The Dragons Back Trail has been named the best urban hike in Asia by TIME magazine and has opened up the worlds eyes to what wonderful trekking opportunities beckon in Hong Kong. In giving the award TIME said "..The city's finest and most surprising ramble... The glory of it all is that you're so close to the city, but could hardly feel further away"
Part of the much longer (some ten times longer in-fact) Hong Kong trail, it skirts Hong Kong island starting at the world famous Victoria peak and taking in some of the most rural parts of the island whilst climbing glorious peaks and putting the hiker amongst stunning Chinese fauna and foliage. It's a natural world a million miles away from the glitz of sky scrapers piercing the sky in the distance. The Dragons back is a snippet of that trail and is perhaps the most visually rewarding and somewhat most accessible part of the island trail.
In terms of difficulty it is largely climate dependent, we hiked it in 38 degrees and with 100% humidity which made the initial part of the hike (which is all uphill) quite difficult as sweat left every pore of our bodies profusely. It stung our eyes, and within minutes we were drenched as though we had just taken a shower. Losing water at the rate we were meant regular stops were essential in little pieces of shade as we tried to stay on top of the re-hydration situation. Given that you cannot leave the trail for the first 4km you should assess the climate prior to setting off and carry the required fluids. We took 3 litres per person for the 8.5km trek and found ourselves heading straight for a shop to replenish once we finished.
Likewise, during the wet season you risk torrential downpours and the path can become quite in-passable in parts due to thick mud, additionally I am led to believe that lightening strikes are frequent and of course no one fancies a lightening strike to the forehead whilst out enjoying the lush scenery.
Like most trails, if it is dry then walking trainers will be fine, but we used boots and our feet caused us no problems at all due to the heat or humidity. However, for those wondering if they have the fitness to complete it, my 6 year old son completed it (and he ran most of the way) with my 8 year old daughter just metres in front of him. Hong Kong is one of the safest places in the world and so I let my 12 year old son take off ahead and he absolutely loved the freedom of the trail.
The most amazing thing about the Dragons Back Trail is that it is in such beautiful wilderness, and you could easily be forgiven for forgetting that actually you are in one of the densest regions in the world in terms of populous and in one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
With that in mind it goes without saying that transport links throughout Hong Kong are fantastic, and within no time at all you can leave the sky scrapers and culture behind and be at the foot of the climb to Shek O Peak and at the start of the Dragons Back Trail. The quickest way (using public transport) to get to the start of the trek is to get to the MTR station Shau Kei Wan on Hong Kong island. Outside the station is a bus terminal and then you need to look for the number 9 bus headed for Shek O. Once on the bus you need to pay as far as To Tei Wan stop which currently costs (as of August 2013) - $3.90/$1.95 (32p/16p) and takes about 18 minutes to get to. If you ask the driver he will stop for you as it is easy to miss. As literally it is a bus stop at the side of a steep track heading up into the woods.
If you choose to drive to the starting point you should be aware that though there is roadside parking across the road, but you do not finish where you start and so will have arrange onward travel later.
The trail begins with a steep trek about 1km up steps which were clearly made about a century ago. The uphill was something we completely underestimated as we bolted off toward sugar plants searching for wild pandas (we found none) It really sapped our energy as we sucked in thick, hot air which was seemingly short of oxygen and left my son grasping for his inhaler.
The steps wind up through odd dots of shade but mainly are out in the open and the sun burned every piece of bare skin and left me wishing we had brought hats! But after about 15 minutes we really got to see the beauty of our surroundings as the hill side opened up to give grand views to the west and as we continued the East opened up and left us stunned at the absolute natural beauty that lay before us. Stopping to enjoy such beauty I noticed that the ridge drops steeply into a bay that is speckled with rocky outcrops tinged with greenery. Whilst the turquoise ocean licks the beach; and all to the back drop of nature's finest bird song. It was hypnotic in it's beauty - And we'd only just begun.
My eyes were soon stinging with sweat as I tried to find some reassurance from the kids that they were actually enjoying such an arduous climb. It turned out they were loving every second of it! But I must point out that on a cooler day the climb would perhaps have been much less difficult, but the heat was wiping me out, the kids seemed to just bounce along with some motility of invincibility about them and I longed to be young again.
