Hong Kong has such a reputation for its lavish skyscrapers, its pokey apartments and its bustling streets that it’s so hard to remember that this place is also a natural wonder. Hong Kong is packed full of hikes, greenery and stunning beaches. A couple of weekends ago, a group of us experienced all three of those, paying a visit to my favourite place in the region. I’d visited Sai Kung and the Maclehose Trail almost two years ago but on that occasion I had just hiked the trail in a day, sampling the area’s beaches only for a few hours. This time, we planned to go one better – camping out under the stars on one of the beaches which lines Hong Kong’s east coast.
The hiking trail in Sai Wan forms part of Section 2 of the Maclehose Trail, the largest hiking trail in Hong Kong. Getting to Sai Kung, the laid back town which borders the country park, is relatively easy. Red minibuses ply the route from Dundas Street in Mong Kok, making the journey in a surprisingly quick time. It took us about half an hour. Alternatively, the number 92 bus goes to Sai Kung from Diamond Hill MTR station.
Once in Sai Kung, we headed to Sai Wan Pavilion for the beginning of the hike. There are two ways to get there – either by taxi which will probably cost HK$200 – $300 in total or the slightly sporadic 29R bus which is $17 (payable by Octopus card). The 29R leaves from just outside McDonald’s on Chan Man Street. It’s a white minibus and it pays to get there a bit early as there is often a queue to get on it. The times are posted on a lamppost at the bus stop and can also be found here. However, the buses came more regularly than the timetable suggested for us so I guess anything could happen.
It’s then about a 40 minute bus ride to Sai Wan Pavilion (the last stop) and it’s from there that the hike begins. The trail has two main beaches – Sai Wan village beach and Ham Tin Beach. We were aiming to camp at the second one which is definitely the nicer of the two. From the pavilion to Ham Tin, it was about a 90 – 120 minute hike, all paved and not too steep though the September heat was a killer. Luckily, the spectacular scenery along some of the hike made up for the heat. You seriously have to remind yourself you’re in Hong Kong at times.
We hopped across Sai Wan beach and continued for another 40 minutes or so until we were standing above Ham Tin. Jumping into the water for the first time after feeling sweaty and tired was such a good feeling. There were quite a few other people there but the beach is quite big and so it never felt overcrowded. We did, however, feel very under prepared. Other groups had brought tents, BBQs, axes for chopping wood. We rocked up with a sheet of tarpaulin and some drinks. There is a shop on the beach where you can get camping equipment ($360 to rent a 6 man tent) but we didn’t bother in the end. It’s the second time in my life that I’ve slept under the stars. I still think that phrase romanticises the experience a bit too much.
It got quite cool on the beach surprisingly quickly though the water always stayed a nice temperature (it was only when you got out that you felt cold). We attempted to make our own bonfire, with limited success so we did get a touch of bonfire envy. Luckily it was also a full moon so the beach stayed fairly light, or else we wouldn’t have been able to see a thing.
In terms of supplies, there are two mini shops just behind the beach, though they’re low stocked and pretty expensive – a 330ml can of beer was $20; water was about $12. We decided to pick up stuff there so we didn’t have to lug it on the hike but if you can carry supplies, you’ll definitely save some money. The small restaurant serves tasty food which isn’t too expensive ($50 – $90 a meal) and the portions are big. It shuts at 9pm.
As with most camping experiences, we didn’t get much sleep – partially because we stayed up until the wee hours, partly because it got bloody cold once night-time fell. The temperature was probably still in the late 20s but because of the sea breeze, everyone felt a lot cooler, even in September which is one of Hong Kong’s hottest months. If you’re going to sleep without a tent, it’s worth taking a few layers.
It was also an early start in the morning just because of how bright the sky was at sunrise. Sunrise itself was great. I’ve not experienced too many sunrises due to my love of lie-ins, so it’s always nice to be able to see one.
In order to leave the beach, there are two things you can do. You can either, as most of of our group did, jump on a boat back to Sai Kung which leaves at various points during the day. It leaves directly from the beach and costs around $130 per person. The cheaper but more strenuous option is what I and a few others did: to continue the hike for around another 2 hours to Pak Tam Au and then get a bus from the end of the trail to Diamond Hill MTR station. The second half of the hike isn’t quite as scenic and is more uphill than the first half but still nothing too bad. I was amazed how quickly it warmed up – we left on the hike at around 7.30am and by 8am, we were drenched in sweat. A couple of hours ago, we’d moaned about the cold and now we were begging for a/c!
But overall, it’s definitely a worthwhile experience. Spending the night there gives you so much more time to appreciate one of Hong Kong’s most stunning and breathtaking spots. Part of me wonders why Hong Kong doesn’t promote this amazing region more and the other (more selfish) part of me is glad they don’t – its tranquility is its selling point.