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June 05, 2006

Lamma Island

Lamma island -- after doing some reading online, this seemed to be the place to be in Hong Kong for crazy people like me who'd rather be closer to the beach and hiking trails than to the karaoke bar.

You know you are desperate to get away when the island that sounds like the most attractive destination features a huge power plant that looks like it came straight from a Japanese urban monster movie. But everything else sounded appealing, and, frankly, hard to believe. A place within 20 minutes of central Hong Kong that has no cars, just walking trails? Beaches where you can actually swim without transforming into the protagonist in above-mentioned type of movie? I had to check it out.

The walk from my hotel to the ferry dock was the usual Hong Kong experience of 3-dimensional urban planning, involving elevators passing through buildings, walkways across roads, and crossing a huge mall. Switters would have felt safe here -- my feet never touched the ground.

The boat connections are great, running every half hour or so. There are ferry piers in two villages on the island; I went to Sok Kwu Wan (40 min) and planned on coming back from Yung Shue Wan (20 min, more frequent service, until midnight!). You pay with the very practical octopus proximity card (which also works for the subway) -- only 2 US$.

The first thing I noticed as the ferry arrived in Sok Kwu Wan were the floating aquaculture setups built using 55 gallon drums; very similar to one of my crazy projects in Panama, but at a much larger scale. I'll have to come back with someone who speaks cantonese to find a way to check them out that does not involve swimming. The bay did *not* look clean.

The village is small and looks somewhat dilapidated... much more like a fishing village than I was expecting. I was delighted. So now what? There is a trail that goes to Yung Shue Wan, but that's the one everyone writes about, and as usual, I wanted to get off the beaten path.

I decided to follow the "family trail" in the other direction, going around the island clockwise, leading straight away from the main populated part of the village. They might as well have called it "rollerblading trail" -- although only about 5 feet wide, it is paved for all of its 15km or so. And they actually have vehicles to drive on it. This one looked like it was custom built with a 4kw generator.

The first few minutes of the trail featured an octopus-accepting vending machine, registered trees number T 20 through T 36, and registered slope 15NW. Apparently, even unregistered trees are more important than registered slopes, so they get to keep a little bit of soil around them. Nice.

And then I spotted an opportunity to step off the concrete... some barely visible stairs cut into the rock, leading straight up the hill. I have been in this situation so many times... the trail twigs (I wouldn't say branch here...) - you don't know where, or even if, it will go. There no sign, probably because no sane person would even try to go.

I almost always take the twigs (not just when hiking, but that's another story), and it's almost always worth it.

In this case, the trail actually improved, and so did the views. It led to the top of the highest hill in the area, probably about 300m high (20 min)

At the top, there was a group of workers sharpening their tools for chopping down the vegetation. We had a  nice chat... they came from Kowloon to work here, and weren't sure why they were asked to chop everything down. They seemed to wonder, though, as they had clearly discussed this and came to the conclusion that it was to avoid fire hazards. Interesting...

After enjoying the view, I went back down on the other side of the hill, using the walkway that normal people use, passing more registered trees and slopes.

Between trees growing out of rounded faux rock concrete, high voltage equipment and walkway lights, and literally hundreds of skyscrapers in the background, I felt like I was in some kind of science fiction story, and about to find out that the registered trees were all fake.

This was clearly not the case -- by now I was having an incredibly enjoyable time in real nature, with stunning views and beautiful details to enjoy.

A few minutes later I passed through a little village with some nice old, and newer, buildings. It seemed a very unlikely location for a rural village, but there it was. People grew bananas and taro (the swamp variety, dasheen in Panama)

 One of my objectives for the day was to go for a swim -- and the protected cove I saw from the hill seemed to be the perfect spot. 

The way there featured many more atractions of twig nature, so it took me quite a while to get there. On the way, I found many lookout points, shrines, and... ruins of abandoned buildings. How very strange... 45 minutes from here you can rent apartments for USD $30,000 per month, and people put up with small sinks to save space. And nobody wants to live here?  I don't get it. I'd love to find out what is going on with this...


Eventually, i did manage to reach the beach. There were a couple of buildings there, almost completely abandoned. I counted 3 residents who were about 250 years old total. I wished I could talk to them... and I hope someone does, and writes down their stories of what they have experienced while living in such a place.

I went for a refreshing swim... very nice, except for a few dead sardines floating in the water. The place was deserted enough to swim in my underwear without offending anyone, and there was even a public toilet with running water and a bucket to rinse off the salt and any traces of godzillitis-inducing substances. (Yes, I am spoiled.. the beach was truly beautiful, and the water was nice. I'm just trying to be funny. Ignore it).

And then.. kayaks. old ones, but they were certainly kayaks. Even a home-made outrigger canoe-type contraption (involving
PVC pipe as outrigger and traces of disintegrated duct tape). An incredibly tasteful water collection barrel (no sarcasm here). Peeling paint on "For Rent" signs. How very intriguing...

How can it be that on my first day exploring Hong Kong I manage to find the kind of place that I would have expected anywhere else, but not here. (Ok, maybe not in NY city either)? I love travelling, I really do.

And somehow I knew that the only other person in sight, who is swimming, would have a story to tell. Sure enough -- a very friendly lady from Scotland told me about a guy who ran a hostel there, who built furniture form driftwood, which he transported using his surfboard. The hostel is still there, and the 80 something year old local lady taking care of it (unless she is on her way carrying her starfruit harvest to town to sell it) is happy to rent out bunks or one of two small apartments, which supposedly even have an internet connection. Once again, I wished I knew some cantonese.

Did I mention I love travelling?

I decided not to attempt to hitch a ride with a Chinese family who had come for the day in a rented junk, and instead, head to the village to find a place to stay. I had seen enough to know I'd need to spend more time here.

So much more to explore... bunkers supposedly used to store kamikaze boats in WWII, and many miles of coastline, and, most of all, plenty of potential for more pleasant surprises.

Many moreincreasingly justifiably registered trees later, I started getting back into civilization...


On another, much more developed beach, I saw an interesting type of rescue kayak, but none of the three lifeguards protecting zero swimmers from the dangerous ocean knew how to roll and what a sprayskirt is for. Interesting.


 Approaching the village, the practicalities of an island without cars became more and more entertaining... In an odd way I was reminded of Isla Bastimentos in Bocas. Concrete walkways, bicycles, houses on stilts, people bailing boats in ingenious ways, etc.

When I reached town, I had half an hour to secure a place to stay, with internet. A local real estate agent named Stephen was incredibly helpful, and I rented a small apartment for a few days that he manages for one of his clients.

What a day... a good reminder that it's ALWAYS worth to get out and explore!


Posted by rick at 02:26 PM | Comments (1)