This account starts on the morning of April 17, 2015 of us (the Team ABC Good Morning America with Maria, Morgan, Josh and Romeo from DJI) starting the survey expedition into the Hang En and Son Doong caves. The purpose of this was to determine if a live-broadcast of “Good Morning America” would be possible from inside one of the two caves. It had taken us 3 days to make our way to Oxalis Adventure in Phong Nha, Vietnam. Oxalis served as the staging area and point of departure into jungle. I flew from San Francisco to Hong Kong, connected to Hanoi, stayed there overnight and then flew into Dong Hoi City. We were picked-up by Oxalis and driven into the UNESCO World Heritage site of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National park.
Day 1 (April 17) - at Oxalis Adventure Hotel
I decided to get up early and low and behold, dusk was already setting in. I quickly ran up the one last set of stairs to the roof of Oxalis Adventure hotel so I could enjoy the pending sunrise. I was greeted by one of the most picturesque scenes - this was how I had envisioned Vietnam to be; green, thickly jungle populated mountains with sharp ridges, a big winding river, fields of rice stretching next to the river, everything covered in an interesting early morning haze. There was a small fog layer half way up the mountains and the church on the other side of the river towered majestically over the small town below.
After that it was time for final packing and preparations for the adventure of a lifetime. All our personal gear for the trip into the caves was already in the hands of the porters. The night before we had to pack all our clothes, toilet articles, personal gear and also most of the technical. Now it was time to put everything we would not need the next few days back into our suitcases and leave them safely secured at Oxalis.
Breakfast was served and I enjoyed the wonderful fruits, eggs, bread and the ice cold and super tasty coffee while looking at the small boat traffic on the river just meters below us. It was a surreal feeling to think about where I was and where I would be in just a few hours…
Right before we left I got a spare part delivered for the Inspire. Amazingly it made it in just a little over 15 hours from Hanoi all the way to our location! Thanks to one amazing woman named Linh working at one amazing DJI dealer in Hanoi. I quickly repaired the Inspire and put everything together for transport.
Then I was told that my lost luggage had now made it to our local airport and would be delivered before we were heading out. That was fantastic news and so we waited until the delivery of the spare Inspire in the GoProfessional case and my small suitcase filled with technical equipment, some snacks and most importantly, my small, beloved buck-wheat pillow! Yes, I had slept the first two nights without it and that had never happened in the past 19 or so years. And no, I have had different pillows but they were all the same size and made off the same filling. Just how I like it.
Now it really was time to get onto the bus and drive into the secured National Park, on a road where there were no cars at all. The park is off limits to everyday people and so you only find a couple of tour buses or rangers driving the surprisingly well maintained road. The jungle here is thick with plants and once in a while you see a big cliff. It was a beautiful drive and we stopped a long the way for some pictures. It was already getting hot and humid - nothing compared to next month (May) but already very hot. Oh boy…
We reached our destination, put our gear together, got our helmets and off we went. My backpack was about 30 lbs with all my gear, spare batteries for the Inspire, camera stuff, medical equipment and most importantly, bottles of water. I knew it would be a hard and long day… The first almost hour everything is down hill. Which means that the last 1.5 hours will be brutal on the way back. Parts of the downhill were very down that hill (better mountain side) and sometimes took big steps over rocks. It was already pretty draining and hot and in my opinion this was the hardest part of the day. But the jungle was beautiful and sounds were so very unfamiliar. At the bottom we were treated by the first tinny river and the cool water felt like the idea cream you desire on a hot summer day; except you don’t drink or lick that water. You just drench your hat in it and enjoy the cooling feeling over your head when you put it back on.
Shortly after that we arrived at a native village; just a handful of houses out in the deep jungle with the most beautiful people living there. They have their own language, live off their fields and produced the most adorable kids. We had a light lunch there and I flew the Inspire over the village, showing the families what it looks like there from the air. They loved it. But it was so hot and I was already exhausted, my flight did not last very long. In fact, the heat was so hot, that I experienced the iPad screen cracking. I could see the crack growing from the bottom left up. Amazing!
We left for what we were told to be the hottest part of the journey with the most river crossings. And yes, they were right on both parts. Each time we got to cross the river, it was a slice of heaven. The water was nice and cool, so inviting to just sit down. It took us about a good 1.5 hours to make it to the possible helicopter landing site. There our master technician Josh quickly checked the satellite situation for the live broadcast part. This area turned out to be one of the possible location for the dish. I kept on going as I there was no reason to stay out in the sun when just one km away a natural AC was waiting; our first cave.
