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Few cities in the world have nature as close to city centres as Hong Kong does. For outdoor lovers and hikers, Maclehose Trail is a wonder on its own. The National Geographic Society named the trail one of the world’s 20 “dream trails” for its “outdoor luminaries,” and is the only one in Asia to hold this title. Read on for a history of Hong Kong’s iconic Maclehose Trail and the remarkable story behind this world-class hike.
Maclehose Trail spans 100 kilometres across the New Territories, connecting the different natural wonders and nature. Hikers travelling through the trail can see volcanic rocks, beaches, reservoirs, and even the breathtaking panoramic view from the city’s highest natural vantage point. What makes this trail unique is that it is surrounded by an urban jungle, and most of it is accessible via public transport.
The history of the Maclehose Trail dates back to the 1970s as the city experienced significant transformations under Governor Sir Murray Maclehose. In fact, many projects we take for granted every day were established during his term. An avid hiker himself, Sir Murray had helped set up different country parks in the rural area to preserve many of Hong Kong’s unique natural scenery. The then-Agriculture and Fisheries Department decided to commemorate Sir Murray’s dedication to nature. And for that, they presented him the ultimate gift for a hiker—a world-class hiking trail bearing his name.
The Maclehose Trail was officially opened in 1979 and connected different country parks and unique natural wonders Hong Kong offers. Along the way, the scenery is as majestic as it is unique since the juxtaposition of nature and the urban landscape is the best testament of Hong Kong’s one-of-a-kind topography.
History buffs will also find this trail worth visiting, as the trail also serves as a testament to the city’s deep layers of history. At section six near Jubilee Reservoir, there is a series of leftover WWII trenches, which is where the British commonwealth forces attempted to hold off the invading Japanese during the Battle of Hong Kong. As part of the Gin Drinker’s Line, each trench bears the name of a London landmark. Hikers can still clearly see names like “Charing Cross” or “Piccadilly” engraved at the entrances.
The nearby Jubilee Reservoir is one of the city’s historical engineering marvels. It was built in 1936 to commemorate the Silver jubilee of King George V, and its brick architecture speaks for itself. At the main dam, there is a huge memorial stone commemorating its dedication to the city’s service.
But the structure’s Chinese name, Shing Mun Reservoir, tells another story. In the seventeenth century, a general of the Ming dynasty fleeing from the victorious Manchus settled in this area and built the namesake fortress. Though the general and his army were eventually defeated and became pirates at the nearby seas, the name remained and became a part of the city’s living history.
After the sharp climb and the 360-degree panoramas on Needle Hill and the gradual yet idyllic ascent up Grassy Hill, hikers will reach a valley known as Lead Mine Pass. The name came from an old mine from the Qing dynasty in the area, which records of early surveys suggested these mines supplied lead and tungsten. Though the mine is no more, it nonetheless gives us a glimpse of the city’s pre-colonial past.
Just before the big ascend towards Tai Mo Shan, there is a series of abandoned brick walls at the Tze Fong Shan plateau. These are actually relics of an old tea farm that once occupied the hillside. The area once hosted green tea terraces some 300 years ago, as its humidity and sunshine gave the ideal conditions for tea growers. Hikers and visitors can still feel the refreshing breeze and tranquillity as they reach the city’s highest vantage point on Tai Mo Shan.
Besides being a gift of nature, Maclehose Trail is also a holy grail of the city’s trail running community, not only for its scenic value but also its length and difficulty. In 1979, a sports group hosted the city’s first 100 kilometres ultramarathon as part of the inauguration. 200 people braved this humble event at a time where transportation was inconvenient and checkpoint amenities athletes take for granted nowadays were unknown. Participants recalled checkpoint volunteers were giving out hamburgers, milk and even cigarettes. A handful of novice runners attempted to break the British Army’s 22-hour record—and succeeded.
In 1982, the city’s Gurkha garrison hosted the first annual Trailwalker, where soldiers had 24 hours to complete the whole trail. Initially organised as a training event, it later welcomed civilians and eventually became a fundraising event. Oxfam began sponsoring the event years before the handover. It turned into the annual staple gala we know today as Oxfam Trailwalker. Thousands of hikers have had their first taste of hiking for 100 kilometres in the past decades, and this event has nurtured many of Hong Kong’s trail running legends. Today, Oxfam Trailwalker is also held in 13 other places globally, all paying homage to this legendary Hong Kong trail event.
Besides Oxfam Trailwalker, Maclehose Trail also hosts a large variety of trail running races. One of them is the world-famous HK100, where local and international elite runners race away in a fast-paced rendition of the same trail and finish at Tai Mo Shan Rotary Park. Runners will tell you that the entrance ballot is very competitive and the finisher hoodie is a much sought-after souvenir.
As races have halted amid this pandemic, the trail serves its original purpose to the public: bringing Hong Kong closer to its nature and natural beauty.