Okay, we are into month three of the Coronavirus outbreak in Hong Kong. The city basically shut down for a few weeks in February, things got a little bit better, and then we were hit with a second wave of infections starting in mid-March. Cases jumped from 148 on March 15 to over 500 by the end of the month, and then it nearly doubled again to just over 1000 cases within the first ten days of April. Ashley and I stopped going out to see friends starting in mid-March and we’ve basically been cooped up inside our apartment since then, with the exception of a few short walks around the park outside our apartment building.
It seems like the situation has been improving here over the last week, however, with daily new cases hitting the low teens – which is not really a solid reason to start being lax with our distancing measures, but most recent cases have been from Hong Kongers coming back from abroad and not necessarily from community infections. Out of our very cautious optimism, we decided to take Miles hiking over the weekend, buoyed by the rare appearance of a sunny yet cool April morning, and perhaps a hope that Hong Kong is finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
There are a number of hiking options on Hong Kong Island, including the famous Dragon’s Back and the popular Peak circuit. For Miles’ inaugural hike, we chose to do the Jardine’s Lookout trail not far from where we live beneath the eastern end of the island’s hilly spine. It’s not a very long hike, which was part of the appeal for us, and the view at the top would surely more than make up for the effort get up there. We got off to a promising start, with a cool wind blowing across our path and blue, sunny skies above us. The first staircase went okay, second staircase was still fine, and then midway through the next one my legs turned to jelly. I think I am of medium fitness – I’m not a trailrunner or anything like that, but I can get through the average hike without doubling over and taking too many breaks. But carrying Miles in a harness meant for casual street walking threw my centre of balance off and distributed his weight in a funny way, and I found myself gassed and gasping for breath on the side of the trail. Hiking with a 25-pound baby strapped in is no joke.
Luckily we weren’t hiking alone, and our small hiking party took turns carrying Miles up the hill – some with much greater ease than I could pull off. That allowed me to catch my breath for more than a few moments, and also to take in the amazing views around me. By now the point about Hong Kong being more green than expected has been made so many times by other people that it really shouldn’t be a surprise that Hong Kong, a subtropical island, has tropical greenery – but it still surprised me a bit. As we traversed the eastern face of Jardine’s Lookout, a view of the lush forested hills along the island’s south side unfolded before us. In the distance, the calm, blue waters of Tai Tam Bay, and the South China Sea beyond, faded into the washed out colours of the nearly cloudless sky. The massive Tai Tam Reservoirs came into view as we approached the summit, a series of freshwater containment engineering projects built and completed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that played a significant role in Hong Kong’s rapid urban growth.
The summit of Jardine’s Lookout came unexpectedly – we reached the top of the last staircase and were faced with a dirt path that led on down the other side of the hill, with the actual triangulation pillar, a common feature of many Hong Kong peaks, off to the left of the path. The pillar itself didn’t hint at anything worthwhile but a little bit further beyond the feature and over a tiny rise revealed one of the best views of the city’s spectacular skyline, spanning both sides of the harbour. The famous Peak is a good vantage point as well, but it’s the one in all the stock photos, taken from behind Central and the Western districts. Jardine’s Lookout offers a different view of the city from the Causeway Bay side, almost looking sideways across the island towards Central, and it really gives a sense of the density and the thickness of Hong Kong’s modern cityscape. It also shows Kowloon’s relatively shorter skyline, a legacy of the old airport, and the shadows of the Kowloon hills beyond. This view was definitely worth the hike.
Our original plan was to only hike Jardine’s Lookout, but we completed it faster than we anticipated and continuing onwards to the next viewing point on top of Mount Butler seemed doable for us. Hong Kong Island’s skyline bends around the North Point district, with the neighbourhoods of Tai Koo, Quarry Bay, and Sai Wan Ho tucked away around the other side. The trail from Jardine’s Lookout to Mount Butler straddles this corner and eventually ends up in Quarry Bay, or at least that’s one of the end-points.
The views from this hike were much the same as the first half of our morning, but still quite beautiful and stunning. This kind of quality hiking so close to a major urban area is really unique among the cities I’ve lived in/visited, and the stark contrast between Hong Kong’s hyper-modern/future-vibe skyline and its semi-wild/pre-city countryside – separated by mere hills – is incredible. Ashley and I aren’t big hikers, but we’ve planned trips around hiking destinations before, like Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, China, the Sri Lankan highlands around Ella, the Garibaldi trek in the Canadian Rockies, and the wadis and desert canyons of Oman. It’s so easy to overlook the fantastic hiking available in our own backyard though, almost literally. I think I saw our apartment building.
I really hit the wall on this part of the hike, though. Already gassed from doing Jardine’s Lookout, carrying Miles up the even steeper staircases of Mount Butler robbed me of whatever stamina I had left. Again, our party came to the rescue and Ashley and company spent much of the rest of this second leg taking turns holding Miles in my stead. The final downhill section leading towards Quarry Bay on the other side of the hill was a seemingly endless series of stairs that made me very thankful that we hadn’t come up that way, though it wasn’t easy on the knees going down either. When we finally got off that last stair and stepped onto Mount Parker Road, a winding paved road leading back to street level, I actually felt some level of accomplishment – the trail had absolutely kicked my ass, but I’d made it through to the other side.
Even as I type these last words out, I can feel the lingering effects of the hike throughout the lower half of my body. It’s a good kind of exhaustion/soreness, though, the kind that serves as a reminder that I need to get out and walk these hills more (though we’ll have to see where the coronavirus trend line goes over the next few weeks). So much of what I write is focused on places outside of Hong Kong, places I go to in order to escape Hong Kong to be honest, but I’ve always wanted to turn the gaze a little bit back onto this incredible place I’ve called home for nearly 11 years now. The coronavirus pandemic has pretty much eliminated the option of leaving to go somewhere else for who knows how long, and Hong Kong isn’t a bad place to be stuck in, for many reasons.