Friday, January 22, 2016

Continued from Part 1.
Solar guy to the rescue.
Amazingly, in Spong of all places, it turned out I could get a replacement within a few hours. Solar guy offered to go and buy one the next day. I’d have to pay through the nose but it was essential and to be honest I was so amazed I’d have willingly paid double. To speed matters up Solar guy suggested we take his inverter with us the following morning, while he set off on a 6 hour round trip to buy a new one.
We were joined on our journey by our host and guide Mr Vat, who I’d met on the earlier botanical expeditions and knew the forests well. The first stop was a Chamkar (rotational farming fields) with a small ‘house’ a couple of hours south of Spong. I wanted to shoot there too as it’s almost dead center of what is regarded as the ‘core area’ of Prey Lang; prior to going to the swamp. As a bonus it’s got a great little river to bathe and cool off in. My kind of luxury. We set up camp and the solar system and I used up 2 of my batteries filming the surrounding forest. I still wasn’t sure how many charges I was going to get as the drunk farmer clearly had little idea what he was doing when it came to batteries and 3 hours charging (along with 2 other batteries) wasn’t likely to give me much, so I was being very cautious. I made do with taking a few forest shots with my normal camera, while the batteries thankfully charged without any further problems. I had a full set for the swamp.
The Swamp Forest.

The next morning we set off at first light with Mr Vat, leaving the drivers at the river. It took a little over an hour to get to the swamp by bike, with us arriving at around 7am. Once we found a vaguely suitable spot I decided to go for it. There wasn’t much room to play with and I had to weave around to get it up through the canopy. I had no more than about 3 meter hole to aim at and it wasn’t straight up; not a lot of room for error. I knew what images I wanted so I quickly set up a “Point of Interest” shot. One of the cool things this thing can do is automatically circle a point giving a wonderfully smooth shot. I wanted one of the distinctive Livistona palm trees and soon had the shot in the bag. I couldn’t see the copter at all while flying, which was a bit worrying to say the least, but it worked out well. After finishing the third battery I brought it into land again but this time instead of hovering for my assistant to grab it, it started to drift slightly and my lack of piloting experience meant I couldn’t react quickly enough to avoid it clipping a bush. Crunch. I had the sense to switch off the power this time but amazingly it survived its impression of a weed whacker. After some thought I decided to cut short the flying and use the last battery on foot. These things also make a great steady cam for smooth walking shots, although it’s a bit tricky as you can’t see what your filming… and your stumbling around in a swamp. I need more practice at that. I also filmed a little around the swamp with my main camera and had pretty much got everything I wanted by mid afternoon, so we returned to the camp to recharge and relax in the river.
Predictably, my battery packed up after charging another 1.5 of the copter batteries and I was now onto the smaller reserve battery we ‘d borrowed. That got me up to 3.5 batteries charged, but that was as far as it went. I had to re think the plan again. I had intended to go back to the swamp the next day, but as I got the shots I had come for we decided to head back to Spong instead, where we could hopefully charge a few more batteries and film something different.
I was sad to leave the Chamkar house and particularly the river. It’s also a lot more peaceful sleeping in the forest than a village, where the roosters wake you at 3am. As it turned out, the roosters were the least of my concerns when it came to sleeping. We arrived to find a wedding party being set up a few houses away, with the obligatory wall of speakers. Anyone having experienced a Cambodian wedding knows what that means. Zero sleep. As it happened it did die down briefly around 1am and I dozed off for a while. The thing with Cambodian weddings is that at around 3am they have a kind of call to prayer for the village elders, that goes on for half an hour or so and is generally done at full volume. Once that died down of course, the roosters took over.
The new plan involved trying to film some cleared forest I could see on satellite images about 15km to the west of Spong. Seeing it and finding it, turned out to be a whole different ball game. We spent the entire morning riding (paddling would be a more appropriate word) along exhausting sandy trails only to fail miserably, the only other option was a 4 to 5 hour ride across Prey Long to Sandan. For me that wasn’t an option, we’d be looking at a 10 or 11 hour round trip and I wasn’t at all keen to bounce the copter around that much on a bike. Having pretty much wasted the day we returned to Spong to come up with another plan and I settled for using another valuable battery to film a nearby river.
For the final day we decided to try to film some illegal loggers. The forests around Spong were full of them so it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone, according to Mr Vat. As we left the village a young guy on a bike came flying past us. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but it soon became apparent he had set off to warn people we were coming, as the almost obligatory chainsaws had finally fallen silent. Much to Mr Vat’s surprise we couldn’t find anyone all morning. Lunchtime discussions revealed that people around the village thought Sokhan was a soldier, working with me to catch illegal loggers. The fact that one of my drivers was from the Prey Long Community Network probably didn’t help matters either. The PLCN are a group of villagers from all 4 provinces of Prey Lang, who are trying to protect this forest and its resources, such as their resin trees. Apparently everyone was convinced my tripod carrying case was in fact holding a gun. Despite this, not long after lunch our luck changed and we managed to catch some loggers in the act.
We explained what we were doing and that we just wanted to film them. Not arrest them. After some discussion I was able to film them felling a tree they were working on, both from the ground and the air. It should make a nice sequence. With that task done we filmed at another couple of locations before returning to Spong for a rest and some celebratory rice whiskey.

