Atrocities with a cement mixer
Flying into Hong Kong on a rare, unpolluted day when there is a clear view, passengers get a glorious view of the New Territories. But what are those concrete staircases, marching relentlessly across the spiny backbone of the ranges?
It's a good question and one to which environmentalists are demanding answers. Why are assorted government departments spending many millions of dollars to ruin perfectly fine natural paths that have been used for centuries? Why are crazy, paving-stone stairways and walkways being laid along remote trails, devastating the natural serenity and inviting wet-season erosion?
Now a highly successful campaign has been sparked by a handful of mountain bikers incensed by the endless tide of concrete seeping along isolated trails. Although they are all neophyte activists, the founders of Save Our Trails are rousing public consciousness, launching a drive marked by common sense and reasonableness.
'The compulsion to concrete paths may be well-meaning, but the result is to ruin existing trails,' contends Shaun Horrocks, one of the founders. 'The results are more suitable to a Central sidewalk than a country park hiking trail.'
Angry bikers dismayed at the constant concrete encroachment set out to prove that all users are united in thinking that trails are being ruined and natural beauty destroyed. 'We hope to show the governing bodies that there is a thriving outdoors community who do not wish to see the trails devastated,' he said.
The response was overwhelming. As word spread, supportive e-mails by the hundred were sent to email@example.com. The campaigners' objectives are to urge that trails be kept in as natural a state as possible and to raise awareness of Hong Kong as a destination for outdoor activities.
'We want the AFCD [Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department] and other departments to clarify their decision-making policies, and to work with them on the correct maintenance of trails, to safeguard them for outdoor sports,' Mr Horrocks said.
Long-established conservation groups like the WWF were swift to give support. Save Our Trails co-founder Brandon Kirk said government departments 'have taxpayers' money to waste, and can't conceive that things might be better without concrete, steps, guardrails, warning signs and emergency telephones'.
In my view, the worst offender is the Water Supplies Department, which acts like Genghis Khan with a concrete mixer. But some of these monstrosities are within country parks, where the AFCD claims it follows the precept of being gentle with unspoiled landscapes.
In some instances, this is the old story of demands by indigenous villagers for broad concrete paths to serve hamlets that have been abandoned for decades. The objective here is simple: any improvement in access pushes up rural property values, and absentee landowners in Britain can cash in their unseen heritage.
But the AFCD spokesman concedes that the Country and Marine Parks Authority has to give approval before work is done. 'We try to keep our country park trails in a natural condition, as far as possible,' he said. The concerned bikers-turned-activists and other users of the trails believe the AFCD needs to try a lot harder.
Kevin Sinclair is a Hong Kong reporter who lives in the New Territories