The classic pictorial image of Hong Kong, with its Manhattan-like skyline towering over congested Victoria Harbour, is understandably a staple of the travel brochures and souvenir T-shirts – but tells only part of the story. A widerangle study of the same scene reveals how the skyscrapers are set against steep, thickly wooded mountains that soar massively above them, making the most grandiose towers look almost puny in comparison. Visually, it’s arguable that Hong Kong outdoes Manhattan, but nature reigns effortlessly supreme.
The Peak Tram that ascends towards the 554m summit of Victoria Peak takes precisely seven minutes to pull beyond the tops of the tallest buildings and open up a dramatic vista of hills, forests, islands and sea in which human development plays no more than a walk-on part. More than 20 country parks are spread across the small but infinitely varied land mass of Hong Kong and the New Territories, with lakes and mountains criss-crossed by remote trails where it’s possible to be a six-hour hike from the nearest main road.
Sir Murray MacLehose, a keen walker who governed the peninsula from 1971 to 1982, had the enthusiasm and influence to exploit Hong Kong’s natural gifts. He organised the formation, maintenance and mapping of a series of challenging hiking routes, and the longest of all, which runs for 100km from Hong Kong to the New Territories, consisting of 10 distinct sections and spanning 20 mountains along the way, is named after him. Another formidable long-distance trail runs for 70km across Lantau, the largest island, showing off its two great peaks and giving access to some remote bathing beaches, while the 50km Hong Kong Trail passes through four country parks on its way across the island to the picture-postcard village of Shek O and the yellow sand beaches that are a feature of the east coast.
So much for the serious stuff: most of the designated walking routes around the peninsula can be completed within two or three hours. The most thrilling of these begins and ends near the Peak Tram terminus at Victoria Peak. A circular, 2.2km walkway runs around the base of the mountain, shaded by the giant leaves of sub-tropical trees and unveiling incredible views at almost every turn. With a sheer drop below them, walkers who might be fatally distracted by the scene are protected by tall railings. Above them, the cliff face has been filled with concrete and covered with netting to protect against possible rockfalls. Walking is easier on the high ground, because the temperature at half a kilometre above sea level is about 5C cooler than downtown, and gentle mists and showers are common all year round.
In the city, space is at a premium, but a handful of refreshing, green retreats have been preserved. Near the Peak Tram’s Lower Terminal, the pretty, ornamental Botanical Gardens – divided into two and connected by a tunnel under Albany Road – are surprisingly large and unbelievably restful, given the frenetic pace of life going on around them. There’s a lake, amphitheatre, t’ai chi garden and aviary among the flowers and shrubs.
Two substantial slices of the northern New Territories have been reserved for wetlands that attract large numbers of wildfowl and other wildlife. The city rightly proud that some endangered birds are among the many species to have flocked – along with the public - to the newly-constructed Hong Kong Wetland Park (00 852 2708 8885; www.wetlandpark.com). And on the northern fringe of the Territories, egrets and herons are among the many migratory species to have colonised the abandoned shrimp ponds, fishponds and mangrove swamp of the Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve. Best visited between November and March, Mai Po is administered by the World Wildlife Fund, which exercises strict control over visitor numbers. Bird-watchers must apply to the local office (00 852 2256 4473) for a full or half-day permit.
Over the years, the New Territories have been unfairly characterised as a somewhat soulless, overspill zone for the expanding metropolis to the south. New facilities such as the wetland reserves are part of the Government’s efforts to raise its profile, and their efforts will bear abundant fruit next summer when the Olympics come to town. The New Territories have been chosen as the venue for the equestrian events of Beijing 2008 at both the Olympic Games (9-20 August) and the Paralympic Games (7-11 September). Two venues for showjumping and three-day eventing have been purpose-built at Sha Tin and Beas River. After a dress rehearsal event two months ago, Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, gave the new facilities the official stamp of approval. Millions of TV viewers and many thousands of first-time visitors will discover an often neglected area of the peninsula that could become Hong Kong’s recreational lung. Perhaps some of the equestrian fans will stay on after the event to tackle the MacLehose Trail.
More on the Olympic equestrian events at www.equestrian2008.org.
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