kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 May, 2004, 12:00am

Two weeks ago, a group of weekend strollers set off to hike through Tai Lam Country Park. As they trekked the scenic route, a 25-year-old schoolteacher felt ill. She sat down. Then she died. The tragedy was an extreme example of how a fun day outdoors can turn swiftly into disaster.

As summer begins and people head for our glorious country parks, government agencies and sporting groups are trying to drive home a subtle warning. Have fun in the outdoors. Enjoy the paths and hiking trails. But please use your heads. Follow simple, basic rules. It is a tricky situation for country parks' administrators.

They want to encourage people to make utmost use of our vast communal treasure. At the same time, they worry about safety. We cannot pass laws to make people act intelligently. We can't have park rangers inspecting people to check they have water, maps and proper clothes; parks are supposed to be for recreation and enjoyment, not prison camps.

Ken Ng On-yeung is a skilled outdoorsman who trains teachers, social workers and others who escort groups on adventure or eco-tours. Dangers are insidious, he says. The greatest threat is ignorance. 'Someone sits in front of a computer five days a week,' Mr Ng says. 'Come Saturday, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and a few friends decide to climb Ma On Shan.

'Their bodies are soft. They're not sure where they are going. They have no maps, little food and water and they have not told anyone where they are going. It's a recipe for disaster.'

And disaster does happen. The danger is nothing new. Hong Kong's rugged high country is a perilous environment for those who do not treat it with respect.

In September 1999, with temperatures soaring to a deadly 36 degrees Celsius, two hikers died and six were hospitalised with heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Last Sunday, Fire Services handled eight mountain rescues.

Occasionally, policemen collapse during hiking exercises. They go through stringent physical checks, are medically supervised and are scrutinised during the exercise by qualified instructors with many years' experience. Yet, even so, policemen are sometimes fatally stricken. So amateurs on a hike must know a few basic rules; most are simple common sense.

Every authority stresses one vital imperative: carry enough water and sip it regularly, even if you are not thirsty. Dehydration can creep unnoticed through the body, a deadly enemy. Yeung Ka-ming, the country parks' chief ranger, says before hikers hit the trails, they should ask themselves three questions. Where are we going? Are we prepared? What will we do if we get into trouble? He points out most trouble sprouts from lack of preparation and an inability to deal with problems.

'Tell someone where you are going,' Dr Yeung stresses. If the weather breaks or you don't get back, that information at least gives rescuers a starting point.

Vivian Chan of the Department of Health urges hikers to properly plan their outing and not to tackle formidable routes that may be too challenging. Someone should know about first aid. People with heart disease or asthma should check with a doctor to make sure they are sufficiently fit. 'Never go off on your own,' Dr Chan adds.

Wong Ping-shan, medical adviser to the Hong Kong Sports Institute, points to their hiking guide, which stresses safety planning. 'Check weather reports,' he suggests. 'If it's hot or humid, consider postponing your hike.'

Mr Ng says if someone feels ill, action must be swift. 'If anyone is faint or dizzy, help them lie down in the shade,' he advises. 'Pour water over them. Call rescue services, and do it quickly because delay may mean death.'

Last Sunday temperatures rose to 30.5 degrees with a soggy 94 per cent humidity. Bear in mind these recordings are made on a grassy knoll in Tsim Sha Tsui. Up on the ridges leading to the crest of Ma On Shan, the mercury soared. Moisture poured from bodies as hikers tramped the slopes.

On the MacLehose Trail towards the imperious heights of Buffalo Pass, I paused to look at other walkers. Almost all passed muster. Most wore hats and sensible shoes and carried walking sticks. Everyone had water bags or bottles, and mobile phones.

The rules were being obeyed. Good. As the sweltering summer advances, let's hope common sense walks hand in hand with enjoyment on the crests of our country parks.