We arrived back in Phong Nha after a few days in Ho Chi Minh City after being given an excellent tour of the Mekong Delta by Chau our new boss!!
Things have changed a little since our last expedition especially the new cycle way along the banks of the Son river which is very nice. Despite it being the rainy season the weather has been fantastic and we managed to miss the thypoon which hit Quang Binh a few days before we arrived. We have a great room in a house with Chau’s lovely parents overlooking the Son river. Hope it does not flood as we are very close to the river!!
We have met up with all our friends in Phong Nha and we have been made very welcome. Oxalis the company we are working for as advisors are a great bunch of people and the guides and everyone is very helpful. At the moment we are planning a big trip with up to 80 Russians so we are going on a recce to make sure all is Ok and the guides and porters understand what to do. We have decided to buy 2 push bikes so we can visit the market and our friends. Deb is starting an English teaching class next week with Mr Khanh and friends as her first students.
Oxalis is building a cafe and a homestay next to the river which I am sure will be very popular and we are supervising the building work and landscape. We are so lucky to be invited here and have the chance to help the local people. The people here are so friendly we are unable to go anywhere without being invited to people’s houses for food and drink. When we manage to make it to a cafe the food is excellent and tonight I managed to have chips in Phong Nha for the first time this trip. I must admit they were really good
We have had quite a busy week so far but its not work as you know it. I have started traning the guides about caves and they are very keen to learn. I wish the students we taught earlier in our lives were as enthusiastic!!
Tomorrow is Saturday and our new bikes should arrive ($50 each) so we plan a cycle ride this weekend in the National park.
We have been invited to Hanoi in late November and will be doing a presentation about the caves with our good University friends. I hope to manage to find the fish and chip shop that is supposed to be in Hanoi!!
I spoke to Khanh today and he has found another cave 4 hours from Hang En towards Hang Tien. He says it has a big wind in the entrance and who knows it may be a way into the missing section between Hang En and Hang Tien. Khanh will be working with us with our big Russian group as camp boss sorting out food. It will be great to be back in the jungle with him and his team of Mr Ky and generator man.
We will try and update the blog every week or so to let everyone know what we are up to.
Howard and Deb
Just back from Tu Lan caves. We have been sorting out the route for the next big trip with 80 Russians. The weather has been excellent which is very lucky for November, hope it remains so for the 14th-16th November. We went with Oxalis team and Khanh to arrange all sleeping and checking route for guides. We went through Rat cave into Ken valley which had a large river. I managed to get stung by the evil plants again. The path over the col is much improved from last time and only the muddy descent caused any grief. Hang Ton is a fine dry cave which we have set up as a camp for everyone. We have safely bolted the pitch and along with the improved Vietnamese ladder will be perfect for the tourists. The swim to the exit was done and all the guides have been taught a few knots and basic lifelining techniques. Even the porters from the village wished to learn. We managed to obatin some reasonable photos of the skeletons found at the base of the ladder which are not too recent due to calcification. We will send to people in Hanoi to see what they think about them.
The river to Rat cave was entertaining and much higher than we have seen previously. The entrance to Hang Ton where we slept had a water mark from the 2010 flood which means that the valley was flooded to around 50m or more!! This lasted for at least 10 days according to the locals.
Back in Phong Nha our cafe at Oxalis named the expedition cafe is going well and it has been raised to allow westerners to walk under the wooden beams. All the tables and chairs have arrived and this week we must start the landscaping . The view from the cafe of the Son river is excellent and we really fancy ourselves relaxing in the cafe watching the world go by. I am sure it will be very popular once completed.
Our bikes are going fine although the saddles are a tad hard. I would not fancy going too far on them.
Tonight the people who run Paradise cave have invited us to visit the cave and take photographs for our presentation in late November in Hanoi on suistainable tourism. Deb has not seen the cave as a show cave so I am sure she will be impressed.
Tommorow we must go to Dong Hoi for our medical to obatin our resident permits so whilst we are there we will try and get a chance to visit our favorite cafe near the market for some fantastic Hue food. Deb also wishes to buy a kettle as the one here you have to hold in the button whilst waiting for it to boil.
We have heard now of 2 new caves, Khanhs new cave in a valley with water and strong wind sounds a winner and only yesterday our builder of the cafe told us of a cave with the usual wind etc 2 days walk from Paradise cave. He is going to go and check it out for us to make sure it is a new cave. I am sure we will obtain tons of leads for the next expedition and we promise we will not be greedy and visit them before the team arrives.
Deb starts her English lessons on Wednesday and the class numbers are buiding up already. I will go along to Khans bar to check his cold cokes whilst Deb takes her class.
In our room we have just obtained a new table which makes life easier with all our computers etc. We must however find a cupboard of some sort to put some of our rammel in which is just lying around on the floor along with our Chinese bikes which people insist we must take in at night. Why anyone would steal them is a mystery to us but we do as we are told to be on the safe side.
The local people are now in fleeces even though it is around 29c. Needless to say we are using the air conditioning which amazes the people we work with. I suppose we will eventually acclimatise to the heat but I bet it will take a while.
Howard and Deb
Have just said goodbye to the Russian ‘Big Game’ after an epic 4 days. A total of 73 Russians and hordes of Vietnamese have been on the roads and in the caves. How they survived 2 days cycling on vietnamese roads is amazing, as most of them had never cycled before, and were not familiar with gears etc. A couple of accidents on the first day on the steep bit on road 20. Some nasty scrapes but luckily nothing too serious. Ran out of time, so basically the ride from Tran Ang bridge via paradise cave and back to Phong Nha was in the dark!!!! No risk there then. A few more rules for the next day which was to ride from Phong Nha to Tan Hoa for the trek to Tu Lan all on the main roads. Lots of drink stops and Pho on the way, but everyone made it by about 4.30pm. & teams staying in local houses with basic facilites. hammocks and tents all over the main room. The local cafe produced and excellent dinner. Howard forgot his thermarest, as he uses it in Phong Nha for the rock hard mattress. Unfortunately our bed for the night could only be described as a solid wooden dining table. Luckily he managed to acquire and Oxalis blow up mattress. We stayed in a house with Khanh, Ky, Vu, Toan and Tu (generator man) who had been brought in to do the in-cave catering for 100 people.
The next morning it was up at 5.30 to get things going. I had to take over a group for the trek, and Howard got my cushy job of rigging the cave and chatting to the lads. Anyway they were quite good at trekking so it went quite smoothly. Left the village at 7.00. Had to walk from there as the fields too wet to drive to the fence. Used doc mocs to cross the river to keep epople dry. It was just about wade-able, but a strong flow. In through Rat cave and a short break at La Ken valley, then the hill up and over. Steep and muddy down the other side! Here the competitiors had to be kept away from the cave before the final challenge…….
Typically the essential gear such as ropes and lifejackets had not yet appeared and was still at the river. Luckily Tuan the Oxalis driver is a good fit lad, and went back for a huge bag of lifejackets. Soon had things underway for the main event. Competitors had to go throught Hang Ton dry entrance to the ptich, where Howard and Duc lined them down the 10m slippery wooden ladder. Dzung checked their lifejackets, and then they had to swim across the lake and down towards the exit. They had to stop before the waterfall and go out the side exit, and back overland to the dry entrance. The current was quite strong at the exit end. You could just about swim upstream with a lot of effort. The throw line was invaluable as a few went too far and had to be hauled back in. The waterfall into a turbulent pool would not have been a pleasant ride! The valley beyond was mostly a large pool, with still quite a fast flow through.
On exiting the swim, everyone had to be photographed and interviewed for the film team. Finally about 5.30 it was over and we were free to leave for the entrance and a good dinner from Khanh’s team.
The next day was a steady exit, and wade across the river. Pho for lunch in the village and back to Phong Nha.
English lessons are going well. Howard is loking after the beginners, which includes Khanh, Ky, Nguyen, Toan (truck driver’s mate) and several local ladies. They are so keen it’s amazing. Sometimes the Oxalis guides come to help which is really useful. I have started to print handouts, as otherwise they spend all their time copying things, and some are quite slow understandably. The advanced group includes Luan from Thanh Dat, Hien from the Vung Hue restaurant (seriously tewed pork!) and Uy who porters with us some times. They are all quite shy, but very good really.Again they are very keen. The first lesson we thought about an hour or so would be ok, but they demanded 2 hours, and twice a week!!! Hope the group doesn’t grow too much too soon, as it will be difficult fitting them all in.
The cafe is getting there, needs some lighting and a management plan, what fun.
Outside a team of ladies is scrubbing 80 or so sleeping bags, boots and gloves. Oxalis guides have gone to Dong Hoi airport to wave off the Russians.Hoping for an easier week, before the trip to Hanoi for the Universities work shop. Hope to catch up with Phuc, Long and Truc as well as the Uni lot. No doubt shopping for wine gums and fish and chips!!!
Our room overlooking the Son River. Note the tasty mosquito net on our bed!!
Our English classes are growing by the day but everyone is coming along excellent. I expect good English when the team arrives for the next expedition. I plan to make the English lessons cave orientated once they have the basics!! The lads are telling us about lots of new caves especially Mr Ky who has 7 more caves for us to explore. Khanh as usual has what sounds like another winner above Ban Ban towards the Loas border.
Yesterday we met Mr Thanh the National Park head who was pleased to see us. We should obtain a permit for us to go and explore in the park which will be great news. The water levels are still high after the so called rainy season despite no rain for 2 weeks. There would be no chance of going in Hang En or Son Doong at moment. Very interesting to see the water at Tra Anh bridge where the Phong Nha water has backed up and is flowing into Hang Toi. This is the driest for over 20 years as well!!
