Hong Kong nature-based outdoor activities

Stand at street level almost anywhere in Hong Kong and it can be hard to see the hills for the high rises. But this city's urban disguise hides a natural secret.

Hong Kong is composed of around 70 per cent green space. It has 250 islands and more than 300 hills. Fractured volcanic cliffs tip into the ocean, and hiking trails run like stitching over the land.

To hike here is to be surprised, because its trails are no cursory urban strolls. The MacLehose Trail, a demanding 100-kilometre route across the New Territories, was selected as one of the world's 20 "dream trails" by National Geographic in May, while Time magazine once named the Dragon's Back trail on Hong Kong Island as Asia's best urban hike.

If these hiking trails are a secret, it's clearly only to people outside of Hong Kong. As I set out on the Dragon's Back one afternoon, I'm inside a colourful scrum of hikers winding up the slope of this ridge that does indeed form a spine along the eastern edge of the island.

At first, as it climbs steeply through low scrub, there's little to distinguish the trail as anything special, but as it rises to the crest of the ridge, it's as though somebody has opened the blinds on the world.

Either side of me, the ridge plunges away to the sea. To one side I look down onto the tourist town of Stanley; to the other, the beach playground of Shek O is nibbled into a rocky headland, creating a scene that looks almost Mediterranean in its arid beauty.

The Dragon's Back trail runs along this string-thin ridge for eight kilometres, forming one section of the longer Hong Kong Trail. Stretching for 50 kilometres across the hills and ridges of Hong Kong Island, this latter trail is one of four multi-day hiking paths across Hong Kong. The Dragon's Back distils it into a manageable half-day hike.

Once atop the ridge it's a hike along the vertebrae of the Dragon's Back, rising up and over its various hills and knolls. The views are almost unbroken, and paragliders skim below me as the trail climbs to its highest point atop the summit of 284-metre Shek O Peak.

From here, the trail looks down onto Big Wave Bay, where the sands are covered in a colourful mosaic of beach umbrellas. The Dragon's Back hike ends on this beach, which is so near below now, but still so far away on foot. In the far distance, Hong Kong's tower blocks peep into view.

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Eventually the Dragon's Back stops climbing every rise along the ridge, contouring instead behind them. The trail turns flat and gentle, encased by forest, with butterflies flickering between the trees that line the path edge. It's very much the calm end of the dragon.

The trail ends with a steep descent into Big Wave Bay, where signs scrawled onto surfboards welcome walkers to the village. I wind through its streets and step onto the beach where, contrary to the bay's name, there are only small waves rolling ashore through the shark net.

Closer to home for most visitors to Hong Kong is Victoria Peak, the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island, rising directly behind the Central district. For the vast bulk of visitors, "the Peak" is reached aboard the Peak Tram funicular railway, but it can also be scaled on foot.

Hiking trails scribble up its slopes, but are typically sheathed in a tangle of forest. The best advice I've been given is to walk up Peak Road instead, where views are the norm not the exception.

I set out from the Stubbs Road Lookout, perched at a height where I'm still peering into the highest floors of Hong Kong's tallest buildings. As I walk I'll ascend through layers of forest, but also through layers of wealth. 

In Hong Kong, it's generally held that the higher up the slopes you live, the larger your bank balance, and last year Peak Road was named the world's most expensive address by Billionaire.com.

I wander past the home of a movie star, the Italianate mansion of a local tycoon's son, and a historic property that recently sold for almost $900 million in the largest Hong Kong residential sale. 

The advantage of the road walk over the hiking trails is that it's a window onto the city. Hong Kong's towers peep through gaps in the forest. Other times they burst into view, always at slightly new angles and always framed by greenery.

On a Sunday morning, traffic on Peak Road is light, making for a pleasant walk. Cyclists grind up beside me, almost at walking pace themselves.

About halfway up, the road crosses the ridge and Hong Kong Central and Kowloon disappear behind the mountain. The views now are down onto Hong Kong Island's southern side, where Aberdeen's apartment blocks cluster like coral at the edge of the island.

Atop the Peak, the human side of Hong Kong well and truly reasserts itself. Crowds pour out of the tram station, though relatively few people step beyond the Peak's shopping mall, cafes and observation decks.

