The first circumnavigation of Hong Kong Island’s shoreline leaves an adventurous couple stung, bruised and bloodied, but also casts fresh light on the true state of the city’s coastal environment.
The first circumnavigation of Hong Kong Island’s shoreline leaves an adventurous couple stung, bruised and bloodied, but also casts fresh light on the true state of the city’s coastal environment
“WHERE YOU GOING?” A SURPRISED LOCAL fishermen shouted at me, as I was poised to jump off. Together with my wife Esther, I stood on the rock platform below Cape Collinson lighthouse on the eastern extremity of Hong Kong Island. “We are climbing all around the island,” I answered. “The whole island?” he asked, in plain disbelief. Looking at the cliffs that lay immediately in our path, even I had doubts about our adventure – a continuous push over miles of rugged coast and urban obstacles, through polluted water and heaving swells. But we were committed. “A crazy idea!” Esther called it, when I first floated the thought, “But I like it! Let's do it!”
A crazy idea
Coasteering combines climbing, scrambling, jumping and swimming, with the aim to stay as close as possible to the shoreline. Its origins can be traced to the 1960s and 70s when British climbers in Wales and Devon started to traverse the local cliffs horizontally as training on their off days. The term coasteering was coined and it has grown over the last 25 years, with more than 150 commercial operators in the UK offering coasteering adventures for corporate team building and stag weekends. In Asia the sport is quite new, although some local adventure groups in Hong Kong have engaged in coastal trekking on easier cliffs, often following trails pioneered by local fishermen. I stumbled into the sport by accident – on a training run I had ended up at Sandy Bay on Hong Kong's western side, realising to my surprise that there were steps cut into the rock at the beach's far end. Curious, I decided to follow them. As I followed the coast, it reminded me of being a 10-year-old, exploring the whitewater streams in my native Austria. The complete ‘Round the Island' project – RTI for short – was a much bigger undertaking of course. The main dangers of coasteering are the crashing waves and submerged rocks that make even short swims treacherous. Furthermore, practically all of the climbing must be done unprotected, without rope, on sometimes very wet rock. That's because protection on horizontal traverses is impractical: even with a rope, any fall likely means an impact with the ground and might take anyone else on the rope down too. We set off on a cloudy, humid Tuesday in May, with what we estimated was seven or eight days of unknowns ahead of us. Walking to the water, we passed Tai Chi practitioners, dog walkers and hikers. It felt strange to be off on such an adventure while the rest of the city went about business as usual. But to start an expedition
straight out of my front door had always been a dream: for once there were no flights, no mammoth bags of gear, no permits necessary. The highrises of Siu Sai Wan are our parting view of urban Hong Kong. Passing through a wire gate that allows local swimmers access to the harbour, we stepped into Hong Kong's wilder side. It's what has always fascinated me about the city, a place where in a few metres you can venture from teeming urban jungle into natural jungle just as vibrant. We had elected to start on Hong Kong Island's eastern shores, its most dramatic coastline, where steep seacliffs, caves and coves – some lined by beaches seldom if ever visited – are exposed to strong easterly swells most of the year. As we jumped off the lighthouse rock though, we didn't leave all of modern city life behind. Reminders were everywhere: garbage littered the inlets, styrofoam boxes, plastic rubbish and abandoned fishnets floated in the water. The low tide had exposed the barnacles, shellfish that fasten themselves to rocks in the inter-tidal zone. They offered valuable friction under our feet on otherwise slick rock but their razor-sharp shells were a nightmare for hands grasping for a hold. Then there were jellyfish and sea urchins. Not even a kilometre into our adventure, Esther was caught out by a wave and pushed against a rock full of urchins. One spine cut deep into her finger. I tried to remove it, but to my frustration it broke. Thankfully an intrepid local fishermen had seen the incident and offered a rusty needle he had on his keyring. He clearly had
some experience and, after some cruel cutting, we had removed the intruding point. Early lesson learned, we returned to the rocks and soon settled into a steady pace and for the rest of the day, our progress was only checked by two additional tasks we had given ourselves: collecting water samples and mapping trash hotspots. In our waterproof backpacks was not only food, water, emergency and technical equipment, but also a device that allowed for on-the-spot analysis of water samples. While preparing for our trip we realised that only very limited data existed on Hong Kong's seawater quality, with most measures being taken around public beaches. Drs Tang Chin Cheung and Wong Yee Keung, from The Open University Hong Kong, loaned us a kit that gave immediate temperature, ph and other readings, and we promised to take samples every 1,500m or so, collecting additional ones for further analysis back in the lab. We had also promised the Ocean Recovery Alliance, a Hong Kong-based NGO, that we would photograph and map any trash sites encountered along the route. These additional duties had snowballed things. Originally it would have been just the two of us out there. But the need for samples to reach the lab in time, plus media interest, had led to a vessel chaperoning us from a distance. It did at least bring the benefit of shortening the rescue chain significantly.