We have been down to the market today to buy a few goodies and Deb is going to try and make a Thai salad tonight, mainly because I am fed up with rice and the usual already. Hope its a success. We are pretty popular in the town and everyone still greats us with a good welcome whenever we visit. Yesterday we gave out a number of photographs from 1990 and it caused an uproar of laughing in the village with lots of hugs for Deb from the ladies we knew back in 1990. Last night we found a tree frog in our room but failed to photograph it. They can jump a long way!! I found a massive spider in the toilet also which the guides reasure me is not dangerous. It was huge though and I am very careful when having a shower. I am still searching for some edible sweets but my last attempt at what I hoped was Walkers crisps proved to be a failure big time. At least they were cheap so we didn’t waste much money. Off to Hanoi on train on Friday hopefully in a first class soft sleeper bed. I will bring a rucksack with me in the hope of finding some goodies to bring back to Phong Nha. On Wednesday we are off in Paradise cave to take some photographs for our talk in Hanoi. Hopefully we will obtain the VIP treatment such as electric cars and free meals!!
We have been invited to take part in the big 10 year celebration of World Heritage status next April and it sounds a big do and I am expected to do more TV interviews about the caves of Quang Binh.
Last night was ‘Teachers Day’ and Deb was given a big bunch of flowers and I was given some sweets and a coke!!
At last the Russians have left Saigon but not without mishap when the plane failed to drop wheels on journey to Saigon so a bit i=of fiddling was needed before all was Ok and they landed safely. Glad I was not on the plane.
Planning a big meeting with all our freinds in Hanoi such as Hieu,Phai.Nga,Phuc,Bac,Phoung etc. Also expect to see Truc and Long so plenty of food and drinks I’m sure.
It is still nice and warm here around 28c but all the guides are well wrapped up in jumpers whilst we are in T shirts and shorts. We are expecting a short heat wave the next few days so our tans will be topped up again.
Now back in Phong Nha after a busy week in Hanoi. Met up with many friends including Hieu,Phuc,Truc and Long. The University had pulled out all stops to get us top billing in the big workshop in Hanoi. I was one of the leading panel speakers and had to address my talk to the prime minister and other top people. He seemed to like it and gave me a good round of applause. What a place to lecture, its a huge impresive hall and our film was being shown outside the lecture hall. We then got invited to meet the General secretary and we were taken with a police escourt through the streets of Hanoi with all traffic blocked to meet him at the state hall. We were well looked after by all our friends as usual and the resturant Phuc and family took us to was fantastic. It was a BBQ on your table with as much to eat as you could manage. Watto would have loved it. His sons still ask about the fat man!!
The train down was a good journey on soft sleepers and I was then involved in taking Mat a nice UK lad on a tour in Paradise cave and some kayaking. Mat looks after a big tourist company in the UK and hopefully he enjoyed his time. He seemed blown away by Paradise cave.
The kayaking was a great laugh except the paddles seemed to be made out of mild steel and after a few KM’s our arms were pretty tired. So we hitched a lift on a motar boat but unfortunetly for Mat his boat which he was in sank like a submarine and had to be dragged back into the main boat. We got an excellent video of the sinking which luckily he thought was very amusing!!
After the sinking we had a great BBQ by the river before going to 2 parties that night, one in a Karioke bar with the Oxalis team. Deb and I made sure we didn’t sing. I also had a go at driving at night in a car on the Vietnam roads which was good fun, nearly hit a dog though.
Just heard about a team going to Hang En that had a very close epic just like out last film with the Japanese. This time all equipment was lost. 2 of the tourist were on honeymoon they will not forget that for sure. It is crazy going to En at this time of year and we plan to let the National Park know our views and try and make rules to stop people going into the caves between September and december. Oxalis doea not do any trips into En during that time and is a very safe and sensible company.
More teaching is planned for tonight and then off into jungle for 3 days with archeolgists to check caves for pottery and bones. The 4 from Hanoi seem really keen and hopefully we will be allowed in and have some success.
Weather still warm out here around 28c but some rain has fallen today and forcast is for more so we have bought some plastic sheets to cover our hammocks in the jungle.
Managed to buy bacon in Hanoi and had a fantastic bacon sandwich for lunch. Managed to buy some chocolate spread and peanut butter which will help us on the breakfast menus for a short while.
Cafe at Oxalis is coming along fine and we will employ a cook soon and hopefully we will be able to teach her some good English cooking tips ie chips and pancakes!!
Just returned from Minh Hoa after an epic walk in the jungle. The plan was to recce a section of jungle for the jungle marathon next year. We got dropped off by car and made our way via various cafes to find a man who knew about a route over to La Ken valley which we know from many trips into the caves. A jungle looking man arrived and told us a good path did exhist over the hill. So as this was 10km away to the start we all obtained motorbike taxis and set off at great speed in the rain. Finally after a few wrong directions we were dropped off in the middle of no where. The guide assured us that it took only 2 hours and there was only 1 path so we could not get lost. So off we went with no guide, no food along with 3 Oxalis lads Dzung, Tin and Duc. The first part of the walk involved crossing rivers and was very beautiful. We then had a route finding problem as the path split but soon we were on the correct path up a big hill. This was a bit of a slog but finally we made it to a fantastic traverse path with excellent jungle views. This would be a superb trek for tourists who fancy a bit of adventure. We then made our way again crossing many streams until we finally made it to the top of the hill. Time was getting on so we pushed on and as expected got lost. Numerous paths led into the jungle and all were logging paths to no where. We had around 10 minites of light left when we decided to try another path at the top of hill. This luckily was pretty fair and we managed to again climb up to the summit ridge and our descent began. We descended into Ken valley and by now it was pitch black and raining. We had been walking over 5 hours by now and we hoped we could follow this good path back to the village. Our GPS was invaluable on the route though we never seemed to get closer to the village. Another hour of staggering in the forst and we made it to a dam. From here it was another 4km on horrible muddy paths in the rain. With the abundance of cow shit around we knew we were near civalisation but it took ages to finally arrive at the village. The walk took 7 1/2 hours and in the village we managed to arrange a doss and some noodles for tea. The lads then had a party and we even managed to find a pool table in the village and I had a few games much to the amusement of the locals.
Next day we were picked up by our trusty driver and back to home for a shower and food.
More English classes the next few days which are going very well and the Expedition cafe is coming along fine and tomorrow Deb is off downtown to buy the goodies for the opening. We have bought an oven so hopefully my menu will improve.
The location of the cafe is brilliant and the landscaping is looking great. I think it will be a real popular place in the future.
We have had the opening night of the cafe and despite no electricity in the village until 6pm managed to keep the beers cold and with the aid of a few caving lamps the party seemed to go down well.
Had another trip in the jungle and drove down beside the Xiang river to the coast checking out the jungle marathon. The scenery around here is superb and completely off the route for tourists. I can’t wait to go again next time with a camera.
We have been invited to a big wedding do at the Sun Spa on Xmas eve. Have received the biggest invatations I have ever seen. You looks like it will be a real posh do so I will have to get out my best trainers and T shirts. The top people from the People’s committee will probably be there so we should get a good chance to have a chat with them. Looks like 2 films next year in Son Doong. I am now starting to sort out logistics and permissions using the Ministry of Information and our good contacts there.
The first real rains since we have arrived have started. Yesterday was a miserable day raininh hard all day. The temperature has fallen to 18c so everyone is in jackets and scarfs!! We actually have taken off shorts and T shirts replacing with long pants and fleece. Also first night when no air con was needed.
Another big English class tonight after yesterday working with Mr Khanh. He has bought an old house made from beautiful hard wood over the river. Yesterday a team of around 12 lads from the village went by boat and started knocking down the old house. No health and safety rules apply here but we all managed to escape tiles falling down and the wood was transported back to Khanhs place. He hopes to make a quality homestay with excellent views of the river and mountains. We wish him success in this venture and I am sure he will do very well.
On Xmas day we are off to Hanoi for a few days to stock up with goodies such as chocholate spread and sweets.
All going well for next expedition starting in mid February. Team of 16 members for a eight week period. Possible film 2 weeks previous to main expedition.
The team has been sponsored kindly by Toshiba who have supplied 2 notepads for our use in the field. These Toshiba Sat 730 look very good and with its impressive battery life should be perfect for drawing up surveys in the jungle.
We leave on the 14th Feb to work with Vietnamese TV who are producing a programme about Hang Son Doong.
We have been fortunate to be sponsored by Keela outdoor clothing manufacturers, who have given free t-shirts, long and short sleeved, as well as long trousers. These are perfect for caving and walking in the rough terrain of the central Vietnam karst landscape.
Finally, we would like to thank Vietnam Airlines for granting us 100kg of free excess baggage as well as free t-shirts.
We have lots of new caves to visit with our experienced jungle guides and hope to be exploring lots of new passage before too long.
Now arrived in Hanoi and sorting out everything with Hanoi University for the forthcoming expedition.
SpanSet have supplied with 3 full body harness. This should help us take the Vietnamese down Hang Son Doong. Really bright colours so we should not lose anyone!! They look really good but doubt they will be in same condition after a trip down great wall of Vietnam.
Today I am off to Vietnam TV studio to make a program called Talk Vietnam. It is shown in many countries in English. I have my script now and working hard to remember my lines!! Not looking forward to this ordeal at all. Deb has refused to be a TV star so I am on my own which is not good news.
Our minibus has set off for the caving area with our equipment. We are in discussion about the price of the vehicles which has gone up greatly from last time. We need to sort this out or we will be doing lots of walking on this expedition!!!
We fly Saturday down to Dong Hoi to start preparing for our trip down Hang Son Doong. We are bringing 2 American hydrologists as well as members of Quang Binh committee down the cave for 3 days. Weather in Hanoi is clody as usual but hope to see a little sun when we fly further south.
Hieu from Hanoi University is at the moment in hospital waiting for the birth of his second child which seems to have arrived slightly earlier than expected. He also is expected to go to TV studios to represent Hanoi University but at moment has other things on his mind!!!
Meeting up with Watto and Russ on Saturday at the airport before flying down to Dong Hoi. In the old days it took nearly 5 days to reach caving area but now we can fly direct from London to Vietnam with Vietnam Air and straight down to caving area saving over 3 days travelling time.
Back from Hang Son Doong after 3 days with National Park, Forestry, Anh a hydologist from Hanoi University. The lake is back and we went in via Hang En. We camped only one night in Son Doong at the level playing fields and had a quick visit to Garden of Edam. We were joined by 2 TV crews from Vietnam who hopefully managed dome good footage for the first time for the Vietnam people. It is hoped to be shown in the next few weeks over here in Vietnam.
