Takeways from trekking the 100-kilometer MacLehose trail, which traverses Hong Kong’s New Territories from sea level to a peak elevation of about 550 meters (1,800 feet):
- Do it between October and February (and not in the rainy season).
- Stay in the city at night (and not at trail “campsites”).
- Only do sections 2, 3, 4 and 8 (and not the more boring paved sections).
Had I known as much, I might have avoided a four-day battle with mosquitoes, rats, a leaky tent, and a monsoon. Said to be one of the best treks in all of Asia, the MacLehose Trail also means monsoon conditions and wet nights during the inevitably rainy months of March to September. The trail offers few water points (I counted three stations with potable water, total), few shelters (aside from open-air gazebos), and no huts or hostels that are common on other long trails. To be sure, sections are excellent, but much of the trail is over bland roads with little to appreciate.
Nevertheless, the trek provided what I sought: some spectacular scenery (when the rain clouds parted) and respite from the city.
MacLehose is divided into 10 sections, starting on the eastern side of Hong Kong’s New Territories and winding west over the peninsula’s many rigid peaks. It’s grueling at times, and a bit riding a stairmaster because so much of the trail is reinforced with rock and concrete steps.
It is possible to do the entire trail in one push, as several hundred people do every year for the annual Oxfam Trailwalker 100K, but unless you’re up for hiking 25-35 hours continuous, one needs to sleep.
I set off with a 40-liter Vaude backpack containing the essentials: 1) L.L. Bean sleeping bag, 2) REI sleeping pad, 3) Vaude bivi tent, 4) four days of meals (five packs dried noodles, two cans mackerel, 1lb instant oatmeal, 1lb of trail mix, 24 Oreo cookies, eight packages of peanut-butter crackers, three Cliff Bars), 5) several changes of shirts/underwear/socks, 6) a book (“The Bridge,” by David Remnick), 7) headlamp, 8) sandals, 9) toiletpaper, 10) notepad/pen, and most naively 11) soap/shampoo, assuming wrong that the trail might offer a facilities for washing.
Day 1: Hiked about 15km (9.3mi), starting at 1pm, resting about an hour for lunch, and pitching tent around 6pm.
My first day began in the subway, which I took from central Hong Kong out to Choi Hung, where I transferred onto Bus 92 to Sai Kung, where I transferred to Bus 94, which I rode 15 minutes to Pak Tam Chung and the official start of the MacLehose Trail. It’s a dumb place to start Section 1 (10.6km). It’s not a trail but rather a paved road alongside a concrete retaining wall for about 5 kilometers until emerging alongside a huge reservoir. Here the view is impressive, with steep cliffs down to an aqua blue reservoir.
But where was the hiking trail? Still walking on the hard pavement, I began to wonder what I’d gotten myself into, recalling other so-called hikes elsewhere in Asia that tended to be deathly boring (like a walk up a paved hill to a Buddhist temple) or unnecessarily rough (like a remote trek through the leach-infested jungle of northeastern Cambodia). Past hikes on mainland China had often sometimes other hikers wearing high-heels, holding an umbrella, and blaring Chinese pop songs on a boombox.
The reservoir ended at the ocean (it was once an inlet), where a path crossed the dam and to the start of Section 2 (13.5km).
Now it got interesting: a dirt trail wound alongside the Pacific Ocean and over several steep hills to Ham Tin Wan beach. Here I dropped my bag for the night, even though it wasn’t an officially designated campsite. I had already passed the sole campsite within miles, and it was a pool of mud.
I pitched my single-person bivi tent on the beach, inflated my sleeping pad, rolled out my sleeping bag, jumped in the ocean, returned to the tent, and was immediately attacked by mosquitoes. I covered as much of my flesh as possible, sliding into jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. Dinner was noodles a la canned mackerel served cold. This is when I made the mental note that carrying a camp stove is more than worth its weight for the simple comfort of a hot meal.
The mosquitoes were winning the battle for my flesh and blood. There was nothing to do but retreat into my tent, which is when I realized I had a serious problem. My breath quickly filled the tent with condensation, while the fabric also seemed to soak up the mist rolling off the ocean. The damp tent weighed down and pressed against my arms and legs uncomfortably, all the while building up humidity and heat inside from my body heat. I couldn’t leave the tent because of the mosquitoes, and I couldn’t sleep because of the now-suffocating heat inside the tent. And I couldn’t read, because the tent was too small to prop myself up on my elbows or turn sideways.
Is it really rocket science to construct a lightweight, breathable, rainproof, single-person tent? This is when I made another mental note for future hiking trips: Don’t skimp on a tent, because it’s not worth going anywhere if you don’t want to be there when you arrive.
Day 2: Hiked about 30km (21.7mi) through the rest of section 2 and all of sections 3 and 4, starting at 7am and pitching tent around 6:30pm.
