What better way to spend Chinese New Year than hiking the MacLehose Trail in Hong Kong? This is the story of how we attempted to hike the whole of one of HK’s most challenging trails over the CNY weekend and ended up only managing the MacLehose Trail Stages 1 and 2.
Oh, the MacLehose Trail, you say? It’s only 100 kilometres! You can do it in three days! Hiking only 10 hours a day! MacLehose was the Bear Grylls of his time! (Ok, no one really said that last part).
Contrary to what we heard, it turned out that the trail was not what we expected, as old Mac had a few tricks up his sleeve…
Hiking the MacLehose Trail Stages 1 and 2 in Hong Kong
Who was MacLehose and why does he have a trail?
The MacLehose Trail is a 100-kilometre hike, divided into 10 stages, which stretch across the New Territories from the east coast to the west of Hong Kong. It starts in Sai Kung and ends in Tuen Mun. It’s one of the toughest, but also one of the best hikes in Hong Kong.
Sir Murray MacLehose was the longest-serving British governor of Hong Kong (1971-1882), who established the country parks and was supposedly an enthusiastic hiker himself.
Funnily enough, there is no evidence that he actually ever attempted the MacLehose Trail, either in stages or its entirety, though there are some references to him enjoying visits to Sai Kung in his private helicopter. How lovely.
The MacLehose Trail is also famous for the Oxfam Trailwalker, a fundraising event that takes place every November, where crazies endurance runners run and hike the whole thing in one go, usually between 24 to 48 hours. (How do they eat? How do they sleep? Can they see in the dark? Who are these ridiculous people?).
MacLehose Trail Stage 1 – Pak Tam Chung
We aimed to set off early, so we left North Point by taxi for Sai Kung around 5am, then took a second taxi to the entrance of Pak Tam Chung Country Park, arriving about 6am.
If you would like to try and hike the MacLehose Trail Stages 1 and 2 for yourself, but don’t fancy a pre-dawn start, there are buses that go at a godlier hour.
There is bus schedule information on the government hiking website and po leung kuk website. However, I would strongly recommend double-checking these schedules and taking them with a pinch of salt. Because Sai Kung.
MacLehose Trail Stage 1 – 10.6 kilometres – Pak Tam Chung to Long Ke
The MacLehose Trail Stage 1 starts near the entrance of Pak Tam Chung Country Park and is less of a trail and more of a flat and pleasant walk along country roads.
It traverses through the Geopark with its impressive dams and cutesy information boards about hexagonal columns formed by volcanic activity (the cartoon rock introducing himself with “Hello, my name is Dike,” certainly made us titter). This eventually turns into more of a trail with steps down to the scenic Long Ke beach.
Highlights: Watching the sun rise from behind the mountains, across the reservoir.
Lowlights: Next to the stunning Long Ke beach there is a super-creepy drug rehabilitation centre. Think faded and peeling pastel paints, rusted white gates and pictures of smiling animals whose eyes seem to follow you as you walk away… pretty sure they shot the opening credits of True Detective there.
MacLehose Trail Stage 2 – 13.5 kilometres – Long Ke to Pak Tam Au
The MacLehose Stage 2 is a little harder and longer than Stage 1, with lots of ups and downs. However, the views were amazing and totally worth it. We saw the gorgeous Tai Long Wan coastline from angles we had never seen before.
The trail then winds into familiar territory as we came into Sai Wan village (where the excellent Surf Hong Kong surf school is) and passed the beautiful natural rock pools made by the spring that feeds into the ocean (no time for cliff diving today though).
Then, it’s up and over a final hill to Ham Tin beach, where we stopped for a double helping of Yang Zhou fried rice, Singapore noodles and beef udon to keep us going before heading back up the hill to the end of Stage 2.
Highlights: incredible views across to the aptly named Sharp Peak as well as Tai Long Wan. Also, Singapore noodles, get in my belly!
Lowlights: couldn’t MacLeHose have built a bridge from one mountain to the other to save our hamstrings?
MacLehose Trail Stage 3 – camping and (sob) turning back
Our good friend MacLehose certainly had a sense of humour, as his trail from the east to west of Hong Kong involves doing a full circle up and down mountains and around the reservoir before actually going inland. So, with two stages out of three down, we were nearly back where we started.
We started Stage 3 around 4.30pm, knowing there was probably no way we would get to our intended campsite before we lost the sun (10.2 kilometres away up a very steep hill on the most difficult leg of the whole trail).
Sure enough, we lost the light with six kilometres still to go, but found a smaller campsite to stay at, rather than attempting the last two to three hours of walking in the dark.
We had originally planned to make up the time the following day by rising early, setting off before sunrise and trying to walk at a faster pace. However, the night proved to be unseasonably cold, with none of us sleeping a wink and one of our party spraining an ankle when trying to run about to keep warm.
In the morning, seeing the frost on our tents (frost in Hong Kong!), Sabrina’s swollen ankle and knowing we wouldn’t be able to camp another night in those conditions, we decided to turn back and get a bus home.
On the plus side, we saw a monkey! On the first day of the Year of the Monkey – that’s a good omen and cancels out our bad luck, right?
Lowlights: walking about a thousand steps up a mountain, being the coldest I have ever been in my life, having to turn back the next day and walk the thousand steps back down the same mountain, blisters, swollen knees, sprained ankles, sunburn and very sore legs.
Highlights: it turns out that 7-Eleven’s finest King Robert whiskey does have some use – swigging it around a campfire and looking up at the rarely-seen stars is the best way to keep warm.
Hiking the MacLehose Trail Stages 1 and 2 – Review
So, even though we didn’t manage the full MacLehose Trail, we were still very proud of hiking a very hilly 20-something kilometres in 13 hours. This was definitely one of my favourite hikes in Hong Kong. I take my hat off to those that manage to walk the whole trail, especially those that somehow do the whole thing in one go!
We may have been overly ambitious, but we’ll definitely return to do the following stages one day (but maybe just as day hikes next time!). Perhaps the MacLehose Trail really is best enjoyed as it is marked out – in shorter stages.
Or, even better, as MacLehose himself enjoyed it – from the passenger seat of his private helicopter…
To be continued…