(August 9th) I had a worrying start to the day; I’d not pooped since arriving at the Chay Lap Farmstay, 36 hours before, and had hoped to go before entering the jungle. No such luck.
Lily, Jelle and I jumped in a van that would take us to “base camp”. Along the way we picked up a French Vietnamese couple (Victor and Hang), then three other Vietnamese 20-somethings from Saigon. Our group would be 8 adventurers, plus guides, a chef, porters and the safety team.
We drove for 90 minutes to the base camp, passing rice fields and sheer cliff limestone “karst” mountains so thick with foliage they looked covered in moss. Some of the fields were used for grazing water buffalo, and to stop these glorious animals from wandering off their masters were tethering them to long bamboo poles stuck up in the ground, which they could graze in a circle around. The bamboos curved over under the strain of the cord attached to the buffalo, giving the peculiar impression that these half-ton beasts had been snared by giant fishing rods.
We arrived at a farmhouse, a modern thing with large rooms and lots of benches to sit at. They showed us an induction video (beware of poison ivy, snakes and leeches, don’t run, don’t jump), then gave us plastic bags for our stuff, inside large, orange backpacks that looked like dry bags. The Vietnamese guys looked like three members of a nascent boy band, with matching all-black clothing. Hang and Victor made a funny couple; he was a doctor, well over six feet tall and somewhat intimidating, and she was a short, talkative, fun Vietnamese girl. We set off around 11 a.m.
To get to the first cave required a hike across the countryside, starting with a walk past rice and bull fields, down a dirt path covered in large cow pats that Ken, our English-speaking guide, jokingly called “land mines”. I was going to quip that the manure balls were more like cluster bomblets, but found the whole thing distasteful in a country where kids are still being dismembered by the unexploded leftovers of the American War.
We reached the jungle, and hiked towards our first cave, passing a couple of absolutely gigantic grasshoppers, as long as my hand. We did our first of maybe 20 river crossings, with water up to our nipples, only to find that our dry bag backpacks only looked like dry bags. Lily and I were lucky, as we’d fastened the plastic bag inside so no water got through to our stuff, but at least half of Jelle’s medical kit was ruined, and everything else he owned was soaked. This was odd – just the previous week he’d done the Oxalis tour of the big cave, so presumably he’d been using the same equipment.
I tried making him feel better with remarks along the lines of “not so bad” and “it’ll dry off”, but he was having none of it. “Just don’t talk”, he ordered me, sitting on a rock, shaking off and repacking his sodden equipment. Jelle was short, wore glasses he kept pushing up his nose, had darting, intelligent eyes, was full of a charming social awkwardnesses, and was apparently highly-strung, despite being a nature-loving adventurer.
Our next river crossing was exciting. Getting into the river required navigating slopes thick with mud. I sank into them up to my shins. The riverbed was deep enough that I had to tiptoe to keep my mouth above water. Eventually we all had to link arms in a line to stop anyone (especially our shorter, lighter members like Hang) being swept away. At the third river crossing we stood at strategic points so we could throw our bags to each other before attempting to swim across. The rivers weren’t fast moving, but there was a current.
We reached ‘Secret Cave’ after about two hours. We donned our helmets with their torches and went inside. It was initially narrow, with tight sections you had to take off your bags to fit through. The cave opened up a little to a room that had bats hanging off the roof and a spider so large it could have hunted adult bats. On the floor there were clay golfball-looking things that had somehow been shaped and clustered into nobbly ball pits, which we had to be careful not to stand on (doing so would erase millions of years of growth).
Our head-torches didn’t produce a full spectrum of light, so colour in the caves was difficult to see, but there was a bright blue streak in among the balls; a cave cobra, no bigger than a fountain pen. Bats, snakes and the biggest spider I’ve ever seen, all in our first cave!
We snuck through a hole in a wall, which led to a crooked, corkscrewing tunnel we had to squeeze through to get back outside. I stayed back with Jelle, who, it turns out, was acutely claustrophobic in places he feels trapped in. He’d be fine, as long as he felt the exit wasn’t blocked behind him, so he had to go last. I distracted him a little with questions until he was ready to wiggle up the passageway. A cautious, wet, light blue toad about the size of my fist watched us pass.
Outside, we regrouped, re-packed our helmets, drank a little water, then started climbing a steep hill to cross a ridge. It was about an hour up, then another hour descending down paths that were a nightmarish combination of slippery mud, jagged limestone spikes and snaking roots and vines. The foliage not only hid the topography of the ground underneath, making our steps difficult to plan, but would also surprise us by suddenly trapping our feet behind unmovable tendrils. The guides pointed a couple of times to poison ivy plants. I resolved to touch one by the end of the trip.
We finally got to camp next to a waterfall cascading out of the mouth of ‘Ken Cave’ (no relation to our head guide). We dropped our stuff, put on our helmets and buoyancy aids, swam to the far bank of the cave entrance, then made our way over rocks into the cave mouth, perhaps 20m across, big enough to fit several double decker busses.
Inside, the walls and ceiling were covered in an array of stunning features common to all ‘solutional caves’ – caves created by the acidic erosion of groundwater passing through limestone. There are the usual stalactites and stalagmites, some conical, some long and spindly, lengthening at around 1cm per century. Others had grown much faster, and not only had they already joined top to bottom, they’d proceeded to widen out into colossal, bloated columns swelling into grotesque towers of bulging rock.
