OUR URBAN BACKYARD, Lung Fu Shan Country Park (龍虎山郊野公園), Central & Western District (中西區), Hong Kong
Well known for its skyscrapers, Hong Kong actually has another face of lush green hills and pristine beaches to counterbalance the overwhelming urbanity. In fact, out of 1092 sq.km, about three quarters of Hong Kong’s land area is countryside comprised of hills, woodlands and beaches. No matter from which district in the city, nature is never far way. In 1976, the Country Park Ordinance was passed to enforce nature conservation. Under the ordinance, 24 country parks (郊野公園) have been established so far, protecting about 440 sq.km of natural landscape. Across the city, many neighbourhoods are situated within close proximity from one of these country parks, where Hongkongers treat them as urban backyards for morning exercises, afternoon picnics or evening hikes. For us living in Central and Western District, our closest backyard is Lung Fu Shan Country Park on the hill right behind Hong Kong University. We sometimes thought of walking up Lung Fu Shan and the adjacent Victoria Peak to catch the first glimpse of morning sun over the famous Hong Kong skyline. This has yet happened, but we do occasional short hikes when weather permits. From our home, it is just several minutes of bus ride to the trailhead of the 2.75km Lung Fu Shan Trail. Between Victoria Peak (太平山) and Mount High West (西高山), Lung Fu Shan or Hill Above Belcher’s (龍虎山) is a 253m hill right above the main campus of Hong Kong University. In 1998, Lung Fu Shan Country Park was established to protect the small patch of forest around the hill. With just about 0.1% of the total area of all country parks, the city’s smallest country park is home to almost one third of all species of birds, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles and mammals found in Hong Kong. Given the park is situated at less than 30 minutes walking distance to the central business district, Lung Fu Shan is surprisingly valuable to the city’s biodiversity.
Before Lung Fu Shan Country Park was established, I visited the Pinewood Battery (松林炮台) on Lung Fu Shan with my parents several times. Completed in 1905 by the colonial government, the historical battery was heavily damaged during WWII. In the Battle of Hong Kong (December 1941), the battery was under rounds of air raids before it was abandoned on 15th of December 1941. In the 1980’s the military structures were pretty much lying in ruins. For me as a child, the ruined battery was a great place for picnic or to play hide and seek. 11 years after the establishment of Lung Fu Shan Country Park, the ruined structures were listed as Grade II historical buildings in 2009 and become one of the main features in the park. Display boards and a trail linking all the major structures are set up are provided on site to tell the story.
On a fine Friday afternoon, we decided to drop by Lung Fu Shan Environmental Education Centre near the park entrance at Kotewall Road (旭龢道). Operated by Environmental Protection Department and University of Hong Kong, the small interpretation centre housed in a listed historical bungalow just a stone throw away from Hong Kong University was a pleasant surprise. Built in 1890, the 131-year bungalow was home for the watchman who protected the adjacent Pokfulam Filter Beds, the facility used to filter drinking water for Pokfulam Reservoir nearby. The former watchman’s residence is now converted into the visitor centre of Lung Fu Shan Country Park, welcoming anyone who wishes to know more about the ecology and biodiversity of the area. Apart from insect specimens and wildlife photographs, we were particularly interested in the videos interviewing the former residents of the bungalow complex, who were occupying the three historical houses in the complex until 1996. At the centre, we had a delightful chat with the staff there and picked up The Pulse of Nature – Mid-Levels West, a book of writings, illustrations and photographs that offers a variety of perspectives that explores the natural context of Mid-Levels West around Lung Fu Shan.
In 1890, a golden bell was installed at the main building of Wellington Barracks (威靈頓兵房), one of the three military barracks (the other two being Victoria and Murray Barracks) located between the business districts of Central (中環) and Wanchai (灣仔). The golden bell became a landmark and eventually led to the naming of the area, Kam Chung (金鐘), which literally means “golden bells”. The former naval dockyard known as Admiralty Dock gave the area its English name, Admiralty. For over 120 years, the military barracks had been a major obstruction for urban development, creating a bottleneck between Central and Wanchai. This situation remained for much of the colonial era until the late 1970’s, when the governor has finally convinced the military department to release the land. Demolition of the barracks began in late 1970’s and gave way to a series of developments that make up the present Admiralty: High Court, Government Offices, metro station, transport interchange, various commercial towers, the Asia Society complex, the luxurious retail and hotel complex known as Pacific Place, and the 8-hectare Hong Kong Park on the lower slope of Victoria Peak.
