Escape the Pandemic Crowds on the Chi Ma Wan Trail

We’re happy to introduce Zolima CityMag’s newest contributor, Daisann McLane. You may remember her from our article on Hong Kong walking tours; she runs Little Adventures in Hong Kong, a company that offers immersive experiences of Hong Kong streetlife, food culture and history. But McLane is also an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic and other publications, as well as a longtime resident of Hong Kong whose passion for the city runs deep. 

Like many others, McLane has been spending more time in the countryside these days. Unlike many others, she has a knack for finding peaceful, fascinating routes through Hong Kong’s natural areas. The Chi Ma Wan trail is one of them. “Unlike so many Hong Kong trails, [it] is almost all dirt path, with none of the concrete paving that so dismays serious hikers,” she tells us. It’s untrampled enough that she once spotted one of Hong Kong’s rarest creatures – the barking deer

“I heard the sound first before I saw anything: a short throaty yelp, like a muffled dog,” she says. “Then, a rustle just ahead in the bushes – a glimpse of russet fur and a short white tail dashing into thick greenery. For the first time in nearly 15 years of hiking, I’d finally spotted one of Hong Kong’s most elusive and human-shy wild creatures.” But that wasn’t her only encounter. Thrilled to have seen a deer, she continued along, only to come across a two-metre-long Chinese cobra, one of the many species of snakes that live in Hong Kong.

“Thick, with large matte black scales and the signature white double ring marking on its hood, the cobra was stunning – and I was stunned, frozen in place,” she says. “The only move to make when a large, venomous snake is blocking your path is no move at all. I figured that before long Mr. Cobra would slither off in search of more interesting and edible things than a solo hiker. I was right. I walked on, hoping I’d meet another hiker so I could share my exciting story – seeing a barking deer and a Chinese cobra on the same day!”

But the Chi Ma Wan trail is a true escape. “For the next two hours, I passed no one,” she says, “except for the deer, snakes, lizards, cicadas, crows, sparrows, spiders and bees. I was utterly, blissfully alone.” 

Here is how you can enjoy the trail and its solitude yourself. 

A prison, a reservoir and an infamous resort

Long time Hong Kong hiking enthusiasts grumble about the havoc that the pandemic has created in the country parks. With restrictions on travel, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers have taken to the local trails. Stories abound of queues to climb mountains, and trails as crowded as shopping malls. Many hikers will no longer go out on Saturday and Sunday, prime hiking days for trail newbies. 

And yet even at this moment, with millions of Hong Kongers rushing to embrace the wild, there are still trails where you can enjoy a satisfying hike in almost complete solitude. Lantau Island’s Chi Ma Wan Country Trail has managed to remain a low-key retreat for a small community of veteran hikers, even in the current pandemic hiking boom. Part of the reason is that it’s located in the shadow of popular, box-ticker “A-List” hikes like Lantau and Sunset Peaks, Hong Kong’s second and third highest mountains, respectively. The Chi Ma Wan doesn’t confer any bragging rights – it boasts no massive peaks, no dangerous heart stopping drop offs. 

It’s also not convenient. There are only two entry points, and getting in or out involves coordinating a ferry, sometimes two ferries, and a bus or taxi. (Or—and you should do this at least once!—you can hire a sampan from Cheung Chau to sail you across the Adamasta Channel to a deserted trailside beach.)

The Chi Ma Wan also suffers (or benefits, depending on your perspective) from bad PR: its main claim to fame in nearly every website and guidebook description is that it’s the longest country trail in Hong Kong, at 18.5 kilometres. Most people, reading about Chi Ma Wan, assume this means you need to do the entire route at once—a seven to eight hour marathon march, yikes!—and cross it off their list.

Chi Ma Wan regulars wouldn’t dream of tackling it all at once. Instead, we savour it in chapters, like a dense literary novel. Below you’ll find a curated route, not too hard or too easy, around three-and-a-half to four hours long, that will introduce you to Chi Ma Wan’s highlights: flocks of migrating egrets, a decommissioned colonial prison, a serene, shimmering reservoir, abandoned farms and an old village, volcanic rock formations, a lost empty beach and Hong Kong’s legendary failed luxury development, Sea Ranch.

Make your way to the Chi Ma Wan pier, either by taxi from Mui Wo, or better yet via the infrequent but marvellous Inter-Islands ferry, which plies a continuous circular route daily through the outlying islands, from Peng Chau to Cheung Chau and back. The Chi Ma Wan pier was originally built to accommodate the prison that you’ll spot immediately upon disembarking; a grim spread of low block buildings surrounded by high, razor fence-ringed walls. Built in the mid-1950s, it was used as a holding site for Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and is now decommissioned.

