The Sunset Peak massif dominates the interior of eastern Lantau Island and its high grassy slopes make for some of the finest upland hiking in Hong Kong. There's an expansiveness to the landscape, which seems splendidly remote from the city - making it feel like a real escape.
But first, you have to get there. The most popular route follows a section of the Lantau Trail, which you might start from the western end, at Pak Kung Au, 333m (1093ft) above sea level; or at Nam Shan to the east.
Nam Shan is half an hour's walk from the ferry pier at Mui Wo, though you could save time and effort by taking a bus or taxi. It is around 100m above sea level and is in a dip between hillsides, with a pavilion in a grassy area.
A signpost indicates the way to Pak Kung Au, suggesting the hike there will take 2 hours and 45 minutes. Take this with a pinch of salt, though, for while some people might stride jauntily up and over the mountain in this time, and others even seem to run the trail with blissful ease, this is a relatively tough outing, and could take six hours with stops for rests, photos and a picnic lunch.
"The mountains have usually a dreary and barren aspect … trees are seldom met with," wrote the Reverend R. Krone in 1858, as referenced in Hong Kong Country Parks by Stella Thrower. But as in much of Hong Kong, there was extensive reforestation of lower and mid-elevation slopes last century, particularly to help moderate and maintain water flows to Shek Pik Reservoir, which was built in southwest Lantau from 1957 to 1963. Now, the plantations are luxuriant, and the trail from Nam Shan leads up through the densely arrayed trees.
While affording welcome shade, the trees also block views, making for somewhat monotonous hiking as you climb the steep slope. At last, though, the trees give way to shrubs and grass, and you can look down to the south, discovering you are already above the hills of the Chi Ma Wan Peninsula. Near the peninsula's southern tip, Shek Kwu Chau appears as a compact island with a couple of low, rounded hills.
Small boats are clustered off the west coast of Shek Kwu Chau. These include barges and boats with cranes, all working to build an island that will host one of the world's largest waste incinerators. An environmental assessment on siting this incinerator argued against a site on a Sai Kung island, as it would be visible from country parks. Yet from here, in South Lantau Country Park, it is obvious the incinerator will stick out like a sore thumb, with a chimney some 150m high.
For now, at least, it does not exist, and the scenery mostly looks natural and glorious, with its grassy slopes above, and woodland in a nearby ravine, where trees of various species are differing shades of green, some of them peppered with white flowers.
The trail levels a little as you climb, angling left to cross a tiny stream, and passes through a grove of slender bamboo where there is another stream, which provides a welcome chance to splash your face on hot days. Then, up again, to cross a ridge by a junction with a slim path that leads east, towards 766m-high Lin Fa Shan. The Lantau Trail continues westward, and the hiking is easier now.
Now, the main views are to the north. The airport is below, once busy with flights arriving and departing, but now serving more as a gigantic park for serried ranks of planes, grounded by travel restrictions.
For the time being, the coronavirus has delivered a blow to the worldwide tourism industry. But Hong Kong still has locals as tourists, especially in outdoor places like country parks, and these people can help keep some small businesses afloat, albeit with the need for great care and social distancing to prevent virus transmission. Hopefully, outings like this on Sunset Peak can serve as mini holidays to those confined for months in the city, helping ease some of the stress.
A little higher, the path leads through a band of woodland, with trees growing between boulders flanking the upper reaches of a stream. If you are lucky, some might be in flower, like sweetleaf with its clusters of fragrant white blooms attracting bees that busily collect pollen.
Then there is more grassland. "The Chinese are accustomed to burn down the grass on the tops of the mountains to procure a more luxuriant herbage (including for cattle grazing)," wrote the Reverend Krone, and trees still find it difficult to grow on these high slopes where much of the soil has been eroded away.
If you'd like to switch to a forest walk, you could do so at a junction with a right turn to the Wong Lung Hang Country Trail. The forest is certainly attractive, in places looking almost as if there might be elves nearby. But, oh dear! The steps! The trail drops relentlessly down the steep side of the valley above Wong Lung Hang Stream, to near Tung Chung, with somewhere around a bazillion steps. So, maybe keep to the Lantau Trail just now.
The path turns a corner, to a high valley, where the slopes are scattered with around 20 squat square, stonewalled huts. These were built during the 1920s as a "resort" for missionaries working in China, who stayed during the hot summer months. It seems most are still maintained, though little used nowadays.
At the head of the valley, the path swings left. A short side trail leads to a rocky outcrop with wonderful views down to southeast Lantau.
There is a short uphill stretch, then another side trail, on the right. Though not signposted, this leads to the summit of Sunset Peak. It is a fairly easy climb over the undulating grassy landscape, to a cluster of boulders by a sign noting the elevation is 869m - making this the third highest mountain in Hong Kong, after Tai Mo Shan and Lantau Peak.
A few narrow trails offer ways down from here, but involve scrambling, so it may be best to retrace your steps to the Lantau Trail. This trail no longer climbs, but is almost level across the southern shoulder of Sunset Peak.
And soon, the downhill stretch begins. The sharp cone of Lantau Peak dominates the western horizon - and if you are feeling energetic, you might aim for this too, keeping to the Lantau Trail as it climbs to the summit, then drops to Ngong Ping.
As you descend, grassland gives way to woods. The sounds of buses on the road below become louder, and eventually you arrive at Pak Kung Au, by which stage you will most likely be feeling ready to return home.
If you go: Always check for latest government advice and social distancing regulations before heading out, even to the mountains - and maintain a safe distance from other hikers.
While most people heading for Sunset Peak usually travel via Tung Chung, for now you might prefer to take one of the ordinary (aka slow) ferries from Central Pier 6 to Mui Wo as you can travel in outdoor air in ordinary class, and sit outside in deluxe class. From beside Mui Wo ferry pier, all buses stop at Nam Shan, or you could walk up alongside the road. To return via Mui Wo, take the 3M bus from Pak Kung Au.
And don't forget standard advice for hiking - such as using sunscreen, taking plenty to drink, letting friends know your whereabouts and checking weather forecasts to ensure thunderstorms are not likely.
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