Hong Kong Park occupies much of the former Victoria Barracks (域多利兵房). During construction, a number of historical buildings were preserved, including the Flagstaff House, Cassels Block, Wavell House, and Rawlinson House. The park design respected the natural topography of the site, maintaining a naturalistic setting for all to enjoy. Opened in 1991, Hong Kong Park was an instant hit for Hong Kongers. Combining the natural context and heritage buildings with the new water features, wide range of landscape elements, amphitheatre, lookout tower, large conservatory, and Southeast Asia’s largest aviary, the park has ensured that there would always be something to suit everyone’s taste. A combined visit to the nearby Zoological and Botanical Gardens would satisfy the desire of anyone who desires for a moment of tranquility in the heart of Hong Kong’s business district.
Famous for its restless and often stressful urban living, sparing the time to take a walk in the park can be a luxury for many Hong Kongers. In fact, many may not even notice the existence of parks and gardens in the business district of Hong Kong. Behind the towering skyscrapers of Central (中環), a rather hidden 5.6 hectares area on the slope of Victoria Peak stands the oldest public park in Hong Kong. Long before the city was promoted as a shopping paradise, or a foodie haven of Michelin star restaurants, or a recreational hub of amusement parks and vibrant nightlife, or an exotic destination of subtropical beaches and seaside hiking trails, Hong Kong Botanical Gardens (香港植物公園) was one of the primary tourist attractions in the Victoria City. Founded in 1864 and completely opened to the public in 1871, the gardens was established in times when botanical gardens were founded by colonial powers in different locations around the world. The Hong Kong Botanical Gardens was used by the British as a regional hub to study plant species collected from the Far East before transferring back to the Kew Gardens in England, or before planting at other areas in Hong Kong.
Bounded by Garden Road (花園道), Robinson Road (羅便臣道), Glenealy (己連拿利) and Upper Albert Road (上亞厘畢道) in the Mid-Levels (半山), Hong Kong Botanical Gardens is often referred to as Bing Tau Fa Yuen (兵頭花園) by the locals. Literally means “Head of Soldiers” Garden, “Bing Tau Fa Yuen” references to the former Governor’s House built at the Garden’s location. In 1975, the official name of the Gardens was changed to Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens (香港動植物公園), as a result to the growing collection of display animals. Despite initial researches of botanical science (which led to the founding of Hong Kong Herbarium in 1878) at the Gardens, most people would remember the Gardens as a place to check out animals and floral displays. Though the history of how the Gardens had played a role in botanic research for tree planting on the Hong Kong Island shall always be remembered. After all, transforming Hong Kong Island from a barren and rocky island with no forests, no trees and only grass in the 19th century (resulted from centuries of reckless deforestation) into the relatively lush green metropolis that we see today was no small feat.
Situated right across from my primary school, Bing Tau Fa Yuen is an essential part of my childhood memories. Going to Bing Tau Fa Yuen (兵頭花園) to check out the howler monkeys, orangutans, peacocks and even jaguars was a small after-school treat for me as a child. Every spring, Azalea (杜鵑花) would flourish across the park, attracting a large crowd to take selfies. Many years have gone by and the neighborhood has significantly transformed since my childhood’s time. Though the annual blossom at Bing Tau Fa Yuen is one of the few things that could remain unchanged throughout the years.
For two years in a row in 2017 and 2018, part of Hollywood Road in Old Central was closed off to host an one-day street carnival known “Heritage Vogue • Hollywood Road”. Live performances, activity booths, and temporary displays were set up to promote heritage preservation in Hong Kong. Being the second oldest street in the city and home to a range of heritage buildings, Hollywood Road in Central and Sheung Wan offers the perfect venue for such an event. In fact, Hollywood Road has long been an urban magnet for all history buffs and foreign tourists. Completed in 1844, Hollywood Road in Central – Sheung Wan was the vital connection linking the military barracks at Possession Point and the city centre in Central during the early colonial times. Today, it passes by some of Hong Kong’s most well known attractions and heritage buildings: Hollywood Park (荷李活道公園), Lascar Row antique market (摩羅街), Man Mo Temple (文武廟), Former Police Married Quarters PMQ (元創方), and Former Central Police Station Tai Kwun (大館), and also popular areas including the foodie paradise of NOHO, the entertainment Mecca of SOHO, and the vibrant Graham Street Market (嘉咸街市). To the disappointment of some people, Hollywood Road has nothing to do with the Hollywood in LA. Instead, there are two main theories behind the street’s naming. First, some say there were once holly trees, also known as Christmas berries, planted along the road. However, historical accounts dispute that holly trees were actually imported to Hong Kong years after the road was built and named. One type of holly tree (冬青) were actually widely planted in the Tai Ping Shan area as a type of Chinese medicine when Western medicine has yet being widely accepted by the people in Hong Kong. The second theory refers to the Hollywood House in Henbury, which was the former residence of John Francis Davis, the second governor (1844 – 1848) of colonial Hong Kong.
