One by one we climb aboard the tour bus. The woman in orange and her toddler. ("You are not being a very nice girl, Michelle," the woman warns. "You are being a whiny girl.") The two blond sorority sisters, the quartet of spiky-haired Japanese tourists, and two guys from Louisiana who belong to the same fraternity but who do not, apparently, know the sorority girls. And me.
Who among us will live? Who will die? What passions and what crimes is each of us hiding, especially Michelle? This is how you think when you tour Kualoa Ranch, one of the Hawaii locations for the TV series Lost.
In case you've been busy with Bikram yoga on Wednesday nights, Lost―which starts its second season this fall―deals with Oceanic Airlines Flight 815, bound from Sydney to Los Angeles but doomed to crash on an uncharted tropic isle. Think Gilligan's Island but moody: Last season stalwart doc Jack, criminally beautiful Kate, and the other surviving (but for how long?) passengers contended with broken bones, sinister forces, and dramatic revelations guaranteed to garner good Nielsen numbers if not always to make sense.
Lost's island is so mysterious, it can't be located with GPS or Google. Still, the producers did decide to film real actors in a real place, which is where Kualoa Ranch comes in. "We pretty much let the location manager have the run of the place," says John Morgan, whose family runs the 4,000-acre ranch that sits on Oahu's windward shore.
Kualoa Ranch's story is nearly as interesting as Lost's. The ranch was started in 1850 by Morgan's ancestor, Dr. Gerritt Judd, who bought the land from King Kamehameha III. Over the next century and a half, Oahu turned from island outpost to tourist hub, but the ranch stayed intact. Still, Morgan and his family came to realize that their traditional endeavor, raising cattle, no longer cut it. "Half of our land you can't use," Morgan says, referring to the ranch's extreme topography. "But it makes a dramatic backdrop."
It does. You see that when you join the ranch's movie-location tour. Since Kualoa went into the location business, a multiplex-worth of movies have been filmed here, and many TV shows as well. (Kualoa also offers other visitor activities, including horseback rides and snorkeling, and still keeps its hand in the cattle business.)
"This is our Jurassic Park set," the driver says as the bus bounces into Ka'a'awa Valley. That's why it looks familiar: Here's where paleontologist Sam Neill was chased by rampaging dinosaurs. We all get out of the bus to take each other's pictures, trying to look scared. From here, it's on to the Godzilla location, which contains a remnant dinosaur footprint, then the locales for Mighty Joe Young and the World War II drama Windtalkers.
Still, I'm focused on Lost. I'm waiting for something sinister to happen. I want dramatic revelations too. But all I hear is the frat guy telling his buddy about a snorkeling encounter with a sea turtle: "It really seemed like he knew me." This seems merely flaky, or hungover.
And then I get distracted by the ranch itself: the Ka'a'awa Valley and 1,900-foot Kanehoalani, the ridge that rises with green grace above us. As far as filmmaking goes, in an era when George Lucas can create whole galaxies digitally, it may seem superfluous that places like Kualoa Ranch exist. But isn't popular entertainment even more powerful when it uses real ingredients to shape our dreams?
"You get a little emotional about it," Morgan says of his drive to keep Kualoa Ranch intact. "Growing up here, you're a part of a legacy."
The bus bounces back toward the ranch headquarters. Everybody is quiet. The frat guy has stopped talking about the sea turtle, Michelle has stopped whining. We're content. It's good to know that sometimes what you experience in real life is better than what you see on-screen.
INFO: Kualoa Ranch ( www.kualoaranch.com or 808/237-7321)