It was a tough trip for some but all managed pretty well considering. The weather is supriseingly cool and the Vietnamese found the trip very cold indeed. Soon as we left Son Doong the sun came out and temperature has risen to 28c which made the walk back a little sweaty.
I have finished my filming duties for Vietnamese TV at last and it should be shown the next few weeks. These boys don’t mess about.
Next 3 days we are off to Hang Thuong valley to check out a few leads and GPS a few entrances we found in 1994.
Mr Ho Khanh has found around 9 new caves for us to explore when the main team arrives in the next few weeks. Some of the caves sound excellent especially the large cave with river entering in the Xuong valley. He also has a number of caves with huge draughts and large passages booming off book early!!!!
Just arrived back from 3 days in jungle. Finally found Hang Thoung and obtained GPS of entrance. It is a superb river valley with all Son Doong water.The walk in is fairly easy 3 hours and a good camp near river. We checked a downstream cave which connects to Hang Tron and we were taken to a new dry cave 100m above river. The cave was explored for 150m to a large chamber with passage booming off with good echo and left it for main expedition. Also told of 2 other caves in area which we will check in the first week of trip. Luckily the weather has cooled off a bit and walking is very pleasant. The national park insisted on a man coming with us who turned out to be an excellent cook. We had BBQ pork in camp which was excellent and Watto and myself managed to eat nearly half a pig.
In the next few days we hope to go visit a few more new caves and check them out for the full expedition. We also are going to have a couple of days in Hang Toi to take Mr Khanh our main guide through the cave and hopefully he will know more caves in the valley after Hnag Toi.
Our names on the permits are a good laugh and Mrs`Watson and Mrs Brooks are well pleased with their new titles!!
Looking forward to meeting up with rest of team this weekend and finally grabbing some new caves. Mr Khanh our main guide keeps coming up with more new caves and can’t understand why we are not exploring them.
Outside our hotel in Son Trach a wedding reception is in full swing and the Kariokee singing is outragous to say the least. Watto is not a happy bunny!!
We have just seen the Vietnamese news on TV and we are first news on TV before Barck Obama!!
Vietnam Diary Feb 16 – Apr 26 2012 – Russell Brook
Arrived in Hanoi at 06.20. 2 days after leaving home, very tired! Collected visa’s with no problems, had 6 hour wait in the airport as not enough time to go into Hanoi proper, Very small airport with nothing to do!, changed £200 into 6.4 million Dong! Drank lots of coffee and tried to stay awake. Watto snored some more…. Met up with Howard & Deb, (who had been in Hanoi for a couple of days doing paperwork stuff and TV shows, their now famous! (Rumour has it a Statue of Howard is being planned for gates to national park!) Also met up with Bac & Hang from Hanoi University. Flight delayed to Dong Hoi due to poor weather (not to be the last time Limbert Tours let us down!) eventually arrived in Dong Hoi about 15.00, collected by our driver and on to Son Trach arriving at hotel about16.30. Went out for a meal to expedition restaurant of choice from previous year beef & onions along with some pork & ginger and a couple of beers before early night as off to Son dong on Sunday.
Team Split, Howard sorted paperwork, Watto went shopping, I went with Deb to Han Son Dong exit, with Nghia as our guide plus 2 porters, the walk in was about 2 hours with a gentle start down through the jungle to a large dry river bed then a steep climb up and over col into adjacent valley before climbing down into cave itself, which had a huge draft blowing out! The plan was to rig exit (great wall of Vietnam) so we could take National Park top brass on a through trip, rigged pitch (80m pitch 1 Y hang, 1 single bolt re belay to large ledge then 2nd Y hang to single bolt re belay to floor) unfortunately the floor turned out to be a lake approximately 600m plus long and over 20m deep! The through trip was immediately cancelled and much to the porters disgust we de-tackled and gave them the kit back to be carried back to the van! A good day and impressive introduction to Vietnamese caves, the exit is approximately 200m high in places (possibly higher but didn’t have disto) 80-100m wide in places, walk back to the van took about 1.5 hrs. on arrival at the road the bus was late (Limbert tours again!) so out guides lit a fire on the of the road to keep warm, (the road is part of the Ho Chi Min Trail and doesn’t see much traffic as permits are required to drive it and there are no towns, shops or gas stations for over 100km)
Day off, packed personal and team gear ready for a trip to Han song Dong the following day, Watto helped Bruce and Hughie (a couple of guys from the USA who were joining us for a trip into HSD) to sort their packs out by removing all that wasn’t needed, went for a meal of beef & onions, Pork & rice before an early night.
May the Chaos begin! Approximately 30 plus people maybe 40, The 4 of us plus 2 from USA, Mr Khanh (Guide) and Sherpa’s, then some folk from university plus top brass from national parks, forestry department and Quang Binh committee plus 2 film crews Vietnam TV (equivalent of BBC) and Quang Binh( equivalent of ITV Yorkshire) once finally assembled and 3000 photo’s had been taken we finally set off about 10am, The walk in starts with about an hour’s walk down a steep hill to an active stream where we all re assembled (first casualties (aching legs to piles!) were beginning to complain) before a further half hour walk onto “doong” village (a minority tribal village of about 30 people all very closely related!) from here a further 2 hours walk along rivers and paths brings you out at the very impressive entrance to Hang En a vast fossil entrance (approximately 80m x 40m) next to which is the smaller active entrance (20m x 5m) where we were to spend the night. The guides soon had camp set up and we picked a quiet spot for our bivvies’ most of the group then rested whilst those from Limbert tours were soon regrouped and off on a through trip to with 2 film crews to start documentary, Hang En is a vast Cave (200m x 100m in places and 1.6km long) from the active entrance a climb up and over a large rubble heap brings you out inside the huge fossil entrance looking down into a vast chamber with the river snaking of under a low arch (4m x 20m) from here a wade down the river brings you out onto a second large rubble heap approximately 60m high then down the other side before going up the 3rd rubble heap which is approximately 80m high and 80m wide with flood debris on top!( a complete tree!!) this looks out into the massive Hang En exit (100m x 100m) and down into the enclosed valley that leads to Son dong. Here Howard nailed his celebrity status (Watto claims he is Britain’s greatest living underground explorer) with more interviews occasionally letting Deb in on the action, Sadly the American Bomb I had seen in previous photo’s on the beach at Hang En exit was no longer there (another Limbert tours black mark) once work was completed we returned to camp for a meal of beef and onions, pork and rice. We also met a group of 4 lads from London who had paid £500 each for an “adventure trek” through the jungle which took in Hang En and were also camping the night in the entrance so we had a pleasant evening chatting with our new friends for a while before settling down for the night.
Up early for the 2 hour walk into Son Doong, our new friends from London had been surprised to see chickens living wild in the jungle, before they realised our guides had taken them with us as fresh food! they were quickly caught and put back in the bags to continue their journey to the meal in Han Song Doong! The casualties from the previous day stayed at camp (one of which who could hardly walk had nothing of use in his bag but did have a bottle of Quatro!) and the rest of us set off in 3 teams, Deb & Watto took the advanced A team to get the cave rigged and camp set up, I took the B team and Howard brought up the rear with his film crew, on arrival at the entrance chaos took over as all the guests got excited and tried to jostle for position to get inside, here a huge draft blew inwards making it quite a cold spot to sit around, once order was regained Watto & I led the new A team to rig the river crossings whilst Den & Howard tried to control the Film Crews! Approximately 2 hours of caving past various now famous landmarks brought us to Camp 1 (The Level Playing Fields) from here you have a spectacular view out into the first doline (Watch out for Dinosaurs) here we regrouped and set up camp for the night, we then divided into 2 teams, those who’d had enough stayed at camp (Bruce and Hughie were fairly tired and very worried about getting back out) the rest of us now only including 1 TV crew set off for the second doline (The Garden of Edam) Again passing various landmarks along the way. The passage between Dinosaurs and Edam is named the “Rat Run”( in memory of Tony “J’Rat” Jarrat who was a member of the early Vietnam expeditions in the 90’s) and is an incredible sight, at approximately 1km long and well over a 100m high you can see daylight at both ends when stood in the middle! With a huge stal boss and massive gour pools the entire length it certainly makes you realise your somewhere special, from here you climb out of a huge archway and up into massive doline that is the Garden of Edam and although your now in daylight and stood in a jungle the towering cliffs (up to 250m high) soon remind you your still in the cave and there’s no quick way out! With Debs reluctantly taking over the interviews in the absence of Howard (although possibly after a statue of her own?) and Watto now holding 20 cameras belonging to just about everyone who wanted there photo taking I sneaked off through the garden for a quick look at the continuation of the cave, despite the on-going passage being over 100m high and having some directions of the best route from Debs I still found this incredibly hard work, following the route I was given around the right of the doline and aiming for the large black space I still found myself looking over some horrible drops and climbs eventually finding a route down on the left towards camp 2 (beach Camp) here I had a quick run down yet more huge passage before remembering I was on my own and had to find my way back across Edam before dark so I turned short of my target of Passchendaele and headed back to find Watto discussing the finer points of perfume with Mr Hoia We then had a gentle trip back to Camp 1 and a pleasant meal of beef and onions pork and rice (no idea what happened to the chickens but I didn’t get one!) before more TV interviews and bed.
We again split into 3 teams; The plan was to make it all the way back to the road in one day. myself and Watto taking some Sherpa’s, Film Crew, Bruce & Hughie out from camp1 to Hang En where we were to stop for lunch Bruce and Hughie were very worried about the walk and had decided to give away as much stuff as possible to make their packs lighter having told us that anything we carried out we could keep Watto and I found ourselves with some nice new hammocks! But let the local lads have the sleeping bags! The trip out was mostly uneventful apart from dragging some scared and slightly worried (and tired) folk up the entrance ramps, once out the look of relief on the Bruce & Hughie’s faces was obvious but they were still tired so we had a steady walk up the valley up to Hang En, arriving after about 2 hours to find the Sherpa’s had a lovely meal of beef & onions, pork & rice all ready for us. Once fed and watered myself and Watto took Bruce and Hughie who were finding it hard work and set off ahead of the rest who Howard and Deb were to look after, the walk back was a steady one keeping them hydrated and encouraging them all the way, breaking it into small sections they could tick off, until eventually arriving at the bottom of the final hill out, here we fed & watered them again told them some small white lies to make them feel better and dragged them up and back to the road in about 1 ¼ hours. Still ahead of everyone else who arrived over the next couple of hours (it has to be said they actually did very well). On arrival at the road the minibus was already waiting and had brought us some pop and in my case Beer which was gratefully received. Once back in Son Trach we went for a lovely meal of beef & onions, pork & rice.
