'A heavyset mainlander peers through the trees. He calmly whistles, obviously a sign to others at the camp behind him ...'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2007, 12:00am

It is lunchtime, about half an hour into a walk in Ma On Shan Country Park when Constable Leung Chi-fai, of the rural patrol unit, turns and signals for us to stop and keep quiet.

The police officer known as 'Sai Fai' to his colleagues and dressed in camouflage directs me into the scrub from the small bush trail off Po Lo Che Road in Sai Kung. There I see a heavyset mainlander peering through the trees, maybe 10 metres away.

Wearing a long-sleeved cream shirt and with unkempt hair, he calmly whistles, obviously a sign to others at the camp behind him.

He continues observing us for a few tense minutes before backing off down the trail. His poise and confident manner triggers a memory of what Senior Inspector Mike Sharp had told me earlier; many of the illegal mainlanders caught in the area committing burglaries or stealing are suspected to be former People's Liberation Army soldiers who have fallen on hard times.

This encounter on a sweltering afternoon had not been expected.

Senior Inspector Sharp, the patrol commander, had kept this particular tent 'live' in the hope the thieves would return to use it.

He warned us the camp could be occupied. There had been two attempted burglaries in the past week and a woman who owned a villa in the area had discovered thieves had broken in and stolen three cans of cola.

This signalled to the police that the thieves were not locals because they committed crimes not only for financial rewards but to survive.

Senior Inspector Sharp eases us back down the trail. It has already been a busy day for the team of officers. That morning the unit had sighted three suspected tree thieves elsewhere in the area, and their clothes and boots were still muddy from the encounter.

The commander believes it takes a certain type of character to succeed in the rural patrol unit - not only a love for the outdoors, but stamina and an ability to think independently when required. Perhaps the biggest challenge is dealing with the oppressive summer heat.

The officer knows the terrain around the camp well and within minutes of backing down the trail he has devised a strategy. Two men have already been spotted at the camp and there could be more. Reinforcements are to be called and a cordon formed at the top of the valley on a road that is part of the MacLehose Trail.

The police will try to flush the gang up the hill and, with luck, exhausted from the climb, into the grip of the officers.

About 15 minutes later the reinforcements silently begin to arrive and take their positions. Officers include team commander Sergeant Kam Wun-cheong, Constable So Chun-kit and Senior Inspector Tsang Chiu-tong - who is known as Tom - and is a vital cog in the unit.

Constables Tsui Chun-wai and Lai Ka-fai will lead those acting as 'backstops' on the MacLehose - to catch the suspects when they try to escape over the ridge.

The occasional bird and the flow of water is all that can be heard, despite the presence of 17 officers. They are calm and a couple even manage to smile reassuringly.

At 2pm, a group of six make their move on the camp. We follow, creeping through the scrub, trying hard to copy the officers, who move as quietly as tigers.

An officer peers through the entrance to the tent and signals back; the bad guys have gone.

The area around the camp is strewn with used cans of food and other debris - cleanliness is clearly not high on the agenda. One jar of soya beans has just been opened and there is the smell of a campfire; lunch was obviously being made when they heard us. On a rock by the stream there is toothpaste and shampoo.

They have abandoned a bag of rice and a jumper inside the camp, which is made of steel poles and covered with waterproof material.

Not to be disheartened, the officers plough forward through the dense scrub and up the steep hillside. Their determination pays off and a trail in the undergrowth is spotted. About an hour later an officer finds two bags of tools, presumably used for breaking into homes. There is also a mainlander's identification cards.

Then, 3 metres away, another officer spots two men lying low in the scrub. This is as close as the police have been and the chase begins. It's now close to 5pm and the officers have been scouring the rugged woodland for almost four hours. They are tired and dehydrated but find their legs for one final pursuit.

The suspects follow the path predicted by Senior Inspector Sharp up the ridge and onto the MacLehose Trail. Luck seems to shine on the suspects and gives them a chance to escape.

The officer decides to cancel the pursuit. The suspects are now without supplies, including the tools they would have used for breaking and entering, and returning to their camp is not an option.

The mission is still on the commander's mind when we talk later that evening. He wonders if they could have used the force's new German shepherd dogs from Belgium to track the men.

'But that is effectively like releasing Jaws. You have to have a very good reason to hurt a suspect like that,' he said.