We made pretty good time and got to the entrance of the Hang En cave and enjoyed the cooling feeling of it. I got to enjoy a little break, got my hard hat and the caving light and gloves ready. Then it was time to descent into the cave.
It was a pretty spectacular site to be way on top looking down on the sandy bottom of the cave, tents aligned like a little village, surrounded by the blue/green water of the river. From the left the entire inside got light up by the big opening even higher above us. Now that was surreal.
We made our way to the bottom and were greeted by the porters already there. I found my tent, got my gear in, took my wet boots off, slipped into my slippers and went straight for a bath. That felt so good. Bathing inside a big cave - and the water felt so very comfortable. I would have never expected that.
After a really well cooked meal with lots of choices, we all went into our tents and turned off our head lamps. What a day!
Day 2 (April 18, 2015) - Hang En to Son Doong
I work up early and decided to go to the bathroom. The toilet is in essence a bucket filled with rice, under a western style toilet seat. Around it are four wooden poles with a plastic cover giving you privacy. Next to the toilet is a big bag of wooden chips. When you are done with your business you scope some chips over your business and you are done. Well, at 5 AM there was a mouse in the bathroom and luckily I had my camera with me. So I took a picture - while thinking of Maria (which turned out to sound funny a little later when I told her “Hey Maria, I was on the toilet and was thinking of you…”). After having taken a couple of pictures I turned around to put my flashlight in a safe position and I heard a “plopp” sound. I turned around and the mouse was gone. My first thought was to jump up on the toilet and scream… but decided not to do that. I think the mouse jump into the big bag of rice…
After that I set-up a GoPro camera for a time-lapse of the cave getting brighter and brighter from the daylight reaching us on the ground. In between I also flew a few practice missions with the Inspire. The location I flew from was not the perfect location as it was very difficult to judge how close I was to the walls and the ceiling of the cave entrance. But it was fun getting more confident in flying in a cave.
After breakfast we got ready and and Howard (one of the British cave experts and explorers) and I got on our ways. We first went through the river and then up a steep and rocky hill inside the cave. Once we got to the job I was already exhausted and sweating like a pig, which actually worried me. Not even 30 minutes into it and I was already that exhausted?! From up there we could see the other end of the cave and so we did a quick test flight there. It was fun and I flew out of the cave and a little down the valley. There were so many birds flying around me!
From there we walked along the river and crossed it a few times. It was already hot outside and so walking through the river actually felt good. Except I noticed a blister forming from all the sand inside my shoe. So that was not fun at all. We took one last rest next to the river before tackling the very steep mountain side up to the next cave entrance. That hike up was draining but so pretty! The path sometimes was as wide as your foot and it felt like Indiana Jones at times. The last push up was the hardest but on top awaited us a wonderful lunch area, overlooking the cave entrance. Of course I did a quick flight to see how it would look like and all the white butterflies fell in love with the white Inspire…
We had another very tasty lunch with mango, passion fruit, bananas and spring rolls. After lunch it was time to get really geared up and we put all our harnesses on. Because for the next hour we would be rappelling straight down into the darkness of the next cave…
I asked to go first so I could take pictures from the bottom. I think it was the right call as I was the quickest one to get down. We had our guides attach a safety line to our harnesses and down I went. It was challenging; very steep, slippery, wind gushing up from beneath, pushing clouds up. It was surreal. Looking down did not reveal a bottom - it was so dark. Only later did I learn it was over 330 feet down.
When I arrived at the bottom I was drenched and the break felt really good. I kept myself hydrated very well today. Once everybody was down, it was time to cut through the darkness of the cave. The temperature was very comfortable at approx. 23 C and at no point was I cold.
Once we got down to the river we had to do a few crossings and in between it really felt like the most thought through obstacle course ever. Some were very challenging; both for mind and body and there were several times when I had to push myself and focus very hard on my footwork, holding on to anything and everything and really planning my next few steps. But it was truly a fun experience. Every so often we would wait up for the rest of the team to catch up on their experiences. I watched Morgan, Maria and Josh all push themselves too and even though they are not mountaineers or big hikers, they managed themselves very well. Sometimes it was also good that we did not know that we were transiting cliffs over 300 ft tall…
We got to a river crossing which Howard deemed the last possible spot to clean up for the next two days. Before he was done with that sentence I was already undressed and swimming in the river. Yes, that’s right. Inside a big, black hole, I was swimming in a cool river and I loved it. It felt good to put some shampoo in my hair and clean myself up. I am so glad Maria had shampoo in her backpack… c’mon now, how awesome is she?! She could have had her cleaning supplies in the other bag of belongings which gets transported straight to the next camp site by the porters in the morning. But no, she had shampoo with her inside the cave… bless her heart (and soft hair!).
