The healing powers of exercise for women refugees in Hong Kong

Virginie Goethals, organiser of walking group Hiking to Heal, says weekly trips for women in Hong Kong who are otherwise largely confined to home gives them something to look forward to, and a social network

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2016, 2:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2016, 2:00am

Despite spending her childhood walking the mountains of Switzerland, Belgian Virginie Goethals only started hiking seriously and regularly five years ago when she moved to Beijing. Moving to Hong Kong in 2014 has only heightened her appetite for the trails.

Her passion has taken on a new purpose in the past six months: the former lawyer and sustainability consultant now leads hiking groups for refugees through the Free to Run charity.

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“Refugees have very limited rights in Hong Kong; they have protection but no future,” Goethals says. “Participating in a weekly hiking programme provides them with something to look forward to.”

Free to Run helps them overcome past trauma, regain confidence and empowerment, she adds. “For example, some refugee women in the hiking group had barely left their flats in Hong Kong before they started hiking; now they have a social network and are even running on a track once a week.”

The “Hiking to Heal” group takes 25 women out hiking three times a month. These are women who are isolated or recovering from trauma . Most have never set foot on a trail before. If a group wants extra training, she takes them over The Twins, two steep hills on stage one of the Wilson Trail between Stanley and Wong Nai Chung Gap every Tuesday. Free to Run also has mixed gender track training on Thursday evenings.

On her own, Goethals also runs and hikes most days at sunrise. “I love to go on the trails to see the sunrise and listen to the sounds of nature awakening. It helps me to keep my priorities straight in life and is an opportunity to recharge my batteries.”

Hiking gets a bad rep for being an old person’s sport. What’s the attraction?

Hiking is great exercise, especially in Hong Kong where the trails are so close to the city and the weather is enjoyable most of the year. It’s accessible to all, requiring nothing but a good pair of shoes. It is a great way to reconnect, and you can hike by yourself or make it a social or family activity.

How many calories do you burn climbing over Hong Kong hills? I never count calories, as I think we need to focus more on what our body tells us than reading calorie labels or wearing hi-tech fitness watches.

What has surprised you most about Hong Kong hiking?

I have been taken aback many times by the lush green colours, the well-maintained trails and the wildlife. There is a wild boar on Cape Collinson that has chased me a few times.

What’s your favourite trail?

I live in Shek O and love to hike the Dragon’s Back, starting in Big Wave Bay over Cape Collinson, especially early in the morning.

One thing in your hiking pack you can’t live without? Slightly salted cashew nuts when it is hot, and chocolate when the Hong Kong weather cools, so it doesn’t melt.

What body part hurts the most the next day?

My calves and hips are usually a bit stiff, but I find some stretching resolves it quickly.

Where is your favourite spot to refuel after a hike?

I love a fresh coconut at the end of a long session and I often buy one from the Chinese Thai restaurant in Shek O.

Everyone in your hiking group is working towards a goal or race this year. Why do you think hiking goals are important? Having goals and dreams when you hike or run pushes you outside your comfort zone and helps you to surprise yourself and enjoy life more. I think that any hiking or running goal is achievable; it id just a matter of the right state of mind, a good support network and commitment.

How can someone get involved with Free to Run in Hong Kong?

Free to Run relies entirely on the help of volunteers for its activities. We would love to have more volunteers, particularly those who have experience in sports coaching, life coaching or psychologists. All second-hand running and hiking gear provided to the refugees has been generously collected by the local hiking and running community. We collect good-quality, gently used gear through donation boxes through Racing the Planet in Sheung Wan and Gone Running in Wan Chai.