At sunset, we finally reached the fishing village of Shek O, where we pitched camp on the rocky headland. The village is a picturesque remainder how this island may have looked 150 years ago. The evening breeze didn't bring much cooling though and swarms of mosquitoes soon forced us into our tent, the humidity making it feel more like a steam room.
Our scenic spot overlooking the bay offered little protection from the elements and at 3am, showers started in earnest, then turned into a heavy downpour. Soon our tent fly gave up, water leaking through freely. “Let's make sure that we keep at least some stuff dry,” Esther commented with no detectable irony, “although it doesn't really matter as everything is drenched already. “With no chance of sleep, we counted down the minutes. Finally, at dawn, we shouldered our soaked bags and set out, slowly picking our way over the wet slabs with the rain pestering us unabated. Thick clouds on the horizon suggested worse was to come and come it did. Pitch-black clouds engulfed us, the ominous sky brightened only by lightning followed by crashing thunder. “I counted only four seconds – how close is too close for that lightning?” Esther asked, rhetorically, while I packed away the water testing kit once more. And indeed, as we swam a small inlet, the rock being way too wet to be climbed on, a spectacular bolt hit just a few hundred metres away, followed seconds later by another. It was a genuinely scar y situation. Our mood wasn't helped by a sudden influx of phone messages, the flipside of an expedition in the midst of an urban space: “Have you guys stopped your adventure?” asked one. “Crazy rain! You need to come home!” said another. Little did we know that Hong Kong Island was witnessing its heaviest cloudburst in the last decade. In the city so close yet so far, streets were flooded, public transport interrupted and people were told not to come to work. The Hong Kong Observatory had raised the Black Rain signal (its highest warning level) as well as warnings about heavy thunderstorms, flash floods and landslides. It wasn't the ideal time to be looking ahead to the most treacherous and technical section of Hong Kong's coastline – the cliffs of Cape D'aguilar. Marking the southeastern corner of the island, these cliffs are the most exposed to the open ocean, receiving heavy swell and with lots of semi-submerged rocks complicating the climbing. “Why are we doing this?” I asked aloud, sat shivering on a small rock platform. This question often arises on an expedition but never did I imagine it would come on the second morning! Esther must have overheard my mumbling: “Because somebody needs to record all this trash,” she said, pointing at the heaps of washed-up styrofoam piled in the rock gap next to us. We had already realised we had massively underestimated the amount of trash and rubbish we would encounter. Flotillas of plastic – especially styrofoam – were roaming the coast. Just 20 metres from a green on a ritzy private golf course, we found a cave 10 m-deep in styrofoam. It was painful to witness so much pollution out of sight and plainly out of mind. Thankfully the heavy rain started to abate and the thunder to grow more faint. To our surprise, the heavy rain had even calmed the sea, allowing us to make faster progress around the feared section than expected. Still the wet rock made scrambling very difficult and more often than not, we opted for quick swims even though the water was now full of trash flushed off the coast by the rain. As the sun kissed the horizon, we trudged into the village of To Tai Wan Tsuen,
to camp in a tiny picnic shelter. There was just enough time to lay our equipment out to dry before swarms of mosquitoes had us for dinner.
