WHEN Edward Stokes was a teenager, he climbed the hills of Hong Kong with his scout troop and roamed its countryside with his friends, marvelling at the wilderness that remained despite the pace of development. Thirty years on, Mr Stokes has returned to Hong Kong with two powerful weapons - his pen and his camera. His aim: to record those wild places before they are lost forever. ''When I came back, I was struck by the fact that although it had lost a lot of the agricultural life, for instance, through the encroachment of the new towns, at the same time there is a lot of wild, beautiful, rugged, even dangerous country. ''That paradox is what the book will bring out,'' he says. His book, to be published by Oxford University Press later this year, will carry an environmental message. Although its main focus will be his superb wilderness pictures, they will be set in context by opening shots of the urban sprawl and, at the end, symbolic shots of environmental damage. ''The book very much aims to celebrate, but also to say some things have been damaged and more may be damaged unless people really wake up.'' There is cause for pride in much of what has been done, including the creation of the National Parks. ''But there are also shameful things, and one is that when they (the government) had money in the 70s and 80s, they let the environment go. ''A classic example is the harbour, which I used to swim across in the cross-harbour race as a boy,'' Mr Stokes says. He doesn't want to be too political, but there's also a post-1997 warning: ''China is developing rapidly and doesn't have much of an environmental record. I want to say, 'this is how it was in the mid-90s, in case people just cut corners even more and don't act to protect when they should.'' Mr Stokes, a 45-year-old Australian, came to Hong Kong when his father, who was in the navy, was posted to the territory in 1953. After completing his schooling, he also joined the Australian navy. Then came a short stint in Australia, before he returned to Hong Kong in 1967, working as a South China Morning Post reporter. He later resumed his studies, then began primary school teaching in England when his family moved there. It wasn't until he was back in Australia and teaching, at his own request in outback Broken Hill, that his love of the landscape, its colours and light developed. ''I was so excited by it, it was that which got me interested in photography,'' he says. ''Some of it does stem from my teenage years. I loved roaming round Hong Kong, hiking. I had always loved it and I think even the love of the Australian landscape goes back to that. Whatever Hong Kong's drawbacks, its topography is just remarkable.'' Self-taught, Mr Stokes took a year's leave without pay to write his first book, a photographic history of Broken Hill. It was also to be his first experience of recording for posterity: the old people who were at the heart of that book are now all dead. By the end of that year Mr Stokes knew he wanted to be a full-time writer-photographer and returned to teaching for 12 months in a tiny, outback one-teacher school, to save money. By 1984 he was ready to embark on his grand plan: to retrace the routes of some of Australia's greatest explorers. The interplay of geography, history and culture that were the key to those journeys would later lead to the book about the territory of hisyouth. Mr Stokes spent until 1989 battling the gruelling countryside and weather of inland Australia, following the footsteps of Charles Sturt, Edward Eyre and John McDouall Stuart and preparing three books about those journeys. The first was published to critical acclaim in 1986, and Australia Council grants helped finance his further travels. But a series of takeovers in the Australian publishing industry delayed the others and the second is just out, its publication partly financed by Cathay Pacific. Mr Stokes said a synopsis of his book sent to the Swire brothers brought a grant enabling him to live in Hong Kong for a year and work on it. ''They're very strong on the environment and they thought there was a need for a book that was going to documentthe Hong Kong landscape.'' He returned to Hong Kong in 1990, staying with friends on Lamma Island, where he now lives, and marvelling at its rugged beauty. Memories of his teenage adventures remained sharp and, his memory refreshed by new excursions, the idea for his new book tookshape. ''The thrust of the new book is a sequence of thematic chapters looking at periods when man has had an impact: for instance, the Chinese villages, colonisation, and also looking at specific areas. ''Most of these places I would never have been to as a kid. There has been a lot of covering new ground.'' Family commitments took him from Hong Kong back to England before he could begin, but in the middle of last year Mr Stokes returned to a project that has been both immensely satisfying and an endurance test. ''My previous expeditions across Australia involved often gruelling travelling. But never there did I experience the physical grind of regularly lugging camping and photographic gear up mountain-sides,'' he says. ''I've had a few difficulties with the weather; it changes so quickly. You can waste time in terms of photography when you climb a peak and the weather packs in. But it's not safe to get back and I've had to sleep rough until it clears. ''But my initial hunch that there still is beautiful country was right.'' His plans don't end here: Mr Stokes' next target is China's Western deserts, where explorers, including an Australian, journeyed in the mid-19th century.