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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of Lantau Mountain Camp on Sunset Peak

By Beverly Ngai 22 February 2022

Header image courtesy of Lawrence_Its (via Shutterstock)

High up along the Lantau Trail just east of the famous Sunset Peak, a large grassy saddle carries a dozen peculiar stone huts that have been around for longer than any of our memories can harken back to. Collectively known as the Lantau Mountain Camp, these rustic, single-storey cabins rest idyllically in a prairie-like landscape against the backdrop of misty hills, golden sunsets, and undulating fields of golden silvergrass.

While there is no denying that the unlikely accommodations certainly make for a dreamy photography subject, perhaps what fascinates visitors more is the obscure history behind their presence, which seems as far removed from the rest of civilisation as can be. Join us as we peel back the curtains of time and explore the history of Lantau Mountain Camp.

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Photo: @chiu.hike (via Instagram)

From sticks to stones

From smouldering sunsets to panoramic sea views, Sunset Peak is packed with scenic selling points, but uninitiated hikers might not expect to stumble upon rich historical architecture as they brave the dizzying heights of Hong Kong’s third-highest mountain.

Nestled in the saddle between Sunset Peak and Yi Tung Shan, the stone cabins of Lantau Mountain Camp date back to 1925. They were originally built as a summer retreat by a group of foreign missionaries from Southern China who wanted relief from Hong Kong’s sweltering heat and to seek refuge in the tranquillity of the high-altitude countryside.

But Lantau Mountain Camp was not the first rodeo for the missionaries. Before settling into Sunset Peak, they first attempted to make their base in Tai Mo Shan in 1923. Temporary lodges were constructed out of wood, but the missionaries were oblivious to the scale and destructive impact of local typhoons. As a result, the cabins were rather crudely built and doomed to collapse at the first wave of a fierce storm. Sure enough, the cabins were destroyed in a typhoon the very same year that they were built.

Undeterred by initial setbacks, the missionaries resolved to rebuild their summer retreat the following year in Sunset Peak. Having learned from their past mistakes, this time they used stone instead of wood as the main building material, a much sturdier and more weather-proof option. A total of 12 huts were planned for the prototypical Lantau Mountain Camp, each equipped with 16-inch-thick stone walls and a six-inch roof made of reinforced concrete to shun out rain and wind. After two years of toil, the first cabins were finally completed and ready to welcome their inaugural guests in 1925.

Battling a rough patch

What was for well over a decade a blissful vacation spot—far from the stresses and hubbub of life—ironically found itself entangled in the throes of warfare in the early 1940s following the outbreak of the Second World War. In a wretched turn of the tide, the peaceful haven was taken over by military units and was used as a base for intelligence operations.

Being thrust onto the front stage of military activities made the camp a major target for guerilla activity. During the violence-laden epoch of the Japanese invasion, the camp was heavily vandalised by Japanese troops, and the cabins—despite being built more robust than their previous evolution—took on serious damage. They were closed all throughout the Japanese occupation and did not re-open again until after the war ended.

Rebuilding from the rubble

As the war took its toll on the stone cabins, the unexpected silver lining was that ensuing restoration plans saw opportunities for further improvements and enhancements. Picking up the broken pieces and pulling itself out from the doldrums of misery, the camp underwent major renovation and expansion work after the war. 

In addition to repairing what was lost, new facilities were introduced to allow for a more comfortable and luxurious getaway—a precursor to modern-day glamping. Beyond functional add-ons like water tanks and pipes, there was also a dining hall, a swimming pool, a watchman’s station, and even a cabin for the labourers who worked on-site.

With the revamped look and modern updates, Lantau Mountain Camp successfully resumed operations in the 1950s, thriving in the subsequent decades. It largely continued serving church groups, but it also began opening up to other vacationers who sought out the privacy and unadulterated serenity afforded by the secluded huts.

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Transferring ownership

By the 1980s, the founding missionaries had nearly all retired and returned to their native homelands, leaving the future management of the property in question. As many of the cabins had long been rented out to environmental and volunteer groups, the matter of ownership became muddled after the original landlords left Hong Kong.

Eventually, the cabins of Lantau Mountain Camp were bought out from members of the London Missionary Society by various owners. Some of the structures remained owned by Christian organisations, such as Cabin 18, which bears the Chinese characters “香港浸信會聯會營地”—“Campsite of Baptist Convention of Hong Kong”—painted boldly in blue on one of the exterior walls. Other cabins fell into the hands of private individuals, many being members of Hong Kong’s growing expat community.

Photo: Lawrence_Its (via Shutterstock)

Modern-day Lantau Mountain Camp

After the cabins were sold to new owners, many of them went through additional rounds of refurbishment. Leaky roofs and malfunctioning components were repaired, allowing the old dwellings to remain fully serviceable to this day in spite of the wear and tear caused by the ravages of time—one or two even have solar-powered lighting!

When the cabins are not occupied by the private owners for personal use, they are made available for casual rentals, so that those with a penchant for outdoor recreation and adventure could enjoy a night out in the rural hinterlands accompanied by a heavy dose of historical charm. With that said, you likely will not find the Lantau Mountain Camp on mainstream vacation rental websites. Its means of rental have always been a rather closely guarded secret, a matter of social connections and knowing the right contact—and the recent Covid-19 pandemic has made this even more so the case.

Despite its rich historical value, the existence of the Lantau Mountain Camp has largely escaped the knowledge of the general public, due to both the nature of the property’s private ownership as well as the exclusive, tight-knit community around its activity. 

Fortunately, the campsite occupies a location that’s hidden in plain sight, rendering it somewhat accessible for those who are willing to make the uphill trek. While venturing into private areas is prohibited, hikers can still catch a close glimpse of these fascinating relics from along the Lantau Trail and muse on the history that it has weathered through.

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Beverly Ngai

Editor

A wanderer, chronic overthinker, and baking enthusiast, Beverly spent much of her childhood in the United States before moving to Hong Kong at age 11 and making the sparkling city her home. In her natural habitat, she can be found baking up a storm in her kitchen, journalling at a café, or scrolling through OpenRice deciding on her next meal.

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