Lantau Island is one of Hong Kong’s most important green lungs and as large-scale development knocks on its door, Laurel Chor takes on its undulating hike over four days, discovering more than a few reasons to preserve this piece of nature in the city
Located west of Hong Kong Island, Lantau Island is the territory’s largest. It is also a place of extremes: here, you will find the pristine beaches of Cheung Sha Wan and Pui O, the remote villages of Tai O and Shui Hau, spectacular wildlife such as the barking deer and finless porpoise and the city’s largest country park, Lantau South Country Park. But you will also encounter glaring signs of modern human activity: the airport, a cable car to the Big Buddha, an outlet mall and Disneyland.
The contradictions don’t end there. Located a long train or ferry ride away from Hong Kong Island, and with a population of just over 100,000, Lantau is one of the city’s most important green lungs and recreation spots – qualities that also make it an important piece in the city’s urban planning puzzle.
In October last year, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced a bold plan to develop the island over the next 20-30 years. “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” will reclaim about 1,700ha of land to create artificial islands that could potentially bring one million more people to the waters off Lantau’s east coast. It would be the most expensive project that Hong Kong has ever seen, costing even more than the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, which begins off the coast of Lantau and is the world’s longest cross-sea bridge.
It’s hard to imagine that this very same place is also home to one of Hong Kong’s most staggering and beautiful escapes, the 70km Lantau Trail. The trail loops around the southern part of the island, climbing up to the territory’s second-highest mountain – Lantau Peak – before meandering its way through rolling hills, hugging the coastline in the southwest. While Sunset Peak is a favourite camping spot, and Lantau Peak is a popular weekend challenge, the rest of the trail is relatively quiet and untrampled by the average hiker. To contemplate Lantau’s impending development, and to take in its surprising beauty, I have decided to tackle the whole thing. And though I am an avid hiker, 70km is a lot. I’ve decided to break the Lantau Trail up into four days, tackling three sections each day. It means that I will be hiking, on average, about 18km per day. And since the highly accessible trail often crosses roads frequented by buses, I can go home and rest each night.
Opened in 1984, the Lantau Trail is one of Hong Kong’s four major trails, which range in length from the 50km Hong Kong Trail to the 100km MacLehose Trail. The latter is named after colonial Hong Kong’s longest-serving governor, Sir Murray MacLehose, an outdoorsman to whom the city owes much of its country park land. These parks now make up an astounding 40% of Hong Kong, each with its own impressive network of trails, most designed to be accessible by public transportation and suitable for people of any fitness level.
The trail begins in earnest under an archway the moment I step off the boat at the Mui Wo Ferry Pier. Our motley crew – two friends that I have scrounged up for company, my dog Digby and I – walks up a gently upward-sloping road as large buses whiz past, carrying hordes of tourists off to Tai O or the Big Buddha. From here, it is a long, slow climb up first to Sunset Peak, before continuing on to Lantau Peak.
The trail doesn’t officially hit Sunset Peak, Hong Kong’s third-highest at 869m; it merely hugs its curves, the summit eyeing you from above. But in the interest of conserving time and energy – with Lantau Peak and another three days of hiking ahead – we forge onwards. Even without touching the peak, we have climbed high enough to hit another climate: the temperature drops, and we find ourselves shivering, at eye level with the clouds, grateful for our jackets and rainproof shells. On our right, the mountain ridges catch wisps of cloud as the wind blows them across, with some hills blanketed by a dense, white layer of vapour. On our left, the South China Sea shimmers far down below.
In the hills surrounding Sunset Peak, there is a cluster of abandoned buildings that once made up Lantau Mountain Camp, built almost a century ago as recreational grounds for British missionaries. Since abandoned and boarded-up, they stand stoically along the trail, still providing shelter against the strong winds.
My human companions leave me after 9km, at the end of Section 2 where the trail descends to 325m before mercilessly going back up. From here on, Digby and I will complete the remainder of the four-day trek solo. Section 3 begins with another sharp incline, and we climb up through another layer of cloud before we finally get to the very top of the island: Lantau Peak, 934m.
A pillowy sea of cloud hangs in the air, clinging to the mountains below Lantau Peak, also known as Fung Wong Shan or “Phoenix Mountain” in Chinese, before dissipating and revealing the expanse of ocean to the south of the island. I spend a good half-hour soaking in the breathtaking view.
To begin my second day of trekking, I take a taxi to where I left off – the Big Buddha – and I find myself elbowing my way through tourists and walking past fast food joints to get to the trailhead.
