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Forbidden Hong Kong

By Iain MacDonald 2016-06-05• Hong Kong

This post comes to you as a double entry – or should that be two half posts? Either way, as I’ve talked about before, living in Hong Kong can at times lead to feelings like a sort of claustrophobia. Scurrying between tall buildings, following the same routes back and forth to work with limited scope to stray from the path, one almost feels like being an ant in a giant city-sized ant hill. With this in mind, I spent the last couple of weekends on Lantau. I set out to deliberately get off the beaten track and explore a little further than I had previously been.

I often say, that since completing my MTR Challenge I have covered every part of Hong Kong on the macro scale but there are still opportunities to get into the nooks and crannies and explore Hong Kong on the micro scale.

I’m merely talking geographically here. There are of course many, many more dimensions which HK, or any other place, can be explored – such as socially, culturally or gastronomically for instance. But since my spacial exploration is the simplest to see (and record with Strava) I’ll restrict scope to just that in the hope other forms follow naturally. The geographical idea can actually be reduced to the question how long is a coastline? This problem was even contemplated by Mandelbrot while working on his famous fractals, because the answer is: depends how long your ruler is!

I believe this analogy can be applied to the other forms of exploration. The more time you can dedicate to a cause the tighter into the corners you get, examining the minutiae, you gain a greater appreciation for it – be it coastlines, society or wine-tasting.

Part 1: Sea Ranch

So on to last weekend. I wanted to get to somewhere:

  1. I hadn’t been to before
  2. Was off the beaten track, somewhere not too many people go
  3. Was hikeable so I could get outside and enjoy the start of the HK summer on foot

The place that came to mind was a peculiar place in Hong Kong a friend had mentioned to me a few months ago. In the height of 70s optimism a small private resort was opened up on a peninsula on the south of Lantau Island. It had beachfront housing and a communal recreation centre comprising a swimming pool, a bar and other amenities for residents. It was known as Sea Ranch and was recently covered by a blog looking at abandoned Hong Kong. Take a look even just for the corny, extremely dated brochure selling the idea to rich execs passing through HK.

Being on a peninsula it fit right into the definition of a nook I was looking to fill in. Part of the attraction for the original guests was that it’s inaccessible by road. Primary access was provided by small boats to the nearby island of Cheung Chau which in turn is a ferry ride away from Central. There are however, some hiking routes in the area which would provide an alternative way in. This meant also met my other criteria of being somewhere I was unlikely to come across other people and was a chance to go hiking since the weather looked quite favourable.

Getting to the start of the hike meant a half hour MTR ride and a 45 minute coach journey, but once I was there I set off under the hot sun past a few houses and out of the village. Other than a few workmen repairing electricity pylons near the start of the walk I didn’t see another person hiking for the entire rest of the day. Quite an oddity to have an entire part of Hong Kong to yourself.

One overwhelming feeling early on in my walk might be summed up by this gif:Madagascar - Nature! Get it Off!

OK well maybe not quite that extreme but I quickly lost count of the number of spider webs I was walking into and the number of bugs landing on my head or nearly getting squashed under my foot. There was also all sorts of wildlife accompanying them – everything from cows near the start to snakes in the undergrowth at the beach. Crabs were particularly disconcerting when they would scurry away from me in an unexpected (sideways) direction. All this while stopping regularly to rehydrate due to the sweltering heat and general up-down terrain I was walking along.

After just over an hour of hiking I got my first glimpses of the Sea Ranch buildings at the bottom of the cliff. It was just at this time, however, that the heavens decided to open and replace your sun drenched author with a rain drenched one. I didn’t complain too much though since the change in temperature was a welcome break from the heat induced discomfort earlier.

I continued along the path, taking a turning I was looking out for, descending from the cliff top. But I soon realised I was no longer still heading for the buildings I had seen a short time ago. Instead I emerged at another beach I knew to be further along the coast. I was now exposed, out from under the tree cover, in the drizzling rain. So I decided to walk to the other end of the beach to wait for the it to pass in a small shelter I’d spotted and grab a bite to eat while there. The path led behind the beach, past a few houses and over a small bridge to reach the far side. The only other person I saw while eating was a fisherman going back and forth in his tiny boat laying his net across the small bay.

After a refuel for both me and my phone (the battery had run low recording my route and taking pictures), I started back up the path to find where I’d gone wrong. It wasn’t too far where I noticed a discrete set of steps leading down in the direction I was expecting Sea Ranch to be in. It was no wonder I hadn’t seen them the first time I passed, they were rather understated and barely maintained. Honestly the only thing alerting me to their presence was a pair of signs pointing either way along the main footpath which had no other business being where they were.

At least I was now at the fabled Sea Ranch what would it be like? An abandoned wasteland as the blog post had led me to believe or something else? Well almost at my destination. There was one final hurdle to overcome, almost literally. Just as I came down on to the beach I had to pretty much jump over a rather large big black snake to avoid stepping on it. That took me by surprise and I think must be the biggest snake I’ve come across in Hong Kong, so far.

