Ferry Day 10 – Hong Kong to Sham Vat, Lantau Island

Welcome back to Incidents of Travel and the continuing struggles during the high heat of August of this Hong Kong Ferry Challenge.

With my options for more ferry journeys becoming fewer with every google search, I came up with a cunning alternative plan. Since one of my goals was to take a ferry to explore the north side of Lantau (largest of the Outlying Islands), but the route was almost impossible to do in one day, I went at the same problem but from a different angle: how about if I took the Discovery Bay ferry again, cycled as far as the road tunnel I’d seen that goes under the huge mountains to the north side (no bikes allowed, you’ll recall), then fold up my bike into its blue bag and look for a bus? From the other end of the tunnel I could ride along the coast as far as the Ngong Ping cable car in Tuen Long then strike out into the greenery and try to make it round to the famous fishing village of Tai O. Compared with all of my alternatives, it looked possible, so as soon as Susie left for work I got my bike back from the concierge – it was freezing cold, having been kept in aircon for a few days, and the brakes slipped horrendously with the condensation until it warmed up – and set off.

  • Today’s distance (bike+ferry): 51.3 miles
  • Time in saddle (+ pushing bike): 4h 39
  • Time on ferries: 1h 20
  • Max temp (in sun): 50°!
  • Climb (feet): 2,433
  • Calories used: 3,719
  • Beaches: 1
  • Beach/cafe time: 3h 59

In the ten minutes or so it takes for the Star Ferry to cross over from Tsim Sau Tsui to Wan Chai, a older member of the crew today managed to assess a whole length of rope from end to end which was lying in the sun on the deck, identify a frayed section, cut it out using a floor mounted blade and a wooden mallet, tape up the ends of the two sections he was going to join, weave them intricately together like two squid mating (NB, I’ve no idea how squid actually mate), ‘sew’ the separate strands into the main rope using a giant wooden needle to make to holes, then pull it tight and coil it up on the deck ready for testing. He wasn’t rushing but his hands never paused. There’s such a pleasure in watching someone do a tricky manual job that they know really well and seem to hardly think about, but when I gave him a thumbs-up and a “Nice job!”, as he passed me, I was surprised to see that he beamed with pride, nodding his head many times and saying, “Thank you, thank you”. Perhaps it gets a bit dull down there on the lower decks with no passengers. Even his younger colleague watched on in silence, following every deft move. What you don’t see from the photos, but was more noticeable at the time, is the great strength he was using to manipulate each stiff and awkward bit of rope, his forearms flexing as the only sign of effort. I’m going to include the whole sequence of pictures, to honour this unsung hero of safety at sea after my visit to the Maritime Museum yesterday. I would’ve been fascinated to see his superb rope repair as a video exhibit.It’s only with the experience of every other ferry journey made during the last two weeks that I’m now able to see what an easy and luxurious start I had. The catamaran ferry To Discovery Bay from Pier 3 is large, quiet, with comfortable and modern upholstered seats, and when I asked where to pay freight charges for my trusty (but not rusty) folding bicycle, having forgotten what I did all those days ago, they smiled and said “Bikes are free!” (although to be fair, it did cost twice as much as I’ve paid for much longer routes). After the more stormy weather over the weekend, the skies were clear, the sea calm, and it looked like being a splendid day.

Once ashore (still no sign of the elusive Chinese White Dolphin), I kept a bit of an eye out for my buddies from the last trip, Yoshi, Nova and Eden, who gave me such a friendly DB welcome (and there was no sign of them today either). I thought about Yoshi’s dad James who thoughtfully got in touch after my blog post, and wondered how he had got on during the disturbances at the airport. It’s been such a crazy time to be here. He also pointed out that the kids were exaggerating a bit about Golf Carts costing HK$3,000,000 to buy and license – in fact they’re ‘only’ $2.2M!

As my plan fell unnervingly into place, I found the bus stop I needed for the Db02a service (catchy, isn’t it?) and even had time for a coffee at Starbucks, where all the cool kids were gathering outside this morning, finding time to look up from their phone screens for half a minute and take the piss out of my bike. Aaaah, kids.I spoke to a fellow cyclist who told me that as I expected they wouldn’t allow a bike on the bus, so I went into Transformer Mode. I folded up the bike, grabbed my pannier and boarded the bus, went through the tunnel (just a few hundred metres long), then got dropped as asked at the Toll Plaza. The road had looked good for cycling on the map, and so it proved. I managed to get a few quick miles under my belt, following parallel to or even under the busy main highway, but with virtually no traffic. It was only when I arrived in Tuen Long (which is a big city) and passed a bus stop sign that I realised the bus I’d taken was meant to go straight to the airport but the driver had let me off at the end of the tunnel out of the kindness of his heart. It had cost me HK$40 to go one short stop, whereas on the way back I could take a different bus from Tuen Long direct to the boat for just $12. You live and learn.

I passed the Ngong Ping Cable Car Station that runs up to the top of the tallest mountain on Lantau, but I was looking for something else: a path called the Tung O Ancient Trail. I tried out several excellent bike paths in the city, eventually finding one that appeared to be leading me in the right direction, and before you knew it I was in amongst the overhanging trees, creepers and bamboo, cycling on a smooth concrete path. I stopped at the Tuen Long Hau Wong temple to finish paying off my debt and got some help from an attendant with where to place my donation. An old dog dozing by the temple lantern looked up at me through his cloudy eyes, a young dog in a side room barked at me but left me alone, and I lit a joss stick. (Susie told me on my return that she’s been told that only Taoists burn joss sticks, not Buddhists. Hau Wong can you be?)If a novel you were reading began with the words, “I lost my left leg many years ago”, you wouldn’t expect the author to continue mentioning it at every relevant moment thereafter, and you’d probably bear it in mind for the rest of the book. You wouldn’t read, “I put my right leg down carefully, but not my left, having, as you will recall, lost it many years ago…” etc. It’s the same here, but the issue isn’t legs, it’s heat. So I’m just relying on you to factor it in and I’ll try not to keep mentioning it every time, to impress upon you how hot I get here when cycling my bike. Damn. I’ve done it again.