My second day began after about four hours sleep. The mosquitoes were quickly back on the attack, so I rolled up my bag, pad, and tent, and set off for a less buggy area. After a few miles I found a quiet fishing village, where I sat on a dock to eat my breakfast of cold-soaked instant oatmeal.
At the end of Stage 2, I met Charlotte, a 40-something Brit who in November had hiked the entire MacLehose Trail in one 27-hour push, which provided plenty of conversation material for us as we sped together over Section 3.
The scenery here should have been a spectacular view of ravines plummeting down to the sea, according to Charlotte, but all we could see was clouds and mist. At the end of Section 3, Charlotte caught a bus back to Sai Kung for a seafood lunch (which sounded mighty tempting), while I pushed on through Section 4 (12.7km). In the afternoon the rain clouds parted long enough for a sense of the terrain as I hiked along a steep ridge.
Dusk set in as I approached what I thought was my campsite for the night. Instead, Gilman Camp greeted me with a “no trespassing” sign. Though marked on maps with a tent, the camp and all of its facilities (bathrooms, washing areas, and several buildings that seemed to have bunks) was reserved for ESF Camp events. I pitched my tent regardless as it began to rain again. I ate my cold-soaked noodles, rinsed my collapsible dishes, climbed inside my bivi tent, and fell asleep.
Hours later, I woke to a steady drip on my right shoulder. The tent – newly purchased and only on its second use! – was leaking. It was like a torture chamber inside that tiny plastic sack. I unzipped, grabbed my sleeping pad and bag, and walked a quarter-mile to one of the buildings that was surrounding by a covered wooden deck. The building was unlocked, and inside I realized it was actually the bathrooms. Perfect. I laid my sleeping bag directly onto the porch, just beside one of the sinks, and smiled at my luck. I was finally able to stretch my legs, and the open air was breezy and cool for the first time all night. I think I may have even smiled, it felt so comfortable compared to inside that awful Vaude bivi tent.
I woke hours later to a chewing sound. A crink-l-ing. I switched on my headlamp and looked to my bag, where two beady eyes looked back at me. A rat. I grabbed a sandal and swung, and the rat scurried away. I’d left all my food back inside my tent, but my Cliff Bars were still inside my bag’s waist pocket, which the rat had already chewed a hole into. I grabbed the Cliff Bars and stashed them under my sleeping pad. As soon as I turned off my headlamp, I heard paws scurrying over the wooden floorboards again. I pounded my show again and moved my bag up onto the sink. Still the rat kept scurrying around me.
To stay awake while fighting off the rats, I opened “The Bridge.” While in my book Barack Obama battled for the 2008 presidential nomination, I was battling that damned rat for two hours. In the morning my Cliff Bars were still intact. But I also found what looked suspiciously like a rat turd on my sleeping pad.
Day 3: Another 31km (19.2mi) through sections 5, 6, 7, and 8, starting at 7:30 and stopping at 6pm.
My third day also began quite groggy, as I’d again slept only about four hours again. Today would include another battle with a species closer to my own: Rhesus Macaque monkeys.
About an hour into the hike, just as I stopped to eat another bland breakfast of cold oatmeal, I was surrounded by a clan of the aggressive monkeys. I ate quickly, waiving my trekking pole angrily at one particularly aggressive macaque that peered down on me from the roof of a gazebo. Without exaggeration, they lined the trail for miles. Charlotte had warned me the previous day that the monkeys are known to yank hikers’ bags, grab dangling fruits, and run off with passports (true story!).
Much of sections 5-6 was over paved road, which was boring and seemed to encourage locals to bring their stereos.
Into sections 7 and 8 I hit several hours of monsoon conditions: strong winds and heavy rain. By end of day, all I could think about was getting to someplace where I could be dry and could sleep. Hong Kong being a relatively small territory, and the trail never being far from civilization, at the end of Section 8 I caught a bus back into central Hong Kong for the night.
Day 4: 21.9km (13.9mi) through sections 9-10, starting at 1:30pm and finishing the full trail at 6:30pm.
I woke in a hotel, but was still resolved to finish the MacLehose Trail. Navigating back to the trailhead took two hours by metro and bus, mostly because of getting lost at Tseun Wan terminus trying to find my connection.
Was it worthwhile? Eh. The final two sections of MacLehose were anticlimactic, mostly over tarmac, but I wanted the sense of completion. The idea of a 100-kilometer trail is gimmicky – it’s an arbitrary number, and it inevitably means going through arbitrary areas that are not really worthwhile in themselves. This is life. We pick two points and draw a connecting arc and call it a storyline.
The trail ended uneventfully at a chain-link fence at the bottom of a paved road.
Despite all, hiking is hiking, offering solitude and a sudden appreciation for simple things, like a warm bed and a cold beer and a well-cooked meal of Vietnamese bánh hỏi, which I enjoyed after finishing the 100-km trail. The woven rice noodles were topped with peanuts and chives, the cured pork was well-salted and spicy, and the lettuce was fresh and crisp.