Hong Kong's tiny Ping Chau offers a rugged island getaway without the tourists
Ping Chau, a tiny, rugged island in the far northeast of Hong Kong, offers a peaceful respite from the bustle of the city
UNWIND ON THE EAST COAST
The ferry arrives at a pier on the sheltered east coast. Look down and you may see colourful fish and coral heads — signs of the rich marine life that led to waters around the island being designated as one of Hong Kong's four marine parks.
Waves lap against the orange-tinted rock that's eroding to form angular slabs and blocks. Unlike the volcanic material that most of Hong Kong is sitting on, this is sedimentary rock — mudstone. Formed around 65 million years ago from silt that accumulated in a basin that is now Mirs Bay, it is the youngest rock in Hong Kong.
There is a coastal path which offers the chance to head south to see some of the popular rock formations on the island, or north to explore the main surviving hamlet, Tai Tong.
Unless there's a unusually high tide, you can follow the shoreline where there are beaches interspersed by more areas of exposed mudstone.
Fragments of coral abound on the beaches, and you may find larger coral heads that may have been torn from the seabed during storms.
Though there are no lifeguards, this is a good place for snorkelling. Even in shallow waters you should find coral shaped like vertical plates and exotic castles, along with sea urchins, sea cucumbers, fish and other creatures.
Here, Ping Chau can seem like your archetypal tropical island, far from the pulse of the city. But you only have to glance east to nearby Dapeng Peninsula with its beach resorts, and a large terminal for liquefied petroleum gas tankers.
EXPLORE THE HAMLETS
Today, it seems no one lives on Ping Chau. Visitors and former residents only come on weekends and public holidays, so on weekdays this must be a solitary place for the few marine police officers stationed here.
In the past, the island was reportedly home to around 1,000 people, who fished, cultivated crops (including peanuts, vegetables and fruits), raised cattle and, legend has it, indulged in a spot of smuggling.
The islanders built houses with walls of mudstone blocks. A few of these are still maintained, such as in Tai Tong, where former family homes now serve as simple but bustling restaurants. Others have been abandoned, and are in various stages of ruin.
It's fascinating to explore the old hamlets. You can find some deserted places by walking the short trails into the island's interior — not that you can go very far as the island is only about 200 metres wide. Some buildings have collapsed, others are tumbledown, but there are a few you can enter through gaping doorways and find the remnants of stone stoves along with utensils such as clay jars.
It is wise to bring mosquito repellent. And watch out for the ants.
WALK ON THE DRAGON
The western part of the island is rougher hewn, with low cliffs and small coves and where the beaches are gravel rather than sand — this coast is exposed to waves surging in from the South China Sea.
At one place in the northwest, waves have sliced through joints in the rock and almost created a new, tiny island, Chan Keng Chau.
South from here is the main feature along this coast: a rock formation known as Lung Lok Shui — Dragon Descending to the Sea. But don't head here expecting an imposing structure reminding you of the mighty Smaug in The Hobbit films. Instead, there's a mini escarpment — not much taller than a person — dipping beneath the waves.
The "dragon" is capped by a band of serrated chert which is formed from microcrystalline quartz that's more resistant to erosion than mudstone. It's a popular place for taking photos, and a good spot to rest and enjoy the scenery. There are no buildings in view from here; Hong Kong hills including Sharp Peak seem far away on the western horizon.
STROLL THROUGH THE GLADES
Though woodland is taking over the island's old fields, with some trees even sprouting from the walls of deserted buildings, it's not as dense as the jungle-like woods found elsewhere in the city.
The coast walk, especially along the southwest, becomes a pleasant woodland trail with brightly lit grassy fringes. You might find butterflies including big, colourful swallowtails. Cicadas sing out their rasping din, and are even heard in late autumn — Tung Ping Chau is the only place in Hong Kong that's home to an autumnal cicada species.
Though there are few resident birds, the island attracts migrant species such as warblers, flycatchers and thrushes.
There's even a tiny reservoir amid the woods, accessible by a path that leads across the island from Sha Tau, south of the pier. During dry spells it is often empty and unattractive, but after rains a picturesque pool forms, which, in summer, becomes a magnet for hordes of small frogs that appear from the undergrowth.
WANDER BY THE WATCHTOWERS
The highest point on Ping Chau is a modest 48 metres above sea level, atop south-facing cliffs. East of here, the path tumbles down to the fringe of a wave-cut platform, where the key features are the Ping Chau Watchtowers.
These "watchtowers" are actually two sea stacks standing close together. The room-sized chunks of rock have resisted the waves that have sliced into the island and today draw visitors who admire, photograph and clamber upon them.
Although, to geologists, this is a wave-cut platform, it is not a smooth plane, but is marked by a succession of pools where rock fragments have been ripped away along boundaries between mudstone layers. These can be worth investigating for marine life, such as nudibranchs, which are also known by the unappealing name of sea slugs, although they can be fascinating, colourfully patterned creatures. There may also be handsome fish and coral in pools exposed at very low tide.
From here, there's a coastal walk back to the ferry pier. If time permits, perhaps have a try at a Tung Ping Chau "water sport": skimming stones. The mudstone erodes into flat pebbles that are ideal for skimming across the water, and might skip 15 times or more before vanishing into the sea.
Ping Chau is served by ferries operated by Tsui Wah Ferry Service. They depart Ma Liu Shui pier, which is about a 15-minute walk from University MTR station, at 9am on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays; HK$90 return.
The journey takes an hour and 40 minutes, and return ferries typically leave the island at 5.15pm. Be sure to arrive early as ferry seats are limited and the destination has become extremely popular.