Paving some eroded trails is a necessary compromise

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2008, 12:00am

'Concreting of natural trail halted amid hikers' uproar'

SCMP headline, January 10

This is meant to be a finance column so let's give this story a finance angle first. If a government contract to pave a 99-metre stretch of the Hong Kong trail at Tai Long Wan is worth HK$336,000, then I want to be a paving contractor. Someone must be growing rich here.

But of course it was not the cost of paving this section of trail that had the hikers referred to in the headline above in an uproar. They object to any paving at all of any trail.

And I do not. It is my view that there are sections of walking trail everywhere across Hong Kong that badly need paving to protect the surrounding environment.

Let me establish my credentials here. If the seniority of hikers in Hong Kong is determined by the aggregate length of trail they have walked here, then I am on the board. My count is in the thousands, plural, of kilometres over almost 30 years. Our country parks are one of my great joys.

It is a joy to come walking up the Dragon's Back trail with the wall effect of the thick bush on either side, the view of Shek O below and the wind whistling past my ears, as it always does up there.

What is not joyful, however, is then looking down one of the hills on that ridge to see the trail widen out in an ever-spreading erosion of rubble and rain gulch, the simple result of too many boots trampling on a fragile landscape.

You can't go down the middle of some of these worn-out slopes any longer, at least not without risking a broken leg. There is no foothold. Everything has crumbled. You don't even know where the original trail went. You thus make your way along one edge and then the erosion just spreads further on that side.

Hong Kong people are increasingly discovering how beautiful their countryside is, and I welcome it, but the drawback is that the thin vegetation and decomposed granite of some of that countryside simply cannot accommodate the number of people who now want to go there.

And I've seen it worse than on the Dragon's Back. Try climbing Sharp Peak in the East Sai Kung country park these days. I did it last winter coming from Chek Keng village, going up the steep west ascent.

It was distinctly dangerous. People higher up were kicking rocks down on our heads. They couldn't help it. There is no way you can go up that now seriously eroded route and not dislodge rubble while trying for foothold or handhold. The crowd at the top made me think of people standing in line for entry into a trendy bar.

And I can tell you that when I first looked up to Sharp Peak from the beaches below more than 25 years ago, I wondered whether there was any definite way up at all, whether anyone had even climbed it. What a ridiculous thought today.

But there is a solution. I saw it carried out on a section of the Wilson Trail directly up Violet Hill from the Repulse Bay gap. There was a very nasty and spreading erosion gully up there years ago. It was then paved with concrete steps for the creation of the Wilson Trail.

The result was magic. The erosion has healed and bush has grown up around the trail again with a little assistance from some planted trees that are doing very well.

I have seen the same healing magic where this solution was tried elsewhere on steep slopes, although I concede that it doesn't always work. Sometimes the height of the steps is too great or the paving is incomplete and people still walk on the side. In general, the results are very good.

This does not say I welcome all paving. Give some indigenous villagers their way and they would pave every hillside from top to bottom because they think it a better solution to mosquitoes than mosquito nets in their bedrooms and because they like the look of it. I'm not the first to say there is no accounting for taste.

There is also that railings madness in which the Water Department indulged a few years ago when it hadn't spent its entire year's budget and was looking for ways to ensure that next year's wouldn't be chopped.

And then of course there is the incentive of lucrative contracts, which also has the countryside littered with pointless pagodas. The point is to make money and money is made.

I can't say whether this latest paving incident falls into any of these categories although I doubt it. That last bit of the Hong Kong Trail where this paving is being done is definitely eroded and I am ready to believe that there was a flooding risk to the village below.

But we ourselves are the biggest culprits. There are just too many of us for our country trails and some compromises need to be made. The paving of eroded sections of trail is one of them and I am all for it.