In partnership with Trailwatch.

For the last five years, mobile app TrailWatch has been encouraging people to enjoy, explore and protect our diverse countryside – and reminding busy Hongkongers to stop and smell the metaphorical roses along the way.

“When people go on a hike we’ve generally got an end goal in sight – maybe it’s a peak, a beach, or a bar,” says TrailWatch project director Fiona Ching. “But we don’t always pay attention to the varied scenery on the way there. There’s so much unseen beauty in Hong Kong. We want to help people appreciate it.”

A visitor interacts with an exhibit at the Hike and Seek exhibition. Photo: Linus Kwok/TrailWatch.

TrailWatch is the first app to combine nature conservation and mapping tools for hikers in Hong Kong. Aside from trail planning and tracking, users can share photos of points of interest along the way, and report “real-time” incidents such as fly-tipping or tree-felling to protect the natural environment.

‘Hike and Seek’

The Trailwatch app celebrated its fifth anniversary throughout December with a series of events under the theme “Hike and Seek.”

Highlights included a month-long exhibition at Sheung Wan’s WMA Space, for which artist Matthew Kwan curated a showcase of the 60 best photos contributed to TrailWatch by users. He also installed a projected map of the most popular hiking routes, a soundscape corner, and information on local ecology.

A series of outdoor events such as fern-hunting and spider-spotting walks encouraged hikers to spend time focusing on nature’s details, before celebrations concluded with “Music in the Woods” – a day-long music, arts and crafts festival in Shing Mun Country Park. The festival featured woodworking and leaf whistling workshops, an acapella group performance, a bassoon duet in the trees, didgeridoos, and a headline slot by popular local group RubberBand.

A child surveys an exhibition of photographs at ‘Music in the Woods.’ Photo: Frankie Chiu/TrailWatch.

Ching told HKFP that the four-person Trailwatch team had never organised an event on the scale of “Hike and Seek” before, but felt it was the perfect chance to bring its users together and highlight their collective contributions. “Trailwatch is an outdoor app, but it’s still an online platform,” she said. “Our aim was to bring people together in real life. It was all a great success!”

TrailWatch is funded by local non-profit WYNG Foundation. Teddy Law, founder of popular hiking website Oasistrek, says the app can help city-dwellers get out into nature. “It’s great to see the app help promote the fun of hiking by sharing routes between users and raise awareness of the public about nature conservation,” Law said.

Although densely urbanised in parts, around three-quarters of Hong Kong is countryside. Its protected country parks attracted over 12 million visitors in 2018, according to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.

“In the past five years, TrailWatch has gained a total of 100,000 users,” said Ching. “We now have a total of 4 million km of trails recorded by users, 700,000 photos uploaded to the database, and there have been over 3,000 incidents reported to government departments for follow-up. Our top user has logged over 14,000km of trails!”

Fiona Ching (centre) with other members of WYNG Foundation and Trailwatch at the grand opening of the Hike and Seek exhibition. Photo: Linus Kwok/TrailWatch.

Last year, TrailWatch launched the Accessible Trails Project to give up-to-date information on barrier-free trails for wheelchair users. Building this database remains a focus going into 2020.

“As a project partner, I share the same vision as TrailWatch that everyone, irrespective of their background, social status, or physical abilities, has the right to enjoy nature,” Law said. “We’re hoping to explore more barrier-free trails and add them on the map to assist wheelchair users to enjoy nature and promote the importance of a barrier-free environment.”

‘A relaxing experience’

Kan Hei Chun (better known as AK) is a freelance sound recording engineer, nature enthusiast and TrailWatch user. For the last two years, he has been building AK in KK – an interactive sonic map and independent library of Hong Kong’s natural ambient sounds. From cicadas to birdsong and crashing waves, AK uses his recording equipment to document the hubbub of Hong Kong away from human interference.

“A few years ago, I was putting together sounds for a [theatre] show, and I realised that all the stock clips of nature sounds were recorded in the Amazon or other places around the world,” he said. “There was nothing really from Hong Kong available. So, I had the idea of recording some familiar Hong Kong nature sounds, and using those instead.”

The TrailWatch motto in front of an interactive map at the Hike and Seek exhibition. Photo: Linus Kwok/TrailWatch.

In March 2019, one of AK’s promotional videos on social media caught the attention of Fiona Ching, and she emailed him to suggest a collaboration. He provided an ambient soundtrack of natural sounds for the “Hike and Seek” exhibition, as well as taking small groups of Trailwatch users on field trips, to try out sound recording techniques for themselves. These field trips are something he hopes to do again this year.

“I was so surprised and pleased when Fiona got in touch, as I’ve been using TrailWatch for years,” AK says. “It’s such a good tool for me to track my path and map my location as specifically as I can, so I can see where I’ve been. Having the exact coordinates helps me a lot with post-production.”

AK admits it’s hard to find an extended period without human sounds anywhere in Hong Kong – sometimes he waits for four or five hours to get a good clip without other hikers passing in the background. Even then, “almost all” of his clips include the noise of an aeroplane overhead. But, he reasons, the simple act of recording helps him appreciate Hong Kong’s natural diversity.

A dance performance at Music in the Woods. Photo: Fox’s Image/TrailWatch.

“One reason I started this was as a way to get out, as working in a theatre is a bit like being in a cave,” he laughs. “Just listening to natural sounds can be a relaxing experience, and helps you to be aware of what you have surrounding you daily.”

As TrailWatch enters its sixth year, the project will be next looking to revamp the app, improve the design and user experience, as well as expand its “Green Minions” programme of volunteer conservationists.

“Unlike other cities, many hiking trails in Hong Kong are easily accessible,” Law concludes. “We tend to overlook things right around us. I think hiking can help reconnect ourselves with our homeland and make us appreciate what we have.”

Hong Kong Free Press

Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.