Hong Kong’s hardcore stream trekkers and canyoneers go wild in search of new adventures away from the pack
Exploring hidden vistas that seem a world away from Hong Kong’s urbanised cityscape, adventure junkies scramble up and plunge down watercourses, combining the extreme sports of stream trekking and canyoning
Standing calf-deep in a running stream, we are surrounded by green, from the towering ferns and tangled vines above to the moss-covered boulders at the water’s edge. The roar of the churning water fills the shaded valley, and the damp air lays heavy on our skin.
Here, deep in Hong Kong’s northern New Territories, it seems we could not be further away from civilisation, but we are actually only about 30 minutes away from the city’s urban heart.
“You almost expect a dinosaur to run past,” remarks my guide Colin Tait. I try and keep up as he works his way up through the boulder-filled stream. Hiking against the flow, he uses large rocks, roots and branches to lever himself up. “Wedge your feet between the rocks [in the water] like this,” he says, using his hands for balance. But the rocks are deceivingly slippery.
The Scotsman has brought along a country parks map, but it’s more for show. He knows his way up this stream and he knows what lies at the top, where a group of his friends are waiting for us. Tait is a stream trekker. He’s been exploring Hong Kong’s stream system for two decades. “When you are climbing a new stream, you have a real sense of anticipation,” he says pointing to the building incline and rush of water up ahead. “You learn to read the stream.”
Stream trekking is a mixture of climbing and hiking a riverbed, enabling you to get off the man-made tracks and into nature. You can either stay dry and walk around the water flow, explains Tait, or get wet – as we are today – and follow the river course in the water.
But stream trekking can only take you so far – after all what goes up, must come down – so today Tait and his friends are also prepared for canyoning; kitted out with helmets, modified harnesses, and carrying large ropes and waterproof backpacks. Canyoning (or canyoneering in the US) is an extreme sport using a blend of techniques that allows people to make their way down an otherwise inaccessible stream system.
Tait, a local university lecturer, says there are nine big streams in Hong Kong, which break down into about 400 trekable streams and tributaries, almost all of which the adventurer has explored. “Some of them are only 20 minutes long, some of them are up to five to six hours long,” he says. “That’s where it starts to get interesting; some of the tributaries you start having to learn to climb.”
In recent years there has been a huge boom in the number of people stream trekking. When Tait, now in his 40s, began exploring in the mid-’90s the only people he encountered were a few Chinese stream trekking groups. But now with the rise of social media, the highly “Instagramable” activity has become extremely popular – to the point that it has become a problem, says Tait, adding that at some locations it’s not unusual to see more than 100 people now.
“The government had to intervene in a place on Lantau Island,” he says. “It’s a very beautiful stream, and there is something called the infinity pool, but it’s not, it’s a dam and it got onto social media and then suddenly hundreds of people were turning up and swimming there.”
It’s no wonder that nowadays, hard core trekkers remain tight-lipped about their favourite streams, and I agree in advance not to reveal our exact location. In any case, as Tait points out, as long as you know how to read a map, it’s fairly obvious where the good streams are.
With an influx of people exploring Hong Kong’s waterways, there has also been a rise in rescues as inexperienced trekkers venture into new, sometimes dangerous territory, and an increase in the amount of rubbish being left behind.
Every few metres, Tait stops to collect a soft drink can stuck between two rocks or a bottle floating on the otherwise pristine water. “Every time I go there, I end up having to carry out bags of rubbish,” he says, recalling a time when he also had to scrub the large graffitied word “Love” off the side of rock face next to a waterfall. “There’s a place on the island that is a beautiful spot, absolutely gorgeous, and it has been absolutely been trashed. People go there and turn up again in their hundreds.”
It’s an issue that has forced seasoned trekkers away from popular routes. One way Tait and his friends have been able to escape the crush of people heading up popular streams, is to start canyoning. It enables them to venture into new, virtually untouched territory that can only be accessed with the right equipment.
The sport is relatively new to Hong Kong. One of its pioneers, Gordon Hon Wing-chau, a rock climber for almost two decades – started canyoning here in 2012. He has since adapted the European-style of the adventure sport for Hong Kong’s open topography.
Wearing specially designed harnesses – similar to those worn by rock climbers or cavers with the addition of a soft plastic seat – canyoneers travel down streams and waterfalls using a variety of techniques including stream trekking, swimming, scrambling, sliding, abseiling and jumping. Because of its complexity, and the training and equipment needed, it allows trekkers to venture into the wilderness and be completely immersed in new areas while testing themselves physically and mentally.
Hon hopes the adrenaline-inducing sport will start to catch on here, and for the last four years he has run Hong Kong Rock Climbing Adventure where he takes people out to Ping Nam and Ma Tai to learn how to canyon.
“When you go outside your comfort zone, if you get the right balance of risk and challenge, you feel very excited,” Hon says. “I like the feeling. You feel alive.”
It’s up for debate where and when exactly canyoning first took hold around the world. The US and Europe have their own styles, mainly due to the different topographies. Many believe the styles formed independently of each other in different locations around the world.
Hong Kong’s open stream systems mean the canyoning grade is set for beginner and intermediate level. The width of the streams and surrounding environment mean canyoneers can find an existing route out of the activity if gets too difficult. But for Hon, places like China open up new exploring opportunities with the promise of steeper, more difficult slot canyons dotted around the country. And, with the canyoning scene still in its infancy on the mainland, it also means many of the waterfalls and tracks remain untouched. “I want to go somewhere new so I can explore the environment, at the same time you explore yourself,” he says. “With canyoning there is a lot of freedom, you can choose the level of challenge.”
Over the years, Hon has introduced many adrenaline junkies to the sport, including finance worker Crystal Tsang Wing-chi who now helps him run his courses. Before joining a canyoning trip run by Hon two years ago, Tsang did not play any form of sport, but now she is a self confessed canyoning “addict” and a keen rock climber. “As a canyoneer, you can see nature from a different perspective,” she says, adding that canyoning has taught her to overcome her fears.
Many of Tait’s group were also introduced to canyoning via Hon, who says expats are more willing to push themselves than locals. “Honestly this is a risky sport. So it is not a mainstream sport in Hong Kong. We still have a long way to go,” says Hon.
Tait finally works his way up to the top of the stream, which leads us to the base of a powerful waterfall at least 35 metres high. “I really get a sense that I am on an adventure,” says Tait, climbing to the top of the falls.
Within no time, he and his friends are rappelling fearlessly down the waterfall, as the water crashes down around them. It’s a spectacular sight, but one I think I will have to leave up to the professionals ... at least for now.