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In search of Castle Peak’s hidden loaf

15 August 2020

By Vir B. Lumicao


Author poses for this priceless shot after ignoring a warning about the difficult climb ahead

A warning sign at the beginning of the steep section of MacLehose Trail Stage 10 up the 583-meter-high Castle Peak in Tuen Mun was clear: 
 “This section is very difficult and suitable only for experienced and well-equipped hikers. Do not attempt it in bad weather. You use this trail entirely at your own risk and the government is absolved from all liabilities in respect of any personal injury (whether fatal or otherwise)…”

I did not bother to finish reading the caveat because, at 11m on June 27, the sun was blazing above the trees and humidity was high. The current temperature was 32 degrees Celsius.

Looking for four female hiking buddies who had set out on the trail about two hours earlier, I climbed the steep, narrow concrete stairway in a blistering pace, huffing and breathing heavily as I wanted to catch up with them before they reached the summit.
Travel writers and hikers estimate the hike at 6.5 kilometers taking a total of four hours, including stops for photo-taking and rest. But those are obviously wintertime estimates, the best time to climb one of Hong Kong’s three most dangerous peaks.

It was summer at its hottest on the day we hiked and the government had issued a very hot weather warning. The sun was already searing my back at 10am, when I started the nearly 2km walk from the Tuen Mun MTR station to the Heung Hoi Ming Shan Memorial Archway, the gateway to Castle Peak.  

A few more flights of steeper stairs zigzagging randomly from the warning sign on the mountain’s craggy eastern face and soon I heard the boisterous banter of my buddies, fellow veterans of several hikes on Hong Kong’s famous peaks.


Pindutin para sa detalye

In two minutes, I joined them for a quick snack in a little shade beside the trail. At 11:30am a blanket of nimbus clouds was slowly drifting towards the mountain, so, we resumed our hike. It would be risky if the rain came with a thunderstorm, as there was no shelter and we were still 200 meters away from the top.

Rain fell, indeed, but it was just a passing shower cooling the heat our bodies absorbed early in the hike. Half an hour later, we were on the ridge, which was wide enough for about 30 people stopping to rest, take photos and enjoy views of Tuen Mun and its villages spread at the eastern foot of Castle Peak.

On the mountain’s rear, the view was less awesome, but Shenzhen, the sprawling sister-city of Hong Kong across the border, was visible. It was only about 3km across Shenzhen Bay.
The intrepid among us went about 60 meters further up the slope to the summit, which was occupied by a government telecommunications tower.

From there, we had a 360-view of Tuen Mun, the wasteland of sand hills, craters and valleys behind Castle Peak. Visible were Sheung Shui and other parts of the New Territories, as well as parts of Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, and the outlying islands of Lantau and Lamma.    

Most visitors to Castle Peak turn back after reaching the summit. In contrast, our group was bent on going down to the valley where few hikers had gone to find the Bread Rock, a natural attraction on a rocky stream that proved to be a challenge.

Others who had been to the wasteland called it Moon Valley because of the uncommon terrain made up of barren ridges, thinly overgrown slopes, and deep gullies and craters gouged out of packed sandhills by weathering. The only cover was tiger grass, a few rhododendron shrubs, thorn bushes and vines.

Awesome view  from the top
We had no maps, so we relied on our hunches and consoled ourselves with the fact that we had brought enough food, water and a torch if ever we got lost. Old footprints we followed vanished where rain must have washed them away.

I was humming my granddaughter’s favorite nursery song, “Mommy Finger,” and warning my female buddies to beware of the trail surface as it was loose, slippery sand. I had just uttered my latest warning when my left foot slid and my left knee hit the ground.

In a split-second, I rolled thrice down the steep slope, grabbing grass and bushes to stop my fall. As the shocked women panicked, I crawled back to the trail. I dusted off my limbs and forehead then laughed as my buddies asked if I was hurt.

 “I’m fine,” I said, but I could not hide the bleeding gash above my left brow, a scratch on my left arm and a nasty laceration on my left knee. We resumed our hike in a minute with me reminded of the warning sign I had ignored. Then I continued to hum “Mommy…”
 
The long and difficult climb to the summit
We cut a path through shoulder-high bamboo grass down a slope until we reached a shady stream with cool, pristine water gurgling between rocks. We refilled out water bottles and rested for 15 minutes while nibbling snacks, then picked our way downstream between rocks and boulders in search of the Bread Rock.

We finally found our target after wandering for about an hour in a 2km loop on Moon Valley, slowed down by one of our buddies complaining of dizziness. Bread Rock, we realized later, was just about 500 meters downstream from where we followed a roundabout trail on dry land.

The loaf-like rock was apparently debris spewed out by an erupting undersea volcano some 120 million years ago in offshore Saikung. The massive eruption, according to volcanologists and geologists, created Kowloon and much of the New Territories including Tuen Mun.

Relieved and relaxed after finding our goal, we took another rocky trail that descended to Lum Kwu Tan Village for the bus ride back to the Tuen Mun MTR station. There we treated ourselves to ice cream at a 7-11 outlet before I took the train with the group, still humming my grand-daughter’s nursery song.
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