Wonderful sunshine next morning unveiled the length of Tai Tam Bay ahead of us. Originally considered an excellent harbour by colonising Brits, today it is mostly frequented by pleasure craft and a few boats that service the remaining inhabited villages. Abandoned houses stood eerily quiet, slowly succumbing to the encroaching forest. A few barber's chairs, sat right on the beach, caught our attention. These belong to Tai Uncle – as he styles himself – a painter who has collected rubbish over the last 50 years, preserving some real gems including wooden steering wheels, a beautiful bathtub and a 70-year-old lifeboat which he aims to convert into a bar eventually. Sadly not all residents seemed to be into garbage collection – we found heaps of trash, fridges, TV sets and long-abandoned boats. In these sheltered waters the difficulties were not steep cliffs but stray dogs, and being chased by a pack forced us to catch up some time lost to the storm the previous day. By early afternoon we had arrived at the peninsula at Stanley, where we faced a tricky decision. You can walk across from Stanley's main beach to its promenade in two minutes, but the route along the shoreline is a six-to-seven hour undertaking with no possible exit as the area belongs to the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA). We decided to push on. It's a scenic stretch, a maze of huge boulders which added further scratches to our already bruised, cut and worn-out bodies as we climbed, scrambled and crawled. It was only day three but we could feel the impact of the journey – in particular the chafing of saltwater-soaked clothes making every step a torture and the wounds on our legs already showing signs of infection. Nevertheless we made good headway, enjoying the friction climbing on fantastic slabs as local oyster divers eye us in amazement. Continuing under the installations and satellite dishes, the thrill of genuine climbing lets us temporarily forget our fatigue and even the fact that for some time we have been without our support vessel, which had to return to harbour. As we swam across a sea cave opening, we were surprised by a strong current. Within seconds Esther was caught by it and dragged out into the open sea. Fighting such a current is fruitless and just drains energy but I luckily managed to throw her a safety rope in time and pull her back to shore. It was a wake-up call. Dead tired, stuck now by the tide and with the sunlight fading, a feeling of abandonment set in. We were huddled alone on a small rock, while just a few kilometres south were bars and restaurants full of people out to enjoy the evening. We had to face a tough call: push on in the dark in dangerous waters with a several tough long swims against the current, or camp and in all likelihood get found and arrested by the PLA. Neither option was attractive – we are hungry and we are too tired to discuss. Desperately, I radioed our support crew with no response, the signal probably being blocked by the dishes above. I felt a despair rising – who would ever think you could feel so castaway on Hong Kong Island. And then a silver lining: a small boat in the distance, a dinghy, sent for us! Elated, we hitched a lift to Stanley village, beyond the restricted area, where we barely had strength to put up our tent. Next morning we returned to where we left off on the rocks. Rested and partially recovered, we navigated the southern cliffs with ease – pristine slabs and tricky boulder sections alternating with small beaches. We trekked through a small tunnel where a giant truck tyre was leaning against the rock as though left there deliberately. But as the giant cliffs give way to gentler coastline, the character of our adventure also changed. It was becoming more and more a challenge of the mind as we navigated another cliff or swam another inlet. Both of us were chafed raw and bruised and I'd been stung by a jellyfish too. Hong Kong's south side is its prime leisure area, with the beaches of Deep Water, Repulse and South Bay luring thousands on weekends. We trudged them all mostly in silence, persevering,
relieved to find most of the beaches empty and surprisingly clean, and happy at least to make fast progress over easy terrain.
The daily grind
Despite tiredness, our evenings were usually busy. Trash sites needed to be sorted and mapped, water samples to be marked, equipment to be cared for. What had started as a crazy idea had ballooned, with a boat regularly ferrying back our water samples and serving the needs of the film crew documenting our mission. JP Eatock, vice chair of the UK'S National Coasteering Charter who had flown out to Hong Kong to certify us before the trip, had even told us he believed no expedition of comparable length and complexity had ever been attempted. Cantonese chitchat woke us next morning. A big group of elderly swimmers were making use of the mild morning to take a dip while we packed our kit. A strong breeze and high tide made our first section of the day, the climb around the peninsula topped by the Ocean Park theme park, significantly trickier than expected. Dozens of jellyfish didn't help, making the short swims more like navigating minefields. On the southern side, the park featured some impressive sea caves, inhabited by thousands of bats and we enjoyed some great cliff jumps, our shouts mingling with screams from the amusement park's rollercoaster overhead. Even in initial planning, Aberdeen, with its harbour police, dockyards and busy factories was a problem. Instead, we had opted for a more interesting line around the island of Ap Lei Chai, a decision reinforced once we learned that on several occasions the harbour had almost been landfilled to connect the island to the mainland. The route had its perils however: two long swims through very busy harbour entrances. We crossed the southern, pleasure vessel entrance without incident, despite having the
current against us. From the typhoon barrier, we followed an adventurous route of planks and makeshift ladders, built by local fishermen, around some great climbing rocks and suddenly were amid highrises again. In the 1970s, Ap Lei Chau was considered one of the most densely populated spots in the world and coming from several days of wild cliff climbing, it was a striking sight. Soon though, the orderly concrete forms were posing their own challenge. In front of the tall apartment towers is a 10-metre sea wall, which drops straight into the western Aberdeen harbour entrance – a very busy and polluted area. Passers-by watched stunned as we rappelled off a lamppost, down the wall into the harbour, where we quickly stowed our kit and started our swim to the other side. We had measured this section to be 110 metres but the tiny opening was constantly crisscrossed by speedboats, junks, ferries and even bigger ships. Adrenaline coursing through us at the sight of the incoming Lamma Island ferry, we somehow powered to the other side despite our heavy packs, reaching the typhoon barrier on the other side with the ferry passing just a few metres behind us. The heavily polluted water had set our wounds afire so we sacrificed some of our drinking water to wash them clean. “I can't believe we just swam through this water,” Esther commented dryly as we watched some dead fish covered in oil residue floated by where we had just been swimming. I could only nod in agreement as I snapped some photos for the pollution map. The overcast sky had cleared in the meantime with the sun baking us for the remainder of the day. After the rush of our harbour crossing, the grind of kilometre after kilometre of boulder hopping with painful knees, legs and feet felt like an especially drawn-out and brutal anticlimax. It's then that we had to count on mental endurance forged by past expeditions. At least we were ever closer to being able to make it stop. A local fisherman woke us next morning, amiably pointing out that we had pitched our tent at his spot. Before I could object that there should be enough space for everybody on that beach, he was joined by six friends – a Sunday fishing outing. We hurriedly packed and pushed on along Sulphur Channel (thankfully no sign of sulphur at least) towards Kennedy Town, fuelled by the hope that if we made good progress, we might be able to make this our final day.
