Trail of the unexpected: Hong Kong's rural refuges
A set of mysterious cabins on Lantau Island forms a puzzle for Joyce Man as she heads for the hills
Friday 23 March 2012
After a heart-pounding struggle up a rock-laden path on Lantau, Hong Kong's largest island, I am greeted by a group of silent, mossy stone cabins. With padlocked doors and shutters, they seem impenetrable. After a moment, a dense mist obscures them. It is really, really foggy here.
Many a hiker has asked what the cabins – there are about 20 – are doing sitting along this trail. Lantau is a half-hour ferry ride away from the city centre, and the cabins perch near the 869m-high Sunset Peak. It takes about two hours to walk here from the ferry pier, which means the cabins provide a quick break for locals and an offbeat side trip for travellers. But tourist books are silent on them and hiking guides have only brief mentions. After some digging I find you can book one of a pair of cabins maintained by the Sunset Peak Volunteer Unit, which charges the equivalent of £16 per night per cabin to cover repairs.
So, I find myself knee-deep in undergrowth, opening a metal cabin door. Most of the cabins, located about 50m apart, are spartan. They have stone walls, concrete roofs, no electricity, but some have water and toilet plumbing.
Cracks run along the inside of Cabin No 5, where I'm due to stay the night. At first, my friend Jason Yu and I hesitate at the threshold. There's a musty odour, the floors are wet, and there's a rusty bunk bed that looks like it has been there for decades.
Then our sense of adventure kicks in. We wipe the floor dry and unfurl our sleeping bags. It is unexpectedly noisier inside than out on the knoll, as the wind blows around the cabin, but I am soon asleep, tired out from the our day's hiking.
What No 5 lacks in comfort it makes up for in character, from the geckos that hide behind the door to the trinkets from a bygone era which sit next to modern camping knick-knacks. In the rare moments when the mist dissipates, the view opens out on to Cheung Sha beach and the southern horizon.
The cabins were built in the 1920s by Christian missionaries from the US and Europe. Hans Lutz, a retired Swiss missionary, arrived in 1968. He later tells me that the cabins were intended as an escape from the heat of the city's summers. Some people might not know the cabins' history, he says. They are privately owned. Visitors need to be invited.
Oddly, the volunteer unit claims that "its" two cabins have been lent out for years, though not systematically. The story of how the unit acquired them is hazy. It appears that unspecified foreigners had left them the keys – and the duty of maintenance – and given the Volunteer Unit permission for them to be lent out.
Hans remembers life at the cabins, which he often visited, with campers eating in a larger cabin used as a mess hall where amahs – domestic helpers – would cook. Missionaries of different backgrounds would mix there, he says.
My journey was a welcome respite from the cityscape. It's not just the trek up, which offers striking panoramas of the South China Sea, or the route down, which opens on to a verdant valley. It's the morsel of history tucked in the haze at the top of a city bent on erasing its past to make way for skyscrapers.
Looking back, Hans says: "I loved it. You really could get away. There was the sea, the mountains ... The only problem is the fog."
Ah, the fog.
In the end, my hopes of seeing the sunset from Sunset Peak are dashed when the mist rolls in. Sunrise is no better. It is not until after we climb down that the haze lifts to reveal resplendent rays as they disappear into the Pearl River Delta. But by then, I've got used to the fog.
Travel essentials: Hong Kong
* Hong Kong is served from Heathrow by Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; cathaypacific.co.uk), BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnz.co.uk) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com).
* Campers can apply to stay at cabin 5 or 16 by registering with the Lantau Camp Volunteer Unit (£8-£24 per night per cabin). Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
* From Central Pier 6 take a ferry to Mui Wo on Lantau (nwff.com.hk). Stay on South Lantau Trail Road to Nam Shan for two hours, you'll see cabins on ridge.
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