Those you can probably visualise, but there were a hundred other formations I neither recognised nor understood. At places the rock looked like it was melting, in others there were pockmarks and rock pools, or vast, smooth channels cut by rivers, and rough, jagged, savage features shaken into place by tectonic activity, or the colourful products of microorganisms that had been painting sections of rock for millions of years. Bubbly, spiky, rough, slippery, sandy, muddy, golden, grey, white, brown, black, red, silvery, shiny, dull, spindly, bulbous, slimy, ribbed, jagged… the landscape, walls and creations ranged from the absolutely massive to exquisitely tiny.
There’s something timeless to a stalagmite just millimetres away from connecting with its partner stalactite – a formation that had grown over millions of years, drip by drip, coming down from the ceiling and up from the floor, but a few centuries from becoming whole. Caves in soft rock like this look for a large part like they’re made out of liquid. Snotty-looking asparagus, bunches of white carrots, giant heads of cauliflower, embalmed brains, salivating dinosaur jaws, screaming ghouls…there was a lot you could make out within their many forms.
With a single step you could erase a hundred years of growth or impale your foot on a rigid, claw-like floor spike, so we were kept within the well-trodden walking routes, mainly over sand or mud, depending on whether the cave was still taking in water or not. Much of the time we were scrambling over boulders or hugging the walls, our feet perched on lines of hard rock protruding from the rock face like flat wood mushrooms. Some caves were cavernous, others labyrinthine, some feature rich, others bland, some colourful, others dull. No two caves were the same, but they were all alike nonetheless. To be honest, four days of caving is perhaps a little more than we needed.
Okay, from here on, I’ll only describe the size and main activities of each cave. But, know that each combined some or all of the above. The photos will do the rest.
Further into Ken cave, we got back into the water and swam against the slow current, about 300m up stream. Were we not following a guide, this would have been utterly terrifying – bats whizzed around us eating the dense clouds of tiny flies attracted to our head torches, the water was an impenetrable black, too deep to stand in, a cave so deep and wide at times the far wall of the cave would be so distant our head torches weren’t powerful enough to light it. At some point we stopped on a bank to take photos of a giant rock column, the star of Ken Cave. There, I asked Ken what happens further up stream. “We don’t know”, he said, looking off into the blackness, “we’ve not explored it yet, but we think it goes about another 3,000 meters.”
We floated back downstream to the cave entrance, and at camp we tried to rinse off and change without bringing any sand into the tents. We also hung up our clothes to dry out on the rope and metal scaffolds of our little living quarters. All of us had worn nearly identical attire. We all had a hat and long-sleeve top, both for the sun and to prevent mosquitoes. We also wore long trousers to protect from sharp rocks and thorny plants, and lightweight, breathable, fast-drying, off-road running shoes with deep treads, as we’d have multiple muddy river crossings and dangerous boulder fields to navigate. In the evenings, we wore shorts and sandals, after applying anti-fungal powder on our feet. The powder had a limited effect on the stench of our shoes, but did provide much-needed dryness to our wrinkled feet after a whole day of damp hiking.
Dinner was at foldable tables by the river. The waterfall rumbled, hundreds of birds the size of swallows circled above in the light of the dimming skies. The cliffs we were next to showed the familiar geology of nearly horizontal age lines, and vertical, dark grey columns streaking down the beige cliffs. Dinner was delicious (as was all the food on the trip); pork, chicken, stew, sticky rice, mango, cabbage, something that looked like spinach, rice wine and sauces.
(August 10th) The day started with breakfast of eggs and ramen, and banana chocolate pancakes. We then rafted along the river, then hiked and climbed up into the Tu Lan cave. Not as big as the caves yesterday, but still fun.
Inside, we came to a 15m drop we had to abseil down. One by one, we edged down the side of a cliff, then navigated our way over a jutting ledge, then down a second cliff. That became a dangerous overhang that caught everyone out – below this cliff there was nothing to step on, so as we lost our footing below it our rope would swing back to the side of the cliff, and our heads would almost hit it. Nobody did, but everyone was close. Under the overhang we dangled down into the waiting raft.
We drifted out of the cave, back to shore, and collected our stuff for the day’s hike. Back in the jungle there was a giant spider web that Lily brushed against, with a huge spider above it. That might have been scary, if I wasn’t laughing.
We trekked 5 minutes through the jungle to Kim cave, in which we did a lot more scrambling and swimming upstream. What more can I say, it was another impressively large cave with a river running through it.
Outside again, we hiked through jungle to a flat bank on the mountain where we ate a picnic of rice paper wraps with meat and veg. After lunch we took another 5 minute hike to the Ton cave, which included another swim against a strong current, more cave walking and a tall ladder we had to climb with a safety rope.
Then more jungle hiking, 40 minutes up, half an hour down, plus two good river crossings. Guava trees we could pick fruit off. Lots of mosquitoes. The walk included two bull fields without bulls in them (I believe farming is no longer allowed in this area).
Got back to camp and washed. On the rocks in the river we saw a glass legged spider, both colourful and sort-of see-through. It reminded me that we hadn’t yet (and unfortunately wouldn’t) seen any of the blind albino fish that had evolved in the cave rivers, nor any leeches. Apparently the Son Doong cave exploration was better for wildlife – the cave is the largest in the world, and a part of it has caved in, creating a large exposed hole in which a jungle had sprouted, with its own ecosystem, its own mist, its own lifeforms… beautiful. The four-day Son Doong adventure also includes less hiking and somehow even fewer mosquitoes, according to Jelle, but was over double the cost. Worth doing if you’re flush – more comfort, less itchiness, better caves. Anyway, dinner was deliciously juicy leaf-wrapped beef, cabbage, beef ribs, sticky rice, green beans, omelette.