SCMP Saturday, March 10, 2001

Stepping out against the developers


Along the track from Sai Wan, over the hills towards Tai Long Wan, Andy Li Ka-ming is plotting a peaceful invasion.
Tomorrow morning, he hopes to see hundreds of young people tramping over this sometimes-torturous 13-kilometre route on Hong Kong's first Greenmarch, an ecological trek to save a precious corner of the countryside.
Organising a mass walk is no easy task. Last weekend, some of the keen hikers behind the plan walked the track with youthful volunteers who will act as marshals, guiding the many participants expected. ''We've got to set up water stations, first aid points, places where people can rest, basic facilities and make sure there are people along the way who can give help and advice,'' Li says.
The march will not be a noisy political event, but a determined testimony of love for a remote and unspoiled area of natural beauty. The organisers are political novices. Students, civil servants, technicians, office workers, teachers, they are a cross-section of young Hong Kong, united only by a deep affection for this rugged corner of Sai Kung Country Park where they spend almost every weekend.
Trampers, campers, hikers and nature lovers, they met over summer campfires where talk was focused on moves to build hundreds of three-storey village houses in long-abandoned farming settlements.
They nervously listened to plans that said a resort would be built behind the main beach at Tai Long Wan, that a road would be forced over the mountain, that a pier was planned so organised tourism could flood the isolated headlands. ''No way,'' they said, and the disparate group formed into a loosely organised movement. The Friends of Tai Long Wan was formed. ''We're a group of hikers who became very disturbed about development planned for the area,'' says Jackie Yip Yin, a student who was one of the early organisers. ''We couldn't just stand by and watch a place we love become devastated.''
So with 10 friends, Yip started chatting to other hikers trekking along the flank of 370-metre Tai Mun Shan. When the Government released a zoning plan which seemed to give a green light for absentee landlords to build 370 village houses over the next decade, the happy campers became angry activists. Backed by the Conservancy Association, which says that rare species such as Carex pumila are only found in Tai Long Wan,## the Greenmarch will show dramatically how many people use the trails. In December, the Friends of Tai Long Wan interviewed more than 500 hikers. More than 80 per cent were against, or strongly against, the construction of the houses. They also collected more than 2,000 signatures supporting the preservation of the area.
Many experienced environmental campaigners believe the village house proposal is a spurious cover for future commercial development. The proposal followed official rejection of a planned resort. Friends of Tai Long Wan argue that even if village houses are built by absentee landlords, these will soon be rented or sold to outsiders, who will exert pressure for a road through the park. At present, the entire cluster of villages in Tai Long Wan has a total population of 14, mostly elderly, people. Yip projects that if 370 houses are built, that could mean 1,110 flats with a population of more than 3,000.
Town Planning Board members have ordered the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Depart-ment to conduct further ecological impact studies
in connection with the species findings before they will make a decision on the Outline Zoning Plan of Tai Long Wan.
The march starts at Pak Tam Chung, at the barrier gate to the Sai Kung Country Park, between 9am to 11am. Those wishing a shorter walk can catch mini-buses from Sai Kung Town to the pavilion at Sai Wan, cutting off more than six kms. A taxi from Sai Kung to Sai Wan costs about $80.
Marshals will hand out souvenir cards, which will be stamped at four checkpoints along the route; get four chops and you are a certified Friend of Tai Long Wan. ''We hope to make it both educational and fun,'' says Joe Man Ka-kit, another of the organisers. There are also archaeological remains dated to neolithic and Bronze Age eras. The long-abandoned village houses should be preserved as relics of the past, the hikers say. A Catholic chapel is classified as a Grade Three historical building. While some ecologically sensitive stretches of beach area zoned of special scientific interest, ecologists say none of these zoning restrictions are sufficiently strict to prevent destruction if housing development is permitted.
Marchers will follow Section Two of the Maclehose Trail. From the Sai Wan pavilion to Pak Tam Au is about 8.5km. The full trek takes between three and four hours. There are a couple of steep slopes along the well-paved trail, but anyone who is reasonably fit can comfortably complete the walk.
For information and to sign up for the march e-mail