The Concrete bungle
Every autumn, race organiser Keith Noyes heads out into Hong Kong's country parks to determine the route for his King of the Hills trail race and is met with the same sight: 'We go back out to look at the courses and discover new sections have been concreted.' Previously natural trails are paved over and uphill sections fitted with concrete steps.
In many ways, Hong Kong is an outdoor-lover's dream. A hiker can leave his office in Central and be out on a trail in 10 minutes. Private banker Sandro Gianella, who moved to Hong Kong 11 years ago, says: 'Trail running makes me feel like I'm in a different place, not in a concrete jungle.'
But the increasing concreting of trails is extremely annoying for many. 'In terms of access to the outdoors, Hong Kong is the best in the world. What's a shame is that the trails themselves are losing their natural state,' says Noyes, who has lived in Hong Kong since 1992.
'You don't see trails in Japan or Taiwan being concreted like this.'
There's a joke in the trail running community that the annual 100 kilometre Oxfam Trailwalker, started more than 30 years ago as a training exercise for the Gurkhas, is increasingly being called the 'Cementwalker'.
One of the most recent trails to be paved is the Sunset Peak to Pak Mong section on Lantau Island. More than 1,500 steps have been added, according to a trail runner who declined to be named. The section is used in at least three races.
'At least 1,300 of them are completely dangerous. When rain washes away the dirt or sand, what is left are little cement walls with steel rods sticking out that are even more treacherous in the long term,' the runner says.
The other 200 steps, he says, have been built using rocks, which are 'safer for the foot to land on when running, but still an eyesore and absolutely not needed in this area - there's no potential avalanche or any danger of slopes falling'.
'From a runner's perspective, if they really have to build stairs, do the same as Lantau Peak. Sunset Peak [Pak Kung Au side] uses big rocks, which look more natural and are much safer long term. Cement stairs just reminds us of being in the city, which is what we are trying to get out of!'
There are health benefits to running on a trail rather than the road. Runners on paved surfaces fall into a steady stride and repeat motions. This leaves them vulnerable to repetitive strain injuries. Conversely, trail runners must change their stride constantly to react to the uneven terrain and engage the body's small stabilising muscles for balance. Science has shown that road runners are more susceptible than trail runners to nearly every manner of running-related injury, with the exception of twisted ankles.
Hong Kong's country parks, and by extension most of its trails, fall nominally under the care of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, which is tasked with trail building and maintenance. But practically, local district councils reserve the right to modify paths that affect their districts' villagers.
Lee Ying-ming, a country parks officer with the department, explains: 'Our country parks are not like the ones in the US. There are a lot of villages inside the parks and there are trails leading to the villages, so when they want to have better access they ask the district office to improve the track.'
According to Lee, the department's purpose is 'to conserve the environment, both ecologically and visually'. To that end, it tries to maintain as much natural trail as possible and use natural stone pavers, a process called armouring, to preserve the feel and look of the trails. Lee says the department will only interfere in cases of safety, accessibility or trail erosion.
But he concedes that the district councils do not always follow the guidelines. 'A lot of the time, the district offices do concrete paving.'
Trail runner Rupert Chamberlin echoes the confusion of many natural trail aficionados: 'I think the disappointing thing is that trails that are quite accessible and open to most people are still being concreted over. Hard dirt pack trails don't need to be turned into tarmac.'
Noyes is suspicious. 'They are manufacturing excuses to pave a lot of these trails. It is disconcerting, because a lot of what they are picking on now are trails that absolutely don't need maintenance. A lot of the things are blatantly make-work projects that make no aesthetic or safety sense.'
Although it is tempting to blame the department or district councils for the state of country paths, perhaps the real issue is the preferences of the hikers themselves.
The Hong Kong trail system is extraordinarily popular and appeals to a wide range of hikers, runners and walkers with varying degrees of experience and competence. Many appreciate the paved surfaces. Housewife Lo Siu-chun, 60, says: 'I hike so that I can hang out with my friends who have all retired and don't have much to do.' She appreciates the flat, even surface of many country paths. 'I prefer paved trails as they are easier to navigate for old people, who can sprain their ankle or stumble,' she says.
Chamberlin says: 'It may be dangerous for some, but where do you draw the line? Not every trail has to be accessible to everybody.'
Many in the department are sympathetic to trail runners and hikers. Lee says his favourite hikes are in the upper hills of Sai Kung because 'there is less concrete'.
The department has sent representatives to Australia to attend a conference on sustainable trail building and has brought in experts from the US. Recently, it built two sustainable, concrete-free mountain biking practice trails in Tai Lam.
The tangle of agendas surrounding Hong Kong's country parks complicates an issue that outdoor fans believe to be obvious.
'There is an abundance of paved roads and trails in our parks,' says mountain biker Steve Coward. 'Concrete doesn't belong there, just as an unsurfaced trail doesn't belong in a shopping mall.'