Day 1 (April 17) - at Oxalis Adventure Hotel
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
After a few more climbs, seeing amazing rock formations, fault lines and incredible structures we arrived at the 1st campsite.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
We made it. The survey trip was a big success!
Take a look here: