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Amidst the radiant brilliance of Hong Kong's city lights and the diminishing glow of Tai Mo Shan's fireflies, lies the story of a scientist, mentor, father, and protector striving to restore the balance between humanity and nature.

Chasing the Last Light

Film by
Sean Chen
Words by
Ari Altun

Mountains and mentors

In the shadow of Hong Kong's towering peaks, Vor Yiu began his unlikely quest, chasing the faintest glimmers of survival. The mountain trails of Hong Kong, weaving through the landscape just outside his door, became his refuge and his trainer. From a frail child who once lagged behind his peers, Vor sprinted ahead to become the fastest runner in his school, then in his district. Today, as a distinguished scientist, holding World Championship finishes in both triathlon and trail running, his achievements glow brightly. Yet, through all the accolades, Vor's enduring loyalty remains with the trails—those early paths where he first learned to chase the light, a theme that echoes in his later pursuits with the luminescent dance of fireflies.

Since leaving school, Vor has tirelessly endeavored to give back to the mountains of Hong Kong, which shaped his early years. Over time, he's realized that this debt might never be fully repaid. Vor contemplates that, "The law of equivalent exchange does not apply to the relationship between nature and us. Mother Nature never asks her sons and daughters to pay equivalent value for the amount we have gained from her.”

Vor has dedicated his life to the natural sciences, channeling his efforts into educating others. He spends countless hours as a guide, coach, mentor, and protector of the natural world and those eager to explore its mysteries. These are the values that lie at the very core of the outdoor community as we look to protect the places where we play, highlighting a story that deserves to be told. It's the story of Vor Yiu, which began to reveal itself the moment we received his letter.


A letter from Vor Yiu

Received July, 2023:

Every day and night, I look at Tai Mo Shan (大帽山, literally "Big Hat Mountain") from the balcony of my house. It’s the highest peak in Hong Kong, often capped by clouds like a big hat. Tai Mo Shan is an inactive volcano formed approximately 165 million years ago. The earliest memories I can recall from my childhood are the times spent with my brothers playing in the sand and water of the river that flows from the northwest foot of Tai Mo Shan. We played in that river almost every day when I was 4 years old.

During the 1970s and 80s, I spent my childhood near this river at the foot of Tai Mo Shan. Being a hyperactive child in an economically deprived family, nature provided most of my entertainment—playing with beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, and cicadas; encountering birds, fish, lizards, and snakes; climbing trees and exploring along the mountain streams; swimming in the rivers and mountain ponds. For me as a kid, Tai Mo Shan was more than just scenery; it was a vast playground where I found both fun and friendship. 

My mother told me later in life that, due to a lack of nutrients for several months, I was so weak during my first two years that I was nearly unable to survive. Even after those initial years, I remained the weakest, both physically and intellectually, among her four sons. Then one summer, when I was 10 years old, the children in my village began playing running games on the trails. With no coaches or internet to guide us, we inadvertently developed a method similar to modern interval training. We competed for rankings along a 300-meter trail loop, running repeated rounds with a few minutes of rest in between. Over several months, we gradually increased the distance to 7 km, running at a slower pace. This was the beginning of my running habit. Two or three years later, we started riding BMXs as well. Since real mountain bikes were not available at that time, we used BMXs to navigate the mountain trails. This consistent and rigorous exercise provided the physical and mental strength I had previously lacked. Unknowingly, I later became the fastest 800m to 3000m runner in my high school, breaking previous records and becoming one of the fastest in the larger district.

I chose to study Environmental Life Science at university, motivated by a desire to give back to nature. I selected the most remote university hall situated in a Country Park, which afforded me immediate access to an extensive network of trails for running and some of the most beautiful coasts and beaches for open water swimming. Off these coasts, I developed the ability to swim 1500 meters during my university years, continuously advancing my sports training and completing my first two triathlons.

Having benefited so much from nature, I felt compelled to pay it back. After graduating, I began working as an ecology teacher at a newly established Nature Education Centre located on Tai Mo Shan. There, I organized and led biology field study courses, immersing students in nature to provide them with direct, hands-on experiences. I have continued this work for 26 years.

