Rambling life leads to many a stumble

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 January, 1998, 12:00am

I have become - since my dog-walking activities have moved - an earnest and detailed student of that curious institution, the Hong Kong footpath.

The Hong Kong footpath comes in a wide variety of sizes and conditions.

They are an essential component of country parks, which in turn are regarded as one of our more pleasing features, and occasionally even touted as potential tourist attractions.

I have my doubts about rural strolling as a tourist attraction. It is well known that our extensive collection of country parks exists on sufferance, in that any well-connected developer with a use for one is routinely allowed to take a chunk out of it.

Even where formal development is not allowed, Hong Kong peaks are helpless prey to the erectors of pipes, reservoirs, wires, pylons, and mysterious elements of the airport traffic-control system.

Still, if you already live here, it is a pleasure to find that there is an extensive network of footpaths awaiting the exploration of the eager walker.

At the top of the range, the Lexus of country paths as it were, is the 'trail' or its earlier predecessor, the 'ride'.

These are named after former governors or their wives. They are, at what must be considerable expense, lavishly signposted and covered with concrete.

This sort of decoration would, I fear, horrify the purists back in Britain, with whom I used to share the Pennine Way and its numerous subsidiaries.

The Pennine Way is the grand-daddy of long-distance paths. It stretches from the Scottish border and weaves over the hills to about halfway down England.

If you are carrying a full pack and taking your time, the walk can occupy three weeks.

Of course even in my tramping days, people attempted record-breaking runs and I think the shortest time had come down to about four days.

From one end of the way to the other there are no concrete paths, although there used to be short stretches on roads. You can hardly expect to walk 480 kilometres in England without brief encounters with roads.

These were bitterly resented by connoisseurs, who agitated for ingenious detours which would keep the path in the jungle or at least on the grass.

With the passage of time and many feet, some visible grooves appeared on the more sensitive landscapes. The problem was tackled by moving the route, not paving the hillside.

Unfortunately, this approach is not feasible in Hong Kong. If you use the same path for a few months you soon discover the situation is more dynamic than at first appears.

During the winter, your path is pretty static and consistent. In the summer, on the other hand, it is liable to erosion from the heavy rains and encroachment from the surrounding vegetation.

A steep path may become a watercourse, swiftly developing a snaking gully down the middle - a good place to break your ankle.

If the path is in a flat place and little used, it may disappear in one growing season. At ground level the path is still there, but you cannot see it through the riotous vegetation.

The puzzling thing in all this is what happens to those paths further down the social scale, which are not named after governors, governors' wives or anyone else.

On small-scale maps they appear as anonymous red lines. Sometimes these are dotted, indicating that the path is either steep or overgrown.

If the path leads to a Water Supplies Department installation, it will be properly paved. If it leads to a functioning tomb, it will occasionally be cleared by the local villagers.

The rest seem to receive sporadic visits.

Some of our local paths have for all practical purposes been allowed to disappear. They are still on the map, but difficult to find on the ground.

Others show obvious signs of occasional maintenance. Steep places were once provided with wooden steps, but many have collapsed. More recent earthworks involve the use of sandbags, producing a reasonably robust set of steps which presumably resists erosion.

Keeping up this work is a thankless and endless task, and I hope it will not be taken as criticism if I say that in one place the work seems to have got a bit behind.

Our local hill, the nameless ridge behind Pai Tau village in Sha Tin, connects via a short saddle to the lower slopes of Needle Hill, the rather unneedle-like ridge which separates Sha Tin from the Shing Mun Reservoir.

The path crosses the saddle and then goes straight up the hillside, on what last year was a rather tired set of steps.

Alas, the summer's rain did away with many of the old wood steps and this path has become difficult to get up and positively dangerous to get down.

Where, I wonder, does one apply for a visit from the Man with the Sandbags?