Easy Day, Howard & Deb went to do more interviews, Watto and I cleaned the kit from Song Dong and visited to the War museum, Hughie & Bruce departed back to the states somewhat broken but very happy with their trip. After the museum we all went up to Dong Hoi for lunch with some UNESCO staff and to drop Anh off at the airport. Then back Son Trach for beef & onions, pork & rice.
Day off to sort expedition gear from tackle store, (some rest day make another complaint for Limbert tours!) Finally sun came out and went from 18 on Sunday to 35 degrees! With tackle store under tin sheet roof this made for a hard and sweaty day, all ropes re measured and tagged, harness’s, slings and metal work all inspected and crap thrown out. Flash guns serviced boats & stoves cleaned and everything re-packed neatly back into store
- Saturday 25th – Monday 27th – 3 days to Thoong Valley
3 day trip to re-locate and accurately GPS the entrance to Hang Thoong (A 3.5km cave surveyed during the 94 expedition and is thought to be a major part of the Han song Dong drainage but didn’t fit in with the rest of the survey) we also wanted to see if we could some other caves to confirm if this was the lost valley Howard and Jarret had found in 92 but not recorded, plus we also had a definitely new cave to look at above the Thoong valley sink that Mr Khanh had located for us.
Before setting of we started with our regular breakfast of noodles or egg at the local restaurant when we were treated to a line of beautiful you ladies (presumably from a local Hair and beauty college) who filed past us one by one in tighter and tighter clothing! Once recovered we set off about 8am Having passed the usual checkpoint at the entrance to the national park where we showed the usual permits & relevant paperwork we were then surprised to chased down by some forestry commission staff who wouldn’t allow us to proceed as we didn’t have “their” relevant paperwork! So back to Son Trach we went and H & D went for a meeting with the forestry dept. who eventually decided they would let us go if we took one of their boys with us! Eventually we set off with the walk in being steady up a gradual hill and down a slightly steeper descent the other side on a path that was obviously well used, (apparently according to our guide, by locals going to Laos to illegally cut down particular trees that are worth a lot of money to them (a journey that takes 4 weeks!) and although our forestry guys assured us this practice no longer happened and that they had stopped the illegal tree felling, the 3 camps we passed through (including one that still had a warm fire!) told us different) the path was also fairly muddy and slippery after overnight rain but we still got to camp in about 3.5 hours, a beautiful camp overlooking a large river (about the size of Wookey hole resurgence) sinking into boulders. Once suitable trees had been felled to make hammock post’s and people had been put in their designated places (Howard & Debs were made to camp with the guides & Sherpa’s on a well-defended ledge whilst myself and Watto were left to fend for ourselves out in the jungle with the big cats!!) (The story Howard & Deb will tell about snoring is clearly just a cover story and not to be believed!) at this point Watto asked our most trusted guide if he thought it would rain and if a tarp was needed our man pointed at the blue sky laughed and walked of shaking his head! With camp set up we headed off downstream to find “J-Rats” cave of 92, although it soon became apparent that this was not Howards mystery valley and J-Rats cave wasn’t here although Watto did find a cave just above the main sink which we followed through a low bedding to a 3m overhang above the continuation of the river and despite the fact we couldn’t get down into the river itself Debs surmised that it was almost certainly another entrance into “Circle Cave” which was on the GPS as being approximately 30mtrs above us and seemed to fit the description. (this will have to be checked for definite when we return). On our way out we met Howard who had stopped before a short crawl in a puddle (certainly not what I came to Vietnam for! Another black mark for Limbert tours!!) who was pointing out that there was now a 20 legged beasty between him and us! And more importantly the exit!! At this point Deb found a somewhat snug route over the top and escaped leaving me and Watto to now wonder why we hadn’t noticed it on the way in! after some debate and a bit of poking and much to Watto’s disgust I decided not to kill it as it didn’t seem to fussed about me and crawled by it closely followed by Mr Watson who stopped to photograph the beast. Once out we had a gentle stroll up the dry river bed back to camp before dark, where the forestry boy who had been thrust upon us had prepared a fantastic meal of beef & onions, pork & rice but somehow had made to taste better than any meal I’d had on the trip so far! Hope he comes again! An early night followed only disrupted by heavy rain and Watto hurriedly making a tarp roof over his hammock!
After breakfast of noodles and egg, we set off up the valley to locate Hang Thoong, after a pleasant walk on a proper path we soon dropped into the valley proper and followed the limestone along the edge of the water, this place clearly took a huge river when it rained and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near it in flood. Made up of steeply sloping lime blocks and steep cliffs we soon located the 2 cave entrances in the right hand corner, Debs took GPS locations then Watto, Deb & Howard went to check the cave was the right one and that it fitted the description. Once confirmed as the right place we headed back to camp, before setting off to find Mr Khanh’s new cave Howard decided to stay in camp as he had hurt his back after slipping in the morning and Watto decided to stay and look after him so Deb & I had a quick coffee then set off after our guides the walk was certainly an interesting hour or so of mostly off piste climbing and walking which Deb claimed had made her top 10 if not top 5 grim Vietnam Walks!! But eventually we found the new cave an interesting 8m x 4m entrance sloping dropping down at about 40 degrees bending left before coming to what looked like the end, I inspected the bottom where water (albeit not much) obviously sank and Deb checked out a small low crawl off to the right, after taking a few photos of various bones (mostly dear and maybe a goat skull?) and finding my first bullet Debs re appeared with a grin to say it had opened up again into a large chamber and was a “goer”! We decided to get Mr Khanh and his boy (who had found the cave in the first place) and take them in to the large chamber to show them, from the bottom of the entrance ramp, we followed Deb through a hands and knees crawl on rough ground (2 days, 2 caves, 2 crawls! not what I came to Vietnam for!! Must discuss with Limbert Tours!!!) however once through the cave opens up into a large chamber with some fine columns, to the left a steeply descending ramp slopes down at about 45 degrees which needs to be checked out and a passage appears to carry on round the back of the columns, as we hadn’t surveyed and a return to the valley is planned Deb decided to leave the exploration for the team that returned so we made our way out finding some pottery on the way which we photographed before logging entrance co-ordinates on GPS and setting of back down the hill. Thankfully our guides found a slightly easier but still interesting way back down to camp passing another cave which although was unknown to them was clearly known to someone, it had various pieces of wood in the entrance and some banana leaves covering it, the cave itself sloped down again at about 40 degrees to what looked like a dig!? Which went down about 10m with a bamboo ladder down it? Something which has never been seen in Vietnam before, we still have no idea what it was about or who did it. Once back at camp we discovered Howard was feeling much better after some pain killers and Watto had spent the afternoon in the young forestry man’s hammock eating pork! Deb and I tucked into a fine meal of beef & onions, pork & rice before trying to explain Howard’s mystery valley by drawing pictures in the sand, I departed for an early night but I think the map drawing went on for some time!
Breakfast of noodle with no egg as they had gone off was followed by a gentle walk out the way we had come in, taking about 3 hours we reached the road about midday, and were back in Son Trach by about 1pm after some confusion about whether we should pay for our forestry guest who had been sent with us, Howard & Deb arranged a meeting with national parks and forestry commission to sort it out, his food was good but not that good! Whilst the meeting took place Watto and I went up to Phong Nha show cave entrance, an impressive resurgence cave about 7km long with a huge river flowing out. On our return the National Parks and forestry commission confirmed that we shouldn’t have to pay for extra guides
A short one day trip into the jungle to see a new cave Mr Khanh new of, on arrival Howard immediately expressed his concerns that it could be one he’d been to before but the GPS said different claiming “Tre cave” that Howard referred to was in the other direction! So we set off from kilometre 14,(our now free forestry guest even picked up a bag-free Sherpa bonus!) the walk in took about 1.5 hours starting off over a small col then down a steep hill to the valley bottom, once at the bottom we followed the valley along past some very distinctive crags that Howard recognised straight away it turned out that the GPS data was wrong and he was right so while the rest of us waited H & D plus Mr Khanh ran off to get the correct GPS location whilst Watto and I ate cake!! Then the rain came!! Our forestry friend gathered some huge leaves to shelter under which worked until after 5 minutes I tried to make myself more comfortable and slipped straight on my backside into a now fast flowing stream of mud, something Watto found most amusing! About 10 minutes later and a thorough drenching despite our Huge leaves H & D arrived back confirming it was Tre Cave and it was now logged, however it was still a good day as it meant we had found a quick way into the Toi valley without having to cave through Toi cave, making it possible to search this area on a day trip instead of an overnight or 3 day trip. Watto and Deb went to log Hang E resurgence which was close by whilst I ate more cake! The walk back up the hill took about an hour before arriving back at the road 2 hours earlier than our meeting time so our guides lit a fire in the road to keep us warm.
