Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Family Hiking: From Tai She Wan to Pak Tam Chung

My kids are still fairly young (the youngest will be 8 next month) but for several years now we have been taking them on some fairly decent hikes which they seem to love and loathe in equal measures. Said youngest did a very challenging 14km hike at the tender age of 5 a few years back, so this particular hike - being around 12km - was not really much of a challenge for his seasoned legs.

I wanted to write about this hike because it was one of the original "family hikes" that appeared in the fourth edition (and earlier?) of Pete Spurrier's The Serious Hikers Guide to Hong Kong. The book has since been revamped and separated into four separate booklets covering each of the major trails in Hong Kong (Maclehose, Wilson, Hong Kong and Lantau Trails), which is actually great, but the downside is that these enjoyable family hikes seem to have been discarded in the process.

One of the main challenges of this hike is actually getting to the start point located in a remote bay called Tai She Wan (大蛇灣 - Canto: Dai Se Wan) which literally means "big snake bay". This additional logistical hassle is outweighed by the general enjoyment of a leisurely boat ride across Rocky Harbour to the bay. To get there you will need to strike a deal with one of the boat women along the Sai Kung waterfront. When Pete originally wrote his hiking book the going rate for a single trip was around HK$200. That was over ten years ago and the best price we could get was HK$350 for the whole family. If you can get it for less than that then you have yourself a bargain. Obviously, if you are hiking with friends then sharing the cost will make it more worthwhile, so don't let the cost put you off. Once the deal has been reached, you pay up and board the sampan for the 40 minute journey over to the bay.

The route our sampan took to the bay

Embarkation point: Sai Kung waterfront

Once on board just sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery because the islands in Port Shelter and Rocky Harbour are very picturesque. However, it does mean that you need to pick the right weather for your hike, otherwise you may end up at the other end feeling a bit ill and possibly wet!

 The ridge line of Sharp Island 
Green islands, sandy beaches

You'll also pass some of the landscape you will be walking back over later in the hike including the west dam of the High Island reservoir. Our destination, Tai She Wan, is in fact a bay on the southern coast of what was once an island called High Island. It's still called High Island but now joins the mainland of Sai Kung via two large dam walls that hold in the water of the High Island reservoir. Like its Tai Po counterpart, Plover Cove, the reservoir was formed from an area of sea between the island and the mainland. The ends were dammed up, the salt water was pumped out and the space refilled with fresh water. It's Hong Kong's largest reservoir by volume.

High Island West Dam wall

Anyway, you'll pass several small islands as well as Kau Sai Chau which houses Hong Kong's public golf course and also various fish farm rafts which rear fish in underwater pens for sale to local restaurants. It's not long before you enter the calm waters of Tai She Wan and disembark onto its stone jetty. 

Tai She Wan looking back towards Sai Kung town area

You are initially confronted by a couple of dilapidated buildings which were once part of a weekend resort set up by a rather wishful thinking entrepreneur who was hoping to attract big crowds at the weekend. The place opened in 2006 and was a complete flop, closing a couple of years later and subsequently left to rot. The guy even went so far as to ship over a bunch of animatronic creatures that were once part of the Rainforest Cafe in Festival Walk. If you have ever played "Five Nights at Freddy's" then you'll know how creepy they look.

Abandoned resort at Tai She Wan
Very creepy looking defunct animatronic gorillas 

It's fine to have a wander around here and take in some of the creepy atmosphere, but sadly it looks as though previous visitors have thought it might be fun to cause a bit of wanton vandalism and smash the place up. To start the hike you need to head to the right in front of the buildings and go over a small stone bridge that crosses the nearby nullah. Once there you should walk into the trees and see the start of a path that leads up the hill. Take some time to look back when you get a clear view because it is stunning. The trail is also relatively unspoilt - too far away from Govt eyes to have been concreted. The state of the trail looks like it serves as a conduit for rainwater during downpours and it's fairly rubble strewn in places, so watch your step. 

Tai She Wan seen from up the trail

The trail takes you towards another small bay that has two villages sitting on opposite sides of the bay. The first one you come to is Pak A. Don't be surprised to find this place quite busy because one of the junk/pleasure boat companies runs a small bar here for the purpose of client entertainment. Walk through the village and follow the edge of the bay around to Chau Tsai - a small island in the north part of the bay that is connected to the mainland by a sandbar.

Rock strewn trail
Basalt Island in the distance
Pak A waterfront
Chau Tsai
View from the pavilion

There is also a small pavilion here if you already fancy taking a breather. From here you should be able to see the nearby Tin Hau temple with its large forecourt. To get there you have to cross the bridge and as you walk along the waterfront you will pass one of the legacies of HK education in the 50's and 60's - a village school. The New Territories are full of old village schools that once helped educate the thousands of village children who were unable to reach larger schools in urban areas. These days they have all been closed down and some of the luckier ones have been adapted for other uses, but it's also common to find old school buildings just left to rot. This one even has its own basketball court.

