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Sunday, October 1, 2006

Scouting Report: Palau

Unexpected and off beat visions of this South Pacific paradise

Scouting Report: Palau
I got my best results with a wide-angle lens (a 12-24mm) on my D70s in the Ewa-Marine housing when I stayed near the surface where the light was strongest. I looked for one of the creatures to place in the foreground, close to the camera, to anchor the composition. I tried some with fill-flash, but liked the available light the best, especially when the sun was out from behind any passing clouds.I also shot some with a housed point-and-shoot digital, again zoomed out to the widest setting.

I spent another half day kayaking through the Rock Islands, which made for some intimate perspectives on the area, but to really capture the feel of these unique islands, an aerial view is the way to go. There's only one air service on the island (Belau Air), and to charter its twin-prop plane is an expensive proposition. Since I was on a limited budget, I couldn't charter, so I did the
next best thing.

I asked about seats on any interisland flight that would go over the Rock Islands as part of its route. The pilot, an Aussie named Matt who has a soft spot for photographers, advised me to book a round-trip to the southern island of Peleliu at one o'clock that day because he had no return passengers and could detour me over other islands for a few minutes without inconveniencing any passengers.

So for less than $100, I was able to spend about 20 minutes flying over these fantastic-looking atolls. I was ready with a 17-55mm zoom with the warming polarizer. Sitting next to a small window that popped open, I was able to get aerials in a short amount of time because the pilot was skilled and put me in just the right places. As usual in the air, I opted for a wide aperture, f/4, to get the fastest possible shutter speed to overcome the vibration and movement of the plane.

You could spend your entire visit in and among the Rock Islands, but you'd miss out on some other good photo ops. Right next to Koror is the large island of Babelthaup. This is a rugged, hilly island with several beautiful waterfalls, longhouses and prehistoric rock sculptures reminiscent of the moai of Easter Island. Most of the roads are still dirt or gravel, and a four-wheel drive vehicle is advisable, as is a guide.

The spectacular Ngardmau Falls is about 30 meters high. It's a longish 45-minute hike along the riverbank to get there. You're strongly advised to bring drinking water and also some grippy shoes that can get wet (sturdy water shoes or good sandals). You'll want a tripod, but just take one body and a midrange zoom. Make sure you have it all in a dry bag, as you may end up wading in some deep water, depending on the rain and the routes.

Although I always pray for overcast skies when shooting waterfalls, my entreaties often go unheeded, and I was dealing with contrasty sun and shade when I reached the largest fall. I did my best by trying to eliminate the extremes of bright sky and dark jungle. The mist from the falls is all-pervasive, so bring plenty of lens tissue or a good microfiber cloth.

Two other stops at this island are worth some photos; one is prehistoric, the other eerily postmodern. The first is the site of the ancient stone monoliths of Ngarchelong, which are mysterious in origin. The traditional Palauan religion regarded these stone monoliths as sacred prayer ground.

To make the most of them, use a wide-angle and fill the foreground with one monolith, letting the others recede into the background. Because they're fairly spread out, overall shots of the area don't work too well, which is why anchoring the composition with a strong foreground is necessary.

The last stop on Babelthaup is the new capitol building complex. Perched on a bluff above the Pacific, it's a huge recreation of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.—a totally incongruous site on this otherwise undeveloped island. The seat of Palauan government will move here eventually. But in the meantime, it remains just another unexpected and offbeat vision of this Pacific paradise.

Visit www.bobkrist.com.

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