Leave The City Behind: 4 Best Outdoor Activities In Hong Kong

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All photography by Vivian Vassos.

The Dragon’s Back trail winds, as dragons’ spines must, along the top of a ridge on the southeast arm of Hong Kong Island. Off in the distance, isolated dots glow in the sunshine; the wind ruffles the grass, shakes the green shrubbery. In Big Wave Bay below, a floating boom marks the underwater fence that keeps the occasional shark from swimmers. In the other direction, past the hillside where brilliantly-coloured hang gliders are launching themselves into the updraft from the ocean, lies the village of Shek-O. Click here for a first-person account of hiking the Dragon’s Back.

This is Hong Kong? Yes, it is. The green spaces allow travellers and locals to head out and get the best of nature, and it’s all very close to the city’s core.

Click through for our trip to a nature-lover and birder’s paradise, the wetlands of Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve.

1. Parks, marine lands
In spite of its image as a virtual garden of tall, narrow skyscrapers—a sort of vertical urban sprawl—a staggering 70 per cent of the region’s 1,100 square kilometres is countryside. There’s an inevitable tussle between development and conservation, but the latter seems to have won the day, with 40 per cent of the land mass reserved in 14 special areas for nature conservation and 23 country/marine parks for conservation, recreation and outdoor education.

A walk along the Dragon’s Back begins on a moderately steep grade, then winds through shady trees, occasionally providing a glise of glittering sea or far off—and out-of-mind city. As the trees open out, the trail climbs higher. The summit is a good place to stop for another drink of bottled water. Visitors beware: Hiking in this often-sultry climate, it’s dangerously easy to underestimate the effect of dehydration.

Several guidebooks detail the many coastal and overland trails, but trekking with a guide who knows the unique flora and fauna of the area adds immensely to the enjoyment of its natural beauty.

Next: Mai Po Marshes

2. Mai Po Marshes
If you only have time for one rural adventure, head for the Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve in the New Territories. The 380-hectare site is part of the 1,500-hectare Mai Po and Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site—wetlands protected internationally by the Ramsar Convention. April is the best month for seeing the thousands of birds that stop to rest here during the long migration along the flyway between Australia and Siberia. If you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the endangered Black-billed Spoonbill that winters in the wetlands (only an estimated 600 birds remain).

The reserve welcomes visiting scientists and educators from East Asia, as well as children from Hong Kong-area schools. Mai Po Reserve manager, Dr. Lew Young, notes that Hong Kong’s new status within China offers a better chance to work with the Chinese to solve environmental problems. Besides, he adds, the university students who train as guides on the reserve eventually end up working for the government, where their enlightened influence may do some good. “There’s hope for the future,” he says. “Some things are bad, but you can’t give up.”

Next: Bird watching 

3. Bird watching
Walking along the series of fishponds and the only remaining gei wai (traditional shrimp ponds) in Hong Kong, visitors can spot graceful white egrets and vividly blue kingfishers. Near the Education Centre, volunteers from the World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong capture, band and then release birds that seem remarkably unstressed by the whole process. Along the nature trail, a series of blinds overlooking the gei wai offer an opportunity to observe birds in their natural habitat.

Be adventurous and tread the floating boardwalk through the coastal mangroves to a blind that overlooks the Deep Bay estuary and the buildings of Mainland China which loom in the distance (including, strangely enough, a replica of the Eiffel Tower). Pollution, of course, doesn’t stop at boundaries—the waters of Deep Bay are increasingly degraded by agricultural run-off from both China and Hong Kong. Marine and bird populations are already affected.

Next: The wetlands

4. The wetlands in the New Territories
Pollution, over-fishing, shoreline reclamation and heavy marine traffic continue to take a toll on Hong Kong’s fabled pink dolphins (their population has declined from 400 a few years ago to fewer than 150). Take a dolphin-sighting tour for a look at these endearing creatures. Run by Dolphinwatch, the tours aim to raise awareness of the threat to the dolphins, record sightings for university researchers and raise funds for Friends of the Earth in Hong Kong—all conducted without causing stress to the animals.

A growing interest in “green” tourism is helping focus attention on the need to battle water and air pollution. Encouragingly, the government opened the 61-hectare Hong Kong Wetland Park (above) across that promotes environmental education and “provides a visitor attraction focused on eco-tourism.”

Enjoy the glamour and glitz of Hong Kong—then get outta town—up country.