Another single day trip, this time into a valley with only 1 known cave which we’re not allowed to visit as it’s used by the military! Our departure point was about ¾ of a kilometre beyond the checkpoint and our route followed along the valley bottom crossing a small river and even smaller stream before coming to a short cave called “Bullet Cave” whilst obviously a natural cave it had been engineered to allow anti-aircraft guns to be stored and fired from it, 36.4m long 6m wide by 4m high we quickly surveyed it took a couple of photos and carried on to our primary destination. Now the fun began as we followed our guides up a steep hill to various limestone outcrops which he quickly climbed then waited at the top as we tried to follow much to his amusement! After a few interesting moments which we weren’t sure we fancied reversing on the way back down! We eventually arrived at the top and traversed along the hill before dropping into the adjacent valley, another small climb down and we arrived at our destination after 2 hours (exactly how long he had said it would take) we had a quick bite to eat and Watto found an American anti-personnel mine before setting off into the cave, surveying as we went with Debs on book, Howard on instruments, and Watto and I leapfrogging on stations we quickly surveyed to 300m with a short round trip in the middle, the cave itself was a very old (and warm) fossil cave at an altitude of about 140m full of very old and fragile formations even the rocks seemed to crumble as you touched them, eventually it passed through one boulder choke to a small chamber before another choke marked the end, I did push into it for 10-15m or so and it possibly continued but with no draft and very soft rock we left it, surveying round the loop on the way out we also found a pitch of about 10m-15m but again looking blind with no draft and no solid rock anywhere in sight we left it. The walk back took about 1.5 hours with the climbs not being as bad as we had feared! We reached the road at about 1.30pm with our pick up due at 2pm we walked back up to the checkpoint and waited there.
With the 2 day trip into Toi valley now reduced to a one day after Tuesday’s discovery of a new route we were given today off to write up the last two weeks and enter survey data, Easy day!
Being awoken at 4.30am by the sound of pigs having there throat cut is not very pleasant (even though it is now becoming a daily ritual!) it kind of took the edge of our lie in and the luxury of an 8am breakfast, but once fed and with the weather beginning to clear (even hint of sunshine!) we were collected by our captain (thankfully not Italian!) and taken to our private charter for the 7k boat trip up the river to Hang Toi passing Phong Nha show cave on route. The journey took about an hour arriving at Hang Toi about around 10am we arranged for our captain to return at 3pm to pick us up again and set off in. The plan was primarily to get some promotional shots for our sponsors as well as photographing the impressive Hang Toi itself and check out a possible lead about 2 k in from the downstream end. We decided to cave straight into the large sections then check out the lead before photographing back out, Having been assured by our Limbert tours Rep there would be only some minor wading through pools no more than thigh deep we set off somewhat surprised to find ourselves swimming in out of depth lakes!! Sadly on arrival at our destination we lit up the chamber with the super bright “Hope lights” only to see that the lead wasn’t to be so we had a quick look about found an interesting snake skeleton and started photographing back towards the entrance eventually arriving back about 3pm after a very nice 5hr trip. The evening was rounded off watching Vietnam’s premier Friday evening chat show which has been known to have guests such as Bill Gates on but this week featured our very own Howard Limbert, all in all Watto and I thought it was a very good show and highlighted the caves of Vietnam very well. Surely he’ll get the statue now! (The statue of Limberty !!)
Off to Dong Hoi to collect, Sweeny, Clarky, Mick & Annette. Very Hot by 9am
- 04/03/2012 Back in Son Trach – first impressions
We descend towards Hanoi. Predictably, the perfect blue sky of Thailand has morphed into a dense, grey haze. Nothing has changed then.
The interior of the airport is dominated by the usual marble floors and lacquered dark wood counters. Yellow signs in Vietnamese and English point out a novel cubicle with two counters. Visas on arrival. A crowd of travellers gather – it is some time before it becomes clear that passport and forms are to be handed in at the back window and collected against a $25 cash US dollar fee at the front window. In between the visa applications are manually processed by passing the paper bundles along a row of five clerks in green uniform until they are spat out at the end. Vietnamese bureaucracy flourishes.
Having collected my bag I am greeted with a wave by Sweeney and am swiftly reunited with Clarky and Mick. It is good to see friends I have not seen since the 2010 Hang Son Doong filming expedition. We hug and retire for a long wait, catching up on gossip, and snoozing. My friends have just arrived from Europe. I, at least, had a reasonable night’s sleep in Bangkok. We check in for our connection to Dong Hoi. More than 200kg of excess baggage is accepted without a blink. No excess fees. Howard Limbert is famous here, his name stands for bringing good fortune and tourist revenue to Vietnam.
The flight is delayed for an hour. The weather gets more miserable if that is possible. I can hardly see the runway. Nevertheless we eventually climb aboard our ATR72. The flight is less than a third full – no wonder extra weight was not an issue. This cannot be profitable in the long term, but for now these flights are an essential statement of how far the country has come. Possibly this is a government owned airline and a bit of extra waste in terms of personnel, clerks and empty flight routes does not matter to this booming economy. It is outweighed by the benefits of connecting the provinces and showing off to rival powers.
The road to Phong Nha is terrible. I am shocked having – perhaps mis- remebered a smooth dual carriageway. Our drivers swerves around repairs, new bridges and the usual contingent of cyclists and farmers driving their cows home. The low cloud and constant drizzle make this a less joyous return than it might have been. Nevertheless I am here.
The Thanh Dhat hotel at least has not changed at all. Floodmarks on the wall three metres high mark the horrendous floods of last year that forced the entire village to retreat into the hills for weeks. Howard tells us of the epic in Hang En, when filming with the Japanese TV crew. Everyone only just escaped with their lives as a massive flood pulse came through Hang En while the exhausted crew were asleep in the downstream entrance.
Howard really IS famous here. A group of people follow us around on our way to dinner. In the evening on VTV4, I watch Howard in a national talk show that also includes cuts to a scene where Mr Thi and I admire the trees in the Garden of Edam. Hieu is also being interviewed in the show. He has come a long way from the eighteen year old student introduced by Prof. Phai. There is a brief interview which includes Phai and other academics at the Geomorphology Department in Hanoi University. The expedition members give Howard a good ribbing about the talk of erecting a statue in his honour. Wow.
The next three weeks will be split into two or three trips, hopefully (but unlikely) with little downtime in between. First a one day warm up to check a lead nearby. Then a seven day trip split into two teams, to tidy up leads in HSD, Khe Ry, and look at a number of new leads nearby. Khan is a famous local go-to person for anyone with new caves. They keep pouring in and we have more leads than ever. There is clearly still a lot of smuggling to Burma and Lao going on. Talk of people spending 30 days collecting wares (most likely rare wood) across the border, apparently diving to the bottom of a flooded valley to cut the wood in the first place. THen carrying huge slabs of it on their backs. These people are hard. More money can be made this way than by guiding tourists to Phong Nha and HSD. That is a shame. Although I am not blown away by the idea of thousands of tourists trampling through Hang En, cave tourism has brought comparative prosperity to this provincial area and the Vietnamese appear to realise the value of minimising impact on their source of income.
- 8-3 -12 A FISTFUL OF FROGS
Another grey, drizzly day in paradise. We were up at the crack of birdsong, sipped packaged noodle soup for breakfast, I stuck plasters on the seeping holes in my feet, and we were off up the path towards Laos once again. Walking in a line, led by the impressively acrobatic and sure-footed Mr Hung we snaked past the Laos junction and towards Hang Gio (Wind cave). More falling through the jungle for me – frequent travel (there is a LOT of traffic up this path) and the damp weather meant the mud greased limestone pinnacles might as well have been smeared in a thick layer of soap. I couldn’t really stand up anywhere and was crawling along on all fours with my large, yellow Exped bag whacking me on the back of my head at every turn.
While “Wind Cave” is an apt descriptor of first impressions on sighting the cave entrance, the name really falls short of describing its astonishing beauty. For Vietnam, the entrance is surprisingly small, situated half way up a short climb that is green with algae. The entrance really blows a hooley. We entered on our knees, perhaps a first for Vietnam. Russ traversed, I dropped down onto the floor squeezing past a stal outcrop to gain a reasonably sized chamber with fantastic decorations. Unfortunately, a lot of the stalactites were broken and the cave floor was littered with the ubiquitous “Rejoice” shampoo sachets plus a random assortment of clothes in varying stages of decay (ranging from skimpy blue male undercrackers via tatty grey trousers to outrageously patterned dress shirts). An arch indicated the way on from the entrance chamber. This next chamber was of very impressive proportions, and even more beautifully decorated than the first. The chamber was nearly circular with a dome shape roof and housed entire stalagmite forests, giant curtains, enormous flow stones, and acres of ceiling-to-floor organ pipe formations. In places, the floor was ankle deep in cave pearls, much of the floor was covered in popcorn, dried crystal gour pools, and several small stal encrusted mirror pools with water. Russ found a couple of freshwater crabs in one of these pools.
To the right another much larger entrance beckoned up a slope, bathing the immediate area in a soft green glow. Birdsong could be heard from the forest beyond. Unfortunately, the cave dipped sharply down to a false floor and choked on its own flow stones underneath this. Howard took a number of photographs on our way out, ably assisted by Mr Khang, Mr Hung and Mr An. Halfway through the photography session, Mr Khang had to rescue two Vietnamese lads who had crawled into the cave without any lights, presumably to get water. They were feeling their way around in an attempt to get back out, but had got themselves lost. People without lights coming in for water would explain the mess on the floor and the many broken stal. Presumably the bathers and drinkers were unable to find their clothes (let alone the discarded shampoo sachets) and then knocked the stalactites off during their scramble towards the entrance. Eventually, we called it a day and skated our way back down to our camp at Hang Dai A.
However, after this rather stunning (if short) cave the day still had one more surprise in store. First we had another wholesome dinner of rice with chillied pork and onions followed by riverside verge soup at around 5:30 pm, the usual time just before dark. During our daily dinner banter, Howard mentioned how the constant squawking noises from frogs that were using the Hang Dai A cave entrance as a voice amplifier disturbed his sleep. Howard laughingly said – “Go on Mr An, catch me a frog”. To our surprise, within minutes, an expedition was mounted. Led by Mr Hung, as usual armed with his giant jungle knife and his head torch in place, Mr An and Mr Phuong set off upstream – plastic bags and sticks in hand. We heard nothing for about an hour until Mr Hung re-appeared holding a very large bunch of very sorry looking frogs in his left fist (see photo). Mr An came up next revealing several crabs sitting in his plastic bag. After admiring the catch and me taking photographs, Howard asked Mr Hung about the noisy frogs in the cave entrance. Obligingly, Mr Hung gave us a demonstration of his skills. With his left hand still struggling to keep hold of all the frogs he had caught, he sent his torchlight into the cave and pretty much immediately spotted a frog (we had been failing to spot them for days). His stick came out, fast as lightning, and thwack – the end of another frog. Mr Hung’s attention then turned to the left edge of the pool which was bounded by a sharp, fin shaped boulder. Still with frogs in one hand, Mr Hung skilfully and silently traversed along the edge of boulder and with a quick move of his right hand (balancing just on his feet), another frog was caught.
