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Kayaks on the beach near Sai Lau Kong. Photos: Cameron Dueck.

Kayaking in placid Double Haven, far from Hong Kong’s bustle and crowds

Cameron Dueck goes on a kayak adventure over several days in Double Haven in the northeast New Territories, discovering historic villages amid an intricate maze of islands and bays

The map showed an idyllic patch of water hemmed in by parkland islands. I could see small coves and passages, the perfect place to explore in a kayak. Its name, Double Haven, completed the tranquil image.

But we’re not there yet. First, having set off from Tan Ka Wan on the Sai Kung peninsula, we have to cross the lumpy, grey seas of Tolo Channel, our kayaks bobbing in the waves as we wait for a ship to pass. Then we round Wong Chuk Kok Tsui, where hikers scrambling along the rocky shore to get to the Devil’s Fist shout and wave at us as we paddle by.

We land on Tung Wan for lunch, where my paddling partner, on her first big kayaking trip, slumps down onto a rock, exhausted.

“Is the whole trip going to be like this? With wind and waves? This cold?”

I make reassuring sounds and promise better conditions ahead, but I’m not sure what to expect. After an hour of shivering on the beach and gulping hot tea from a thermos I cajole her back into her kayak. We point the boats through the narrow gap between Crescent and Double Islands and enter a whole different world.

Dueck navigates at sea, entering Double Haven from the east.
Double Haven lies spread out before us, unfurled like an old Chinese scroll painting, complete with overlapping hills that disappear into the blue haze. The water is calm, like an inland lake. The sun comes out, turning greys into greens and blues, the light catching the silver flash of a jumping fish.

Double Haven, named Yan Chau Tong in Chinese, is on the eastern shores of Plover Cove Country Park. Eroded volcanic rock, sharp and brittle and often blood red with iron oxide, shelters Double Haven at all points of the compass, saving it from the storms that batter other parts of Hong Kong. At its north end Double Haven becomes Crooked Harbour, but the two protected bodies of water can be explored as one.

Very few Hongkongers even know of Double Haven, much less visit it. There are no roads into the area and ferry connections are infrequent and inconvenient; those that do visit have to hike in. The area is perhaps best known for Lai Chi Wo, the 300-year-old walled Hakka village that sits inside the Yan Chau Tong Marine Park, which was created in 1996.

The historic village, which is currently being revitalised, is our destination for the day, and it’s late afternoon by the time our kayaks bump ashore next to its pier. There’s no space for a tent on the beach, and the village square is covered in concrete, so we settle on a tiny patch of grass next to the village gate. We pull our kayaks up above the high-tide line, hang our dripping clothes from a line and pitch the tent. It’s dark by the time we have our camping stove hissing. Soon a villager arrives on his bicycle and we brace ourselves, expecting him to chase us away.

Ap Chau, with Sha Tau Kok in the distance.

“I’m just checking my nets,” the man says. “It’s okay, you can camp here.”

He wades out into the receding tide, and moments later reappears with a small fish he’s pulled from his net.

“It’s not much, but I’m just fishing to feed myself, so it’s enough,” he says.

Before leaving he warns us to secure our food bags against wild pigs. Sure enough, we see one trotting along the darkened shore and are jolted awake during the night when a squealing pig runs by our tent, chased by baying village dogs.

The next morning we paddle north to the island of Ap Chau. In the 1960s this island became home to the Taiwan-based True Jesus Church and its followers. Today, the church is still in use but of what was once a Tanka population of more than 1,000 only a handful remains.

It’s on the peak of Ap Chau where the preciousness of Double Haven’s seclusion hits home. Just two kilometres to the north is Yantian, which in the past two decades has evolved from a small fishing village into one of the world’s busiest container terminals. The roar of engines and clang of metal floats across the water, and the acrid smell of diesel exhaust hangs in the air. To the northwest is a wall of office and residential towers, where Sha Tau Kok blends seamlessly into the far reaches of the Shenzhen metropolis. To the east, beyond the hills of Crooked Island, is the open waters of Mirs Bay, dotted with cargo ships from around the world. But to south lies a scene largely unchanged for thousands of years; the intricate maze of isolated islands and quiet bays that we’d just paddled through. A tiny refuge in a sea of people and progress.

Kayaks on Tung Wan, Double Island.

We paddle two kilometres east to the village of Kat O on Crooked Island, one of the only villages in the area with a permanent population and signs of activity. The village itself is well maintained and interesting to explore, but its main beach, where we landed, faces the industrial eyesore of Yantian, so we eat a quick lunch and continue on our way.

We point our kayaks south, back into the protection and quiet of Double Haven. It’s hot and still for a winter day, and we take breaks from paddling to trail our hands in the cool water. The marine park teems with life, and the jumping fish are the only thing breaking the smooth surface of the sea. Our course takes us along the southern shores of Double Haven and through the narrow Hung Shek Mun gap between Double Island and the mainland. We are on our way home, but it’s still a long way to go.

Because Double Haven has so few waves the vegetation grows right down to the high tide line and there are few beaches, resulting in a dearth of camping spots. The weather forecast calls for a drastic change of weather, so we need protection. I scan the shores, looking for a flat, dry spot to pitch our tent.

The caretaker in Wong Wan shares his stories.

As we round the southern tip of Double Island and exit Double Haven, I spot the Outward Bound base in Wong Wan. The camp is empty except for a grizzled caretaker, who welcomes us to pitch our tent on the lawn. By the time all our gear is hung to dry, the tent pitched and our dinner on the stove, the wind has begun to pick up. It’s hard to tell at first, as we’re in a protected cove, but across the water we can see white caps and spumes of spray where the waves are crashing into the shore.

“There’s going to be a storm,” the caretaker warns. “Tomorrow will be worse.”

He’s right. We fall asleep to the sound of our tent fly flapping in the wind, and awake to a gale that brings with it a 10-degree drop in temperatures. The final 10 kilometres of our 45 kilometre trip will take us through exposed, open seas, so we wait, hoping the wind will ease. In the afternoon we go as far as to load the kayaks and paddle out to sea, but we are quickly turned back by steep, breaking waves. The camp caretaker gives us an “I told you so” look as we returned to his base and set up our tent for another night.

By the next morning the wind has subsided, but the cold remains. We hurry through breakfast in case the wind returns and then push off from the shore, headed for home. The waves are smaller than they’d been the day before, but they still break over the decks of our kayaks, reminding us of the haven we’ve left behind.