Walking along the beach revealed a view I recognised from pictures but getting closer the first thing I really noticed was a no trespassing sign. I could see that at least some of the houses were still lived in and they still wanted their privacy respected. A government sign at the start of the beach made it clear which parts were in the country park (the whole beach) and where the public right of way footpath ran (the full length in front of the houses). It only added the eerie feeling of the whole place – what justified the sign?

Continuing along the footpath I was explicitly allowed to be on, I saw only cursory signs of life. That was until I got to the end terminated by the pier. There I saw a couple of guys sweeping up who gave friendly smiles as I approached. I stood at the end of the pier and took a few photos both back towards the houses as well as in the direction of Cheung Chau and some Macau ferries speeding past.

Retracting my steps I was approached by someone who looked to be in a ship captain’s uniform with “Sea Ranch Security” embroidered above the shirt pocket. He started by asking where I had come from and followed that up by enquiring whether or not I was a guest of someone. I made it clear to him I was not and was just out for a hike. He made it clear to me that I was only allowed on this path and no other. I assured him I had no intention of straying from this particular track with a little Cantonese and that seemed to placate him.

On my way out I saw the remnants of the rec. centre fenced off where the other bloggers had explored. And that’s the current state of Sea Ranch – still very much lived in, with regular boat trips to ferry residents and supplies in and out, even if the grand promise of what it once was is no longer being lived up to. There are even ads for flats there if you feel like living in an isolated community far from many of the many conveniences modern Hong Kong offers such as fast efficient mass transit and 7-elevens on every street corner.

On the way back I thought about the people who would choose to live in such an isolated place which felt so ‘artificial’ but started comparing them to the people living in the much more modest homes near the other beach I had stumbled upon earlier in the day. Both lived far removed from busy Hong Kong millions are familiar with, both had no road access, both had essentially private beaches for their exclusive use. What separated them? The biggest differences seemed to be the architecture, and where the people living in them had come from. The modest houses were a similar style to those in villages I’ve seen all over Hong Kong, small box shaped, two-storey flat roof style. The inhabitants seem to be regular Hong Kong people making livings from things like fishing. Contrastingly those in Sea Ranch seemed to be ex-pats who have made their money in previous endeavours and have now come here to escape.

So a question: would I disappear to somewhere like this if I had the chance? Honestly, probably not. I started this post lamenting the ant hill nature of modern bustling Hong Kong. I have to admit though the modern conveniences can make the lifestyle tolerable if given the chance to really escape once in a while.

Total Distance: Over 15km
Time: 4 hours 30 minutes
Elevation Change: Over 600m

With that, on to part 2:

Part 2: Infinity Pool

My second expedition to Lantau in as many weekends was to somewhere I hadn’t been in about two years. There’s a hidden place quite off the beaten track (we like that) known as the Man Cheung Po Natural Infinity Pool. There is however nothing natural about it. It’s a water collection point for the Water Services Department (WSD) supplying water to Tai O, but its setting is rather spectacular and does have some natural falls above it adding to the atmosphere. It got rather popular last year attracting many visitors which didn’t please the WSD too much who went to the trouble of hiring security staff to sit by the pool warning potential swimmers of the danger that comes with playing in what is essentially a small reservoir. Given that this is an hour’s hike up a hill from the nearest public transport facility, they must have been serious.

After another MTR ride and a much longer bus journey than the previous weekend I arrived at the start of the hike, again in sweltering conditions but again well prepared with plenty of water. Starting out along the hike it wasn’t long before I started seeing signs about the implications of swimming in reservoirs without permission, it was clear what the WSD had on its mind. Further up the trail I saw more signs and then signs explicitly related to this particular pool of water. After more trekking and avoiding giant Lantau spiders I finally got to the top and who did I see by the pool? Absolutely nobody.

There wasn’t another soul around. There were plastic chairs obviously brought up by guards who were no longer on duty here. There were also unofficial signs next to the ominous warning signs asking visitors to take away their rubbish and leave the place in a respectful condition. But no other people. It was nice to again be far removed from bustling Hong Kong with space to think and breath.

I stayed for a while, washing my face in the water and relaxing, laid out on a rock. After not too long, I headed back down, past the giant spiders, along the coast and back into the village to catch the bus back to civilisation. Again, it was a nice getaway from regular, repetitive, routine life.

Both weekends served as a reminder that if you really search it is possible to escape Hong Kong within it. When I’m on my bike I’m never too far from some settlement or other sign of life. I stick to the roads and the roads in Hong Kong are more often than not fully populated along almost their entire length. This is far cry from what I became accustomed to cycling the the Peak District in the UK, where it seems like you can cycle for hours without coming into contact with another road user or more than a handful of stone cottages along the side of your route. If you want to know the closest I came to this feeling cycling in Hong Kong read the end of my post on the East Rail Line. Instead I’ve learnt that to have a better chance of escaping you should do it on foot and to some of the less travelled places if you can find them.

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