Mum, adventurer and passionate hiker Tara Smyth arrived in Hong Kong on a one-way ticket in 1994. She tells Expat Parent why she stayed.
I arrived in Hong Kong from the UK with a close friend and a backpack 23 years ago. My friend and I had met at secretarial college in Oxford a few years earlier and we heard that English-speaking secretaries were well sought after in Hong Kong. I originally thought I’d give it six months to a year, audio-typing for some fancy pants lawyer. I remember getting to the end of the year and thinking, “That’s it, I’m never going back!”
When we first arrived we lived in a teeny-tiny 450 sq.ft. flat on the 19th floor of a high-rise in what is now SoHo. Back then, there were no bars or restaurants around those streets. Lan Kwai Fong was our nearest stomping ground.
I met my husband, Pete, in Lan Kwai Fong, 21 years ago – he was serving with the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers in the British Army. He was my officer and my gentleman! We married in 2000 and went on to have Megan, now 13 and Anna, now 11. Our two girls are like chalk and cheese and they keep us on our toes as they enter teen-hood in this digital age. We also have our dog, Foxy Loxy, who is the most cuddled, kissed and highly revered member of the family.
When my husband and I had our first baby in 2003, we moved to Happy Valley as we were led to believe it was like living in a “village”. I didn’t really enjoy our two years there, the high-rises and busy main road running through it did not feel desperately village-like. I was secretly hankering after a house with a garden in leafy Sai Kung. When I was pregnant with our second baby we finally moved and have been in the same house with views of the bay below us for 12 years.
Where do I start describing how much I love Hong Kong? I love the serenity of the mountains, the beauty of the white-sand beaches, the craziness of the streets in Kowloon and the eclectic mix of bars and restaurants on every corner. I love the junk trips and the champagne brunches. And I love how safe it is for my children to grow up here. Above all, I love, love, love the hiking. It is my biggest passion and Hong Kong has miles and miles and miles of stunning trails, both on the map and off.
Some things do drive me nuts here – the unnecessary packaging in supermarkets, the plastic that washes up on our beaches, the pollution and the seeming lack of forethought when it comes to construction and development.
My most treasured Hong Kong memory is crossing the finishing line of Oxfam Trailwalker in 2011, having hiked 100km in the mountains, all in one go. My teammates and myself all had our husbands and children at the finish line waiting for us to come in. That moment when our eight children spotted us and came running with their arms open wide, squealing with delight at the sight of us — it brings a tear to my eye every time I think about it.
My proudest Hong Kong moment was opening the 299th East Kowloon Scout Troop in Sai Kung. The town has had a Beaver Colony and a Cub Pack for many, many years but there has been no Scout Troop to my knowledge for some time, if ever. Once my own kids had moved through Beavers and Cubs and had nowhere else to go, I decided it was high time they had a Scout Troop to move up to. With the help of some special Sai Kung ladies, I ticked boxes, signed papers, booked the hall, ordered the flag and the 299th EK Scout Troop was born. We are in our second year and every meeting, hike and camp that we do makes me proud. Of me. And of them.
My favourite thing to do in Hong Kong without a shadow of a doubt is hiking. Hiking, hiking, hiking. Alone. With friends. But always with Foxy Loxy. My favourite type of hiking is to leave the Maclehose and Wilson Trails behind and hit the “streamer” trails that can be found all over Hong Kong. Some are easier than others. Some can be quite overgrown and you return scratched to pieces. They can lead you to the most magnificent places and you will hardly ever see another soul all day. Finding new streamer trails and not having a clue where they are going to take you, especially ones that are not even on the map, is a great adventure. I recce them before deciding if they are suitable for my Scouts or not. It is wise to go on a recce with a friend, but occasionally I venture out on my own and the adrenaline starts to buzz the deeper into the jungle I go!
As a family, when we’re not Scouting, we like to go camping. We do not use tents, we each have our own special camping hammocks and all we need is a few trees and a stream nearby for cooking. We also love to go stream-trekking, where you literally find a stream, get in it and head up! We swim in the pools, jump off rocks and bathe under gushing waterfalls. Stream-trekking does not come without risk or danger and I do not recommend it to the uninitiated. Again, I recce them with my family on the weekends to see if they are suitable for our Scouts.
My Scout troup meets every two weeks at the Scout Centre in Pak Sha Wan. Our hall meetings have seen us get up to many things, from putting up tents blindfolded to learning how to tie a bowline around your waist with one arm — in case you are ever stuck down a well and you lost an arm on the way! We work towards activity badges that include anything from Backwoods Cooking and Camping to Photography and Meteorology. This term we are working on the Animal Care Badge and a local vet, as well as one of the dog rescue charities, will be coming to visit us.
Outside of the hall on the weekends we hike in the bush, camp in the jungle, cook in the wild, go stream trekking, swim in rock pool and hire bikes. In the future we plan to windsurf, kayak and rock climb. The Scouts not only learn to ‘survive’ in the ‘wild’, but also learn to be caring and considerate citizens who are prepared for anything. Scouts promise to be courageous in all difficulties and they learn to overcome fears, take risks and manage situations that don’t always go as planned.
Last year we went to the Lake District in the UK for our very first Overseas Expedition. I intend to organise an expedition every year and this Easter we’ll be going to Nepal for eight days. We will be paddling, canyoning, camping and of course, trekking. We intend to visit a friend of mine, Douglas Maclagan, who set up the Child Welfare Scheme (CWS) in 1997 after a life-changing experience on a trip to Nepal. The charity is registered in Hong Kong but Douglas now lives in Pokhara full-time and is their ‘man on the ground’. CWS tirelessly provides protection, education, healthcare and opportunities to disadvantaged children and their families.
Over the next few weeks the 299th E.K. Scouts and Leaders will be training in the hills of Hong Kong, hiking 50km, over three separate hikes. We are asking people to sponsor the Troop and all the money will go directly to CWS. You can help CWS by donating to our Just Giving page https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/299Scouts Any donations will be greatly received.
If you are Sai Kung based you can email Tara on email@example.com. Otherwise, there are a small number of English-speaking Scout troops dotted throughout the territory, from Discovery Bay to Beacon Hill, Stanley and a few more on Hong Kong Island. To get in touch, you should contact firstname.lastname@example.org. For a Cantonese-speaking troop, you can email email@example.com.