Solar man hadn’t been keen to charge anymore batteries for me as we had pushed his brand new system to its limit. With my aerial filming effectively over I called an end to the trip a day early. I was keen to get back to town to see what I had anyway, as I only had power to back up all the footage and hadn’t actually watched more than a few seconds of it.
I learned a lot on this trip but I am pleased to say the many hours of research I put in before buying or flying one of these, was well worth it. A quick Google search will throw up one very obvious fact about these quadcopters. They crash A LOT. I spent a great deal of time finding out why people were ‘losing’ or crashing their copters. Most were stupid errors and simply not following instructions, other problems were not so obvious. Large metal structures (including the metal frames of buildings), even a car can mess up the all-important calibration you should perform every time you move more than a few hundred meters. Fly low over water and your copter could soon become a submarine unless you turn off a sensor first. Probably the most surprising cause for me was solar activity. Essentially you can lose contact with the copter if you fly during magnetic storms and probably lose or crash it. A surprising number of people have had to watch hopelessly as their expensive toy flew off into the sunset.
Of course, this being 2016, we have an app for that. There are several apps that warn if magnetic levels are too high. What has surprised me is just how often this occurs. In the one-month since I bought it, there have been at least 5 days when the levels were too dangerous to fly. While there are countless videos of people crashing these things, many people seem to operate them without problems, so I think it’s mostly about being prepared. If your going to be bouncing it around in a forest, expect to have to go through the slightly time consuming process of resetting the IMU/Gimbal, so you get a level horizon. Most important of all, make sure the damned battery shop charges your battery properly.

Mr Uong – On my first trip here I was provided with a very young assistant that was completely useless to be honest. Anyway, when we arrived in Spong we were trying to recruit a few people as guides/porters. When we talked to Mr Uong, who’s house we were staying at, he said would also come along. The young boy laughed and said he was “too old and not strong enough”. Mr Uong visibly bristled a little but took it well. I had no doubt he’d be just fine. The following morning we set off on a 10km walk with the kid carrying easily the smallest, lightest pack. At the half distance we all stopped and waited for Mr Uong and the young guy to catch up. Shortly after Mr Uong walked calmly around the corner carrying the biggest of my bags (a 120 liter Bergen, which was almost as big as him), plus the kids bag. He was eventually followed by an exhausted and very embarrassed looking boy, who was not allowed to forget that very quickly. Give me the old guys every time.
All in all it was a good trip and I got some great aerial shots. But, I am still utterly dumbfounded that we managed to buy an inverter in Spong. Lastly, a special thanks to my friend and assistant Mr Sokhan Young for his great work and for providing several of the pictures in this 2 part blog.
Here is a link to a sample of the footage taken. It was originally shot in 4k resolution but has been reduced to 720 HD resolution for Vimeo.

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