Jan Chan Ka-chun has always enjoyed running around in the great outdoors. Even as a child, he was mischievous, he says, “but I loved nature. I would run around ponds and water drains and on the hillside, go fishing, and capturing spiders.” That love of the countryside and the world’s great places, has translated into a lifelong passion for exploring. He has trekked at the Arctic, Antarctic, the Taklimakan desert and the Borneo rainforest.
Chan, 41, not only wanted to be an explorer and to have these outdoor experiences for himself. He also wanted to share them with Hong Kong secondary school students, who often lead very sheltered lives of academic study, never escaping the urban landscape. So in 2006, Chan set up Mighty Rovers, a programme that combines environmental protection, cultural exchange and ecological adventure. Since 2010, students from various secondary schools in Hong Kong have been chosen each year to join him on his expeditions – for free. 'In 2010, 22 students went to Antarctica, in 2011, 22 students went on a 17-day expedition to the Arctic. Last year, nine students were chosen to visit the Taklimakan desert in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwest China and in July, nine students went on a 10-day adventure to the Borneo rainforest in Indonesia.
“This programme was created to encourage the teenagers’ personal growth and to make them realise their life ambitions and their responsibility to society and to the environment. We hoped that we could provide an alternative and a special learning experience for local teenagers,” Chan said.
Initially Chan found it hard to convince others – particularly those who he wanted to fund the children – about the merits of these expeditions. Companies wanted to know what the benefits for them of sponsorship were. But eventually he managed to convince some firms.
“They saw the value of this programme,” he says, and also were able to advertise their company names as part of the programme.
Chan always travels the route of the expedition prior to taking the students, to ensure their safety and that the trip will go smoothly. It’s an experience that takes often closeted and pampered Hong Kong students out of their comfort zone. Suddenly there are no parents or domestic helpers to run around for them, and they are operating in a harsh environment, so the students do mature quickly, says Chan.
But it’s not only the small number of selected students that benefit from this expedition experience. Prior to heading off on their trips with Chan, the participating students are chosen from hundreds of students, who take part in a three-day training course, which also serves as a selection process. The students have to undertake several activities, including night hikes. And, interestingly, for once in Hong Kong, academic performance is not one of the criteria.
“We don’t care about their school grades because we know a person’s grades can improve gradually by working hard,” says Chan. “Instead, we observe the students who are required to complete tasks [such as writing and performing a drama as a group] and look at their abilities and their potential.”
One of the students who accompanied Chan on the expedition to the Taklamakan Desert in 2012 is Natalie Lau, who attends Maryknoll Convent School. “The trip was unforgettable,” she says. Chan, she says, had two sides to his character on the trip. “He can be really playful and funny at times but also serious and inspiring.”
The students involved in the expeditions have also continued the environmental education process by sharing their experiences during school assemblies.