The trailhead is tucked away behind the prison; take the road uphill to the left, past rows of swaying casuarina and flowering bauhinia trees, landscaping probably accomplished with the forced labour of long-ago prisoners. A sad legacy, now softened by time, beauty and stillness: crows caw, the wind sighs, waves lap against the shore. Right before the road dead-ends at the prison wall you’ll see some stairs to the right which will lead you around to the back. Keep going uphill five minutes more until you spot the official map station that marks the entrance to the country trail.

Soon, you’ll find yourself in a landscape that looks more like something in rural North America than Hong Kong: a small, emerald-coloured lake, ringed by pine trees, where ducks, egrets and herons swoop and squawk. The Shap Long Reservoir, built in 1955, once provided all of Cheung Chau with drinking water: 30 million gallons of it. But it was supplanted by other sources in the 1970s, and now it serves mainly as an irrigation source for farmers in nearby Shap Long. Take the narrow catwalk across the reservoir (perhaps stopping to do a bit of bird watching if you’ve brought your field glasses), climb up the rocky slope, and continue on the trail as it branches up to the left, following the signs to Lung Mei.

All trails lead to the strange concrete pineapple

Lung Mei (lung4 mei5 龍尾, “tail of the dragon”) is the hub of the Chi Ma Wan trail network, with five trails branching outward from it. It’s a curious non-place: there’s no village, mountain, stream, or anything here of note except for a faded yellow and green concrete statue that’s supposed to be a dragon but which is reminiscent of a ye5 bo1 lo4 (野菠蘿), the pineapple-like fruit of the Hong Kong pandanus tree that grows wild over Lantau’s coastline. What makes Lung Mei special is not the landmark, but the delightful possibility it contains: you can go anywhere on the Chi Ma Wan trail from here, and make up your mind on the spot where you’ll go today.

Arriving at Lung Mei, you might decide to loop along the eastern ridge trail dubbed “Rock Wonder” for its huge, climbable granite boulder formations shaped like cows, or heads of people. Or you can take the path that climbs through a bamboo forest and then rocky scrub up to Chi Ma Wan’s highest mountains, Lo Yan Shan (303 metres) and Miu Jai (302 metres), for views that rival Sunset Peak’s, but with much less effort.

But on this route we’ll head downhill, south to Tai Long Wan village and the South China Sea beyond. The old stone village path, not officially part of the Chi Ma Wan network, is a valley track that follows a stream. The sound of running water—and a small waterfall—accompanies your descent. Decades ago, this stream irrigated the farming plots you see along the way, now overgrown with elephant ears and, in the late spring, bursts of yellow and pink flowering shell ginger. The farms have mostly been forgotten in favour of more accessible lands adjacent to the village. 

Be careful as you approach the small village of Tai Lung Wan, one of four Big Wave Bays in Hong Kong, as the house at the village entrance is the residence of a rather unfriendly and often unleashed dog. Ignore his loud barks and continue through fields of vegetables, towards mist and sea. That instant when the wall of scrub and pandanus breaks open to reveal a wide, empty white beach and waves pounding on the southern Lantau coast, is one of the most dramatic moments on the Chi Ma Wan – or any Hong Kong trail.

You could linger on the beach, have a picnic, hang out for hours looking at the twin humps of Shek Kwu Chau island, then maybe call a sampan from Cheung Chau to pick you up at the Tai Long Wan pier and call it a day. Or you can continue walking about three quarters of the way down the beach until you find the path that leads back up to the ridge trail. It’s a bit tricky – try looking for the entry near a well-worn trample of paw and footprints in the sand. If you find yourself in a field of cactus, turn back and keep looking!

A short hop over a headland and you’ll spot the pyramid-shaped rooftops of Sea Ranch, the “ghost resort” built in 1975 that aimed to be what Discovery Bay is now, but went bust in the 1980s. The trail runs above the development, but there’s a branch path that will take you down there if you are keen for a quick look-see at the beachfront community, which has recently been on the uptick as a place to live in Hong Kong, despite its difficult location.

Wild grasses along the Chi Ma Wan Trail

One big climb, not too long

The section of the trail beyond Sea Ranch, is this route’s steepest climb, about 120 metres. It’s rocky, unpaved and a bit scrambly at times, but there is a magnificent spot near the top with vistas of rocky coast, Shek Kwu Chau and sometimes the Soko Islands in the distance, punctuated by gnarled spiky pine trees on the mountain crests. Finally, you reach the junction—and the big, take-a-rest friendly rock—where this spur joins the main east-west ridge trail meandering above the coast. 

From here, a right turn will take you back to Lung Mei in about 45 minutes to an hour, with views to your right where you can look down to where you’ve been. At Lung Mei, simply retrace your steps back to the prison and the ferry pier at Chi Ma Wan. Warning: the ferry service from here is as infrequent as your contact with other hikers on this trail. So best to keep a few phone numbers of Lantau taxi drivers in your mobile, so you have the option to arrange a pickup to return you to the main ferry connection at Mui Wo.

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