Action Asia - - CONTENTS - Story by Paul Niel Main photography by Mike Sakas

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.

Black rain

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.

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.

SAFER TO SWIM Chan­nels and in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cles – nat­u­ral and man-made – meant some­times quite ex­tended swims.

UPS AND DOWNS The fun-est sec­tions tested the cou­ple’s climb­ing skills, and of­fered the chance of a leap off the top.

CARE­FUL PROGRESS Heav­ing swells and slip­pery logs were treated with re­spect to avoid bloody en­coun­ters with bar­na­cles.

NO PIC­NIC Cir­cuit­ing Hong Kong Is­land brought dan­ger, dis­com­fort and the dis­cov­ery of nu­mer­ous trash hotspots (see map).

OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND Some se­cluded coves were more bomb­site than beach, over­whelmed with all man­ner of garbage.

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