For decades, visitors coming to Hollywood Road would notice the abundance of antique shops and art galleries. Before massive land reclamation took place over a century ago, Hollywood Road was not far from the waterfront. Traders, sailors and smugglers would bring their overseas merchandises to sell at Hollywood Road. Gradually, Hollywood Road has become a vibrant marketplace for trading all sorts of curios and antiques from China and around the world. Today these antique shops and galleries continue to attract tourists from all over the world. The former Police Married Quarter, a listed modernist building, was preserved, renovated and opened to the public in 2014 as a mixed use art and design compound known as the PMQ. The project has brought new life into the historical street. In 2018, the long awaited Tai Kwun, or the former Central Police Station Compound also opened its doors to the public. Took 8 years and HKD 3.8 billion to complete, Tai Kwun is the most extensive conservation and revitalization project in Hong Kong. World renowned architect Herzog & de Meuron was involved in the master planning and architectural design of Tai Kwun, transforming the former police compound into a welcoming heritage and art centre. The completion of Tai Kwun and PMQ have dramatically transformed the cultural scenery of Hollywood Road, consolidating Hollywood Road as a primary tourist attraction in Hong Kong.
Day 10 (1 of 2).
There are 26 national parks in Sri Lanka, covering an area of 5,734 km², or slightly less than 9% of the country. As a small nation, Sri Lanka has a diverse range of wildlife, from marine mammals to other big game. The island also has one of the highest rates of biological endemism (16% of the fauna and 23% of flowering plants are endemic) in the world. Having a chance to see Sri Lanka’s precious wildlife in its natural habitat should be a highlight for all visitors.
With several elephant and even one leopard sightings in our first drive, any wildlife that we saw in our second safari was a bonus. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant experience to venture into the open wilderness early in the morning, when the air was cool and birds were at their most active. As the day warmed up after 8am, most animals seemed to be hiding in the shade somewhere, except occasional elephants that were looking for other ways to cool themselves down. The morning safari was the final act for us before moving on to the South Coast.
Udawalawe Reservoir appeared in total tranquility at 6am.
Again our jeep passed through the Udawalawe Reservoir before entering the park.
Our morning safari began with the sighting of a golden jackal. In both Hindu and Buddhist cultures, jackals are considered an intelligent and cunning animals.
In a safari national park, one of the easiest places to spot wildlife is the vehicular path because of the lack of vegetation.
A group of birds came together for morning choir. Early morning, according to our driver, is the best time for birding.
At the top of a tree, we spotted a pair of malabar pied hornbills. Malabar pied hornbills are omnivorous. Their diet ranges from fruits to small animals and insects.
An adult female white bellied sea eagle can measure up to 90cm, with a wingspan of up to 2.2m long.
Due to their high reproductive rate, good adaptability in different environments, and the diminishing of their natural predators such as leopards, jackals, mongooses, pythons, monitor lizards and eagles because of human activities, the population of peafowls has grown rapidly throughout the island. With frequent damages to agricultural crops, the peafowls have become a headache for Sri Lankan farmers. On the other hand, peafowls have considerably cultural significance for the Buddhist and Hindu, thus a protected species in Sri Lanka despite of their impact to the farmers. For the Sinhalese, the peafowl is the third animal of the zodiac of Sri Lanka.
Endemic to the island, Sri Lankan junglefowl is the national bird of the country.
With a diet including small reptiles, amphibians, crabs, rodents and birds, white-throated kingfisher can be found throughout Asia.
In a woodland, a group of Sri Lankan axis deer were resting under the shade. As soon as they noticed our arrival, they immediately got up and walked away one by one.
Out of the dozen of so Sri Lankan axis deer, we only noticed one with horns.
