Young writer/photographer wins trip to Machu Picchu

He'll study photography with National Geographic experts

A talented teen began his summer vacation with the adventure of a lifetime -- a free trip to the jungles of Peru studying photography with the experts from National Geographic.

Lijah Hanley of Cumming was one of 15 students to win the National Geographic Kids Hands-On Explorer Challenge, a photo and essay contest entered by thousands of students. His prizes -- the Peruvian getaway, hiking gear, a Nikon D60 camera plus a safari hat Indiana Jones would die for -- are worth $17,000.

"This is sooo cool," said Lijah, a Piney Grove Middle School student, rummaging through his suitcase before his flight Friday. "I got out of school and everyone was cheering."

Lijah, 13, is a quick-study who learned photography lugging lights and shadowing his mom, Jenifer Hanley, on senior class photo days. Primarily a portrait artist, Ms. Hanley was just as excited about the photo opportunities as her son. She packed rechargeable batteries.

"We are going from the Sheraton to a hut," she said.

The winners will be gone for 10 days, touring ancient ruins and natural sites to learn about Peru's history, natives and wildlife. Their guides -- editors, writers and photographers from National Geographic -- will lend a peek at the country most tourists don't see.

"They will have explorers with National Geographic leading them along the way," said Ethan Fried, a National Geographic Society spokesman. "That makes this a one-of-a-kind opportunity."

Wednesday, the group tours at Machu Picchu, an ancient Incan citadel. Saturday, they leave the comforts of their hotel for a couple of nights deep in the Amazon, documenting nocturnal animals and collecting exotic insects while wearing headlamps.

Students are keeping journals during the trip so they can blog and post photos at kidsblogs



The photograph that helped Lijah win the contest is a portrait of his adopted Ethiopian sister, lying in an open field. In his essay, he wrote about how he wanted to save that field from developers:

"The field sits only steps out my back door, yet miles away in my imagination, a new exploration awaits every day," he wrote. "The heavenly grass becomes my African Safari. ... I love capturing the light of the sunset that strokes the blades of grass ... soon it will be gone and cement foundations will take its place."

Lijah's dad, Spencer Hanley, was as proud of his son's winning the trip as of his concern for the environment.

"He's seen coyotes and deer there," Hanley said. "He's afraid he is going to lose his jungle."

Lijah hopes to be a professional National Geographic photographer someday.

"I love traveling, I love photography, I love nature," he said. "That is what National Geographic is all about. It will be great for my resume."