After a few more climbs, seeing amazing rock formations, fault lines and incredible structures we arrived at the 1st campsite.
There was only one work to describe the view down onto our campsite; fiction! It’s hard to describe it but on a ledge we could see several tents, behind the tents, far in the distance we could see a huge opening in the ceiling letting sunlight in. A little above the “village” was this amazingly looking cloud layer and all together it felt like I was in a Hobbit movie.
It was only a short walk to the campsite and once there, I gladly got out of my dirty and wet clothes, drying my feet and using special powder on the feet to prevent fungus. My legs felt heavy but my head was high.
My tent was the one closest to the (still very far away) area where the light comes down. It’s perched right on the edge and when I sit on my “balcony” I have the most amazing view.
Of course I flew a couple of flights. Nobody had ever flown at this location before. In fact only a couple other teams have gotten permission to fly in here and they chose different locations. On this trip I was not going for the money shot but rather use these flights to get a feel for the conditions, build up the confidence and really just get an overall idea of what the area looks like.
Believe me when I say - flying in a cave is unlike any other place I have flown. Proximity perception can be off, making it very difficult to navigate safely. Also, not having GPS and flying in ATTI mode, a mode where GPS is replaced by the pilot manually controlling flight and counter acting to winds and directional movements, can be challenging. Especially when you are 600 or more feet away and you know you are drifting but the gimbal is doing such a superb job at stabilizing the footage. So Maria has become my spotter and that has helped a lot. Also, there are very different thermal activities within a cave. From no wind (yay) to gushes of wind, pushing you aside or up, to clouds making it difficult to see your machine.
After flying we got dinner and once again, there was plenty of food for us and it all tasted like heaven. We were hungry and tired. And now that I was in my tent, on my mat, I could feel so many different muscles of mine... ouch!
It was an epic day and we were promised even more tomorrow. I couldn't believe it though…
Day 3 (April 19) - Son Doong Campsite 1
The day started early and I was excited about the adventure going deeper into Song Dong. After another wonderful breakfast (c’mon, pancakes with orange, banana and brown sugar served on a silver platter is pretty freaking spectacular far down in a cave!), we started our journey.
Sadly Maria and Josh had a rough night and both were very dehydrated and made the right call; staying back to re-tank energy. So Morgan and I, together with our guides and porters, started our day at 9AM.
Going from Camp 1 to Camp 2 starts very challenging; in order to cross this huge path of crazy holders, we had to actually go down into a tinny cave, barely big enough to fit a person. I felt a little uncomfortable at first but then just followed Deborah, the British cave expert. It was amazing in that cove, inside a huge cave. Luckily it wasn’t that long and we excited pretty quickly again, just to find ourselves doing some technical footwork getting ourselves down to the bottom so we could climb the next big climb. I was drenched in sweat already and droplets kept falling off my helmet. Amazing!
Getting up that hill side was so hard. It’s so humid and the path is so very steep, at times you needed a rope to pull you up and the steps were very big. Once I got to the top I was beat.
Up there we had to quickly get the Inspire ready because the rest of the team was about to start coming up and we wanted to get aerial footage of their ascent. There was pretty much no space up there and we used a matt as the launch pad, surrounded by little trees and people. Oh boy! But the view was amazing and you could see the other group way far below with their headlights on. I was sweating so much I actually felt embarrassed. Once they caught up we went down the other side to the next location - one of the most famous places. And there it was where we awaited the beam of sunlight falling into the cave. And not much after we got there, we experiencing it. Just incredible - with the mist inside the cave it made the sunbeams really stand out.
After getting some of the most amazing drone footage, the warm air inside the lit up area and the cooler air in the shadow played a joke on me - the Inspire ended up clipping an overhang and down she went. Not a full loss but the memory card actually broke into two pieces… I was so upset and sad.
So I flew the spare one and quickly got some more sunbeam light segments. This Inspire did fly slightly different and I had to first get more comfortable with it again. From there we went down into the next cave and that location was the most beautiful one. We could still see the beam of light but now we were far below it. After some lunch I flew there and captured some of the most beautiful beam of light stuff.
Inside the Son Doong cave you constantly see a change in its own weather system. There are clouds and fog - making the case really look like it's alive. Here is a time-laps I shot with the iPhone.
After lunch it was time to go up another huge hill. But first Bambo (an amazing guide and really good kid with great English) and my Inspire helper and I went up onto a ridge. It was hard getting up there and I was so tired. Flying from there made up for it as we, once again, tracked the group going up the hill.
