It was sometime in early 1980 on a Saturday evening, when Allen, myself and our friend Oly, arrived at the Shek O sea cliffs. We had decided to camp there with the intention of climbing some routes the following morning. The weather was pleasant so all we needed was our sleeping bags and some dinner. Unbeknownest to Allen and myself, Oly had managed to include a four litre bottle of red wine in with his camping and climbing gear.
We walked to a spot on top of the cliffs and set up camp, prepared our dinner and then enjoyed a glass of wine. Then another and then another. We talked long into the night and regaled each other with anecdotes of past climbing exploits and enjoyed some more wine.
We decided at some point to turn in so that we would be rested for the climbing the following morning and it was then we heard the sound of the motor boat.
At this time of night, and in this location, a motor boat could only mean one thing, Snakeheads!
Snakeheads, were then, and still are, people smugglers. Today they are far more sophisticated and employ various other means of getting their ‘customers’ into foreign territories. In those days smuggling them in on motorised junks was common, and dangerous.
Hong Kong has always been a sought after destination for Mainlanders wishing to escape the poverty of the PRC for the relatively more comfortable poverty of Hong Kong. There were several possible routes open to the illegal immigrants, or i.i.s, as they came to be known. The most common was the short swim across Starling Inlet. The drawback being that this area was heavily patrolled by both the Chinese and British authorities. Anyone caught by the British would simply be returned. The Chinese authorities dealt more harshly with anyone they caught.
Another route, and by far the most dangerous was to swim from the area around Zhou Zaitou across Mirs Bay to the island of Tung Ping Chau which was British Territory. Even this was some distance and it will never be know just how many i.i.s perished in the attempt. Patrol boats and sharks accounted for many who didn’t make it.
A common ploy was to arrange with friends, or ‘agents’ in Hong Kong to meet the i.i.s on Tung Ping Chau with a change of clothes and bring them casually back into the territory as if they were members of the family. Up until 1980 the British authorities maintained a ‘Touch Base’ policy whereby any i.i. who managed to reach Central District on Hong Kong Island could then turn himself into the authorities and be granted the right to stay. This policy was cancelled due to public pressure after the number of i.i.s increased drastically in the late 70s.
Then there was the Snakeheads.
The Snakeheads are criminal gangs that prey on the desperate. During the period when Allen, Oly and I were camping at Shek O it was not uncommon for them to drop off their cargo at locations around Hong Kong island.
We all had Swiss Army knives. In those days no self-respecting hiker, camper or climber would be caught dead without one, they were part of the kit and we never went anywhere without them. Allen and Oly immediately got their knives out and opened the blades. In a drunken daze I fumbled through my kit bag to get mine but all I managed to find was a spoon. For some strange reason the thought of defending my friends against a gang of Snakeheads with a spoon was hilariously funny and I broke down into gales of helpless laughter.
The situation, however, was no laughing matter. Allen knew that if the Snakeheads came ashore to drop off their cargo they would not take kindly to anyone spying on their operation. He covered my head with my sleeping bag to keep the noise of my laughter down and chastised, I waited with my friends in the growing silence. Soon, we heard the sound of the engine disappearing into the night. If they had dropped anyone off, they would be clambering up the rocks very close to us.
Carefully and silently, Allen crept to the edge of the cliff and peered down. There was no sign of movement, either they had decided to look for another location or the rocky coastline was too dangerous for them to approach.
Relieved, we returned to our sleeping bags, but I don’t think any of us really slept that night.
The following morning revealed three badly hungover rock climbers. After breakfast we gathered our climbing gear and descended the path to the rock face where we silently walked passed all the more challenging climbs in favour of the easiest route we could find. As far as climbing was concerned, it was not a successful outing.
Privately embarrassed by our overindulgence in cheap wine, we packed up our gear and returned home. No doubt, each of us promising ourselves to lay off the wine in future.
However, there was a reality check waiting for us.
On my way to work the following morning I picked up a copy of the South China Morning Post. There, on the front page was the story and photographs of the body of an i.i. discovered by hikers at the foot of the Shek O sea cliffs just a short distance from where we had been camping.
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