We were Air Scouts, eleven of us that night. It was a shake down trek for the new recruits, and a test to see how the year-old members would fare, pushed under harsh conditions. We were going on a night journey to 嶂上, thence to 北潭涌 the next day.
The evening hike was uneventful, lots of singing, bantering. An hour after nightfall, we had reached the trail that followed the coastline to 榕樹澳. Another hour later, we were on the path skirting the paddy fields of the village, the very dark village.
We went through shuttered 榕樹澳 in the darkest of night, nothing but growling dogs greeted us, numerous yellow dots all around. Flashlight to one side, staff to the other alternating down the line, we finally debouched from the confusing unlit lanes and the threats of charging dogs.
In the yellowish beams of the dimming flashlights, we found the trail that led up to 嶂上. After relishing our harrowed passage through the largest gathering of dogs I’ve ever run into, we started the uphill climb, 900 vertical feet of it.
Another hour had passed on the narrow uphill trail, just huffs and grunts by then, even the occasional singsong had stopped. I was covered in sweat, couldn’t be anything different for the boys. But looking up past the foreboding mass of darkness that was mountain terrain, we can see more sky, which meant we were at least gaining elevation, and closer to our stop for the night.
And then the trail ran into stone steps, the beginning of the infamous 天梯. By then, the trek, the apprehension, the narrow rocky uphill trail had tired us considerably. Our line had stretched out to almost a hundred feet, most were leaning on their staffs 30 degrees towards the ground, yet they kept soldiering on, even the younger ones. But all were faltering.
“Ten more steps before you can stop, you’re Air Scouts !”
Half dragging our feet, sometimes even dragging the knapsacks, breathing laboriously we reached the top of the 天梯 in this fashion – and always at the breaking point, ten more steps.
Unable to read terrain from the map, and with only a vague idea where we could be, we found a raised patch of ground by the trail, and hastily pitched our two pup tents. Sleep came easy that night.
By morning there was fog and a bit of drizzle. We went back to the top of the天梯, and took in the splendid panorama of the valley below, and the daunting journey we took to get up there through the darkness.
In the fresh mountain air, the view of 馬鞍山 and 八仙嶺 in the far distance were spectacular. Invigorated thus, we packed up and headed southeast.
From 嶂上 the rock strewn trail was all downhill, more pounding on our tired legs. Just past 北潭 we saw a stream leading down to the flats, so we got off the trail to follow the stream bed instead. Cutting across the steep slopes on slippery grass, more than a few times we fell on our backsides, and some of the boys were glissading down the hill on their rear ends. So by the time we reached the stream and followed it down, we were half cover with dirt and mud, cursing but laughing most of the way.
By noon, with the sun finally shining through, we reached an irrigation dam. We washed up there, and took a long time drying and relaxing under the warm sun. All worries and apprehension gone, we joked about the night before and the trek down the hills – with pride I might add.
It was a hard journey, pushed on relentlessly, specially for the younger ones, but they took it manly, and it was time to head home.
Nearing the highway, I glanced back and noted they have closed rank and formed line. But I noticed more. As tired as they must have been, there was a bounce in the gait, even a swagger. On their sweaty tired faces, I sensed a trace of smugness under their smiles. And I knew that on these shoulders, the Air Troop would carry on, and we’ll be alright.
That was the last time I was in the field with the boys, by year’s end I had left HK for good. In the intervening years, the flow of life had pushed the Air Scouts to a far corner of my mind, but I have often thought of them, and wondered how they were.
In 2013, on the 80th anniversary of 11th Kln, I was shown a Group photo, and emotions that I didn’t know I have came welling up in a rush. For in the Group photo was a huge patch of Blue uniforms – AIR SCOUTS !
You see, almost 50 years have elapsed, the Troop has carried on, our AST is still there. That our Troop wasn’t just a flash in the pan, that it held it’s course and is still hale and hearty, all these brought a sense of pride and joy that was overwhelming.