Rediscovering Hong Kong’s Natural Treasures
By Paul Loong
Here’s a friendly call to fellow Raimondians to get on their feet: Take the time to rediscover the stunning landscapes that are as much a part of Hong Kong’s physical identity as The Peak and Victoria Harbour.
Classmates who live in Hong Kong know that many lesser-known but delightful destinations await them in the countryside just outside the urban areas.
Those of us who visit Hong Kong only occasionally would be well advised to put on our walking shoes and go exploring on foot. We may come upon surprising places that we never thought existed or stumble upon long-forgotten locales once close to our hearts.
James H.K. Wong of Edmonton said on WhatsApp recently that hiking has become “a common and great way to reconnect with Raimondi old friends … Many overseas Raimondi Old Boys now include hiking with RC buddies as part of their itinerary when they come home to visit Hong Kong.”
It is up to us to decide how easy or hard our hikes should be. A leisurely walk in the backwoods can be as enjoyable as an exhausting climb to the summit of Tai Mo Shan.
My family went on a half-day outing with friends on a pleasant December day in 2016. Everyone had fun and came away feeling enriched by the experience.
Our goal was to see the volcanic rock formations at the Hong Kong Geopark 香港地質公園. Since 2015, its formal name has been upgraded to “Hong Kong UNESCO Global Geopark” in recognition of the geological significance of the site to the world.
The mesmerizing volcanic rock columns are most easily accessible to visitors around the East Dam 東壩 of High Island Reservoir 萬宜水庫 near Sai Kung 西貢.
Many of us have heard of High Island, or 糧船灣, while were students at Raimondi College. Back then, it was really an island. Construction of the reservoir started in 1969, connecting the island to the mainland with two dams and turning what was once a sea channel into a huge fresh-water lake to quench the thirst of the burgeoning population.
Over time, the massive earth-moving project uncovered more of the volcanic rock formations in the area. Roads built to service the reservoir also opened up public access to the rock columns, paving the way for the creation of the Geopark to showcase the geological marvel. Many of the spectacular rock columns are right alongside the road leading down to the foot of the imposing East Dam.
East Dam holds off the sea from High Island Reservoir.
Soaring straight up like a rampart or coiled like a scoop of churned butter, the hexagonal rock columns extend over a large area of High Island. The pillar-like features are visible on the steep banks of the reservoir behind the protective span of East Dam. Beyond the seaward face of the dam, the columns stand like massed sentinels along the jagged coastline, bearing the brunt of the pounding surf.
Rock columns visible from excavation on one side of the reservoir.
How to get there?
The Volcano Discovery Centre 火山探知館 (tel: 2394 1538) in downtown Sai Kung is a good place to start. You can join guided tours there on weekends and holidays, and take in presentations about seismic activity in the area in pre-historic times. The centre is near the Sai Kung bus terminal, the public pier and the sea-food restaurants on the harbour. http://www.volcanodiscoverycentre.hk/en
The official Geopark website has some helpful pages for visitors:
Private sight-seeing boat tours are also available. Tour operators can be seen selling tickets at the public pier. On the day we went, however, the sea was too rough for boat tours.
It is possible to get to the volcanic rock columns on your own overland, but you need to plan your day carefully to avoid being stuck there.
High Island Reservoir is inside the vast Sai Kung East Country Park 西貢東郊野公園. The gateway to the park is Pak Tam Chung 北潭涌, reachable by taxi or public bus from Sai Kung. Some useful details are found at http://www.hongkongextras.com/_hong_kong_geopark.html
We had it easy as a friend drove us there, but we had to park the car in Pak Tam Chung because regular traffic was not allowed inside the country park. If you don’t want to walk, you can take a taxi – the ones with a special permit to operate inside the park. You can usually find one at the taxi stand in Pak Tam Chung or you can ask around for them in Sai Kung.
Tell the driver to go to 東壩. For us, it was a 20-minute ride from Pak Tam Chung to East Dam. I don’t remember if there was a meter but we paid around HK $100 one way. I have since read online that others paid $60, so maybe our haggling skills were sub-par and we got gouged.
Our taxi made the many twists and turns cautiously along the narrow, well-paved road. We saw “MacLehose Trail” on a road sign. So this was part of the famous hiking path in the country park. We had plenty of time to enjoy the views. The sprawling reservoir brimming with tranquil water was nestled among undulating hill ridges that faded into the distant horizon. An ink-brush painting of the scene floated across my mind.
On reaching East Dam, we were pleased to find well-maintained foot paths and wooden boardwalks that took visitors out to the front of a sea cave. The site was mostly garbage-free. Large crowds had not yet taken over, perhaps because getting there was still not as easy as “a walk in the park.”
The taxis will not wait for you while you explore the rock formations. Our driver gave us a business card and said we could call the dispatcher when it’s time to leave. He mentioned casually that it would take more than three hours to walk back to Pak Tam Chung.
We spent a leisurely afternoon around East Dam. Then we wanted to call a taxi – but so did about half a dozen other groups who were also eager to go home. All we got on the phone was a voicemail saying all the taxis were busy. When a taxi finally showed up with several campers, the waiting hikers swamped around it. The campers could hardly get out of the vehicle. We lost out in the scramble to board the taxi.
After a long wait and some anxious moments, we succeeded in getting into another taxi. Our ploy worked: we walked a few hundred metres back along the road to Pak Tam Chung and flagged down the next taxi before it got anywhere near the waiting mob. A huge sigh of relief and much nervous laughter ensured. We had avoided the dreaded fate of having to walk three hours in the semi-wilderness as darkness descended. Moreover, we were spared the scariest outcome of all: having to spend the night out in the open.
Lesson learned: Go in the morning and leave around lunchtime when other visitors have not yet begun thinking about going home.
About the author:
Paul Loong was in Form 5C and completed the School Certificate exams shortly before he moved to Canada. He graduated from the University of Toronto and Carleton University in Ottawa in the 1970s and had a career in journalism until 2012, when he started teaching at Seneca College in Toronto. He is married and has a daughter. He is one of the editors of this blog.