Tears & tears
We were on the section of coast I had encountered years earlier on my trail run but this time it was very different with high tide, a big swell and profound tiredness to contend with. Again and again large waves pelted us in spray as we clung to the rock. A few tricky scrambles led around the leftovers of the shanty towns on Mt Davies, all abandoned in the late 1970s and now fully swallowed by the jungle, before we appeared back in civilisation by Sai Wan Swimming Shed, the last of what used to be a cluster of facilities for clubs of harbour swimmers. Here the sight of couples shooting selfies before their dip was more meaningful than usual. Their backdrop was the famous harbour: we were on the island's northern shore at last. Over the previous six months, we had
The heavily polluted water had set our wounds afire so we sacrificed some of our drinking water to wash them clean.
scouted this metropolitan shore, finding routes and access points to stay as close as possible to the waterline. In this we often received unexpected help from local fishermen who showed us their secret pathways, holes in fences and unlocked doors that gave access to the best fishing spots. That worked well until we reached the works for the road bypass and MTR construction in the centre of town. Facing likely arrest for trespass, we could only walk around and rejoin the route on Kellet Island, home of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and the only natural coast remaining within the harbour. By now we were racing against the clock as we knew we needed to be in Shau Kei Wan, at the eastern end of the harbour, by 4.30pm – the closing time at the Museum of Coastal Defence which occupies the stretch of coast around the headland near Shau Kei Wan. Water sampling and trash mapping were done in a trance as we ran – or attempted to run – the ten kilometres along the shore, passing through the gate just a minute before closing time. A local security guard was not amused, shouting: “Cannot, cannot!” as we sped past and kept on running. Pushed for time, I grabbed a bundle of old ropes to lower myself down a five-metre drop. “Don't grab that rope...!” I heard Esther shout, but it was too late. A loud snap and I was falling, gravity having my tired body firmly in its grip. Thoughts of what I would break on impact came to mind but instinctively my other hand had grabbed for another frayed old rope, which to my surprise holds. Right at the last I have avoided a terrible fall, at the expense of the skin on my palm, soon a mess of large blisters. Pumped with adrenaline, we take on the last kilometre or two against the now-normal backdrop of computer monitors, fridges and piles and piles of styrofoam. A final barrier of barbed wire is easily surmounted and, motivated by the drums of the local dragonboat festival in progress, we reached the sea wall of Siu Sai Wan where we had started our adventure six days earlier. Bleeding and blistered, scratched and stung, we had completed the first circumnavigation of Hong Kong Island's coastline. But as we already understood as we wearily headed home for an endless shower and a proper bed, this was only the end of the beginning. Our samples and photos had shown how much work is needed to clean up shores even within metres of our homes and places of work. In an unexpected way, but like all the best adventures, our exploration had shown us how much still lies out there unknown.
NO PICNIC Circuiting Hong Kong Island brought danger, discomfort and the discovery of numerous trash hotspots (see map).
CAREFUL PROGRESS Heaving swells and slippery logs were treated with respect to avoid bloody encounters with barnacles.
UPS AND DOWNS The fun-est sections tested the couple’s climbing skills, and offered the chance of a leap off the top.
SAFER TO SWIM Channels and insurmountable obstacles – natural and man-made – meant sometimes quite extended swims.
COASTAL CHARACTERS Fishermen pick their way round the rocky shore, while Tai Uncle (left, in black) is one of the few to attempt to make something of the ‘bounty’ of trash.
OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND Some secluded coves were more bombsite than beach, overwhelmed with all manner of garbage.