Friday, 28 April 2017

bougainvillea boogie

It must be quite edifying to have a plant named after you, especially one as spectacular as bougainvillea. This sprawling, thorny genus is named after Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a French admiral who circumnavigated the world in the 1780s. Species are found in many parts of the world, and they were originally described by his botanist, Philibert Commer├žon, which provides an interesting contrast with another well-known genus, native to Australia, that had been collected and described a decade earlier.

Banksia was named not after Sir James Cook, who captained the expedition on which the first specimens were collected, but after his botanist, Sir Joseph Banks. However, I should point out that the naming is not an egregious example of vanity: the genus was named by Carl Linnaeus, the founder of modern plant taxonomy.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to provide not a history lesson but a commentary on the bougainvillea displays that I’ve come across lately while out on my bike. Like the firecracker vines and cotton trees, these have been more than usually arresting this year, and here are a few photos to underline the point:

These are the only notable examples that I’ve come across on ‘the final frontier’ bike ride, but another bike ride, ‘the long and winding road’, has been exceptionally illuminating. These photos appear in the sequence they would be encountered on the ride:

The next three photos were taken on the south side of Sha Tau Kok Road. It would be difficult to describe the exact locations—I’m no longer sure of the location of the first photo myself—but note the Ma Wat River on the left in the third photo:

This specimen was spotted alongside the road that crosses the Ng Tung River a short distance downstream from where I live:

…while the next one is located on the inside of a hairpin bend on the road leading to the Ngau Kwu Leng Hiking Trail. I’ve included it because although most of the bougainvillea specimens you see are on someone’s property and are being cultivated, this one appears to have been abandoned to its own devices.

If you’re not familiar with bougainvillea, you will probably think that what you’re seeing are flowers, but this is not the case:

The bright red parts of the plant are bracts, or modified leaves. The flowers are the tiny yellowish white things in the middle. In this, they resemble poinsettia, a good example of which I photographed on the long and winding road last November:

This specimen is about 7 metres tall, which is almost twice the height limit specified by Wikipedia!

You will probably have noticed that all the examples featured so far have had red bracts, somewhere on the spectrum from scarlet to magenta, but bougainvillea comes in other colours too, notably purple:

I couldn’t get any closer to photograph the first example, from near the start of the long and winding road. The second example is from the outside of the walled enclosure of Sheung Shui Wai, while I spotted the third from the narrow path that we use between the Ng Tung River and Sheung Shui.

Finally, I’ve included an intensely coloured example from the village of Ping Kong. The striking aspect of this photo is the contrast between the searing magenta of the bush on the right and the almost complete absence of bracts on the specimen on the left. I can offer no explanation for this effect.

Monday, 24 April 2017

buffalo bill

When I first started to explore the cycling possibilities west of the main railway line into China in 2012, I occasionally spotted a feral buffalo in the Sheung Yiu River. I remember seeing such animals being used to pull ploughs back in the 1970s, but nobody ploughs the land nowadays, and I imagine that this animal was turned loose to fend for itself by its ‘owner’ many years ago.

I’ve seen other feral buffaloes out west (the area around the Kam Tin River), photos of which can be seen in Journey to the West: Part 4 and A Baker’s Dozen. However, it was never possible to get close enough to this particular buffalo to get such detailed pictures, given that I’m using a small pocket camera. Nevertheless, I got into the habit of taking a photograph or two every time I saw it; I often don’t see it for weeks on end, and I begin to wonder whether something has happened, but then it turns up again.

What follows is a chronological sequence of these photos, with the date each was taken. This is the first photo I took:

16th October 2012

I’m not sure why this is so, but I often see egrets hanging around the buffalo, even riding piggyback from time to time. You would not guess from the photo, but here the buffalo is grazing on the bed of the canalized upper section of the river. Given that there does not appear to be anywhere where the buffalo can escape the confines of the river basin, this must be the animal’s only food source. The vegetation is cut from time to time by Drainage Services Department (DSD) personnel. And when I commented above that the buffalo disappeared ‘for weeks on end’, I imagine that it spends this time wandering up and down the upper reaches of the river.

A short distance downstream from the location of the previous photo, the nature of the river changes, and instead of a winter channel that carries all of what little water there is during the dry season, the river opens out and becomes tidal. Just downstream from this point is a large mudbank that is exposed at low tide, and as you will see, the buffalo can often be spotted here (note the caked mud on the buffalo’s back in the previous photo).

