A mother in her element
Rebecca Lee Lok-sze stepped foot on the Arctic for the fifth time in March this year. It was also her ninth visit to a polar region in 10 years.
At 52, Ms Lee has been exploring the two most forbidding places on earth for a decade. Back in 1985, she was the first woman from Hong Kong to reach the Antarctic, where she captured on lens the awesome beauty of the freezing world in the company of other equally excited, male explorers.
Today, the adventurer has a mission to promote environmental protection via her camera.
'I can stand the freezing temperatures. When I was at the pole, I forgot whether I was a man or a woman and only thought of myself as a human being, a minute creature on this planet,' said the former advertising executive.
Following her maiden trip to the South Pole, together with a Chinese national research expedition involving mainland scientists, she decided to quit her career and take on the role of an explorer/traveller instead. She believes everyone can reach the poles although most of the companions she travelled with were men.
'There are very few women explorers because women are not encouraged in their upbringing to travel or to take risks,' Ms Lee says. But the situation is improving. Nonetheless, exploration is an expensive game.
Scant financial support has kept many from making the plunge.
'You need to have five or six expeditions to gain enough experience as an explorer.
'Each excursion takes as much as $300,000 and not many people, especially women, can afford it,' she said.
She adds: 'Exploration is often team work. Team members usually take turns in doing various tasks. Women will never be sidelined to cooking only.' Women explorers are certainly as competent as men when it comes to leading an expedition, Ms Lee claims.
'A leader plays a very important role in an expedition; he or she will plan and navigate the routes and be responsible for the safety of all crew members.
'He or she must be calm, with a strong analytical mind and be sensitive to members' emotional needs. In that regard, women can fulfil a leader's role as well as men.' Ms Lee's latest venture was to lead a Hong Kong television crew to film the first locally produced documentary on Arctic life. She worked as a guide and took the eight-man television crew and a surveying and mapping expert from China across the North Pole in March.
The resulting four-part programme is now being aired, following its launch in mid-July.
'I hope Hong Kong people can feel the awesomeness of the Arctic and be concerned about environmental issues,' she says.
Over the past decade, she has worked as a volunteer photo-journalist, following environmental research teams from China, Hong Kong and other countries in the hope of arousing public interest in the polar regions and concern over the threats to the environment there.
'I am not just travelling, I want to work with scientists and present the poles to the public through simple comprehensible language and eye-catching photographs,' she says.
'I want to use art to gift-wrap science. Pictures taken by scientists in the Antarctic may not appeal to the general public and their academic writings may put layman off too.' Every polar journey is risky, even for someone as experienced as Ms Lee. 'Blizzards can strike when you least expect. Every expedition is dangerous. When the ice surface cracks and you fall into the water, you can die within three minutes at minus 433 Celsius,' said Ms Lee.
But the potential risks have not deterred her.
'I am curious about the changes on Earth,' she said.
'You won't feel the hardship if you are curious and I take travelling as my job.
'It is such an overwhelming experience to see the icebergs and it is worth the time, money and risks involved.' Her frequent missions have taken their toll on her financial situation. She has to scrape for her travelling expenses. Her only source of income now is rent from her properties. A divorcee who lives apart from her two daughters who are in Britain, she considers herself lucky to be able to continue her daring endeavours.
'My dream is to build a museum about the Antarctic, the Arctic and Mount Everest.
'The idea is to assist and promote environmental research on these three least polluted areas and provide data about them as a reference for measurement of pollution levels in other areas.'