“Surprise Soup!”, Mr An announced cheerfully. A pot was brought in no time. Onions, chilli, garlic, fish sauce, and salt were chopped and heated on the fire, frogs and crabs were washed chopped up, added to the onions and left to simmer in water. Later the lads cooked some rice but left it quite starchy, and this was then added to the frog stew. Eventually we were all invited to try. I have to admit I eyed the mix of frog and crab body parts doused in chillies and rice before me somewhat sceptically, but the soup was truly delicious with a surprisingly delicate flavour backed by a little heat from the chillies. Mr An then informed us that white frogs from Phong Nha were $20 a kilo and these ones are known to taste better than the Phong Nha variety. The soup we had would have been very expensive to buy in a restaurant. Just in case anyone is worried – we saw millions of tadpoles in the ponds upstream of the cave – it is unlikely that the evening’s culinary extravaganza will have made a great impact on the local frog population.
- Hang Va
We were told of this cave at the end of 2011 and thought it may yield a nice river cave. Armed with wetsuits Mick,Sweeny, Russ and myself with Khanh as guide set off from the new Ho Chi Minh Road. Sweeny promtly got lost in the jungle for 30 minutes and Khanh and myself ran back and found him thrshing about and brought him back to the rest of the team. The 30 minute walk turned out to be an hour and an half but finally we arrived in a valley with a large doline with the sound of a river at the bottom. Downstream looked best so we set off surveying. Soon a pool was reached and Russ and Sweeny armed with life jackets swam off to see if it went. It did and off we went surveying in fine passage. After 300m it finally sumped in a sump very simalar to upstream Nuoc Nit.
We checked an inlet on the way back to the entrance which only went for a few metres again to a sump. Back at the entrance we decided to push a boulder choke with a sizeable stream running through. This was soon passed back to the stream in gradually enlarging passage. A leg up a boulder slope and suddenly we knew we were in the big time again. The streamway continued in fine style with 10m x5m dimensions but above this the passage was huge in 60m x 40 size!! By now we were later than our scheduled return time so Mick shot off for a quick look. I had to send Sweeny to bring him back but the cave was booming off. Time was up and we had to return to Khanh our guide to let him know the cave was a real winner.
We plan to return and push and photo this excellent find in a few days -can’t wait because nothing beats a Vietnamese river cave.
- Hang Va The return
A full team of 8 of us entered Hang Va to push to a conclussion this fine river cave. It turned out to be a great trip for all. The upstream passage was left wide open and 2 surevy teams set off one in the streamway and one in the dry large high level passage. The streamway was pushed for over 500m of excellent passage passing 3 minor waterfalls to a conclusive sump. This fine passage was photographed on the return and the team met up with the high level team who insisted we should all visit this passage due to its amazing formations. They were right, we were astounded by the 2-3m high pinnicles of stal all in giant gours in a passage measured 95m wide. The formations were everywhere and although the high level passage only went for 500m it is truly spectacular and deserves another photo trip to do it justice. The complete cave is now 1.7k long and fills in a nice piece of the jigsaw between Hang Son Doong and Nout Nit cave. We all had a great day out and managed a few beers in the cafe before heading out for a long jungle session the next day.
THE NCC IS NOT FOR SWIMMING
Nearing the end of our walk to Hang En, I plodded past Mr Ky, who had sat down with his large pack near an old camp on the right hand river bank. I was following Mr Uy, our designated Forest Guard. He was jogging along beckoning me to follow him and I, happy to be close to my favourite place on Earth, ignored Mr Ky’s brief statement in Vietnamese in favour of running along to our camp site. Pleased to have got to camp, I was setting up my hammock in the spot I liked most (well, I got there before everyone else – so I could), when Watto and Clarky appeared, telling me off for rushing to camp when we should have been inspecting the new lead near where Mr Ky had stopped. I should have known better – Mr Ky does not do anything (like sitting down, or waiting) frivolously and neither does he ever appear to need a rest… In any case, seeing as we were there we decided to set up camp first and then have a look at the new lead later in the day.
Fortunately the new lead was really quite close to camp – at most a 15 minute walk, all the quicker for having swapped our big packs for light weight reconnaissance gear. Mr Ky and Mr Nguyen strode out in front (now going upstream, back on ourselves) crossing the river a couple of times then, after passing an obvious inlet on the left hand side, climbing up a steep bank where upright wooden poles (for setting up hammocks) denoted a camp site. This was followed by a bit of hacking and thrashing through a banana grove, still going upstream, until we got to the edge of the hill. There we descended to encounter a smallish 2mx2m resurgence pool where crystal clear water issued slowly from a gash in the hillside.
I got into the pool – about waist deep and inspected the gap. It led into a boulder choke that appeared not to have a draught. Clarky took his shirt off and followed. Peering through the gap in the rock I could see a heap of boulders and a possible way over these, but this required squeezing through one of two possible holes. I tried the first – but struggled to fit. Clarky tried the second hole – a tight fit for him, leaving a few nasty scrape marks on his ribcage. I had no such trouble and decided to have a poke around at the top. Still no draught, so Clarky disappeared back down into the pool again.
I climbed to the top of the boulder slope and had a look around. To the right a large-ish hole, down this into a 5m x 3m chamber. Almost in a straight line continuation, there was a boulder with a short, rectangular fin – a perfect hand hold allowing me to climb over and dangle my feet to a triangular landing rock. In front I had found a solid cave roof and regained the streamway proper. I had to bend over to get under the roof and was astonished to find a low tunnel with plenty of brown stal hanging into the water and a number of puzzled bats flying around. The crystal clear water flowed over a sandy floor – still no obvious draught, but I decided to swim upstream to see if it continued. Did it ever. The character of this cave remained unchanged – it was like swimming through a half open mouth dodging in and out of giant brown teeth. I swam for a 100m or so until I lost my bottle and decided to turn back before I forgot where I had come from. Also it is not really fair to go grabbing all the passage.
No problem finding and climbing over the boulder with the convenient handhold on top, but from where had I got into this chamber? I looked around for wet or muddy footprints – in vain. My only option was to try every possible opening so I started on the very right, working my way systematically across the boulders at the back of the chamber. I remembered coming down into the chamber but none of the higher level leads seemed to be the right ones. I hooted a few times, wondering if the others could hear me outside. No reply. Hmm. I was just going over all possible ways out again starting from the left when I heard Mick and Clarky shouting lengths and angles. Shortly after they appeared down a hole I had just inspected and dismissed, ignoring the obvious draught. So much for my caving prowess.
I was mighty pleased to see them, but unfortunately neither of them seemed particularly enthused by my find. Mick decided to wait on a convenient flat boulder before the lowering roof. He did not fancy a swim (“Need my wetsuit”). Clarky at least offered to have a quick look with me, really just to confirm that this cave would “kaffle out” (Yorkshire for “end”) in a few metres. We left Mick to do some sketching in the survey book and started our swim. This was just as eerie as the first time, with the roof less than a metre above us, dodging in and out of brown stal and with the stream making gluggy, sumpy noises. However, rather than reaching a sump round the corner, we swam and swam upstream until we got to a chamber marked by a large broken stal lying at an angle like a pointing finger. We climbed around in this chamber in circles for a bit before deciding the way on was on the other side of the stal. We swam on, then got out of the water and waded along a 6m tall rift. Eventually, Clarky decided that with the best of intentions there was no question of the cave “kaffling out” any time soon and hence we would have to survey this properly. Does this wording appropriately convey his enthusiasm?
The return swim, being downstream, was a bit quicker. Mick looked underwhelmed when we re-appeared, noting that we had been away for 40 minutes. Clearly this would have to be surveyed. We exited, collected Watto, and made our way back to camp. Our guides were pretty keen to hear what we found (How many metres? etc). Mr Nugyen, who had seen me disappear into the rock and not come back for a long time, even shook my hand. Nice to know someone cares!
We were back the next morning to continue the survey. The “tight” boulder squeeze had proved no issue at all for anyone. Mick and Clarky had donned their wetsuits. Watto and I had not bothered. The water here is warm and comforting.
“It’s just like a sewer” Clarky pronounced. “I think I just saw a rat swim across the passage” replied Mick, continuing the theme. “I have come 2000 km to survey a sewerage canal”. “I might get the instruments wet”. “With any luck it ends round the corner”. And so on. The NCC is clearly not a swim club. What with all the joyful banter we managed to survey 445m to a clean washed choke of relatively small red boulders under which the stream issued over a sandy floor. We could hear the water run over pebbles or down a small cascade on the other side. Mick had a good poke round the boulder choke, but sadly this really was the end.
“Good push, Anette – goes to show you are more than just a pretty face.” Not sure if Mick was still being sarcastic, but that will do me, thanks.
A team of four of us were hand picked (the only ones willing) for this long walk in the Ke Bang massif. We set off from the new Ho Chi Minh road and thankfully our excellent driver took us the extra km over a rough path that was only fit for a bike. Starting at 4m above sea level the first hill up to over 400m in the blistering sun was a killer. We rested lots and finally reached a col with excellent views of the surrounding mountains. From here a gentle traverse led to a camp site and our lunch spot where noodles with boiled eggs were produced. Our camp boy Mr Ha was also the water collecter which was a bit sparse in this area. The path was good nearly all the way but involved lots of ups and downs, the downs we didn’t notice until the return journey. After 6 hours of sweating finally a camp was reached. The porters as usual hacked out an excellent camp for us, put up our hammocks and tarps and made us comfortable as possible. The promised river was a slight trickle but at least we had some water for drinks. We were pretty sweaty and even on day 1 our clothes where starting to have that jungle smell. The evening meal was produced and served by our excellent porters and we tucked into rice, pork and veg. After or dinner rice wine was was brought out and more BBQ pork was eaten. The rice wine was pretty strong and the drinking team of Deb, Sweeny and Clarky managed to hold their own with the Vietnamese. We went to bed with the superb jungle noises ringing in our ears as well as magnificant fire flies surrounding our camp. A splendid day and hopefully the next day we would reach our objective of a cave our guide had visited 20 years previously. How he remembered the way after 20 years is beyond me.
