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Romancing the mountains, discovering gems

21 February 2019

One of the four waterfalls in Ng Tung Chai along the trail up Tai Mo Shan, the highest peak in Hong Kong.

By Vir B. Lumicao

Hiking around Hong Kong is carried out most actively by various groups and individuals this time of the year to seize on the city’s mild winter, including the recent Lunar New Year break, to explore nature.

This writer has done at least eight hikes, with groups or solo, since December as the cool and overcast weather has made the period ideal for the strenuous outdoor activity.

Surprises abound along the trails, such as the alluring red leaves of the Sweet Gum Woods in Tai Tong Shan that attracted thousands of hikers to Tai Lam, Yuen Long.

There were no more than 200 sweet gum trees along that 350-meter section of of the road. But the leaves turning amber in late November to deep red between mid-December and early January cast a magical spell on patient hikers who trod uphill from Tai Tong.

The arboreal color display is not exclusive to Tai Tong.

In a one-on-one hike with a friend to Sharp Peak in Sai Kung on a Saturday before the Lunar New Year, we retraced a route along MacLehose Trail from Pak Tam Au to one of Hong Kong’s most hazardous peaks.

On the descent towards the abandoned 200-year-old-plus Chek Keng Hau, we espied a virtual yellow forest of bushes no taller than 15 feet spread over about four hectares of flat, gravel-strewn land on the delta of a stream next to the former fishing village.

The species was unnamed, so, I tried looking it up in Google and the Hong Kong Herbarium website these past few days, but had no luck.

Wisdom Path offers spiritual relief after a strenuous climb to the 934-meter-tall Lantau Peak. 

One way of finding out what species made up the yellow forest is to revisit the spot in late spring or early summer to identify it taxonomically through its leaf and flowers, fruits, or pods. Until then the plant species of the yellow forest will remain a mystery.

Equally awesome as the red or yellow leaf spectacles are the tiered waterfalls on a steep side of Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s tallest mountain at 957 meters, which a hiker can reach from the Ng Tung Chai section of the MacLehose Trail.

The steep narrow path of rock slabs, gravel and red soil winds upward beside the four waterfalls and cuts through some of the mountain’s old hardwood forests before stretching out on the moderately sloping, brushy upper reaches of Tai Mo Shan.

The waterfalls and their rocky basins provide magnificent backdrops for photo-taking or plain pit stops for snacks and drinks before continuing the assault on the peak.

A hike on Hong Kong’s hills and mountains is actually a feast for nature lovers and the serious naturalist. The ranges offer myriad of flora and fauna species that one would not expect to see in a cosmopolitan city like Hong Kong.

People should thank the preservation of these biological gems in the city’s ecosystem.

Where gathering plants or hunting wild animals is an offense, it is common for hikers to encounter wild boars, golden macaques, wide varieties of birds and rare flowers, as well as delicately beautiful minnows in streams along the trails.

Atop the treacherous Sharp Peak, we saw dwarf Asian oaks with bright red leaves growing in crevices, as if they were danger markers. We saw the same species on the higher reaches of Mt Parker and farther southeast atop the Twin Peaks.

On one of our hikes with friends on Lion Rock Country Park, we came across a wild boar that went about looking for food as it crossed our path. Nearby was the Amah Rock, where we witnessed a lone monkey snatching the handbag of a local woman and pulling out a bag of three bananas. It then ran off to a rock ledge where it feasted on its loot in front of us.

My 9-year-old granddaughter had her first encounter with the porcine trekkers when we saw a mother and its young on the slopes of Mount Parker standing alert under the trees as hikers took photos of the animals. 

On Lantau Peak, where I and a handful of friends went for a hike recently, I came upon a rare, tiny jewel of Hong Kong’s ecosystem, a lone pink blossom, near the cloud-shrouded top of the city’s second-highest mountain. Its brilliant color was a perfect contrast to the moist brown and green grass mantle of the slope.

There could have been more rare gems to find on that steep peak overlooking Ngong Ping and Shek Pik reservoir, but the thick veil of wind-blown fog covered everything beyond 20 meters as if it were a barrier between heaven and earth.

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