called Green Power. It’s a 50K race that begins at the Peak and finishes at Big Wave Bay (there is also an option to do 25K starting at Parkview). Not being very competitive, I wasn’t interested in racing, but some of the hiking friends convinced me to train for it, and so I did. My friend Lee and I trained and completed the race together one year. We packed for a hike, including PB&J and trail mix expecting the race to take us about 9 hours, but when we got started the whole group was running and so we started running and just kept running. We did the race in under 7 hours and were really proud of ourselves. The next year I completed the race with my friend Yanzi. It took us a little longer, but we stuck together and finished with big smiles on our faces. It’s an amazing experience to complete a distance longer than a marathon that scales several peaks, but being fully contained on HK island, I reasoned that home was always a quick taxi ride away if I ever wanted to quit.

The HDH included celebrations too. Twice a year I hosted a HDH party where we would hike over The Twins, through Stanley to my house where brunch was waiting. Sweaty and tired, we sat and ate together, celebrating our accomplishments and deepening friendships. I poured my heart into making those meals to express my gratitude to those women for joining me on the hikes each week.

When I left Hong Kong nearly two years ago no one stepped forward directly to assume the mantle of the HDH, but I have heard that a woman has since taken over and continues to coordinate a regular Wednesday hike, sending encouraging messages and keeping the tradition going. I am so pleased to hear this as I continue to get messages from hikers about HDH being a meaningful part of their Hong Kong life.

A few weeks ago I received an email from a fellow “repatriate” who, like me, spent several years in Hong Kong. She was writing to say that she missed our hiking group and she thanked me for starting it. Two years have passed since I left Hong Kong and still it is what she and I remember fondly. What started out of laziness evolved into the most fulfilling and fun part of my six year tenure living in Hong Kong, and I encourage anyone moving there to be sure to get out on the trails as much as possible.

Michelins and MacLehose

Forget visas, flights, Airport Express and all the other hassles of international travel and instead hop a taxi through the tunnel and you’re set for a fantastic “staycation” right in your own HK backyard.  Here’s my suggested itinerary for 3 days of hiking the first half of the MacLehose trail, dining at Michelin starred restaurants and staying in style.

The Serious Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong is a great resource.  I recommend photographing each page of the stage you’re doing on your i-phone for frequent reference rather than lugging the book.  Also, we loaded up on almonds, dried mango and a Snickers bar.  Food is not always available along the trails, so take your own.

Day 1:  Kiss the kiddies goodbye, drop your bags at the W Hong Kong on Kowloon side and head to Mong Kok for the first of your incredibly inexpensive and delicious Michelin starred meals at Tim Ho Wun (2 Kowong Wa St).  You may wait an hour to get a seat in this cramped, no atmosphere, world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant dim sum place, but it’s worth it.  Put your name in, get a number and an order form and go wander the local markets until it’s your turn.  Don’t miss the char siu bao.  For roughly a dozen dishes our bill for two people came to a whopping $111HK.

If you’re up for it, start your hiking adventure that very day with Stage 3 of the MacLehose trail (we did stage 5 and part of the Wilson trail, but I think this plan works better).  Taxi to Pak Tam Au (or 94/96R bus toward Wong Shek Pier) with plenty of water, as there’s no place to buy it along the way.  This stage will take you roughly three hours at a steady hiking pace and alights at Kei Ling Ha where it’s easy to hail a cab back to the W.  That night we chose to eat in the hotel, but you could probably find a better meal if you venture out.

Day 2:  Start with a swim at the W’s gorgeous rooftop pool, then a hearty breakfast at the clever and stylish Kitchen. Tank up for a fabulous day of hiking stages 1 & 2.  If you’re in it for the exercise or bragging rights, take a taxi to the Country Park Visitor Centre at Pak Tam Chung in Sai Kung and start your hiking adventure just past the gate.  This first stage is largely flat, entirely on road surface and rings the enormous man-made reservoir created by damming a narrow inlet on both sides.  This stage took us about two hours at a walking pace, but I would recommend either running this phase or skipping it altogether by taking a green taxi to the end of Sai Wan Road and meeting up with the trail just before the start of stage 2.

Stage 2 of the MacLehose is indescribably beautiful and should be a must-do for anyone with a Hong Kong ID card.  We completed this stage in about four hours, but would have spent more time enjoying the beautiful series of beaches along the way had we not walked the first stage too.  The first of several amazing beaches is Long Ke.  This beach has white sugar sand and a perfect pine grove for camping. Interestingly, the only development located there is a rehab facility; most definitely the finest located one in the world! If you can drag yourself away from this paradise, the trail continues with a steep ascent over Sai Wan Shan, but one is royally rewarded with the descent into Sai Wan for a gorgeous beach filled with starfish and a funny “Oriental Restaurant” where you can stock up on water and sometimes food.  Up and over again and you get to Tai Long Wan, Big Wave Bay, with a perfect little rest spot beckoning from the far side of the beach across a rickety little wooden bridge.  This is a perfect, grab-a-beer-and-ponder-the-view spot, not to be rushed.

From here the trail turns inland and goes through several abandoned villages.  It’s slightly creepy with many stray dogs and no people along the 8K tree-canopied path, but it eventually opens up at a place where some catch a ferry, or continue on to the end of the trail at Pak Tam Au.  The 94 bus leads directly back to Sai Kung town.

Reward your considerable efforts by making a beeline for Michelin starred Loaf On (49 Market St.) in downtown Sai Kung.  Famous for abalone, crispy chicken, fried tofu & salt & pepper squid, this place knows how to fry!  While Rod would argue that fried food is not the best hiking fuel, I stand by my recommendation that this is too good to miss and you deserve it after all that work!

Day 3:  After another Kitchen breakfast (we switched to the new Ritz Carlton in ICC after one night, but I much preferred the W.  Learn from my mistakes!), take a taxi to the start of stage 4 at Kei Ling Ha Lo Wai for a solid day of hiking 4 and 5.  Stage 4 is a relatively rigorous climb up Man on Shan (the second highest peak), Pyramid Hill and Delta Pass.  Hopefully you will be rewarded with stunning views on either side of this exposed trail.  Unfortunately the day we did it was shrouded in fog, so it was a bit tedious and slippery for us, but still a great workout.  The second half of Stage 4 goes through woods along the Gin Drinker’s line with several emplacements from WWII still visible.  The end of stage 4, by Gilwell Camp, is a hard place to get a taxi, so definitely plan to continue on through stage 5 that leads up and over Tate’s Cairn, Shatin Pass and Lion Rock.  The views of Kowloon along this trail are stunning.   Since you’ve spent the day hiking back towards your hotel, a quick cab ride from Tai Po road will have you back at the W in no time, ready to celebrate!

We opted for a foot massage at the no frills but authentic Tai Pan on Nathan Road in TST then an al fresco meal at BLT Steak, but if you want to continue with the Michelin theme, there is no shortage of options within a few minutes of the hotel.

Day 4:  Sleep in, read the whole paper over a leisurely breakfast, check out and head back in time to pick up your little one from preschool.  Congratulations! You’ve just completed, in three days, one-half of what some crazy people do in roughly 24 hours at the Oxfam Trailwalker 100K.  But, you’ve actually had a relaxing vacation in the process and enjoyed the sites along the way.