The following day we hoped for a shorter walk but it was not to be, we climbed to over 800m then down to 500m then up again to over 800m. We had walked now over 20km to this cave bagging what seemed to be most of the peaks in the Ke Bang massif. Finally camp was reached, again with no water and we were able to drop our heavy sacks and visit the cave. The cave was up again much to our disguist. After 30 minutes we reached a cliff and our intrepid guide scaled a very necky route and found the entrance. Sweeny and Clarky managed to climb leaving Deb and myself sitting on a ledge with a big drop. Our guide proceeded to cut down a flimsy tree and with the aid of a few vines tied it to the cliff and told us to follow. Our 50kg guide when fully wet made the tree bend dangerously so no way we were following up that. sweeny and Clarky managed to reach the cave and push it for 310m in a 20m x15m passage to a complete stal choke. It was obvious that caves this high would be very limited and we asked our guides to ony find us caves in valleys which usually in Vietnam give greater rewards. We staggered back to camp only to find no water present at the usual small well. 2 of the porters were dispatched to go find water and finally after a 2 hour walk they staggered back with 2 rice sacks full of slightly disscoloured water-good effort. A brew was immediatly put on and our evening meal promptly cooked. Again our hammocks etc were kindly arranged and another night of chatting eating pork and sipping rice wine. The fire flies this evening were even better and with the superb clear night sky an excellent evening was had by all.
The next day we expected to return the same way but our guides had other ideas. They knew a shaft only 3 hours walk away which they wished us to visit. We had only a 35m rope and a 20m rope and some basic rigging having been told the caves were all horizontal. By now we had very little water left and we were fealing a little dehydrated but again the promise of a river camp at night where we could swim pushed us on. After following our jungle guide Mr Tam who managed to remember his way after 20 years we finally reached the shaft. The first stone fell for over 4 seconds before hitting a ledge and bouncing further in the abyss. We felt it was a 100-150m shaft our our 35m rope was not going to help one bit here. We spent the next 10 minutes dropping rocks down whilst our porters clung to swaying trees to look down the large drop. They are completely fearless and finally we dragged them away to continue our return to Son Trach. We managed to reach camp after another very long day but the promise of a swimming pool did not materialise but at least there was water. I gulped down 2 litres of water which was my first drink since the previous day. We filled up all our water bottles and soon we made camp for another excellent night.
The final day out was another long walk but at least it was mainly downhill which was better in the sticky heat. By now our clothes were getting a bit rank but finally in the early afternoon we reached the road and our kind driver picked us up armed with ice cold coke and beer for all the team.
All in all a great jungle experience but the rewards for the hard work were pretty small by Vietnamese standards. Our next great adventure is a 6 or 7 day walk can’t wait.
For this expedition we have kindly been sponsored by the Five Ten boot company. This is mainly due to Bruce an American we took down Hang Son Doong in February. Many thanks Bruce. Nearly all team members use these canyoneering boots and have for the last few years in Vietnam. The extra grip they offer in the difficult terrain of the remote Vietnamese jungles is comforting when doing exposed climbs on slippy limestone pinnacles. The only downside is how long they survive the harsh conditions. However as one member said ‘what price safety’. I have been using my Five Tens now for just over 5 weeks and hopefully they will hold together before another pair arrives kindly sent by the company. The 5 weeks walking we have done is pretty extreme but thankfully we have all managed to survive without any major falls. The 2 members who unfortuently have no Five Ten boots as yet have really struggled and this is not just sponsorship bullshit. They really are excellent in both comfort and grip ability.
Jungle walking and caving has continued with 2 teams out in different areas. Watto Russ and Howard went for a 2 day walk to a cave in the Nuoc Nut area. They found a large shaft, but didn’t quite have enough rigging gear to get to the bottom. It’s in a very interesting area, near the alcove in Hang Son Doong, so we’ll be back soon to see what they missed out on.
Sweeny Mick and Deb went for a long walk to the Xuong Valley in search of caves feeding the Nuoc Moc resurgence. The first day was quite short, but steep, and it was difficult to leave behind the luxuries of the Paradise Show Cave facilities and head off into the jungle where the water supplies are limited, but the leeches turned out to be plentiful.
It rained all the first night, but luckily we kept dry. We had to pass the time drinking rice wine and singing!!! The next day the persistent rain had made the path a slippery mess. Lots of mud and greasy limestone. 5:10’s essential. (or brown plastic sandals). By the end of the second day we had reached the start of the Xuong Valley. A very busy place. It obviously floods extensively in the wet season. The vegetation is very different from other parts of the massif.
Our third day took us at a brisk pace along the valley, and then continuously uphill for several hours. We eventually reached the camp at the height of about 800m. Water had to be carried in for the last hour. we got the camp set up, then at last off the the first cave. the first noticeable feature was a large dry stream bed, even though we were still around 800m. In other areas caves at this height are generally dry fossil caves. At the end of the valley was a large rift like entrance. A couple of short climbs led to a more serious climb, tackled with a knotted rope and lifeline. Unfortunately well visited by Langurs who had left some very smelly deposits. Fun when threading ropes through holes!! A second climb was descended, but the team was stopped by a third pitch. Looks good and has a draught.
The next day we had a pleasant trip in a small stream cave! Mick managed to extend the initial short trip by digging a gravel crawl. Luckily it soon opened up somewhat, but continued wet with crawls and climbs to stop at a cascade into a plunge pool. Another draughting cave wide open. In the afternoon we visited 2 more entrances similar to the first, one stopped at a 20m pitch, and the other by a 60m or more pitch. A spectacular looking shaft.
The limestone in this area is more thinly bedded with lots of chert bands, but seems to be very good for caves, even if not of the usual Quang Binh dimensions.
Back to camp fighting off the tiger leeches, and to prepare for the 2 day walk out!!! The last day did not disappoint, more rain, so more slipping and stumbling before meeting Howard Russ and Watto with some cold drinks.
Quote of the trip ‘ that’s my best erection yet’
Howard unfortunately had to attend a televised workshop on caves and tourism, so instead of leeches and rain had to put up with 5* and dancing girls!!! Well someone has to do it.
Mart C has arrived and been treated to a day’s walk with no cave in sight. Everyone else due this afternoon. Vietnam has done it’s best to welcome them, it’s been raining all day. So guess what? the return to Xuong valley will be a slippery leechy trip again.
Watto giving a drunken rendition of without you!!
Mick as usual only happy when he is miserable!!!
We have been pretty busy the last few days out here. A team of 4 is still in jungle for a 9 days trip in the Xuong valley which has 4 going caves with lots of potential but a very long 3 day walk in. Needless to say Mick is in his element on the suffering stakes. Snablet has joined us and he also fancied some hard work so he has joined Sweeny, Mick and Andy in that epic. They should be back soon and I am sure there will be a few beery tales to be told!!
Deb, Mike and Adam had a 5 day trip up road 20 finding some nice cave including a 1km well decorated large cave. They also found a vertical hole which was pushed down 8 pitches before finally sumping. It sounded a bit like Yorkshire caving and Martin was not pleased to have travelled to Vietnam to find himself crawling and squeezing!! They also found a 90m shaft but with only 80m of rope the bottom was not reached but will return soon.
The 2 Martins and Howard travelled up the awful Ho Chi Minh road 20 in the back of a truck to km 35 and after only 30 minutes walking a wet season river sink was found and explored for 1.4km. This was not an easy cave and it took 3 days to explore and 7 pitches to drop. It also had a few low air space sections which were passed with the aid of a rock to allow more breathing space. Again Martin was not too chuffed to be crawling and squeezing in Vietnam!! On the trip excellent wildlife was seen including monkeys, eagles and flying foxes most evenings at camp.
The next trip out for that team was to re visit Tu Lan valley in Minh Hoa. They explored a nice 300m long well decorated cave called Gibbon cave. The second day a large thunderstorm put the water levels up over 1m in the night which put paid to exploration of Hang Tu Lan. However as we were about to leave a film maker insisted Howard must be interviewed in a cave entrance found the previous expedition. On arrival ther Howard told the film team that he had never been in this cave and returned to camp to bring the 2 Martins to explore this new cave. This new cave is very exciting and more like Vietnam caves hence Martin was happy again. After 300m a large river was reached in a 40m wide passage with a beautiful cascade. We left bthis cave wide open. We left for home but before our guides showed us another valley. In this valley 2 more river caves were found and again left unexplored. Hence a team of 3 including the newly arrived Jonathan have left for a 2 day fast exploration of these enticing new discoveries.
Our dive compressor should arrive in the next few days so the diving part of the trip should commence for around 1 week ( thats all we can afford to hire compressor for).
More tales should be had when all the team arrives back at base in the next few days.
Mike about to descend new shaft
New cave discovered on last 5 day trip.
Camp life in the jungle.
I was awoken around 1am this morning by a large hairy caterpillar crawling across my forehead, which was very quickly ejected from my campbed before zipping myself very securely back into my sleeping bag for the remainder of the night, the jungle still reverberating with the sounds of various insects, animals and birds. My first 5 day jungle camp was coming to a close and we woke around 6am to a misty morning and a breakfast of coffee, noodles and egg. Howard, Martin H and Martin C soon arrived with some porters back from their trip into the jungle exploring a large cave roughly 5km west of us towards the Laos border. Deb, Adam and I had just returned to our intermediate camp on Road 20 after exploring a fine 1km cave with a large main fossil passage and some excellent gour formations and huge calcite flows. We had been very well looked after by a great team of porters who ensured we were well fed at our camp located roughly 3 hours walk from the road, where the evenings had been spent sat around an open fire enjoying the remarkable displays put on by the fireflies.