View back towards Pak A
Old village school: Leung Shuen Wan Public School
Tin Hau Temple

This Tin Hau temple has intrigued me for a while because I was told Nancy Kwan filmed various scenes for a movie here back in the 1960's. The movie was called Mong Fu Sek and was based on the legend of Amah's rock in Shatin. Kwan was already famous but was persuaded by her father to star in the movie because he knew one of the film makers. The director was Brian Salt. I've been looking high and low for a copy of the film but have yet to lay my hands on one - please feel free to point me in the right direction if you know where I can find it.

Drying fish

Anyway, the temple's large forecourt is to support a large amount of festive activities during the Tin Hau celebration, but the day we were there the local fishermen were using it to dry out their bait fish. There is another fish farm here so its possible the dried fish would be used as feed for the larger farmed ones.

Fish farming rafts

Once past the temple you need to walk along to the next beach and into Tung A village. This is where you access the path towards Pak Lap, but if you fancy stopping for lunch then instead you can follow the bay around and walk over to Sha Kiu Tau where the famous Yau Lei restaurant is. Chris Patten used to eat here when he was HK Governor.

The path to Pak Lap is signposted in the village though and involves a fair amount of steps to get up the steep hill. The hillsides here are scattered with traditional graves, some of them impressively large, but once you get over to the other side of the hill and start walking down the view is truly amazing and serves as a great example of how Hong Kong can completely surprise you.

The best view is the beach itself. I must admit it's a while since I have been here. The last time I was here was around 8 years ago doing some scuba diving in the bay. It was a cold rainy day and looked nothing like this. Even though it was a Sunday, the place was deserted - I suspect the cooler (ha!) weather puts people off.

Pak Lap Wan

I think we can agree that these photos make it look like somewhere in the Caribbean rather than winter time Hong Kong. On the far side of the bay you can see the rock columns that are common in this part of Hong Kong and are one of the reasons for the Geopark. Here's a close up.

Columnar jointed volcanic rock formations at Pak Lap

The next part of the hike takes you past Pak Lap village which is fronted by a large open space popular with the bovine residents of the area. The route follows a concrete causeway that crosses the field and heads up into the woods. Look carefully as you walk up because you can see the remnants of what used to be rice terraces.

Stepped former rice terraces

The old rice terraces should also give you an idea as to why there is so much feral cattle in HK - they are all the descendants of the cattle that used to work the rice fields when agriculture was still prevalent in the New Territories. Once at the top of this particular stretch of trail (which, by the way, has been newly concreted) you join the main road around the reservoir called Sai Kung Man Yee Road. This road also forms stage 1 of the Maclehose Trail. For the purpose of our hike, we turn left to follow the road back towards our destination at Pak Tam Chung.

Newly concreted path from Pak Lap
Sai Kung Man Yee Road

The road provides some amazing views over the reservoir but, in all honesty, lacks the appeal of the narrower trails, especially because the road is too busy with traffic. Although we are in a country park, taxis are a constant problem as they all zoom past, way over the 25km/h speed limit, so you must be careful. The other problems are private cars (you can apply for a day permit to drive into the Country Park), the shuttle bus to the Sai Wan pavilion and also (on the day we were there) big tour coaches.

East dam wall in the distance

The walk along the road is really easy and is one of the reasons why many people find Stage 1 of the Maclehose Trail a bit boring, but there is still lots to see. You can also still see the same volcanic columnar joints that are evident on the other side of the island (see below) which is a great reminder of the fact that this was still an island until the late 1970's.

The road is fairly bendy so you do need to keep your ears open for oncoming traffic (in both directions), but there are great views all around and at various points the road opens out to allow views back over to the other side of the island. The last picture below shows the Sha Kiu Tau area where we had just been walking near to the Tin Hau Temple and Yau Lei Restaurant. In the distance behind it is Bluff Island (aka "Ung Kong").

Eventually you reach the west dam wall which is the same place we passed earlier on the boat journey in. It gives great views to the west across Rocky Harbour back towards Sai Kung town and has a few things here to keep people occupied included a dedicated watersports centre and the not-so-well-known Astropark. The watersports centre occupies the lake that sits between the two dam walls.

Incidentally, that spit of land that forms the lower dam wall used to house the High Island Detention Centre. Anyway, at the other side of the dam wall is the commemorative stone that marks the opening of the reservoir. Hmmm, I wonder how long that old Colonial Crest will last under the current regime?

Once back at Pak Tam Chung you can catch buses back to Sai Kung town, or even the 96R (on Sundays and Public Holidays) all the way back to Diamond Hill MTR station, but beware that they are often already full by the time they get to Pak Tam Chung so you might have a long wait for a more empty one to turn up.


  1. Hi, When did you do the hike? I'm curious cuz I would like to visit the abandoned resort and want to make sure it still exists :)

    1. Hi, we did this hike just in Jan 2017. It's all still there. Cheers, Phil