Voyage of discovery

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 October, 2010, 12:00am

Wong How-man is a strong believer in being in the right place at the right time. As an intrepid explorer and fervent conservationist, his work is all about timing. 'A major obstacle at one particular point in time can turn out to be very smooth at another. Timing is really very important,' says the founder and president of the China Exploration & Research Society.

Known as 'China's greatest modern explorer', the former National Geographic photojournalist started exploring China in the 1970s and led six major expeditions for the magazine. In 1985, Wong and his team of scientists discovered a new source of the Yangtze River. Two decades later, he found another tributary that led to a new source 2.4km further along.

He also led teams that discovered the sources of the Mekong and Yellow Rivers in 2007 and 2008, respectively. He had always been curious about other parts of the world, but he realised that one of the biggest areas in which he could contribute was on the mainland because of the language, and it was a country that had rarely been explored before.

'As explorers, we have to move like guerillas and sometimes we have to move faster than the bureaucracy can catch up with you. I feel that explorers who move into conservation have a huge advantage. We make a discovery before something disappears and if you have to conserve it, you have a little time to do so before confrontation sets in,' he says.

In many ways, his work also presents him with a unique time travelling experience. As he turns back his clock 90 minutes when flying from the mainland to Yangon in Burma, for example, he can feel the years melting away. 'You turn back the clock 90 minutes, but in terms of lifestyle, you are going back about 50 years,' he adds.

'As an explorer, you move backwards in time, but you also move forward in time because these days we can use the latest space technology. We have a much larger bandwidth of operations.'

While welcoming technology - Wong was one of the first explorers to use Nasa space technology when he was looking for the source of the Yangtze River - the 61-year-old also bemoans the loss of some of the old ways.

'We used to hike or ride horses when we were exploring. These days, everyone goes by motorcycles. Horses are hard to find. When you move too fast, you tend to miss things,' he says.

When he's not exploring countries along the mainland's borders, such as Myanmar and Bhutan, Wong's days are packed with speaking engagements and efforts to raise the profile of the society to ensure funding.

'The profit part is easy if you are good at your job. The question is, how do you do it with flair and style? I hope we're moving towards being artists in the conservation world.'