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Flying the Great Wall

“I’ve often lay down to rest, looking up at clouds or a gliding hawk, and imagined their view…..”

Imagination is an irrepressible human quality. I’ve walked on the Great Wall for more than 2,800 days, seen it in many places, seasons, dawn and dusk, in all weathers, and all angles — except one. From the air. Just imagine that…..

First, patience….

In the early years of the 1980s and 1990s it wasn’t so much as ‘seeing as the Wall from above’ that I set out to do, it was seeing and photographing it from a panorama point. From such a viewpoint one could look down on everything. Well, at least everything within the radius of a few or a few tens of kilometres.

In the late 1990s, by dint of luck, alertness, good air quality, time of day and having a window-seat, I managed to get my first real view of the Wall from an air — aboard an aircraft flying from Beijing to London. I was struck by the fact that everything man had done, or did, was on the flat land, or in the valleys. He built there, lived there, farmed there, manufactured there, travelled there. The Great Wall was the exception — always. It always took the high ground.

In summer of 2015, my sons James and Thomas, keen photographers and videographers from childhood, pressed me to invest in a drone. To say that I was impressed by the footage they shot on their maiden flight is an understatement — I was amazed.


Immediately we discussed the potential of drone filming and identified ‘flying the Great Wall’ as the raison d’être of my approaching ‘30th anniversary of coming to China for the Great Wall’ journey.

In 1986-87 my goal was to see all the Great Wall (as it showed itself on a map), not just in one place. And so it was for our flying summer of 2016. We wanted to fly above Great Walls of its many ages, shapes, components, materials, forms, conditions and positions.

To ensure the success of our expedition we put aside all other plans. Everything else could wait, being first to fly the Great Wall could not. We cordoned off the whole summer for the journey. We purchased a second drone, various lenses, extra batteries and charging equipment.

A video feature-report on our achievement was run on BBC news worldwide. We’ve now completed our full-length documentary. It’s called ‘The Great Wall: The Greatest Views”. It features more than 20 of my favourite and most-significant Great Wall locations, where stunning aerials are enhanced by a rich and engaging narrative to portray and present the Great Wall story as its never been seen before!

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