Spending time in Hong Kong is no great hardship. But after a week in showrooms so crammed with Christmas sparkle that you can almost feel the glitter in your lungs, it is good to get some fresh air.
Hong Kong’s climate is naturally subtropical – warm and humid, but with definite seasons. October temperatures remain well into the 30’s. This is the principal reason why the British colonial elite chose Victoria Peak to build their homes. The higher altitude here means the air is several degrees cooler and fanned by breezes from the surrounding sea.
In the early 1900’s, access to the precipitous peak was a challenge. The British were at the height of their Imperial wealth (New Delhi was well under way at this time) so, resolved to circumnavigate the eminence by building one of the most technically difficult roads in the world. Sir Fredrick Lugard, the 14th Governor of Hong Kong, gave his name to the new carriageway, constructed between 1913 and 1914 at a cost of 50,000 Hong Kong Dollars. A special construction method was chosen, similar to a plank road but using concrete instead of wood. The result was literally ground breaking. Electrical lighting was installed and benches erected along the route, many of which survive. Today, Lugard Road would struggle to handle anything but the lightest modern-day traffic and serves just a handful of prestigious residential properties. Providing the most spectacular views of Hong Kong and its harbour, it is now a much loved circular route for dog walkers, joggers, naturalists and tourists. Being level from start to finish, it’s not uncommon to see the elderly taking a gentle stroll or enjoying the scenery.
But despite its unique leisure value, a boutique hotel development raises the prospect of cars using the narrow route once again. Even as an infrequent visitor to The Peak I can see this is an outrage. A petition has been started to try to save Lugard Road for pedestrians and I did not think twice about signing.
The cool damp air which lingers on The Peak’s steep slopes encourages luxuriant growth throughout the year. Trees tend to be slightly stunted due to the wind and rocky terrain, but the under-storey of shrubs and ferns is rudely green and healthy. Butterflies, the size of small birds, flutter lazily across the pathway, untroubled by walkers. The Peak is home to hundreds of butterfly species, some of them particularly exotic looking but none prepared to stay still enough for me to photograph! During the rainy season, water from The Peak feeds Hong Kong’s reservoirs.
Unlike butterflies, ferns do not move a great deal. Their tenacity makes them ideal Peak residents, seeking out moisture wherever they can and clinging to near-vertical surfaces. The compact fern pictured below has beautiful red-tinged leaves, rather like the autumn ferns (Dryopteris erythrosora) that we grow at home.
Of altogether different stature is the Indian rubber tree, Ficus elastica. A long way from home, The Peak’s population is effectively sterile as there are no suitable pollinating insects in this part of Asia. One tree is so large that it straddles Lugard Road, its long rusty-coloured aerial roots hanging down like a curtain.
Every branch of every tree is colonised by mosses, tiny ferns, orchids and other climbing plants. I couldn’t identify the creeper below, but it clung like iron to the branch as it forged its way up towards the light.
In a towering metropolis such as Hong Kong it is wonderful to find a natural, un-manicured green space like Victoria Peak. The contrast between peaceful green summit, silver-capped skyscrapers, traffic-clogged streets and the famous harbour is unique to this fascinating city. It would be a tragedy if hotel developers were to move in and destroy the peace on even the shortest section of Lugard Road. As is so often the case, the experience of thousands of visitors would be diminished for the benefit of a privileged few. I hope by the time I visit again the future of the The Peak Trail has been secured for future generations of Hong Kongers and visitors to this remarkable island.