The filming of Hang Son Doong
I realised in England what a task to film Hang Son Doong was going to be but I never expected it quite to be the headache it was going to cause. We had done some cave training with the film crew but they were very inexperienced and had little SRT knowledge. We had taken them down Lancaster Hole the week before we left and it was only then the film crew realized that caves are completely dark!! Thus armed with this knowledge we set out to film what turns out to be the largest cave passage in the world. Fortunately Hang Son Doong has a number of daylight shafts which would enable the film crew ample light in a number of stunning sections of the cave.
We met with our guides and porters in Son Trach to hire a large contingent for the duration of the film. The film crew of 5 included a producer, an assistant, 2 cameramen and a sound recordist. On top of that we had National Geographic Magazine which included a writer, a photographer and his assistant. Our team of 7 persons included Dr Anette Becher who was to play the role of Biologist. We also had 4 members from Hanoi University of Science which included 2 botanists and Mr Hieu and Mr Phai who as usual were essential to keep the show on the road. Also in the party was Mr Long a man from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who looked after the film crew. Just when we thought we had a team the National park insisted that we had a park ranger with us to look after us.
Thus 50 people set off from Son Trach laden down with equipment for the making of the film for National Geographical TV. We planned to camp in Hang En on route to Hang Son Doong and the film crew and myself set off early to try and beat the rush. Our 23 porters were heavily loaded carrying up to 40kg and often very bulky packs. At this stage I really fancied hiding and running away from the mayhem but unfortunately we had all signed contracts so there was no way out.
After over 5 hours we finally made it to Hang En with all our equipment. We set up camp and left the film crew to rest whilst we resurveyed this immense cave with accurate laser measuring devices. Our survey in 1994 shows the smaller entrance where we camped to be 25m wide. This was now measured at 80m wide oops!!! We soon surveyed the 1.6k to the huge exit and made our way back to the team for a well earned dinner.I could not sleep well that night with all the possible problems going through my head but managed a few hours and woke up at 5.30 at first light to arrange the next stage of our journey.
Our plan was to go to Hang Son Doong and set up an underground camp near the entrance with 2 generators so we could recharge the camera batteries and any other lighting equipment we had used. We had sent back 10 porters so we had to relay the huge mass of equipment in stages down to Hang Son Doong. We managed all but 6 loads which would arrive the next day with a bit of luck. However the first underground food bag was left as one of the loads so we hastily had to rearrange the food stocks. When cooking underground for 8 days with an underground party of 20 people not including porters is a nightmare especially when stoves and pans are hidden in one of the 50 bags transported. Sweeney and Clarky rigged the first underground pitch of 60m in such a way that it was just possible for us to descend without using SRT equipment. However the film crew were safely watched down the pitch and escorted to our first camp down by the river on a nice sandy floor. It was a little cosy but adequate. The National Geographical Magazine team sensibly opted to camp at the entrance away from the masses.
The next day the plan was to film the river crossing and the initial sections of this huge cave. This went to plan but the day was a long one and involved numerous heavy loads being carried around 3k in the cave to the first doline ‘Watch Out for Dinosaurs’. Trying to make the river crossing look exciting with the low water levels was difficult and with head mounted cam we intrepidly played actors in what was a simple crossing. Meals were a bit sparse and the film crew insisted on double the amounts of high energy bars for lunch that we had accounted for. This ‘Bear Grylls’ film crew had certainly not met with conditions like this before as well as having to put up constant piss taking that the team lashed out towards them. However they persevered and day 2 was over.
It was harder trying to get them out of bed in the morning but I forced them awake for what was to be a difficult day for all, which was moving camp to the deep underground camp 2 at the far end of the cave. This was a grueling day for all the film crew. This also was the first chance I had of seeing the majority of the cave. It is quite a stunning bit of passage and everyone was overwhelmed by the size and splendor of this amazing cave.The American writer for Nat Geo Mark turned out to be a star, assisting the porters and encouraging them to carry numerous loads to the final camp. He is quite a character having climbed Everest and many other name dropping places. His thoughts on Hang Son Doong were that it was the most impressive geological feature he had ever seen and should definitely be classed as a natural wonder of the world. I was a little doubtful about Mark at first but he turned out to be a real team player and an invaluable member of the team. He did lots of interviews with all the team members without being too annoying and hopefully his story in the magazine will not be too over the top.
I had a little spat with the producer late in the day when certain loads were missing but finally it was resolved and we all made camp late in the evening a little tired and certainly sweaty. The camp complete with generator and filming gear was set up and a nice meal followed before everyone had an early night. The next day I again woke early and cajoled the team out of bed with a brew. Sweeney and Clarky were to set off to start the bolting of the Great Wall of Vietnam whilst the rest of us were to be involved in filming in the huge and impressive ‘Garden of Edam’. Darryl the American geologist a real nice quiet lad was to be the film star and because of his lecturing experience he fitted in the role brilliant. Anette acted as the biologist and set traps in the underground jungle with the film crew following her around. The ‘Garden of Edam’ is quite breathtaking place with cliffs 350m high and 175m wide. In this lost world trees grow to perhaps 40m high and the jungle is very dense with typical jungle foliage. Our botanist started his work looking for new plants in this jungle and the film crew staggered around in the jungle being tripped and caught by every vine. I took a team to push some leads left by last year’s expedition. We managed to survey and explore just over 300m before the side passage sadly sumped. Hang Son Doong is really just too big to have side passages. We found a white spider and a white scorpion in this side passage which the Nat Geo boys hope to photograph at a later date. Darryl the geologist an excellent caver proved very useful with his knowledge and he explained various features associated with the major fault the cave was on. He also explained that the river in the wet season floods the cave to 100m deep and the river flows at 35kph and becomes 2,000 cumecs minimum in the wet season. I imagine it’s quite a sight but not really practical unless you had suicidal tendencies.