After flying it was our turn to go and this hillside got us to the 2nd opening, which is really an island of a jungle in the middle of the cave. Just amazing. From up there I flew out of the cave and it took 300 meters to get out. Thick jungle was the only thing we could see above ground. Stunning views.
Click on the image below to see a 360 VR from above Doline 2. A brand-new view!
We left our backpacks at that location and walked through that jungle island to get to Camp 2. We did some more filming there and then turned around for our return to our Camp 1. It was already after 3 PM. The return back is almost the same except instead of going down that first hill, the path goes way to the side and through some climbing areas with drops over 50 meters. It was a little nerve-wrecking but also a lot of fun. Plus, I totally trust in our guides - they are very good and extremely capable. It was challenging for sure, slippery, wet, dark and scary. But very satisfying once we got back to Camp 1.
Maria and Josh were awaiting us already and it was great seeing them. They looked a little better and hopefully by tomorrow will be all fine. You have to drink and drink and drink some more here. It’s hot, humid - but inside the caves it feels comfortable. But you still sweat. Yes, the toilets are not what we are used to - but you have to get over that and drink and drink and pee and pee.
Day 4 (April 20) - Campsite 1 back to Hang En
I had the roughest of nights and kept waking up with not only an aching body, but I also felt sick to my stomach, my head was burning up and I truly felt like I was about to go down for the count. I will not bore you with all the details - so let’s just say one does not want to feel like this inside a cave, about to have to hike, climb, and rappel up and down and out of the cave. I was only able to eat a little breakfast and my body craved the two oranges I actually had. Then it was time to get on our way out and trust me, every step was torture. I had to focus so hard to keep balance, to keep my body straight and to actually make the step needed. My upper body strength was depleted and I had to trust my shaky legs would keep me on the right path. About 1 hour into the trek I had to give up my backpack. I could not carry it anymore. It was way too heavy for my weak body. Thanks to Luke (one of the great people here at Oxalis) I was relieved of my backpack and that felt better.
The trek out of the cave felt long, every step required extra effort and concentration and during each short break I tried to rest as much as I could. I knew I had conserve my energy. During the longer breaks I actually got a couple of naps in. It was really needed. The team was really amazing and they did whatever was necessary to help me.
As we got to the final climb out of the Song Doong cave I pulled all my energy together because I knew this would be part of the hardest 30 minutes of this expedition. I put on my harness, was checked that everything was secure, life-line got attached and then it was time to pull myself up, holding the rope as right as possible, keeping my footing as wide as I could and leaning back. It was hard and my arms felt weak. I got to the first transition area, tethered myself to the safety rope and transitioned across. Only one more big climb was ahead of me and I knew I could do it. I got reached to the another life-line and climb up towards the light. Once I got to the end of rope, I secured myself and made sure I had good footing. I made it to a safe location and with the help of the team took off my harness and rested until everybody made their way up to my location. I was spent.
From there it was only another 15 minutes to a checkpoint camp right outside the cave. I actually got to sleep there for about 90 minutes before hiking down the mountain side into the river and trekking along the river back to the Hang En cave entrance. That nap really made all of this possible.
Once at the Hang En camp site I found my tent, undressed, went to take a bath and then sleep for another hour before having some dinner. I was shivering like it was freezing temperatures. I was given some meds, ate some soup and went straight to bed again. It was 6 PM and the next time I woke up it was 7 AM. Clearly my body needed the rest.
Day 5 (April 21, 2015) - Hang En back hike back
I woke up feeling a little better. I was glad about that as we had to hike out of Hang En, along the river and then up that mountain. I knew I would need all the strength to make it back. Luckily it was overcast and so the temperatures were about 10 degrees C cooler! We left early and made our way through the exit of Hang En, passed the helicopter landing area, crossing the river again over 30 times before stopping at the native village for a little break.
Just outside the village we met the pilots of the Mi-17 helicopter we will be taking on the production trip from Phong Nha to the landing site just outside Hang En. That was so cool to run into them and chat with them. They were on a survey mission themselves, trying to get a feel for the area and how to best approach the landing site.
After that short meeting it was time for us to climb back up the mountain to the site where we had left several days ago. It was a grueling hike back up; hot, humid and when you are not feeling well, everything is twice as hard. But on top a cold beer was waiting for me.
We made it. The survey trip was a big success!
In early May of 2015 ABC started to promote the live event from a Hidden World with a 30 second promo segment. This video includes aerial footage I took during the survey trip.
Take a look here: