Losing a night's sleep to watch the sun rise

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 March, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 March, 1993, 12:00am

AS I leave Ngong Ping's woodland, Lantau Peak looms ahead of me; a black, hulking mass against the night sky. High up the slopes, I can see two points of light, torches of climbers.

There are more lights, more crazy climbers, ahead of me. I follow them, and soon pick out the first steps. I have read that there are 1,400 in all.

After climbing a few hundred I stop to rest, and look down at the receding lights of the Tea Gardens, Po Lin Monastery and other buildings at Ngong Ping.

I continue: up, up, left and up, as the path turns to follow the spine of an exposed ridge, then a gentler stretch and, at last, I make the final climb to Hongkong's second highest summit, at 933 metres.

Already, a crowd of 50 or more has gathered to wait for the sunrise. A chill wind is blowing and many are huddled beneath blankets and sleeping bags, and shelter behind rocks.

I find a place away from the worst of the wind, lie back, and look at the night sky - the stars are the brightest I have seen in Hongkong. A shooting star flashes past, and vanishes, a tiny meteorite sizzling into nothingness.

With the sun still far away to the east, this high, remote hilltop is a fine place to reflect on life's important questions: Why am I here? Where am I going to? And, why am I not sound asleep in a nice warm bed? The crowd stirs as the sky over Hongkong Island lightens. Cameras are readied in anticipation, but the sun is slow to arrive. Stars flicker out, and the sky turns a pale bus. The sun emerges from behind low clouds, and its yellow tints the South China Sea.

The show over, the audience files back down towards Ngong Ping. Back at the Tea Gardens, I return to my room for an hour's sleep. Then, breakfast, and to Po Lin, to catch a bus down the hill.

Twisting down the narrow road, my bus passes others that are bound for Po Lin, and bursting with people. The monastery, which I visited in the calm of yesterday evening, will soon resonate with crowds.

At the junction with the Silvermine Bay to Tai O road, I leave the bus, walk to the left, then start up stage five of the Lantau Trail. There are flights of steps but, when you have climbed 1,400 steps in pitch darkness, they present no challenge.

After reaching a high point, the trail follows a switchback of grassy hilltops as it aims for Ling Wu Shan - at 490 metres, the highest point in southwest Lantau. Once there, the trail drops down, and turns right.

Soon, on my right, I see the Flying Dragon. A stone and plaster statue, the dragon is a long, spindly beast, balancing on rocks above the Tsz Hing Monastery. Garishly painted, and with its jaws open in a wild roar, it makes a bizarre addition to the landscape.

Past the monastery, which appears otherwise unremarkable, I reach a stream. The trail crosses it, leads me up the valley, then turns away to the right, and reaches another Lantau folly, Ng Yuen.

Ng Yuen, an ornamental garden in classical Chinese style, was built by the late Mr Woo Quen-sung. Though private, it is open to the public; I walk in, and stop to buy a welcome, stream-cooled drink. Then, I tour the garden, walking along corridors and grassy paths between summer houses and shrubberies.

While clearly still tended, the garden looks past its best. The houses seem little used, and some of their windows are broken. Perhaps, without Mr Woo's drive and energy, the garden suffers from some neglect - this would be hardly surprising, I think, given the remoteness of the place.

I walk across a zig-zag bridge that crosses a lily pond, and rest at a pavilion above the water. Children throw down bread crusts and crumbs; carp and goldfish swarm in to feed, then cruise through the shallows, waiting for more.

Beside the garden, stage five of the trail ends, and stage six begins. This stage follows a concrete path, which is gentle at first, then drops steeply down to the coast.

Reaching a playground, I leave the trail, turning right along a path to Tai O, where I catch a bus to Silvermine Bay.

Getting there Hongkong Ferry operates services between Central and Silvermine Bay and (at weekends and on public holidays) between Tsim Sha Tsui and Silvermine Bay.

Buses depart Silvermine Bay for Ngong Ping (for many people, the starting point for the trek up Lantau Peak); from Tai O, there are buses to Silvermine Bay (Mui Wo).

At Ngong Ping, accommodation is available at the Tea Gardens, which has hostel style rooms for two to around eight people, costing from $150 ($190 at weekends) per night. A youth hostel near the Tea Gardens has beds for $22 per night, but rooms may be noisy; it is only open at weekends.

If you plan to hike up Lantau Peak for the sunrise, take a torch, and be prepared for lower temperatures on the exposed summit. The Countryside Series map of Lantau Island is useful.