The Tung O Ancient Trail was so different from the Family Walk trails I’ve been using on the other islands. Although it was extremely hilly, like a continuous rollercoaster of violent climbs and descents, there wasn’t a single stretch of steps. I’m guessing that in the past this was an important land route between all of the coastal villages, and that carts would have needed to be able to get through, however slowly. When the forest opened up at a beach or bridge, I could always see the cable car overhead somewhere, making its way up to the famous Big Buddha at the top (a place that Susie and I are hoping to get to before we leave).There were two hills in particular that I could only get over by pushing (the total climbing for the day was well over 2,000 feet). On the descent I came across a road-gang who had dug up the whole path to lay new drainage. They called out to me in advance, including one unmistakably English voice. This turned out to be Joe, a Pakistani/English guy who had lived here since he was a child. I’m not sure what led him to be working in a trench five feet below ground level, but he was friendly and chatty, and even insisted on carrying my bike across the huge mounds of red earth that blocked my way. I was glad of the help, because without boots like theirs I found it hard to keep my footing on the steep slope. They waved me off with a “Good luck” and I sped down the last long stretch of hill to the small of village Sham Vat, by a beautiful bay. Egrets were fishing in the wetland area to the left, whilst by the road the locals had put out chillies, branches of leaves (herbs?) and, I think, seaweed to dry in the baking sun.I was starting to run low on water. I’d been through several small villages along the way, one or two with roadside stalls for passing travellers, but hadn’t seen anyone there to buy a drink from. The mounting heat and the effort of such hilly cycling left me gasping by the time I reached this spot by the bay, and I was relieved to see an old woman sitting in the shade, her feet out straight in front of her on another chair, who waved at me and smiled. In front of her shade tree was a small table, with three unfamiliar vegetables in a tray (each with its price written on it in pencil), and four empty drinks cans, presumably showing what was available.I pointed to the 7-Up and she nodded enthusiastically before hobbling off to get a cold one. It was ice cold, and I drank it in almost one slug, trying hard not to burp too loudly in front of her. As I sat in the shade for a moment, a truck came down the hill carrying the ditch-digging lads, who waved at me and gave me an encouraging thumbs-up.

I set off on what turned out to be the final stretch of passable trail. I’d wanted to make it around the bay as far as Tai O, a fishing village preserved exactly as it had been for countless generations, but at this point the path became more overgrown, headed inland towards an ominous looking hill, and started to become seriously steep again. I kept going, albeit slowly, but started to get misgivings about reaching my destination. I saw something yellow in the undergrowth up ahead, and realised it was a discarded rental bike. Thinking that was a bit odd, just around the corner was a long set of my nemesis on this trip, steps, and all became clear. I left my bike next to its new yellow companion and climbed for a while, but the steps went on and on, over the big hill. By now I was hungry, hot, still very thirsty and getting that feeling that pushing on with no real idea how far there was to go was a bit foolish, so I retraced my steps and went back to Sham Vat village. The first people I saw were the lorry load of ditch diggers again, who gave me another round of waves. By the time I reached their site on the return journey they were hard at it again, and lifted my bike over the mud for me once more. I stopped at a mountain stream to cool off a bit with a paddle, then pressed on for the long hilly stretch back to Tuen Long.Luckily I came across another old woman at a stall by the trail, who greeted me loudly, waving at her display of bottles. I pointed to the largest water she had, and she sign-languaged “1-5”, meaning $15, I guessed. I put a $10 note down and started fishing for coins but she waved them away, saying something very emphatically. I gave her a $2 coin anyway, since I was so glad of her being there in the middle of nowhere, and she then picked out a lovely ripe banana from her table, which, judging by the wave she gave towards the banana trees behind us, was grown right there in her garden. I thanked her, grabbed the cold water bottle and was about to set off, when she gestured urgently for me to wait. She went very slowly back to her house, and reappeared with a tiny blue bag, just managing to fit my water bottle into it. She wanted to put the banana in too, but I showed her the back pockets of my cycle top, the traditional home of the cyclist’s banana, and she “Aaaaaah”-ed in appreciation.

Only stopping to look at a view of the new road bridge to Macau at the point where it plunges into the sea to become a tunnel:…I covered the last bit back to Tuen Long at good speed. Once in the city I got to the MTR station and ordered some fish dumplings from a hot food stall (they were awful! Java Java is the place for me) and a “Jumbo” sized chocolate milk from a bubble tea place, then stood on the steps in the shade fuelling up. Feeling great from the food and the exercise, I got back onto the cyclepathways, found my new bus stop and folded up the bike all over again to begin the journey home.

On the subject of bananas, as I waited for the Discovery Bay ferry back to HK, I picked up a message from our son Jacob, who’s off camping with his girlfriend Ella in the Alps this month. They had noticed the great care and attention that other campers were giving to their table-top flower arrangements every day, and were feeling a bit left out. Their low-budget solution was this:Hardened followers of Incidents of Travel might possibly recognise the grey flysheet of that tent…glad to know it’s having a nice holiday. We needed some time apart.

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