My own walk, though, hasn't ended. Near the tram terminus is the beginning of a trail that circuits beneath the summit of the Peak (the actual tip is off-limits). The Peak Circle Walk makes a 2.8-kilometre lap that's at times thick in subtropical forest, and other times seems almost suspended over the top of Hong Kong's high rises. The views are exceptional, the going is easy, and the shade from the city's relentless heat is welcome.

Hong Kong's outdoor experiences aren't just limited to its hiking trails. One morning I set out for Sai Kung, a town in the New Territories that's known as Hong Kong's "back garden" for its proximity to trails and natural areas.

The MacLehose Trail begins just outside of Sai Kung, but I haven't come to walk it. Sai Kung is also one of the gateways into the Hong Kong Global Geopark, an unexpectedly dramatic showcase of the geology that underpins Hong Kong.

From Sai Kung, I cross by boat to nearby Sharp Island and my first glimpse of the volcanic violence that created this area. The island was once the edge of a volcanic crater, and along its shores the bedrock is fractured and cracked by the heating and cooling of the rock.

At the island's southern end, the boat pulls ashore at Half Moon Bay, a gleaming white smile of sand. Widely regarded as one of Hong Kong's finest beaches, it wouldn't look out of place on Thailand's Andaman coast.

But the most impressive sights in the Geopark are beyond Sharp Island. Out here, wind and waves, not humans, have shaped Hong Kong. Islands recede to the horizon like matrioshka dolls in a scene that feels more Halong Bay than Hong Kong. 

Along the coast, waterfalls materialise from the scrub, plunging into the sea. Floating fish farms nestle into coves cut deeply into weaknesses in the rock.

A sea arch curves like a stone rainbow across a narrow inlet, and our skipper gently reverses through the waves, backing the boat through the arch to suddenly placid waters.

The coast reaches its wild apogee as we approach the oceanfront dam wall of High Island Reservoir. The rugged, frayed coastline rises into a picket fence of cliffs composed of the same sort of hexagonal columns found at the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, except that here they're taller and more extensive.

We turn back for Sai Kung, threading between islands. Some of them are little more than rocks with buzz cuts of scrub. On one island, the slopes are covered in nothing but whitewashed gravestones, so that it strangely resembles a resort village for the dead.

All around us now, kayaks skim across the sea, scuba-diving boats bob about, and water skiers buzz through the waves. It's Hong Kong at play, something this Asian metropolis does surprisingly well.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

discoverhongkong.com/au

GETTING THERE

Cathay Pacific has four flights to Hong Kong daily from Sydney, and three flights daily from Melbourne. cathaypacific.com.au

TRAVELLING THERE

To reach the Dragon's Back, take bus 9 from Shau Kei Wan (a station on the MTR blue line) to To Tei Wan, where the trail begins. Bus 9 returns to Shau Kei Wan from the trail's end at Big Wave Bay. 

Bus 92 runs to Sai Kung from the Diamond Hill MTR station. Boats can be hired from Sai Kung's pier.

See discoverhongkong.com for a guide to outdoor activities in Hong Kong.

FIVE OTHER HONG KONG ACTIVITIES

KAYAK AT SAI KUNG Paddle along the shores of the Hong Kong Global Geopark and, weather permitting, through a sea arch. 

MOUNTAIN BIKE AT TAI LAM Ride a 22-kilometre mountain-bike trail along part of the MacLehose Trail and the edge of Tai Lam Chung Reservoir, the so-called Thousand Island Lake. Bike hire is available in nearby Yuen Long.

HIKE THE MACLEHOSE TRAIL The most demanding of Hong Kong's four long-distance trails, crossing through the mountainous heart of the New Territories. 

ROCK CLIMB ON THE CENTRAL CRAGS  Dangle above the towers of Hong Kong Central as you inch up these cliffs on Victoria Peak.

PARAGLIDE AT SHEK O  See the Dragon's Back at a different pace, soaring from near Shek O Peak, one of eight paragliding launch sites in Hong Kong. 

The writer travelled courtesy of the Hong Kong Tourism Board and Cathay Pacific.

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