A wondrous sight; a pink dolphin. Pretty special to see any kind of dolphin but the My Little Pink Cetacean? Quite jolly exciting.
I’d been told about this out-of-the-way fishing village on Lantau, the island close to Hong Kong island. We’d already been to Lantau but hardly got a glimpse, having landed and admired Lord Foster’s splendidly-designed airport before being whisked by train through the darkness into the heart of the metropolis.
The thought of the fishermen and the houses on stilts appealed hugely so we went over to Lantau for a Sunday outing. Making our way to the MTR station in Central Hong Kong we came upon the startling sight of a mass of people sitting in the road on rugs and cloths having picnics. They were all women, all having picnics on the road and chattering away – domestics enjoying their one day off. They seemed to be having fun, meeting their friends so it didn’t seem appropriate to ask why they choose to sit on the cold, hard road instead of opting for a meet-up in the park or in one of the public areas with seating.
The MTR to Tung Chung was fast, roomy, clean and busy so I was expecting bus number 11 (signed in English for Tai O) to be a rural culture shock but it was disappointingly smart and full of well-dressed Chinese and Hong Kong families enjoying their day out – not a cage full of chickens or a piglet in sight.
The bus wound up steep roads through the mountains of Lantau intersecting dense tropical-style shrubs and trees, occasionally opening on to views of steep hillsides with sea and surf far below.
We passed a couple of villages and the entrance to a prison where eight men got off the bus – prison officers, probably. We passed a vast reservoir in the hills and above it, sitting as tiny as an ant atop the highest mountain on the skyline, the Big Buddha (more in another blog maybe).
By the time we stepped off the bus in the dusty, largely deserted square on the edge of Tai O, we were the only Westerners around. We walked towards the nearest buildings, where a low wall had been daubed school-project style with childish paintings and the legend “The Hans Anderson Club.” All we needed was the Little Mermaid sitting on the quayside wall.
The first woman we met was pushing boat trips to see pink dolphins. Pah. Pink dolphins. Yeah right. But there they were on dog-eared, stained, badly copied images pinned up on a makeshift noticeboard.
“So we’ll see dolpins, yes?”
She smiled and nodded. It what everyone selling something does.
I looked at my watch. 1pm. Oh too late then. She laughed and shrugged. No guarantees obviously, but the boat looked fun – an oversized dinghy with a big outboard motor and jolly yellow frilled canopy. Looked like it would take about fifteen of us. No lifejackets visible. Ah well, I can swim and the boat looked capable of being turned up the right way if enough of the passengers made an effort.
We paid our money like good tourists, hopped aboard and the guy opened the throttle. We roared out into the bay bouncing over the waves with me and son #2 sitting to starboard (that’s sea-faring lingo, me old matey) at the front (oh all right, to the fore, if you insist).
We hit wave after wave and got covered in spray. It was rough as hell but everyone was giggling it, squealing when we hit a big one, and loving it. Great fun.
Quite abruptly, the guy at the helm cut the engines, leaving us bobbing out there on the grey sea, with Tai O just a low grey fringe in the grey distance.
Within a minute there was a stirring in the water and a flipper appeared. A white-pink body churned out of the water. People gasped and gave little exclamations as it did a half-submerged barrel roll about twenty feet away.
Almost everyone was standing now, with cameras at the ready. The dolphin – or dolphins, surfaced five more times. One stuck his head out completely and looked at us with an amused eye. Dolphins always do look amused to me. It’s as though they know they are superior and are going through the motions to entertain and please the pathetic hopeful humans.
It was wondrous indeed to see these rare wild dolphins, albeit briefly. Maybe that was the agreement between the Wei the dolphin and the boat guy.
“Word up, Wei, just four minutes for each boat, ok? One boat every half an hour. See what you can do. Anything above that will be a plus. Nice bit of red snapper for you and the gang later.”
The boat guy fired up the outboard again and we zoomed about for a bit getting wet and then puttered in close to shore, gently passing through a cloud of fragrant incense from a buddhist shrine close to the water. We explored further along the waterway into the heart of the stilted village of Tai O, which, although a tourist attraction, is also a living, surviving, fishing village.
It was sensory overload. Dozens of ramshackled little dwellings built of anything – bricks, wood, corrugated iron up high on poles. Boats were moored beneath or in some cases strung up out of the water. In every case, the boat was in better nick than the dwelling and the outboard motors were obviously well-maintained.
Fish were hanging up to dry, houseplants were fixed to balconies made of scaffolding and timber. People sat in their homes, watching gawping tourists floating by snapping off pictures. The water was torpid and brown but teemed with shoals of tiny fish. Some of the houses looked newer – maybe built after the serious fire that claimed many of the homes some years ago.
Exploring Tai O from the perspective of dry land was even more incredible. The town seemed to consist of homes which were shops, or at the least, market stalls with droopy canvas ceilings – scores of them. Sometimes there was an open square of covered floor with a few chairs and an aged person sitting dozing while another aged person sat nearer the front at the side of a rickety table bearing a few sealed jars of devilishly murky brown liquid.
Some of the more obvious shops were festooned with hundreds of yellowy waxy-looking dried fish of all different shapes and sizes – including large tell-tale fin-shaped pieces.
Some shops just had fish tanks containing types of fat silvery sea bream, dark tangled eels, leopard-patterned edible crabs, ugly fat langoustine-type shellfish which looked super-meaty, big groupers, sardine-type fish, whitebait-type fish, zebra-striped fish and too many others to list.
A spectacular variety of fish and shellfish including clams which were being tossed, turned and cooked on wire griddles over open fires. The smells were intoxicating, mouth-watering and sometimes revolting. The air was full of people chattering, the ringing of bicycle bells as people cycled through the walkways and the clatter of mah jong tiles from so many games being played in tucked-away corners. This was Sunday in Tai O.
The bike shop advertised its presence with a wonderful little sign made with dangly bits of painted wood and Christmas baubles. I arrived just as it was closing for lunch but just in time for a brief look. Above the counter hung all kinds of bike bits, none of them recognisable to me and all black with oil or general filth. There was nothing gleaming, no Western brands – all the bikes were Chinese-made, including some full suspension jobs which looked desperately heavy – fantastic for downhilling with all that momentum. The ubiquitious and practical wire mesh basket was fixed for to the handlebars of all of them except the full suspension mountainbike.
We bought Portuguese-style egg custard tarts from a woman riding a bike with a basket on the front that was full of them. The odd thing was, that apart from being offered one of the jars of dark liquid – a smiley “no thanks” seemed in order – no-one tried to press us into buying anything – although we did anyway. My purchase was a dangly thing with shells which tinkle if you hang it near a door. Years later, it still smells a bit rank. God knows what’s inside those shells.
We had a meal in a basic kind of cafe with plastic tablecloths where plenty of Chinese people were eating. A teapot of hot water was provided for cleaning the chopsticks before the bowls of food the pancakes and the green tea arrived. The caff seemed to be run by two sisters and there was a sinister-looking guy sitting by the door as if to ensure you didn’t try to do a runner or walk off with the chopsticks.
There was a porky dish in a sticky dark red sauce and something redolent of kung po chicken, plus fried rice. It was all very tasty and fresh from the stove. But something didn’t agree with Capt Sensible. On the ferry back from Lantau to HK, he began to feel out of sorts.
Being a decent sort of cove, he waited until we were back in son #2’s flat which has a bathroom before he became proper poorly.
Forty-eight hours, both ends and very wobbly for two more days. Pity. As far as he was concerned, the only wonder was that he survived.