Spectacular places

Sunrise thrillseekers: For some, life begins at dawn

What were you doing at 5.34am? Try meeting Hong Kong's hardy breed of dawn surfers, runners and paddlers. Words by CAMERON DUECK, photography by MIKE PICKLES

Big Wave Bay is dark, each breaking wave a white slash across the sea. There’s an occasional drop of rain. A surfer in black neoprene kneels on the beach to wax his board.

He is just beyond the yellow glow of the big clock. It blinks, back and forth: 18°C – 6:04 – 18°C – 6:05 – 18°C.

Antony Dickson runs into the water just as the sky becomes tinged with grey. He paddles out to sea to catch the next wave and join the thousands of Hong Kongers who rise before the sun to explore, exercise and steal a quiet moment of natural beauty before plunging into the city’s chaos.

‘This is vitally important to what Hong Kong is. It’s a magical place,’ says Dickson. He lives on Big Wave Bay on the south side of Hong Kong Island, where he surfs as often as possible. ‘I’m 25 minutes from the city, but I’m surrounded by nature.

‘Early in the morning there’s less wind and fewer crowds, and often the swell will be a bit better. But the main thing is finding time away when you have a family. Before the kids are up there’s that time, at 5:30am you get that magic hour, when most of the world is still asleep.’

Dickson, a newspaper photo editor who has called Hong Kong home for 27 years, has only an hour or so before the crowds begin to show up.

‘When there’s a really good swell you’ll have 30 people on that wave at 8am, and then it’s not so different from trying to fight your way down the pavement in Mong Kok. There’s been an explosion of interest in watersports in Hong Kong, the same thing that happened with hiking and trail running a few years ago. It used to be that people didn’t want to get a tan, that they’d cover up outside to stay pale. Now there’s huge growth in beach culture. It’s suddenly seen as very cool.’

In the past decade Hong Kong has also become internationally known as an urban hub for outdoor enthusiasts. Vast parkland, easy public transport access and a varied landscape combined with a jet-fuelled city have attracted Type A personalities.

On Hong Kong Island alone it’s possible to surf, bike, hike, run, swim, paddle and paraglide before dawn. At the top of High West, a 494-metre-high mountain on Hong Kong Island’s west side, James Park has a hard sweat on by 5:50am, like he does three mornings a week. He has just run up the long, winding Morning Trail, past seniors who steadily work their way up the mountain, swinging their arms, slapping their shoulders.

Jo san,’ – good morning – they call out, smiles bright in the darkness. ‘Seeing them is inspiring,’ says Park. ‘It’s great to see that they’re still active. Many of them have been doing this for years.’ The wind sweeps clouds of cool mist over the mountain. The dark sea around us is dotted with ships. There are rustles in the undergrowth, flitting shadows. ‘Here on High West we’re just five minutes from the main Peak loop, but we have it all to ourselves. It’s like no one else knows about it. There are so many small trails to explore; you see a coloured ribbon marking a narrow trail and you can check it out and see where it takes you.’

He runs on Old Peak Road and Bowen Road and sometimes up nearby Mount Butler. ‘It just depends on where you live, but on Hong Kong Island there’s always a trail near you.’ Wildlife sightings are frequent – mostly wild boars, snakes and spiders. ‘You run into a lot of spider webs because you’re normally the first down the trail that day, so that wakes you up,’ he says. Park became interested in trail running after arriving in Hong Kong from New Zealand via London. As with many new residents, he was surprised at the active outdoor scene. ‘Self-motivation is a big part of it,’ says Park. ‘A lot of the foreigners who moved here did so for adventure, travel and careers. There’s a high concentration of Type A personalities, and many also like running, so you find them out on the trails at dawn because it’s hard to know when work will end in the evening. ‘I feel so relaxed when I walk into the office, with a spring in my step, not half asleep like I would be otherwise. I don’t need coffee: this is what gets me started in the mornings.’

Dawn warriors go out on their own, with friends or as part of teams training for Hong Kong’s next big adventure or endurance race. The paddlers preparing in the glow of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club boathouse at Middle Island are lighthearted. They have just completed two of their biggest open water races of the year, so this morning’s practice is just for fun. Erin Juhl paddles in one of the six-person outrigger canoes, having taken up the sport after an injury prevented her from trail running. ‘It’s a very calming activity, the ultimate moving meditation,’ says Juhl, an interior designer originally from San Francisco. ‘There’s a lot of focus on timing and being connected to the other paddlers. It’s a lot harder than it looks, and you have to be mentally present and focused on the now.’ The hollow thump of the boats being pulled from racks echoes across the water, measured by the clatter of paddles and murmured greetings as more paddlers arrive. All is quiet on the water and on the darkened shore opposite, beyond which the yellow glow of the city lights the sky.

‘Sometimes it can cramp your social life, because you always have to leave the party early, but it’s an awesome way to start your day. You feel you have this whole other life that takes place before you even arrive at your office,’ says Juhl. ‘It allows me to see a different side of the city. I live in Sheung Wan, in the thick of it, and this is so peaceful – plus it’s just a 15-minute taxi ride from my home.’ Juhl and her team paddle out into the sea, the synchronised plunge of their paddles matched by the smooth acceleration of the boat. Every few strokes their captain calls out, and the paddles flip, trailing little streams of water, then plunge back into the sea, from left to right, right to left. After an hour on the water, the crew, soaked by spray from the bow, return. The sky is light now, there are more people arriving at the club and traffic on Repulse Bay Road has picked up to a steady hum. Juhl helps her team wash and stow the boats, and then leaves to join the morning rush hour.