The trail that goes from strength to strength
For many people there is one sporting date in Hong Kong that stands out from the rest. Maybe it reminds them that just outside one of the world's most populated cities there lies some sprawling, beautiful countryside or maybe the prospect of blistered feet and aching knees is their idea of a good time.
Either way, the Oxfam Trailwalker team challenge, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary when this year's event starts on November 18, has grown into one of the city's signature events since its inception in 1981.
A record number of 4,800 people in 1,200 teams will take up the Oxfam Trailwalker's 30th anniversary challenge next month. They will start at Pak Tam Chung in Sai Kung and finish at Po Leung Kuk Jockey Club Tai Tong Holiday Camp in Yuen Long.
The idea behind Oxfam Trailwalker is for teams of four to raise money for Hong Kong Oxfam by walking or running 100 kilometres within 48 hours. Super Trailwalker teams have to complete the trail within 18 hours.
Most of the Oxfam Trailwalker event takes place along the MacLehose Trail which was opened on October, 26, 1979. The 100-kilometre hiking trail was named after Crawford Murray MacLehose, the longest-serving governor of Hong Kong, who established the country parks and was an enthusiastic hiker. The trail crosses much of the New Territories, starting from Pak Tam Chung in Sai Kung in the east to Tuen Mun in the west, along a trail marked by distance posts at 500-metre intervals.
The event has not always been associated with Oxfam. In 1981 the trail was held as a British army training exercise led by the Hong Kong Gurkha Signals Squadron, part of the Brigade of Gurkhas of the British Army, which was then based in the British colony and included nonNepali personnel. All participants had to finish within 24 hours. The exercise raised HK$80,000 to help the Spastics Association of Hong Kong and build a library in a poor Nepalese village.
Five years later, in 1986, teams of civilians were allowed to take part for the first time and Oxfam Hong Kong was brought in as a charity partner.
As a member of the Hong Kong Gurkha Signals Squadron, Danny Thapa, was one of those involved in mapping out the original route. Thapa, now 57, served in the British Army for 20 years, from 1972 to 1992, in Hong Kong and rose to the rank of sergeant.
He looks back with pride on the original mapping exercise in 1979, which was conducted at a leisurely pace and in some comfort.
Thapa and his companions did not even have to erect their own tents or cook at the end of each day as other members of the Gurkha Squadron were on hand at specific points along the trail to support them. 'As we were the first walkers we were given a week to camp out and map what would be the best trails to use,' Thapa said. 'It was a bit of fun for us all at the time. We took it nice and easy, but we'd regularly map out the trails and report back to our superiors.'
The trial was ready for use by civilians in 1981, when Thapa participated in the first Trailwalker. In following years he worked in a support role, a service which remains an important part of the race, with support teams on hand for the walkers/runners at various points along the trail.
As the years progressed so did people's interest in the race, but the growing participation of civilians made things a little dangerous. One occasion in the late 1980s stands out for Thapa.
'I was at checkpoint three on Sai Sha Road near Sai Kung and we were told that a man was either lost or injured between checkpoint two and three,' he said.
'The helicopter could not go in as the weather was too bad and no vehicles could get up there as there was no access road. So we had to walk a couple of miles with stretchers on our shoulders to get the man.'
When they found him, the man had suffered leg injuries and because he had been exposed to the cold and wet, was also suffering from hypothermia. 'We stretchered him back okay, but it was pretty tough.'
Thapa said that during this time competitors' getting lost or injured was a 'big worry'. The Gurkha Squadron was a signals regiment and had the best possible communication equipment available, but unlike that available today. There were no mobile phones, just large military radio phones manned in between checkpoints and people spread out along the route trying to make sure no one got lost. There would also be a team of 'sweepers' to follow the last team out from the start and pick up stragglers along the way.
These difficulties did not seem to worry the public as each year more and more people took part. But one group stood out from the rest - the Gurkhas themselves.
From the first event until 1996, when the regiment left Hong Kong before the handover, the Gurkhas symbolised the Trailwalker. Their exploits were legendary. The Trailwalker trail recalled the hills and mountains of their homeland of Nepal, and they moved along it with grace and ease.
'In Nepal you'd have to walk or run for miles before getting to the next village,' Thapa said. 'This type of hill-walking reminded us of home. It was enjoyable because it brought back happy memories of Nepal.'
Since 1996 Gurkha teams have occasionally been sponsored to return to Hong Kong and compete. Sometimes they won, although on the past two occasions the Hong Kong Garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) team stole their limelight and snatched victory.
But those victories were not without controversy. In 2009 the PLA was accused of violating the spirit of the charity race by adopting a 'win at all costs' mentality. Other competitors said the PLA soldiers used an enormous support crew compared with those of other teams and that their support runners employed gamesmanship to prevent other teams from overtaking them.
There is no doubt that a race between the PLA and the Gurkhas would crank up interest another notch.
'I'd love to see a Gurkha team take part again and compete against the PLA,' Thapa said. 'We'd need a dialogue with the organisers and the Gurkha regiments in the UK, but I'm sure it could be arranged. There would definitely be an interest if the organisers contacted them and sponsorship could be arranged.'
Over the years the Gurkhas' dominance did not dampen other participants' competitive spirit.
The Super Trailwalker teams category was introduced in 2001, when marathoners and adventure racers had to complete the course in 18 hours. While this added to the difficulty of the challenge, for most competitors the essence of the race remains the same - to hike the trail at a steady pace and savour the surrounding beauty.
Nighttime adds a different attraction, when much of the trail is completed by participants. To do this safely competitors wear small torches strapped to their heads to see where they are going. It makes for an incredible scene.
'To stand back and watch as these tiny lights criss-cross the hills in the darkness for miles is really amazing,' Thapa said. 'This all happens in the still of the night and is unlike anything you've ever seen before.'
The amount, in HK dollars, raised since 1986 by more than 69,000 trailwalkers for Oxfam poverty alleviation projects
The height, in metres, of the highest of around 20 hills that must be negotiated on the rugged, 100-kilometre route
The number of teams expected to enter this year's Trailwalker, which will start on November 18. More than 4,800 hikers will be taking part
The number of hours in which teams aim to complete the trail. Last year's winners, the PLA Hong Kong Garrison, took just under 12 hours
The number of months in training that organisers advise team members to spend in preparation for the hike
Three decades on the march
1981 First Trailwalker takes place and is used as a Gurkha-led army training exercise
1986 The Gurkha Welfare Trust invites Oxfam Hong Kong to join the event as a co-organiser
1992 A monitoring system using computer barcodes is launched to locate walkers. Donations help set up the Trailwalker Centre in Kwai Chung, assisting adults with mental disabilities
1996 The last year the British Army's Gurkhas take part, and they win easily
1997 Oxfam Hong Kong publishes the 160-page bilingual, pictorial book Trailwalker
2000 The Super Trailwalkers category is introduced. These teams must finish the course in 18 hours
2004 The challenge sets a new record when 88 per cent of participants (or 3,266 individuals) complete the 100-kilometre trail
2006 25th anniversary of Trailwalker. The total distance covered by more than 50,000 participants over 25 years is equivalent to walking round the Earth 100 times
2008 One Sichuan earthquake survivor and three rescue volunteers take part as the Beyond 512 team
2009 Members of the Hong Kong Garrison of the People's Liberation Army take part for the first time. They finish first and second
2010 The PLA team wins for the second year in a row