Once again we bumped into a Bengal monitor lizard. The one we saw was about 1.5m long.
Of course, no visit to the Udawalawe would be completed without meeting the Sri Lankan elephants.
In both safari visits, we had seen both male and female Sri Lankan elephants of various ages and sizes.
In a group of Sri Lankan elephants, we also spotted two babies who were busy suckling milk from their mothers.
Near the end of our morning safari, we had an encounter with a large male elephant.
We saw him stopping at a water pond and splashed mud water onto his body using his trunk. According to our driver, the elephant was “applying sunscreen” with the mud. Apart from sun protection, the mud also protects him from parasite. The evaporation of the mud would also cool off his skin.
After exiting from the park, we passed by Udawalawe Reservoir one final time. This time, we were fortunate to see an Sri Lankan elephant bathing in the water.
Day 9 (4 of 4).
Udawalawe National Park is often considered to be the best place for elephant sighting outside of Africa. Advertised for 100% guaranteed elephant sighting, Udawalawe should not disappoint anyone who come for the biggest mammals on land. For other animals, especially large mammals like leopards or sloth bears, super good luck and an experienced guide/driver are probably needed for any chance of success. The park is also a fine venue for bird sightings, with both permanent and migratory species.
We didn’t have a whole lot of wild safari experience other than the Brazilian Pantanal. Unlike Pantanal in Brazil where we could choose between boat, 4×4 vehicle, or even a morning safari hike, Udawalawe National Park could only be visited by 4×4 vehicles. All 4×4 vehicles enter the park from one entrance, and most tours would start either at 6am or 2pm, and last for 4 hours. Unlike the famous Yala National Park in Southern Sri Lanka where all visitors flock to chase after the elusive leopards and as soon as one leopard is spotted all vehicles would rush to the same spot, 4×4 drivers at Udawalawe tend to disperse into different areas of the park. The first safari tour we had at Udawalawe was a afternoon drive.
Sri Lankan elephant is usually one of the first large animals to be spotted in the park.
Sri Lankan elephant is the largest of the three subspecies of Asian elephants.
Native to the island, Sri Lankan elephant has a widespread distribution in the country.
With a population of 2500 to 4000c Sri Lankan elephants have been listed endangered on IUCN’s Red List since 1986.
Oriental garden lizards are commonly found throughout much of Asia.
The oriental garden lizard can change its colours. During mating season, a male lizard changes its head and shoulders to orange or crimson, and its throat to black.
Much larger than oriental garden lizard, the Bengal monitor lizards can grow up to 175cm long.
Known by their rich colours and predominant diet of flying insects like bees and wraps, the green bee-eaters are common in the park.
Reside in India, Sri Lanka, and much of Southeast Asia, the changeable hawk eagle is also known as crest hawk due to its feature on the head. They are medium size birds of prey, and are usually solitary except in breeding periods.
The number of Indian peafowls or peacocks (male) we have seen in Udawalawe was probably ten times more than the total number of times that we had ever seen these birds in the past. Peacocks dancing, eating, running, and even flying, males, females, or juveniles, you name it, we have seen it.
The steady supply of water of the reservoir is probably the main reason why wild animals gather in Udawalawe National Park.
Even with their distinctive curved horns, no one knows for sure whether these wild water buffalos are truly wild, or if they are descendants of domestic buffaloes. With about 3,400 across the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, wild water buffalo has been listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List since 1986.
Painted storks can be found in wetlands throughout tropical Asia.
Native to the island, the endangered Sri Lankan leopard has a population of 750-900. Spotting one of the park’s 10-12 leopards was like winning the jackpot, given the reserve has 30,821 hectares of land (more than 5 times the area of Manhattan Island).
Usually live in herds, the Sri Lankan axis deer or Ceylon spotted deer once roam freely across the dry zone of the island. Now their conservation status is considered as vulnerable.
Towards the end of our tour, a curious Sri Lankan elephants followed us and get pretty close to our vehicle.
Before leaving the park, we had a unique encounter with two Sri Lankan elephants who greeted each other with their trunks and made a whole lot of sounds.
The greeting gesture of the two Sri Lankan elephants seemed friendly, as if a person was hugged by another person.
After the passionate change of the two elephants, one of the two elephants seemed to be interested in our vehicle and stayed much longer.
Near the main park exit, we spotted a curious mongoose climbing out from a drainage channel. It stayed just for a split second and dashed out of our sight.