Friday, December 13, 2013, 09:37
Focus HK: Nature cast in concrete
By Ming Yeung

Focus HK: Nature cast in concrete Focus HK: Nature cast in concrete
Focus HK: Nature cast in concrete

Nic Tinworth says the soils on top of the stairs are easy to get washed away in rainny days, causing hikers to catch their foot and trip when they walk downstairs. (Photos provided to China Daily)

No damage to ecology  

AFCD maintained that it would not damage the natural ecology unless it became necessary in the interests of public safety. "In order to find out the most appropriate approach for maintenance, AFCD staff thoroughly assess the conditions of the trails, bearing in mind the need to minimize the impact of the work on the ecology and landscape."

The outdoors community, however, disagree. "I can't recall one single hiker or runner who ever says I wish there would be more stairs," Tinworth said. For him, every step marks an adventure through yielding grasses and the crackling of dry leaves.

Chan, one of the lone hikers who passed Forsyth and Tinworth, pointed out that cement is inconvenient to hikers. There's the concussion to hips, knees and ankles, simply from stepping on cement.

"I don't understand what these stairs are for," Chan said. "I really hope for less concrete. If they pave the pathways, they will lose their natural rocks."

Carina Lun, a registered physiotherapist, agrees that staircases are not suitable for hiking. It is because the staircases on trails "are unreasonably high for the average build of Asians", she points out in her written reply to China Daily.

"Compression at the patellofemoral joint (between the kneecap and thigh bone) increases with knee flexion. Studies have found that aka patellofemoral joint (behind the kneecap) loading can increase up to 7 or 8 times our body weight upon stairs while walking. Repeatedly overloading our knees may increase the wear and tear the cartilage behind the kneecap, leading to irritation and inflammation, causing anterior knee pain," she explains.

"When walking on natural trails, hikers can freely take smaller steps that they are comfortable with, without too much knee flexion. When walking on stairs, however, step heights are fixed. Hikers with shorter legs are forced to step up or down with their knees sharply flexed."

Forsyth contends that Hong Kong is blessed with easy accessibility to nature. Hikers can reach their favorite trails within an hour from almost anywhere in the city. These, he says are among the most precious gems that Hong Kong has to offer.

As frequent hikers, Tinworth and his friends have noted every increasing numbers of concrete steps being constructed in country parks in recent years. Most recently they've noted new pavement is the trail from Sunset Peak to Pak Mong on Lantau Island. More paving is on the way.

Last month, Tinworth's friend, who lives in Tung Chung and is also an avid hiker, saw some boards being laid in place along the trail laying out the next round of paving.

Behind the bushes, Tinworth, on a visit to the location, discovered rectangular cement blocks piled up unevenly. There were hundreds of them, like tombs without names engraved on them, scattered about in the wild.

Tinworth took one of them out and demonstrated how these blocks would be used. "They (the workers) put that into the ground, and they use the steel rods to drive in just to reinforce it." He drilled a steel bar into the hole of the cement block.

"This doesn't belong to nature," said Tinworth, with a look of disgust as he tossed away the rod. "How far up are these steps gonna go?"

Structural support  

"Boulders, rocks, stone slabs are usually used in trail maintenance. That can be for rock armouring, paving and construction of drainage systems. At steep sections of trails, steps are built as needed either as soil steps or with natural materials such as boulders and rocks. Retainer logs, wooden boards or reinforcement plates are used to ensure sufficient structural support to keep the soil steps in place," explained an AFCD spokesman when asked about the works project.

Tinworth, whose barbed comment was that the Trailwalker should be renamed the Cementwalker because of the ever expanding concrete along its 100-kilometer route, predicted the proliferation of concrete steps throughout the city.

While acknowledging that hiking has been the most popular activity among country park visitors, AFCD said it "continues to promote hiking with a view to attracting more people to appreciate our beautiful nature."

But Forsyth, who helped out with the just-concluded Trailwalker this year and was a participant in other countries, believes that the increasing bands of concrete in country parks will discourage people from coming to Hong Kong to enjoy Mother Nature and take part in hiking events.

"Japan has 75 percent trail in the forest and 25 percent concrete making up its Trailwalker course. Hong Kong is now at least 50 percent concrete," stressed Forsyth.

"I think Hong Kong has many tourists who come for trail running. I know lots of Japanese people come here for hiking and who are not used to steps. If they learn more of these trails are under concrete, that would definitely discourage them from coming here and they would choose other destinations like Lijian and Guilin on the mainland, and Nepal, Vietnam and Thailand, which take good care of their trails."

"The problem with AFCD is that they don't ask anyone. There's no open consultation, there's no request for comment," blasted Tinworth. "If we hadn't been running on this path, we wouldn't have found it (the concrete)."

As public awareness to safeguarding the city's country parks has begun gaining momentum, nature lovers like Tinworth and Forsyth hope the administration will seek public opinion about what to do with the trails in future.

"This is not going to be the end. The longer they are unchecked, the longer they go unchallenged, the more it will go on, and at what price? Where are they going to stop?" asked Tinworth.

"A few stretches of concrete can lead to longer stretches of concrete, meaning a house," laughed Forsyth.

Contact the writer at mingyeung@chinadailyhk.com