In 1997 I visited Kruger National Park in South Africa, the largest game preserve in Africa. One day my group came to a bridge that was flooded, and we had to double back on a longer road to reach the next camp. The sun was setting and predators lurked in the grasses. As I watched the light change, I realized that nature — the flora, the land, the sky — was an incredible subject in itself, not just a background for the animals that roamed about it like actors on a stage.
We continued on, and three days later we reached the Zimbabwean border. Over the next three days, we rode on 100-year-old trains to Victoria Falls. A massive flow of water from the forests of Zambia sprays fine mist high into the air, creating perennial rain showers along the plains surrounding the falls. The view of this from the veranda overlooking the manicured lawns of the Victoria Falls Hotel, built in 1906, was truly magnificent.
Since he was 17, Brian Ross has been documenting memorable experiences like that with his camera. His company, Photo Safari Hawaii, offers "photo ecotours" on four islands that show visitors even the smallest, simplest things — a delicate flower, ripples in a stream, montages of leaves on the ground — can inspire wonder and awe.
Pondering how nature became his muse, Ross recalled, "When I was growing up in Los Angeles, my dad would occasionally gather our family together to watch slide shows of vacations we’d taken. The magic of photography bounced from the screen into my heart. Capturing something beautiful with my camera every chance I got became my passion.
"Later, I began to consider how people would feel when they looked at my pictures. Their state of mind might be changed; maybe even their opinions. I realized photography is both an intellectual and an artistic process."
Many of Photo Safari Hawaii’s guides have degrees in photography, graphic design, geography and botany. They lead intimate groups off the beaten path to observe and photograph scenic locales that run the gamut from sun-splashed beaches to lush mountaintops. All tours are customized to fit participants’ interests and physical abilities.
"Sometimes we do more walking, sometimes more driving," Ross said. "Our motto is, ‘The journey is the destination.’ We make frequent stops and allow ample time for guests to immerse themselves in a setting."
During the first part of the tour, shutterbugs note the different qualities of available light.
According to Ross, Hawaii is the perfect place for this exercise because tradewinds blow clouds across the sky, continually changing the amount and intensity of light.
"There’s something Zen about slowing down to look for those subtle changes," he said. "’Photograph’ is a Greek word that means ‘writing with light.’ More important than the object being photographed is how the light falls on that object."
Following that are several other 20- to 30-minute lessons on topics such as shapes, contrast and tonal range, and identifying the key elements of a scene. They are conducted at one or multiple locations, depending on weather conditions, length of the tour and distractions such as crowds.
Participants then make a "nature sculpture" by rearranging sticks, rocks and leaves in a way that doesn’t damage or disturb the environment. They photograph their composition as their final work of art.
"It’s a nonintrusive, noninvasive, very powerful experience," Ross said. "We don’t just bring people to scenic locations; we encourage creative expression and inspire them to see things in a new light."
On Kauai, Photo Safari Hawaii’s excursions might focus on the striated hues of Waimea Canyon; 3-mile-long, 300-foot-wide Polihale, one of Hawaii’s largest beaches; and Limahuli Gardens, an excellent example of an ancient ahupuaa (land management system). Maui tours might venture to waterfalls in heavenly Hana; Alii Kula Lavender, an organic lavender farm 4,000 feet up the slopes of Haleakala; and pretty Honolua Bay, part of the Honolua-Mokuleia Marine Life Conservation District.
Highlights of Oahu’s itinerary might include the windswept Pali Lookout; bamboo forests bordering hiking trails atop Tantalus; and Makapuu Point, from which the majestic Koolau range and a good portion of the windward coast can be seen. Tour-goers on the Big Island might come away with images of vivid ohia lehua in the Kau Desert, a black-sand beach in Punaluu and dramatic lavascapes along Saddle Road.
Ross regards nature as the living soul of the islands — a treasure that should be revered and nurtured. He hopes that as participants connect with it through photography, they will want to preserve and protect it.
"There’s something transcendent about photography’s ability to touch the mind and heart," Ross said. "For me it’s visual meditation, a spiritual experience. I believe it may be the first step to understanding aloha."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.
IF YOU GO ……
Photo Safari Hawaii
» Meeting place: Pickup at your hotel, home or other predetermined location on Oahu, Maui, Kauai or the Big Island
» Approximate pickup times: 5:30 to 6 a.m. for the sunrise tour, 9 to 10 a.m. for the late morning tour, 12:30 to 1 p.m. for the afternoon tour and 3:30 p.m. for the sunset tour. Please note exact times for the sunrise and sunset tours change seasonally.
» Tours: Offered daily; arrangements must be made at least 48 hours in advance.
» Rates: $450 for the 31/ 2- to four-hour Light Chaser Half-Day Tour and $850 for the eight to 10-hour Full-Day Island Explorer Tour, including beverages and snacks. Prices are per four-wheel-drive SUV, which accommodates up to five people. All tours are private and take place rain or shine. Twelve-hour tours to islands other than the one where you’re staying cost $1,500, including round-trip airfare for two people, beverages and snacks. Add $200 per additional person for airfare (up to three others can be accommodated). Kamaaina receive a 15 percent discount.
» Phone: 463-9500
» E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
» Website: www.photosafarihawaii.com
» Notes: Wear closed-toe walking shoes, long pants and a lightweight, long-sleeve shirt. Biodegradable sunblock and mosquito repellent are provided. Nikon D60 Digital SLR cameras with zoom lenses can be rented for $50 for a half-day and $75 for a full day. Tours on Molokai and Lanai might launch by December.