Friday, May. 24, 2024

A Groom Turned Accidental Tourist In Hong Kong

A trip to the Olympic test event as groom for Megan Jones of Australia had an unexpected twist. 

The 11 weeks I spent in Hong Kong in relation to the Olympic Test Event in 2007 turned into a once-in-a-lifetime experience. From the moment I stepped off the plane to welcoming officials who escorted us through customs, to splendid times with the grooms from other teams, through the rain of the actual event—and then nine more weeks looking after the two Australian horses in quarantine—I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
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A trip to the Olympic test event as groom for Megan Jones of Australia had an unexpected twist. 

The 11 weeks I spent in Hong Kong in relation to the Olympic Test Event in 2007 turned into a once-in-a-lifetime experience. From the moment I stepped off the plane to welcoming officials who escorted us through customs, to splendid times with the grooms from other teams, through the rain of the actual event—and then nine more weeks looking after the two Australian horses in quarantine—I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

The conditions in Hong Kong were hot and humid, which everyone expected, and our horses, which had just flown over from winter in Australia, were put to the test.

But Hong Kong officials ensured that we were not left to fend for ourselves. The stables were air-conditioned through the day but not too cold as to shock the horses’ systems as they changed from the stables out into the heat. The misting tents were close and easily accessible, and willing volunteers kept them constantly stocked with ice-cold water.

None of the horses were allowed out of the stable complex between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., the hottest hours of the day. Along with the twice-daily taking of temperatures (which the event officials monitored) and regular blood and urine tests, we kept the horses in fit condition to safely compete in the test event.

But the actual event is only part of my memories. Since the test event only had 17 horses we were all stabled in the same barn aisle, which gave us a good chance to get to know the other teams’ grooms. We had good times—camping out in the barn aisle while we waited for the outcome of the typhoon warning that delayed the jog to the next morning or weighing ourselves on the horse scales every morning, watching ourselves gain weight from the work of only looking after one horse and the all-day access to ice cream and soda in the dining hall.

I recall watching the horses gallop up the perfectly tended turf lane at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, with the skyscrapers, green hills and blue skies in the background. Or having the first horse inspection at 7:30 in the morning, doing dressage and being packed and ready to go to the cross-country venue by noon. The police escorting the horse trucks to the cross-country venue. Walking the horses into quarantine at 11 p.m. after show jumping, and walking them down the all-weather track and passing over the official finish line of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. But with all of these amazing memories, they were only the first part of my adventure in Hong Kong.

Unending Quarantine

I was chosen to be the Australian groom who stayed after the event to look after our horses in quarantine. They had two weeks in Hong Kong and two weeks in Sydney once they got back to Australia. So I said goodbye to the rest of the team on Aug. 14, believing that I would have two easy weeks of caring for two horses before rejoining my boss and friends back home in Australia.

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I used a bicycle to get myself from my hotel to the quarantine barns in the Hong Kong Jockey Club. And for the first week I spent most of my time resting and looking after the horses. I made a few forays to do some sightseeing in Hong Kong. But the end of the first week brought the first set of news.

At first, we were going to be delayed a week. Some abnormal test results had come back from horses in Sydney quarantine, and our horses couldn’t ship until those horses had cleared. But a few days later the news broke: equine influenza was in Australia, and the borders were closed. Then my length of stay became indeterminate.

At first I wasn’t worried; the racing would start again, and I would be able to see more of the city. But after another week I began to see the main frustration of being in Hong Kong—I didn’t know when I was going home.

Things were a mess in Australia. Equine influenza had gotten to the Warrick event in Queensland, and the majority of the country’s eventers were in a quarantine there that lasted weeks. How EI had gotten into Australia had yet to be determined, and new measures had to be put into place before our horses could go home.

So my days became a routine of riding my bike along the river twice a day to look after the horses and finding places to eat. This doesn’t sound hard when you are in a city, but since I had never actually liked Chinese food, my choice of restaurants was limited. The wait staff at Ruby Tuesday grew fond of me. I found a bookstore and spent too much money buying books to keep me occupied, and I memorized the English television listings for the week. It was a good thing that I was flying home with the horses; otherwise I would have been significantly overweight with all the shopping I did.

I read lot of books and went to watch a good few horse races (winning quite a bit of money in the process). All of the Australian staff at the Jockey Club were kind to me and kept me sane. And on Oct. 15, as we loaded the horses onto the crate to get on the plane all the officials joked with me.

“I bet you never want to come back to Hong Kong,” they all said. I thought for a moment and replied, “No, I’ll come back next year. I just won’t be staying with the horses in quarantine!”

Hong Kong Highlights

All the extra time I spent in Hong Kong was not useless. I now can provide a rough guide to places to go and things to do while attending the Olympics.

The main competition venue is in Sha Tin, which is just outside what I would consider downtown Hong Kong. Because it is not the center of things there is not as much to do, but there are a few things worth exploring in between the morning and evening events.

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I recommend the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery. But beware of the climb. The entrance to the monastery is only a five-minute walk from the Sha Tin KCR station, but then it is a climb up the steps to get to the monastery. Most of the walk is in the shade so it was not too hard, and the view from the top is worth it. I found it a beautiful and peaceful excursion, despite the effort of climbing the stairs.

The Sha Tin KCR station is in a shopping mall called New Town Plaza. This shopping mall is one of many in Hong Kong, but it stands out for several reasons. One is that it is only a 10-minute walk from the main Olympic venue. It is also a host to a variety of restaurants (Ruby Tuesday among them), and there is a movie theater. There also are six levels of shops, including a bookstore that sells English books.

The Shung Mun River might not be the most scenic in the world, but it is lined on both sides with walking and bicycle paths. And there are several bike rental businesses along the river.

On Hong Kong Island there are almost endless options of things to do. The Peak is a must. A short ride up the tram to the highest point in Hong Kong and you get a wonderful 360-degree view of the city. The Happy Valley Racecourse is also on Hong Kong Island, and, although there isn’t racing during the Olympics, that is also the location of the Hong Kong Racing Museum. Hollywood Road is a wonderful place to go looking for antiques, however my budget didn’t allow me much chance to peruse the selection they had.

Kowloon also has its selection of things to do. My favorite would have to be the Ladies Market in Mong Kok, where I got to practice my bargaining skills. The Temple Street Night Market is much the same only it specializes in men’s items. A Symphony of Lights is on every evening in Victoria Harbor, and it is a great showcase of Hong Kong’s buildings and life. The last of my favorite sights in Kowloon is the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple, where Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are practiced. It is a lovely temple, and I recommend a walk through the garden or getting your fortune read by the fortunetellers by the gates.

As for other tips, bring an umbrella. Even when it is raining in Hong Kong, it is hot. I also recommend getting an Octopus Card to travel on the MTR and KCR train rails. It saves the hassle of buying a ticket every time you want to go somewhere, and the Octopus Card is also accepted for payment at some bakeries and 7-Elevens around the train stations, making it easy to grab a drink on the hot days. If you really can’t take the heat, the Megabox shopping mall has an ice skating rink on the 13th floor.

I continue to be amazed at the hospitality of Hong Kong. The excitement over the Olympics was constantly in the air, and they strove to impress us with their preparations.

I can’t help but think that my time there was well spent, all 11 weeks. I can’t wait to return again and see all of the well-made plans come to fruition. Because at the end of the day, it will be a fantastic event. 

Karen Conk

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