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Island hopping.

Hong Kong is a land of islands -- 236 to be precise. And because their residents are strongly opposed to "progress", they provide some wonderful opportunities for hiking and exploring

Many visitors are surprised to learn that only seven per cent of the territory's total land area is urbanised. The rest is made up of Kowloon and the New Territories on the mainland, and more than 230 islands, which together make up 20 per cent of the total land area. Many of the Outlying Islands are tiny, barren and uninhabited. Cars are prohibited on all of the islands except Lantau, where a special vehicle permit is required. These islands provide some of the best opportunities for hiking and exploring.

For years, the largest island, Lantau, was a quiet backwater, home to fewer than 25,000 people. Recently it has been jarred into activity by the levelling of adjacent island Chek Lap Kok to make way for the new airport. Today, the airport express train and new highway run along the north coast of Lantau. Even so, much of the island remains wild and rugged with some challenging terrain.

Lantau Trail circles the island providing access to Lantau Peak (934 metres), Po Lin Monastery (home to the world's tallest seated Buddha, at 34 metres high), Fan Lau Fort in the south and the Trappist Haven monastery in the northeast. A small network of roads run over the island and the Buddha can also be reached by buses that depart from Mui Wo, the main pier area.

Hong Kong's only bed and breakfast, Oakhouse, is located on Lantau at the foot of Lantau Peak near the village of Tong Fuk. Its owner, Adrienne Lam, wanted to provide a place where guests could engage with nature in a more harmonious way. "I think it astonishes visitors to realise that there is a place in Hong Kong where one can sleep to the sound of a burbling brook and be awoken by birdsong," she says.

While Lantau and its waters are home to fish, prawns, reptiles and a herd of wild water buffalo, Lam wants people to live by the values they have held in the past. "There is an old Chinese proverb that says to get maximum value out of any object is a virtue. I don't see us doing this anymore. It's something that we must re-learn," says Lam.

High-speed ferries provide access to Discovery Bay, a planned community on Lantau's northeast coast. It is possible to hike from Mui Wo to "Disco Bay" (as Discovery Bay is known by the expatriates), taking in some excellent views. If you stumble off the path, it isn't uncommon to find yourself hiking through ancestor graves adorned with faded black and white portraits of the dead. After festival periods, the graves will be tidy and often contain offerings of fruit, red bean buns and the occasional glass of beer. Much of the culture that was so violently extinguished by the Cultural Revolution has survived in the outlying islands and the New Territories.

Lamma Island, off the coast of Aberdeen, is the closest to Hong Kong Island. Two villages, Yung Shue Wan and Sok Ku Wan, are connected by a four kilometre trail. No vehicles are allowed on the island and during the week both villages are quiet. Yung Shue Wan is home to a large expatriate community whose influence can be seen in the many pubs and Western restaurants that have sprung up. The hour-long walk to Sok Ku Wan along a well-marked, paved path passes through some small fields that provide much of the island's produce. It also passes Hung Shing Ye beach, which consistently ranks among the best in Hong Kong for water quality. Just before entering Sok Ku Wan, which is famous for its seafood, the trail passes the Kamikaze Caves. The Japanese expanded existing caves to hide kamikaze speedboats that were to be used in the defence of Hong Kong against the Allies. The Japanese never got round to using the boats, but the caves are an interesting link to Hong Kong's role in the Second World War.

Cheung Chau is a dumbbell-shaped island about an hour ferry trip from Hong Kong Island, and is one of the busiest of the Outlying Islands. The island is one of the oldest settlements in Hong Kong, home to prosperous fisherman who are descendants of pirates and smugglers, most notably Cheung Po-tsai who terrorised the South China Sea from his base on the island in the mid-1800s. There is a trail on the island that runs up to a reservoir on the top of a hill and it offers great panoramas of the island below.

Tung Lung Island, at the opposite end of Victoria Harbour, offers two different samples of the area's human history. A Chinese stone fort has kept watch over the Fat Tong Mun passage since the early 18th century. Isolated, it was abandoned at the beginning of the 19th century and remained overgrown until it was restored in 1979. Hong Kong's largest rock carving is also found on the island. Not surprisingly, the two-and-a-half metre tall carving represents a dragon. The island is also home to one of the Territory's favourite rock climbing areas. A popular spot is located directly below the remains of the old fort. Ferries run from Sai Wan Ho pier and only operate on weekends and public holidays.

The Po Toi Islands are accessible from Aberdeen harbour. The main island of the group is a pleasant spot for a stroll or a relaxing swim from one of the beaches. There are also good, simple seafood restaurants on the island that serve up freshly caught fish. In addition, rock carvings are set on the island, as was the final chapter of spy novelist John Le Carre's novel The Honourable Schoolboy.

Hong Kong is a land of islands. It may be easy to skip them, but to do so is to miss out on a culturally and geographically diverse experience. The ferry ride to the islands, while usually only an hour, takes you much further back in time to a world of small rural villages where time appears to have stood still. Their island status has kept "progress" at bay, a situation that thankfully will continue for some time to come.

RELATED ARTICLE: MARVELLOUS MARINE LIFE

Coral conservation in Hong Kong took a large step forward with the World Wide Fund Hong Kong Marine Life Centre constructed at Hoi Ha Wan, Sai Kung. Built with a HK$38 million donation from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the centre provides a place where residents and visitors can go to learn about coral and marine life. Hoi Ha Wan was one of the first marine parks in Hong Kong and approximately 30 coral species have been identified in a small 250 hectare bay.

A glass-bottomed boat, a first for Hong Kong, will enable visitors to see first-hand the variety of marine life at Hoi Ha Wan. The main features of the aquarium display will emphasise both the variety and diversity of marine life in Hong Kong as well as the human impacts on marine life through dredging, reclamation, pollution, and over- fishing. For more information, call WWF on +852 2526 1011.

RELATED ARTICLE: LET'S GO SURFING

Twenty-eight year old Lee Lai-Shan captured the imagination of Hong Kong's youth when she won gold in windsurfing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Hong Kong's only gold medalist, Lee learned her trade on the waters off Cheung Chau where her uncle runs a windsurfing shop on Kwan Yam Wan Beach. Other choice spots for windsurfing include Tai Po and Sai Kung, which both have government-run centres that provide lessons and equipment. Surfing is also growing in popularity with the best waves breaking onto Tai Wan beach at the north end of Tai Long Wan. Another spot is Big Wave Bay on the south coast of Hong Kong Island.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles on surfing and observing undersea life; Hong Kong
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:9HONG
Date:Feb 1, 1999
Words:1325
Previous Article:Far from the madding crowd.
Next Article:In the country.
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