On this day, over the 12 hours it takes me to trek, snack and photograph my way through the 14km of Sections 4 to 6, solitude begins to creep in. The rest of the trek never again reaches the dramatic heights and views of the first three stages, so it is quite literally all downhill from here. I like my me-time, but there’s still something decidedly alone about walking 70km with only my dog for company. Hiking solo is spending five minutes wondering where I have possibly left my sunglasses, finally making my peace with their loss, then realising that I have actually been wearing them the entire time. Hiking solo is spinning around to see who’s behind me, only to realise I was actually hearing the sound of my own thighs chafing against each other. Hiking solo is realising how much we modern-day people expect constant contact with others, and how little we are forced to confront our thoughts, away from screens. Amazed that this kind of solitude is available without leaving Hong Kong, I start speaking to Digby.
Other than the climbs to Sunset Peak and Lantau Peak, and the sections near the residential Mui Wo Village and popular Pui O beach, the trail gets little foot traffic and the island’s diverse inhabitants reflect its largely untouched nature. Lantau is home to the Romer’s tree frog, a species found only in Hong Kong, and the Chinese white dolphin, also known as the pink dolphin for its light, rosy hue. However, there is concern that big projects would pose serious threats to the habitat of these creatures.
Halfway through Section 4, a concrete loop where the tree cover opens up to reveal a view of the ocean, I get a real good look at a structure some have criticised to be at odds with Lantau’s ecology: the newly completed Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge – an enormous, 55km-long feat of engineering and the world’s longest cross-sea bridge. The bridge opened in October 2018, and the government hopes it will help boost the economies of the three cities and provide a key transportation link between Hong Kong and the mainland.
The South China Morning Post reported that many dolphins disappeared from northeast Lantau when work commenced on the bridge in 2012. Now, there are just 47 individuals remaining, down from 188 in 2003. People like Janet Walker, who’s been leading tours for Hong Kong Dolphinwatch since 1997, believes that public education about the animals will give them a better shot at surviving for generations to come.
“We’re at a tipping point,” she says. But then again, the dolphins’ resilience has surprised her before. “If you had told me 20 years ago that the dolphins would still be here, I wouldn’t have believed you.” Though it has been criticised, a report assessing the environmental impact of the project concluded there would be minimal damage to the dolphins, and proposed the creation of a new marine park to mitigate any harm done during construction of the bridge.
In a contradiction that’s typical for the island, Lantau’s beaches – some of the Hong Kong’s most untouched, with no lifeguards, blaring loudspeakers or facilities – share a coastline with development projects as massive as the bridge and third runway. Sections 7-9, which I do on day 3, follows the shore and has me traversing beaches and villages I never knew existed. I’m surprised yet again when I find a hidden waterfall by venturing off-trail on an unmarked path. Though exhausted by the third day, I am further blown away by the bounty Lantau has to offer.
Hong Kong’s green spaces are the city’s lungs, not only supplying fresh oxygen and removing toxins from the air, but also providing a much-needed place to escape and to find solitude. Living in the city can be overwhelming at times, and struggling against the sheer mass of humanity – thousands living, breathing, sleeping within feet of one another – can take its toll on your mental health. Lantau itself has two major country parks and swathes of unprotected wild land. Walking the entire Lantau Trail while carrying a heavy backpack has been hard. But it’s turned out to be an emotional retreat, an opportunity to be mindful of the earth beneath my feet and to rediscover the calm within.
The final three sections, 10-12, consist largely of flat concrete that follows a water catchment, the highlight being a detour along Pui O beach. Shining under the winter sun and delightfully devoid of visitors on a weekday, the beach is in full splendour with its soft, yellow sand mostly undisturbed by footsteps. I savour a salad and bagel at the Treasure Island beachside restaurant – the only real meal I’ve had on the trail – before I forge on for the final stretch towards Mui Wo.
Mui Wo resident Tom Yam is a vocal detractor against the Lantau Tomorrow Vision plan. He claims the project is unnecessary, overly costly and illogical in the face of climate change and rising sea levels. Though retired, he dedicates his time to raising awareness about the plan. Most recently, he organised a street carnival about how the plan may affect Lantau. But he acknowledges it might be hard to reach the average city dweller struggling with rising property prices: “The way the government is presenting this is very convincing – it’s very alluring that this will solve your problems.”
It’s hard to ignore the pressing need for more space for Hong Kong’s population. In response to environmental concerns, secretary for development Michael Wong has said that “to enhance resilience against extreme weather, we will make reference to the latest design standards”. A billion-dollar conservation fund will also be put in place to protect the island’s rural areas.
The Lantau Trail ends unassumingly, closing the loop at the back of Mui Wo Centre, not far from the pier. I descend the last steps to no fanfare, the only indication of the trail’s end being the final post: number L139. With 20 minutes to spare until my next ferry, I reward myself with a cheesecake and drink.
My fellow patrons are oblivious to what I have accomplished but part of me wants to bang my glass with my fork and make a self-congratulatory announcement. A bigger part wants to grab everyone by the shoulders and tell them how beautiful Lantau is, and how it might change soon. Like much of Hong Kong, we might lose Lantau Island as we know it before we ever even appreciated how special it was – and I hope we don’t all have to walk 70km to realise it.