22nd October 2012

The next photo shows the transition point between the tidal section of the river and its upper reaches. Note the winter channel in the foreground. There are DSD access roads on both sides of the river, but we usually follow the one on the far side in this photo. The pipeline carries water from China, without which Hong Kong would not survive. I still remember the extreme water-rationing measures imposed in the 1970s, before the High Island Dam was completed, although this imaginative scheme appears not to have been sufficient to meet the territory’s needs.

6th December 2012

Perhaps I should have made a note of the air temperature when I took the next photo, but the buffalo does seem to enjoy wallowing in the water:

13th December 2012

The next two photos were taken about half an hour later than the previous photo and show the probable downstream limit of the buffalo’s wanderings.

13th December 2012

13th December 2012

Yes, the egret really is standing on the buffalo’s head!

15th January 2013

Just resting:

24th April 2013

Incidentally, I discussed the round holes you can see in this photo in The Mystery of the Holes and received some interesting information on their nature.

I often see the mudbank exposed at low tide, with obvious animal tracks that lead across it, but here the culprit has been caught in the act:

28th November 2014

And here the buffalo is taking another dip:

23rd November 2015

The next photo illustrates another mystery. It shows the convergence of three winter channels, which the buffalo must cross in order to reach the tidal section of the river further downstream. How does it do this? I’d love to find out, because they look fairly impassable to me.

31st December 2016

We always used to look out for ‘the buffalo’, but around this time, we decided that the buffalo really ought to have a name. We considered ‘Wally’, and ‘Fred’, and ‘Donald’—there’s a buffoon with the same name in Washington—but when you think about it, the only appropriate name for a buffalo must be ‘Bill’. So now we ask ‘Where’s Bill?’ when we cycle this way.

Yet only six days later, I thought that Bill must be dead:

5th January 2017

…but three and a half hours later, he was clearly alive:

5th January 2017

The next three photos show Bill just resting. I wonder whether he’s simply waiting for the tide to roll back in:

16th February 2017

16th February 2017

17th February 2017

Another egret is using Bill as a perch:

25th March 2017

The next two photos show Bill using a dead branch as a scratching post. You can see the relief in his face:

8th April 2017

8th April 2017

The final two photos show Bill lounging in the mud yet again. Paula reckoned that he was watching me intently as I took these photos, but he was 20 metres away, so I don’t think this can be an accurate observation.

17th April 2017

17th April 2017

There is an interesting existential question that I don’t think would occur to many people but I thought I’d mention. We’ve been looking out for Bill for almost five years now, and one of these days we’ll see him for the last time. But when we do see him for the last time, we won’t know, at the time, that it is the last time. Sad!

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

is that it?

When I posted The Final Frontier in December last year, I did so in the belief that there was nothing more to add. You would think I’d know better by now, but the nature of the terrain in this area seemed to make this a reasonable assumption. Construction of the Liangtang/Heung Yuen Wai Border Control Point Connecting Road imposes a limit to cycling to the north and east. I did find a good narrow path that led northeast from the village of Kan Tau Wai, but it eventually debouched onto this extensive construction site, and as I’d previously discovered, although it is possible to ride through this area, it isn’t very comfortable, so I went back to following the road instead.

There was Optional Extra, which I posted only four days later, but this was just a minor diversion, albeit one that I now consider a mandatory part of the route.

However, I was keen to reduce my exposure to fast-moving traffic on Ping Che Road in particular, so I continued to search for ways to avoid the section of this road between its junctions with Ping Yuen Road and Kong Nga Po Road. At the time of posting The Final Frontier, the route followed the road that enters the bottom of this map, turning right at the obvious junction then right again through Yuen Ha Tsuen:

By the way, Z marks the location of the mural that I described in Zoological Garden.

After it had crossed Ping Che Road, the route proceeded via Ping Yuen Road and ghost alley, followed by a series of tracks and narrow paths around the village of Ping Yeung, before coming back to the Ping Che Road/Ping Yuen Road junction. At this point, I had originally described the route as following Ping Che Road, but it was obvious that part of this road can be avoided by backtracking through Yuen Ha Tsuen.

Although I didn’t have the above map available at the time, it nevertheless made sense to investigate whether the road through Tai Po Tin led anywhere useful. And it did! The route X–X on the map is where the route goes now, and it is illustrated by the following sequence of photographs:

This is a closer view of the footbridge seen in the previous photo (note that the banks of this drainage channel are constructed from gabions filled with rip-rap):

According to the map, continuing straight ahead leads to a road, but this is not the case. All options here, including others not shown, are dead ends. However, crossing the bridge and continuing along the far side of the drainage channel does lead somewhere:

This path continues onto the road shown on the map, and only about 150 metres of Ping Che Road needs to be followed. And, on a Sunday, you won’t encounter too much traffic.

