Dawn is beyond breaking as I stop, yet again, to catch my breath. Below me the landscape turns from black to a greyish-green and blue as the hillsides and beaches of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island emerge through an overcast sky.
I am up a mountain, halfway through Moontrekker, my first competitive night hike. My rest is interrupted by the sight of a ragged queue of torches zigzagging up what looks like hundreds more steps above me. My reluctant legs still have all of them to go. And I know, from bitter experience, that the actual summit is hidden out of sight, along a precarious ridge buffeted by strong winds. Never mind: I am tired of climbing, and what goes up, must come down.
Few people when they visit Hong Kong for the first time realise that hiking is such a popular pastime here. Despite its reputation as a concrete jungle, the territory is actually made up of more than 250 islands dotted with mountains and hills. Dozens of country parks are crisscrossed with hundreds of kilometres of hiking trails. Hong Kong’s hot, humid summers can be brutal, so walking at night helps, a bit, plus there’s the added excitement of getting lost by torchlight. By the time autumn arrives, it seems as though everyone is in training for something. Sunday mornings, which should be for enjoying leisurely brunches, suddenly involve crack-of-dawn rendezvous at remote trailheads.
The formula for Moontrekker is to set off after dark and arrive at the top of Lantau Peak, the second-tallest mountain in the territory, to watch the sunrise. It is not the longest race held in Hong Kong, nor the most difficult, but it is plenty challenging for a beginner like me. Its organisers pitch it as a fun event for weekend warriors rather than just for hardcore trail runners. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t take it very seriously. The fastest runners complete the 43 kilometre course in four hours and 15 minutes. It took me more than twice that and I was only doing a 30 kilometre version.
William Sargent, a Briton who’s lived in Hong Kong almost all his life, started the event 10 years ago with a bunch of friends. In 2017, the race attracted 1,500 competitors, each of whom must raise donations to take part. Together we raised more than to HK$2.6 million for The Nature Conservancy, a charity which works to clean up spoiled ecosystems, of which sadly Hong Kong has more than its fair share.
Sargent’s enthusiastic team of volunteers spend hours pampering weary participants with water, food and music. A cheese sandwich and a cup of tea before a long climb were highlights for me, as were the unexpected musical interludes. The memory of marching down a hill triumphantly to the sound of a lone Scottish bagpiper is almost enough to make me want to do it again. Crossing the finish line hours later and collapsing in an exhausted heap, only slightly less so.