We all arrived back in camp expecting Sweeney and Clarky to have made it up the great wall. However they didn’t make it back until much later due to the difficulties they encountered. After a 12 hour bolting epic Sweeney had climbed around 50m in extremely poor conditions. The entire wall was calcite and the first 15m was very thin with mud behind. He nearly had to abort on a number of occasions but he somehow managed to persevere and finally obtained some more solid calcite which the thunder bolts managed to secure more decent anchorage. A very muddy pair arrived back in camp very tired after the day’s work with no end in sight to the wall.
The next morning Sweeney and Clarky returned to the wall whilst the rest of the team were filmed in mock surveying as well as long interviews in sight of daylight with myself playing the lead character. This took an age mainly because we are certainly not actors which by this time the film crew had managed to grasp. We were let loose by the film crew and managed to do a photographic trip around camp. Whilst on this trip a huge cheer could be heard from further down the passage which we correctly guessed to be Sweeny having finally climbed the ‘Great Wall of Vietnam’. The film crew took off again down the incredibly muddy ’Paschendale’ to obtain footage of the returning heroes as well as some film of Sweeny bolting. They all arrived back in camp again to be filmed with myself greeting them as if I didn’t know what had happened. My great role as actor will no doubt be an Oscar winner no matter what the rest of the team felt!!!
After another minimal meal we had a long serious chat with the film crew about the wall climb. Patrick the producer was pleased to hear that I recommended that the film crew should not ascend the wall due to the technical difficulties. The rebelays were free hanging and the rope was not in the best condition and we
would not be able to remain at rebelays to assist them on changeovers. Thus the
end of the cave was beyond the capabilities of the film crew and they decided I
would be the cameraman for the rest of the trip. I had a quick 5 minute lesson with a smaller camera and both cameramen gave me tips on what and what not to do. Having never used a movie camera before I felt a little pressured to say the least especially when the producer stated that my footage would be the final part of the film with the credits!! No pressure!!
The film crew would again work with Darryl who was turning into a Robert De Niro and excellent in front of camera and Anette our Biologist and totty for the Film.
We meanwhile set off down Passchendaele again to be filmed starting the climb until out of sight. The bolt route by Sweeny and Clarky was a real necky push and it turned out to be nearly 90m high all in crappy calcite. We had 2m of rope spare at the top and the final 40m was on 9mm climbing rope with numerous abrasions points. We all safely ascended and set off surveying and photographing the amazing passage. A height was done from the bottom of the wall to the roof of the cave and the 196m reading was greeted with loud cheers. This was set up for my camera and the film crew was pleased to have what they term the ‘money shot’. They also gave a head cam to Sweeny which may have proved a mistake with his narration of Mr Floppy and various other quotes which will not appear on any film. We surveyed just over 300m until the huge passage exited. We all exited as instructed by the now demanding cameraman myself hopefully obtaining the final sequence of shots for the cave. We obtained a GPS reading at the exit and realized that we were only 3k from a road. We were solely tempted to leave the film crew but sense prevailed and we retreated back into the cave. We found a calcited animal possibly a bear high on a stal boss and I again became cameraman instructing lighting and acting. I was quite getting into the role before they all told me to piss off. I never saw this happen with the film crew!!! We finally descended the bolt route safely and made our way back to camp for another meagre meal.
The next day we planned to leave and hoped to reach the river camp before dark. The porters were fantastic and were far better underground than any of us with huge loads and plastic sandals. We in high tech grippy boots could not keep up even though we had far lighter loads. After much more filming Patrick finally decided he had enough footage and we made our way back slowly to camp, with all the film crew doing well and encouraged we would leave the cave the next day. Carsten the Nat Geo photographer left our camp for the surface and it was 3 hours later when surface phoned to me asking about his whereabouts. Deb and Sweeny were sent as a rescue party and found him off route with no light. He was escorted back to camp; his light sorted and sent on his way again. His ‘boy’ Robbie Shone had not been looking after him properly so much piss taking was sent his way. Unfortunately our food had been taken out of the cave by our porters so our final meal underground was looking a bit sparse. I had however hidden a few spare rations at camp and we managed to produce another small meal for the team. By this time the film crew was happy and a good wash and swim was had in the river underground to clear the filth that had accumulated from the past few days.
We escorted the film crew and equipment out the following morning and made a dash for the road. Only an interview with Mr Khanh the original finder of the cave was done this day to complete the film. Our porters were loaded up again on the surface and a long walk back to the road began. After 6 hours we reached the road only to find no transport. Mr Hieu managed to find a motorbike and after driving 26k managed a weak mobile signal and instructed the 2 minibuses to come and pick up the weary and filthy team. We squeezed into the transport and even managed a beery session before collapsing in a real bed for the night.
Was it a success? We wait and see but at least we all had an amazing time in this truly wonderful cave. Would I do it again? Definitely NO.