How green is their valley
Ark Eden is about a 45-minute walk from the Mui Wo ferry pier. You'll pass village houses, vegetable plots, babbling streams, hanging vines and lianas, huge black spiders sitting on silver webs, frogs croaking under enormous leaves and village dogs ambling along happily with their tails in the air. It's so far removed from most of Hong Kong life that you might feel you've stepped into another country.
What a place for schoolchildren - or anyone, really - to interact with nature. And that's exactly the point.
The story of Ark Eden began with the government's 2004 Lantau Concept Plan, which residents of the island criticised as being 'big on concrete, small on conservation'.
The residents felt the plans for Lantau would ruin its status as a garden island, rich in biodiversity. They had a different vision for Lantau; they wanted to preserve and showcase the island, so Hongkongers, especially schoolchildren, could interact with the flora and fauna around them and learn about concepts of sustainability. They called their idea Ark Eden.
So Jenny Quinton, who became Ark Eden's director, the late architect Neil McLaughlin and other residents hatched a plan to create base for environmental learning. In 2005, Quinton quit her job as a primary school teacher and Ark Eden was born.
'I wanted to look after everything that's beautiful. That's really what Ark Eden is about,' she says.
The place makes you think of The Swiss Family Robinson. Quinton turned her home and garden of 23 years into an ecological house and farm covering about five square kilometres in an old farming community in the Tung Hang Mei valley, where the primary lesson is sustainability.
'I could see that the students and teachers needed more environmental input,' she says. 'A lot of the school curriculum is action orientated, so the children need action units and field trips at the end of each learning block.'
A typical field trip topic is 'From Field to Table', in which the class compares industrialised food production with the way its done on small farms. For this course, the children rotate among activities such as composting, planting, harvesting and cooking.
Other workshops include 'Eco-Living', in which children design an eco-house, and 'On the Trail of the Buffalo', in which they look at the ecosystems of Pui O's salt marshes and the interdependence between buffalo and birds. Quinton also goes to schools to talk to children and help set up gardens.
'Sometimes the children go away really changed by the experience,' she says, proudly. 'They come so frightened of nature, and then they experience it and lose their fear. People don't want to protect something they're frightened of, so it's important that the children understand their surroundings.'
Tom Brymer, an 11-year-old student, has loved the time at Ark Eden. 'I gained lots of knowledge and got closer to nature,' he says. 'It built my confidence spending time with other children my age and younger, and it got me out in the open and to see places that other people haven't seen.'
Classes of seven- to nine-year-olds from Kennedy School have been going to Ark Eden for the past six years as part of the school's 'Saving the Planet' unit.
'I think Ark Eden is incredible,' says Lesley Davies, Kennedy's co-ordinator for sustainable development education. 'The children gain so much from it. It provides them with an experience they cannot get anywhere else in Hong Kong. My Primary Three class goes there as part of their studies about 'reduce, reuse, recycle'. They see it all happening at Ark Eden; it gives them ideas of what they can do in everyday life.'
The field trips proved so popular that parents started asking Quinton to open up on school holidays. So now the centre runs Eco-Days, in which kids go to waterfalls, beaches and on overnight camp-outs. There are also eco-birthday parties, family days and tree planting days.
'In the summer, we spend most of our time in the water. We go to waterfalls, hike to beaches, swim, go shrimping in streams, plant things and just generally immerse ourselves in nature,' Quinton says. 'I try to make it child-guided, so if they suggest making a tree house, we go for it.'
Designing and building a tree house involves studying principles of building, learning how to sketch and constructing from scrap or local materials. It's part of the secondary school CAS (creativity, action, service) programme.
'For primary schools, we do something simpler - an overview of eco-design and three workshops: preserving and building with bamboo, setting up kitchen gardens, and we follow an eco-trail of building design concepts at the site,' Quinton says.
Ark Eden's not just for children. Three years ago, Quinton expanded her scope to include university students and adults. For them, she promotes the concept of permaculture - a system of design that copies nature in creating sustainable water, energy, waste, food, building and living systems.
'The idea is to produce a maximum yield with the least effort just as nature does,' she says. 'One really good example of this is the food system we have here. We don't plant crops in long, straight lines; the planting is curved, and crops are interspersed with ponds and trees.'
Quinton would like to see more small-scale, permaculture farms in Hong Kong. 'We have to localise,' she says. 'We're the eighth worst in the world in terms of food security - on a par with Sudan. When the crunch comes, Hong Kong will go down unless it can sort out its food production.'
For adults, Ark Eden offers social responsibility days. Clients include Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and Bloomberg. 'Credit Suisse ... has organised many volunteering events for its employees,' says vice-president Ben Ridley, who sits on the bank's charity committee. 'We've organised three volunteering days so far this year, including an inter-bank tree-planting day on Earth Day with about 100 colleagues from Macquarie, Societe Generale, State Street and UBS.'
When those events take place, the employees often bring their children. 'The various activities are good alternatives to classroom-based team building and personal development courses and are a great way to learn - and teach kids - about nature, conservation and healthy, responsible living,' Ridley says.
Recently, Ark Eden ran a 12-day Permaculture Design Certificate course to equip trainers in practical skills such as sustainable aid, using indigenous materials and building composting toilets.
'We need to rethink the whole relationship we have with the environment. The whole change needs to come through the educational system,' says Quinton, ever the educator.
As part of her desire to educate on and promote permaculture, Quinton has 10 student interns this summer to help her redevelop and extend the site. She wants to convert some of the abandoned buildings into dormitories and workshop areas that can be used when it rains.
'Ark Eden is the real thing,' says Davies, the co-ordinator at Kennedy School. 'It's not just preaching. It's practising what you preach. It teaches people, and especially children, to appreciate their natural environment, and this makes them much more aware of what's being done in Hong Kong to damage it.'
Tom is sold on the concept, as he knows the burden of sustainability will one day shift to his generation.
'I love spending any time I can at Ark Eden because Jenny is such a great inspiration in teaching us how important we are in trying to help change the environment,' he says.
'I am now a strong environmentalist. It's great that Jenny has such young followers. Every child should get the opportunity to spend time with her.'
For more details, go to arkedenonlantau.com