Wetlands in Hong Kong? Sounds unlikely, but sure enough, they exist. I am told that the 967 bus will take me straight to the entrance gate, so one sunny morning I make my way to Admiralty. “Wetland Park?” I ask the bus driver, who is sitting in an empty bus. He shrugs. I double check the bus number and jump on, making my way to the premium seats: first row upstairs, in front of the big picture window. After 40 minutes I wonder if they changed the route or the bus number – or both. There are high-rises everywhere. It seems I am heading anywhere but to a day in nature. The bus driver takes an exit from the highway. The surroundings become even more urban. Shopping malls, towers, an elevated railway. Then, suddenly, a traffic sign: Wetland Park. I press the stop button and get off.
Still skeptical that I reached my destination, I cross the street and walk 50 meters along a hedgerow waiting for something to happen. Then the hedge ends and a well designed, well-kept plaza appears. Hugh metallic birds sit along a small watercourse leading to the entrance doors. Next to it there is a big grass field that turns out to be the roof of the visitor centre. I walk up to the top and I finally find what I am looking for: wetlands. Trees, bushes, grassland and lakes stretch to the horizon. I turn around and – yes – the high-rises are still there. It’s astonishing. Green and grey, a densely populated city and an unobstructed view of nature. All the contradictions of Hong Kong are embodied in this one spot. As I wander through the park, I look back every now and then to remind myself of the contrast.
First, though, let’s start at the beginning. The Wetland Park is a 61-hectare nature reserve that opened in May 2006. The park was originally intended to be an ecological mitigation area to compensate for the wetlands lost when the Tin Shui Wai New Town was developed in the 1980s. Later, it was decided to expand this area to an ecotourism attraction with different types of wetland habitats, such as freshwater marshes, reed beds, ponds, mangroves and mudflats.
There are two extraordinary things about the park: the maze right at the entrance and the visitor centre. The maze is made out of evergreen bushes and sits on the roof of the building. It’s a good place to start if you’re visiting with kids, who love to get lost (and found) in the maze. Once inside, five galleries and an indoor play area with artificial trees and slides await. Exhibits explain how the wetlands store and filter water, protecting the shore lines against storm waves. They also explain how the wetlands are threatened because humans build dams and channels that destroy natural stream habitats. Another gallery introduces wetlands around the world, from the polar regions to the tropics. There are even some stuffed animals, including a crocodile.
Speaking of crocodiles, have you heard of Pui Pui? She’s a saltwater crocodile that was captured from a local river in 2003. Her name means “precious one” in Cantonese. Pui Pui was probably an illegal pet released by her owner because she had grown too big. It took crocodile hunters from Australia and China seven months before they were finally able to catch her in a trap. After two years on Kadoorie Farm, Pui Pui was moved to her permanent home in the Wetland Park.
Right behind Pui Pui’s enclosure is where the actual park begins. There are several ways to zigzag through the terrain. Each route has a different theme; I decide to take the Stream Walk, which meanders along a small creek, with information signs that explain why the animals in upland streams need special body features to cope with turbulent water. Along the Stream Walk, I find the Wetland Discovery Centre, an indoor education centre with laboratories. Visitors can take part in workshops to learn about plants and animals in hands-on experiments.
As I make my way through the park, I take a minute to stand still. Aside from the burbling of the water I hear… absolutely nothing. A dragonfly passes by silently. A light breeze blows over hundreds of water lilies. As the Stream Walk merges into the Succession Walk, I notice different plant species as the habitat changes from open water to marsh. There are floating plants like water lilies, emergent plants such as reeds, and finally woodlands. The Mangrove Boardwalk is a wobbly boardwalk along mangroves, a vital coastal habitat that provides food, shelter, and nursery areas for a large number of intertidal animals like the mudskipper and the fiddler crab. The timber planks are rising and falling under your feet. A butterfly flutters around, darting back and forth until it disappears into the distance. Maybe he is going back to the butterfly garden at the furthest extent of the park.
There is nothing particularly special about this garden or the path, the Wildside Walk, leading up to it. The charm of the Wetland Park is its stillness and tranquillity. Sit down on a bridge over one of the small lakes and count the fish in the water swimming around in circles, opening their mouths as if it was feeding time. Or try to figure out how many cormorants are sitting on the branches of a big tree and defecating the leaves below, which have all turned grey.
Next to the Wetland Park is the Mai Po Nature Reserve and the muddy waters of Deep Bay, behind which lies the skyscrapers of Shenzhen. Mai Po is an internationally acclaimed nature reserve. Every winter, around 90,000 migratory birds take refuge in its marshes and mudflats. Of the 380 species of birds that inhabit the reserve, 35 are of global conservation concern, including the Saunders’s gull and the black-faced spoonbill. Access to the Nature Reserve is restricted, so for a closer look, you have to take one of the tours organised by WWF Hong Kong, which run throughout the year.
The Wetland Park is no slouch when it comes to bird watching, though. There are three bird hides, which are built to shelter a variety of bird species: Mudflat Hide, Riverside Hide and Fishpond Hide. As you enter the hides, the hot sun retreats and the air grows pleasantly cool. A fan rotates at the ceiling. Each hide is equipped with telescopes and field guides. Signs remind people to be quiet because “birds have ears, too.”
When I enter one of the hides, I come across a man named Nathan Chan. He is perched in front a camera with a huge lens pointed towards a small lake nearby. Chan has been waiting patiently for hours. “I want to take a photo of the kingfisher,” he explains. The Common Kingfisher is a small kingfisher with a plumage of blue and brown. When searching for food, it often stays near the water surface or hovers above water. When it spots a fish, it plunge-dives into the water for its prey. “That’s what I want to see,” says Chan. But the kingfisher rarely comes out of the surrounding bushes and trees. “Maybe you can see him flying around three times per day.”
Better be silent, watch and listen to nature’s performance. And for just a moment, forget the high-rises behind you.
To reach the Wetland Park, take the 967 bus from Admiralty MTR, or light rail route 705 from Tin Shui Wai MTR. Admission costs HK$30 for adults and $15 for children and seniors. Click here for more information.