This was the first ‘proper’ upgrade to the route I described in The Final Frontier, but I’d noticed a couple of places that required further investigation. The first was the point marked B on the map, the start of a very obvious narrow path. This one goes a long way, with some very tricky sections, but when I followed it, I was left in a location where I had to follow Ping Che Road for quite some distance to get back on track, so I wrote it off as pointless.

However, I had noticed an alleyway in Yuen Ha Tsuen as I rode past, and it had to be worth taking a closer look to see where it might lead:

This is the point marked A on the map. The alleyway leads to an open area on the edge of the village, from where the route continues just left of the two wheelie bins:

The next photo shows the start of a path that skirts around the right-hand side of the plastic greenhouse:

…and is followed rather gingerly around quite a tight left-hand bend with a bit of a drop off the edge of the path:

The right-hand path is followed from the junction shown in the next photo:

Everything is straightforward at first:

…but there is a tricky kerb (about 15cm) to bump up at the entrance to this bridge:

Notice that it is possible to turn either left or right off the bridge. This is the right-hand option:

This path is no more than 45cm wide, and there is a horrendous drop on the right-hand side of 3–4 metres. I don’t think I’d be coming this way were it not for the railings!

So what about the left-hand option?

It does appear to be a more reasonable choice. After all, the path is a bit wider. But take a closer look:

There is a drop of about 3 metres off both sides of the path on this bend. And there are no railings! When you consider that you have been forced to slow down almost to a standstill to bump the kerb onto the bridge, you will realize that you don’t have enough forward momentum to avoid a certain amount of wobbling on the bend.

And the long drop off the right-hand side of the path continues for quite some distance:

The second photo shows a path doubling back to the right. It eventually reaches here (the right-hand option off the bridge leads here too):

Naturally, I have tried the left-hand option off the bridge, and I can confirm that it is exceptionally nerve-racking, especially as I had to duck to avoid branches on the inside of the bend, which exacerbated the tendency to wobble. Once is enough!

Meanwhile, the path is now much wider, and as a result much easier:

The second photo illustrates an interesting point about negotiating this kind of path. Notice that the path cuts sharply across to the right. A few days ago, when I was showing Paula this new addition to the route, I spotted a man pushing a small Hong Kong barrow from right to left. I shouted back to Paula that we’d probably have to stop somewhere, but I continued because where we were wasn’t really a suitable place to stop.

When I reached the point on the photo where the path cuts to the right, I found that the man had pulled off the path at a junction with another path, presumably because he’d heard me shouting to Paula, and the following exchange took place:
Me: M’goi sai [thank you very much].
Man: M’sai m’goi [thank you not necessary].
I frequently find myself in this kind of situation. I always say “thank you”, and more than nine times out of ten I receive this response. It could just be the natural politeness of Chinese people, or it could be that the other person is thinking: “This gweilo must be a loony cycling on these narrow paths. I’d better humour him.” Only kidding. I find that these friendly exchanges contribute to my enjoyment when I’m out on my bike.

Incidentally, the blue truck in the last photo is on the road a short distance southwest of B on the map, which is where this circuitous route from A eventually ends up:

Finally, I’ve included the following photograph, which I took recently on a short narrow path (about 100 metres in length) connecting a Drainage Services access road with Lin Ma Hang Road north of the village of Tsung Yuen Ha. I’d noticed this path before, both where it left Lin Ma Hang Road and where it crossed a constructed drainage channel via a footbridge, but it was choked with vegetation and obviously impassable. However, there was a fire a couple of months ago, and it looked like there was now a way through.

I checked this path out immediately after the fire and discovered that the stalks of the many clumps of elephant grass had been charred but not incinerated, so I returned with a pair of clippers to remove as many as I could (notice that there are many more charred stalks on the left of the clump in this photo), and I even pruned a couple of shrubs.

As I’ve pointed out, this path is very short, but by following it I don’t have to dice with death on Lin Ma Hang Road, which doesn’t carry much traffic, but the minibuses here are driven by lunatics. Unfortunately, as you can see, vegetation regrows quickly after a fire (the photo was taken not much more than a month after the fire), and it’s almost certain that this path will once again be impenetrable by the time I come back to Hong Kong next autumn.