This fantastic trail comprises lush terrain and a colony of macaques

The diverse forest
New leaf growth in sharp red tones
A stream cutting through the reserve
Chinese Alangium tree berries
A rhesus macaque too close for comfort
Dead tree branches
A stone table
Path directions
Stepping into a fairy tale
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Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve

On every hike, I always carry the essentials: a healthy fear of the woods and the acceptance that I will, at some point, get lost. It was no different on my latest trip. Visiting one of Hong Kong’s most extensive secondary forests, Tai Po Kau comprises 460 hectares of lush terrain. Set in the northern New Territories, it is hard to imagine the sea of green once lay barren. However, the site, now home to over one hundred species of trees, had no vegetation to speak of in the early twentieth century. The current landscape only began to take form in 1926, when the government established its afforestation scheme. Thanks to these efforts, it now teems with life, earning its status as a nature reserve in 1977. With four roundabout trails covering the territory, the varying distances and elevations offer challenges and sights for all hikers.

Tai Po Kau Garden

Before blazing the trails, I began with an appetiser of sorts. Just ahead of the nature reserve lies the cosy and diverse Tai Po Kau Garden. To enter, visitors walk through a narrow archway. Several pavilions are dotted throughout the steep garden, either rectangular or hexagonal. Each one shelters a sturdy bench or two for rest and relaxation. Maroon-coloured columns are reminiscent of Chinese pavilions, known as tings. The soothing atmosphere is heightened with stunning trees, including elegant Buddha bamboo, broad-leafed Chinese fan palms, soaring camphor, ethereal golden leaf trees, and Buddhist and Chinese pine varieties. Blazing red and fuchsia bauhinias are in full bloom.

As it happens, I did get lost and spent five minutes walking the wrong way until I course-corrected. As you head towards the trails, on the right side, hikers will come across a romantic and otherworldly landscape, an entire private estate reclaimed by nature. Much like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, time freezes in a most stunning tableau. Clusters of Buddha bamboo bend and sway in the breeze. Besides layers upon layers of greenery, purple petunias dot the area. Subtly brilliant in colour, their sweet scent is reserved for evening pollinators. Though it wasn’t yet ten in the morning, I felt supine compared to the other adventurers already leaving, their hikes done for the day. I soon hit the nexus point of the four colour-coded forest trails. Routes range from one to ten kilometres in length and intersect along the journey, allowing hikers to explore more or make a hasty exit.

Hong Kong Birdwatching

Not there only to hike, I opted for the second-shortest trail. At the starting point, signage informs hikers that the blue walk should only take about an hour and a half. Pausing for regular photography breaks, an additional thirty minutes was added to my stroll. With the gentle chirping of hidden birds never far off, the time flew by. Tai Po Kau is home to over one hundred and sixty bird species, with common birds including the spotted dove and Chinese bulbul. The Hong Kong Birdwatching Society notes it as one of the best locations for seeing forest birds. At an early bend, I stood beside a pair of birdwatchers as we tried to photograph the shy but chatty clusters of Grey Worm tails.

Colony of macaques

While I didn’t see our flying friends, a furrier compatriot made its acquaintance. Monkeys typically hang about the brown and yellow walks. However, on that exceptionally mild and clear day, neither hiker nor forest resident had to worry about stifling humidity or glaring heat. On my merry way up ahead, what I initially thought was a tubby tan cat was ambling forward and would pass me shortly. But I realised with horror that cats don’t have shaved faces (unless they’re in musicals). I managed to take a few photographs of the easy-going adult immediately after I made my best impression of a statue. The grown rhesus macaque only twitched once when I shifted slightly. I maintained that respectful fear of these wild monkeys until well after it left my line of sight. No other macaque crossed paths with me for the rest of the walk. Instead, they preferred to make their moves overhead. Loud crashes and thunderous ruffling sounded as macaques big and small scampered about.

Pine Garden

With the animals beyond the human eye, I turned to focus my admiration on the flora. With the nature reserve locally known as Pine Garden (Tsung Tsai Yuen), the dominant Chinese red pine was a frequent sight. Stunning camphor trees wended upwards, their spindly branches appearing like the outreaching hands of a fallen giant. The Taiwan acacia trees, flecked in yellow, brightened the spirit. Unfurling paper-bark trees brought the mind back to weathered books found in second-hand stores. Fragrant Litsea shrubs spoke of springtime optimism with their pastel tones. Stretches of ground were carpeted with large, brown leaves fallen from the chestnut oak, a good timber tree formerly used by the Chinese to make agricultural implements. After passing broad boulders covered in soft dry umber moss, I said goodbye to this fantastical realm.