Most of my time outside of work has also been spent in nature, studying butterflies, longhorn beetles and finally fireflies. After years of learning I gradually became an entomologist, a position I could use to help protect nature in the academic sense. This led to the founding of the Hong Kong Entomological Society, which has provided the opportunity to contribute more to nature through publications, exhibitions, workshops, trainings and talks. I also work for the Fireflyers International Network as a Treasurer and the International Union For Conservation of Nature as a Red List Authority Coordinator under the Firefly Specialist Group, Species Survival Commission. Our group aims to assess the extinction risk of every firefly species on the planet as a reference to be used by policy makers and stakeholders. Countless nights of fieldwork in the wild have led to my discovering, describing and naming of 8 new firefly species. One of which is named after Tai Mo Shan: Lamprigera taimoshana, a species only able to survive in Tai Mo Shan and the peaks of Hong Kong.

I thought I had paid for what I had gained from nature as a child. Yet throughout my older years, I have continued to gain. I have gained my family’s living from working in nature; I have gained friendships with many nature lovers, both locally and internationally; I have gained continuous enjoyment and satisfaction from nature. The law of equivalent exchange does not apply to the relationship between nature and me. Mother nature never asks her sons and daughters to pay equivalent value for the amount they have gained from her.

“The law of equivalent exchange does not apply to the relationship between nature and me. Mother nature never asks her sons and daughters to pay equivalent value for the amount they have gained from her.”

Like everyone else, my life was also remarkably impacted by the pandemic. Hong Kong imposed some of the strictest social distancing policies in the world during that period. Sports grounds and almost all sports facilities were closed, and wearing masks was mandatory, at one point even for people running or cycling in public areas. Training for myself, my daughters, and my students was moved into wild, natural spaces, with regular inner-city training shifting to trail running, orienteering, and open-water swimming. I also started to ride mountain bikes more seriously, pedaling almost a thousand kilometers on Tai Mo Shan. Because of the sudden change, I could bring my daughters and my students from the running class to experience real nature. How many fathers in the world could have the chance to run thousands of kilometers of trails with their daughters?

Running and riding on trails is so different from on the roads and tracks. Strength and power are no longer the dominating factors; skills, coordination, balance, and smoothness also play significant roles. It's not merely about repeating the same body motions at the same pace. It’s about how your body and mind interact with the changing terrain. You spend more time feeling and listening to nature, and less time focusing on increasing running power and strength. There is far more to learn from running on trails.

“How many fathers in the world could have the chance to run thousands of kilometers of trails with their daughters?"

Surprisingly, “virtual races” emerged quickly and in large numbers during the pandemic. Participants would register and download a GPX file of the designated route for competition, complete the course on their own time, and then upload their GPS track record and selfies at designated locations for organizers to verify results and publish rankings. The majority of these virtual races were trail running, providing me and all other trail runners the opportunity to test our training. In the past three years, I had unknowingly prepared myself well for my first full distance off-road triathlon at the Asia-Pacific Championship, where I qualified for the XTERRA World Championship. Unexpectedly, the same year, I also qualified for the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship from the result I achieved at XTERRA Japan Trail Run Marunuma. That year I attended both XTERRA World Championships with my daughter, and this year we returned to Kenting to once again compete in the Asia-Pacific Championship. Despite the difference in age between us, we both continue to gain equally from the relationship formed with Tai Mo Shan and Mother Nature.

For almost 50 years, I have never stopped exploring nature. Nature has enlightened me, empowered me, and brought me joy. For the rest of my life, I will continue to live in nature, play in nature, and protect nature.

Vor Yiu


The silent symphony between us

In the hustle of our daily routines, it's easy to miss the profound dance between humanity and nature, a symphony that plays out quietly but powerfully beneath the noise of modern life. Yet, amidst the chaos, nature remains steadfast, bestowing its boundless gifts upon us while asking for nothing in return. Perhaps it's when we wander along a winding mountain trail, or stumble upon a heartfelt letter like Vor's, that we're jolted awake to the breathtaking beauty that surrounds us—a beauty akin to the flickering light of fireflies guiding us on our own personal journeys.








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Author Bio

Ari Altun

Ari Altun serves as the Manager of Communications and Content for XTERRA. Originally from Toronto, Canada, he brings his passion for nature, outdoor adventure, and community building to his role to help craft inspiring stories for XTERRA Culture along with comprehensive event previews and recaps.

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