The trail tries it on and makes you believe that it levels out, but actually it descends into trees and then ascends right back up to another summit. You can look across the horizon and see that it genuinely does look like the back of a dragon. It is distinctly and uniquely Chinese, I could imagine a Great Wall straddling the summits and then disappearing into the low points. But this undeveloped slice of paradise offer up nothing but nature in all its grandeur. Naked from modernity in one of the most modern places on earth it is the needle in a haystack of Mandarin and centuries old culture, all draped in a dark shade of mantis rolling out over pristine yet slightly exaggerated knolls of perfection.
It was so gorgeous and so lush we stopped in awe at what we witnessed. In the week before we arrived into Hong Kong there had been a cyclone which had brought torrential rain with it and in response the green and vibrancy of nature was in full blown overload.
As I sloped along at the rear Abi (my daughter) shouted to me "dad, I just saw a bat" I thought 'no you did not' and continued to trundle along wishing I had a sweat band 1980's style to stop the waterfall of sweat into my eye balls from my forehead. Suddenly a 'so called' bat flew right at me and buzzed past my ear. I dodged it and looked and realised that actually it was not a bat as I had rightly suspected, but a moth. It was the size of an adult hand but was actually a black and white wanna be bird cum moth. As we progressed there were lots of them all flying about. Once I confirmed to her they were completely harmless she suddenly became their best friend. And that really was the vein of the trek, we had seen funky looking creatures before, but for some reason everything on the trail was king size, but yet other than the odd kamikaze moth, quite harmless and unobtrusive.
The walk continues ascending and descending hills until after about 15 minutes you come to Shek O peak, this is perhaps the highlight of the trail giving absolutely stunning views out to Shek O village and Big Wave bay, and in the distance you catch a glimpse of the skyscrapers of Admiralty peering through the gap in the mountain. We were lucky enough to get a clear day and oddly what would usually ruin such a stunning landscape added such prestige and really cemented the furore that surrounded the trail.
From Shek O peak - which is some 284m above sea level, the trail levels out for about 1km before descending into trees and bushes which give broken shade but high humidity - A kind of trade off between burnt skin for wet clothes.
The walk then begins to level out and passes waterfalls which the kids absolutely loved dipping their toes in and splashing around. But also becomes a mini beast safari park as hefty spiders strut alongside ants which clearly feed on a diet of growth hormone and cattle.
The trail then snakes around the mountain before you start to pick up signs for Tai Tam Gap. The walk becomes level and you find yourself back on paved roads having come out from the trail. From here it gets a little difficult orienteering wise and we had to ask directions as this is the point at which for many the trail finishes. Here you can either catch a bus on the main road, or continue down the steps at the side of the water plant and then toward the Muslim cemetery.
From the cemetery you take a hair pin as the route follows the same direction you have just walked in, but continually descends toward Big Wave bay (which actually has few waves) or, if you prefer a further 2km onwards to Shek O Beach.
We followed the trail all the way to the main road and pretty much had a 45 minute walk onto Shek O Beach, but having completed the trail proper we hopped on a bus for an expedited lunch.
The ride to Shek O took about 15 minutes and we could see where we had just walked and were mesmerised by the sheer steepness and beauty of the landscape. It was a pinch yourself moment encouraged by the fact the trail remains largely untouched despite it's fame. We saw few people on the walk and those we did were locals looking for a place to ponder and wonder how life ever got so good.
Once in Shek O we mooched about the miniature sized village and found a Thai restaurant where I dug into chicken and mango with rice whilst the kids had vegetable fried rice and egg washed down with ice cold water. And all at very reasonable prices for Hong Kong.
The restaurant leads out to a road which then falls onto the beach and so we headed there for a chill out in the sea.
The waters of Hong Kong are teaming with sharks and so you should only swim in bays which have shark nets, most of the popular bays have these but you should always check as a shark bite to the leg will ruin most peoples days.
Sure enough Shek O had a net and before I had dropped my bags the kids had thrown their boots off and were legging it into the cool waters trying to avoid courting Chinese couples.
From the beach you get a rewarding view of the trail you have just finished and it left my jaw on the floor as it felt like we were not in Hong Kong, but some exotic little Robinson Crusoe style island complete with palm trees and coconuts. It was almost too beautiful to be real, and as we reflected on what was an amazing 4 hours we shared a smile that we had just completed the best urban hike in Asia - And one of our favourite walks anywhere in the world.