The objective of the day before heading back to Son Trach was a cave around 2km away located just next to the road, which we had explored a short distance a few days ago. Deb and I entered the cave soon after 8am to start the rigging followed by Martin H and Martin C who were to continue the survey. The cave starts with a 10m pitch down a 12m x 4m shaft after which a squalid climb down mud and detritus leads to a short flat out section into a larger continuation. The cave then continues in fine Yorkshire style down a small streamway with several short pitches and climbs in dark grey limestone to the previous limit of a few days ago – a very fine looking 20-25m shaft. It was now after 9am as I started bolting this pitch and descended into new territory, which unfortunately was a small narrow passage rather than the larger continuation we had hoped for. Nevertheless we continued on with drill and a small stash of rope excited to see what the cave was going to do next.
Soon later, a junction was reached. Deb squeezed onwards into a wet section of rift but soon later her light was seen shining back into a slightly more pleasant, dry oxbow to the left which rejoined the main streamway after a sharp narrow bend. The streamway continued on in superb rock but narrow and jagged – great fun but not too kind on the ronhills and thin thermal tops we were wearing. Soon we were out of earshot of the surveyers and after passing three more short handline climbs we arrived at a sump and the end of the cave for us. We set off back out to meet the Martins before exiting and de-rigging the cave emerging back into the jungle for just after 11am leaving the cave at just under 400m long and around 126m deep – not too bad for a mornings cave exploration.
Lunch had already been prepared by the trackside and soon later we were enjoying, or rather enduring, another 2hr bumpy truck ride down Road 20 towards Son Trach and refreshments, with a thunderstorm brewing above our heads.
Moving forwards a few hours, we have now returned from a nearby restaurant all fed and watered and ready for our next forays into the jungle – which for me, adam and deb is an exciting 4 day jungle camp to a very promising lead. Watch this space!
Team all arrived back from jungle safe and well. Big news from the Xuong valley team who have found 4km of exciting cave. Big leads and a major cave system. All excited and drinking lots of beer tonight to re hydrate!!
Will update when enough liquid has been absorbed!!
Xuong valley and beyond
Andy, Snablet, Sweeney and an extremely leech bitten Mick have just returned from 9 days up in the Xuong valley area. After a 3 day walk in and a 2 day walk out to this amazingly remote area we have managed 40 hours of caving, bagging 4km of new passage and reaching depths up to 250m. This is the first pushing trip after several recces during preceding years. The last recce a few weeks ago saw a team of 3 to the entrance pitches of Hang Hi Hai, Hang Cung and Hang Ky. These were our objectives but this time we were equipped with bolting gear and half a km of rope!
Our main aim with our work in this area is to try and get into passage along one of the two major faults south of Cha Noi, the main fault to the East will hopefully lead us to the underground source of the Chay river. If this is ever found it will be epically big and very wet! The expedition’s interest in these 2 faults has recently pushed us to explore this extremely remote area through the Xuong valley and beyond. One must also note also that water is very limited in this area, 3 of our guys could have easily died of dehydration here a few years ago. In short, this is not an area to head into without meticulous planning.
The walk in leaves from Paradise Cave, aka Hang Vom. Last time I was in the immediate Vom vicinity was in 2005 when the walk from the road took 3 and a half hours. Nowadays Vom can be accessed by bus/jeep/truck and has a golf cart track that shuttles tourists from the car park to the dry entrance. There is also a bar and restaurant with full amenities selling cold beer! We were slightly bewildered by the hordes of tourists visiting the day we left. The walk heads west with a camp after 3 hours, from here it is a day to the unforgiving Xuong valley and a further day to take you to 800+ metres and to our camp that would become home for the next 5 days. Leeches are ridiculously active around this area, on a bad day in Vietnam you might find 10 on your legs and feet at rest points, in this area you can bet on nearer 50 each time you stop. Keeping the little bastards out of your sleeping bag, brew cup, socks and ears becomes your main task, they are an absolute nightmare.
Hang Hi Ha was the first cave that we hit. Its nicknamed Monkey Poo cave for obvious reasons but after 100metres of the classic rift entrance series the monkey poo relents. The first push started at around 2pm of the third day in once the final camp had been established. We dropped 3 short pitches on rope and several longer ones without!
Initially the cave appeared to have come to a premature end in a tight, log-filled rift. However a howling draught & too much time on our hands resulted in a digging epic. Andy eventually managed to wrestle a torso sized log from out of the rift, having first subdued it with the help of the bolting hammer, leaving the way forward for 2 hours of frantic digging by Snablet through a flat-out gravel & sand floor squeeze. The cave thankfully then took on more sensible sized proportions leading down a descending rift to the head of an 18m pitch. At this juncture an elated turn-around was made returning to camp at around 7pm.
The next morning saw us back, Andy and Sweeney pushing/rigging and “miserable mick” and snablet surveying. At the bottom of the pitch we found another 20 metre pitch which hit a large master cave. The cave split 3 ways going for half a km in 2 different directions. There was several side passages duly pushed and surveyed. The main way with a draft stopped us in a huge area of breakdown, too complex and too down right dangerous to push further. We took some shots of the big stuff and the shape of the passages and derigged. Hang Ky is 180m deep and 1250 metres long.
Hang Cung was our next target. The month before we were there Hang Cung was left with 250m passage at a 6 metre drop with a good draft. We rigged a handline and started to survey with happy Mick and Snablet heading the pushing team this time. Sweeney and Andy followed on with the Shetland Attack Pony and disto as our tools. The stream passage is quite young and meanders through a band of chert, after a wet, miserable 20m pitch we were dismayed to notice mick and snablet’s push had taken them through a series of wet crawls and the a proper duck! Helmets off, deep breath in and under we went. On the other side of the duck we finally struck big passage, 30m wide, 10 metres high with the stream continuing on into the darkness. It was here that Sweeney and Andy started to notice the bats, and not just a few, there were thousands of them. On station the bats were flying between our heads and the notebook, Sweeneys screams were extremely girlish(Sweeny: my memory of this is mine was the calm, authortive voice wheres Andy threw an almighty wobbler. Mind you; I still believe I’m, 6’2, slim, 30 & give George Clooney a run for his money!) but definitely justified! As we pushed further along with the bats constant attack we finally caught up with the pushers, an end had been found, snablet had pushed a wet, tight, terminally looking muddy passage and had awoken the colony of bats and had decided to not push on due to their annoyance of his presence. He had however found a mendip style dig to keep him smiling. The “dig” drops into a parallel stream passage and goes for 30metres to a terminal sump, with plenty of tight passage, ducks and wet crawls Hang Cung ended at 735m at 95m depth, ending more with a whimper than a bang.
Not the deepest or longest trip but a good fun & somewhat serious trip nevertheless.
A 50minute, meandering stroll from base camp leads to a dry-stream bed ending in an impressive 20m vertical rift entrance.
Easy 7m climb down to pitch head, an open, chert riddled shaft of impressive dimensions. Loose rock abounds making rigging, ascending/descending somewhat of a potential accident lottery. Mick did a fantastic job in difficult circumstances, an electric drill being essential so as to ensure multiple rigging points.
From the head of the pitch the 2nd & 3rd rebelays follow at 4m intervals before descending (40m?)to a large ledge & further ( 17m?) drop.
3m of rift, a welcoming refuge from falling debris, then lead out to a second pitch split mid way with a traverse. The base of the shaft leads into a short steeply descending meandering passage and abruptly reaches another pitch. The obligatory rock was tossed over the edge into the unknown, we excitedly counted the seconds as it crashed into the distance and concluded the rope was not going to be long enough. Immediately all four of our remaining ropes were tied together and Mick set about rigging down a spectacular 90m ‘bop-de-bop ’pitch. With the drill batteries fading the next two short drops were rigged off naturals to the head of another 17m pitch, lack of rope brought the days proceedings to a close. We exited the cave surveying and photographing as we went.
Vuc Ky Day 2
The 17m pitch was swiftly dispatched which to our amusement revealed a section of tight rift similar to Pippikins stemple rift. Moving tackle bags through tight narrow rifts wearing extra thermals and balaclavas was more reminiscent of caving in Austria than Vietnam. We burst out of an insignificate slot into a large tunnel, we had broken into a master cave.
A short debate ensued as to which direction the stream flowed, with the intention of exploring down stream chasing depth. We then promptly headed upstream along a beautiful gravel floored running passage in a dead straight line. A previous incident involving distos and water meant we were undertaking a grade 2 survey, Mick managed to get an 85m survey leg. After a few hundred metres at a chamber “tumbling dice” the passage forked with Sweeny investigating a hanging death route to a miserable water obstruction. Andy checked out the large draughting walking passage, Sweeny was out voted 3 to 1 and we raced off down more open passage, which eventually our exploration was terminated by a number of high avens.
We retraced our steps back to our initial entry point into the tunnel and started the downstream investigation. The passage was initially flat floored and easy going, passing a number of pools populated by hundreds of blind whitish pink fish ‘the fish bowl’. Large side passages and avens started intercepting the main drag, encouraging a growth in dimensions. Boulder falls littered the passage floor in huge piles forcing some steep climbing. At a couple of points the passage became completely filled and sneaky routes were sought through the choke ‘house of cards’. Once through the choke the passage opened up into a spectacular well decorated borehole with a huge echo. A discussion ensued between Sweeny and Snablet as to whether to wait for the survey team to catch up or just check it goes. The question was asked what would Mick do, and both proceeded to run down the passage. Meanwhile Andy and Mick started surveying around the house of cards, and through a few of the side leads, there were several question marks left on the survey in sizable passage. When the survey team eventually caught up with the grabbers they were pointed in the direction of the way on and leaping and yelling all four of us descended the 50m boulder slope into the amazing passage. The 500m echo and strong draught in this 10m by 25m passage indicates good things to come. It was decided that a grade 2 survey would absolutely not be acceptable in this super master cave and without much time left on the clock we decided to head for home, the 2 day epic walk back to Vom leaving the cave rigged for another trip.
The level that the larger cave is sat in is the same height as the big stuff in Hang Hi Ha, a definite trend is developing in the area with the churt bands and the different levels in the limestone. This group of entrances are a few km west of the Xuong Valley and are generally tending northwards, a return trip will leave tomorrow to push Hang Ky to its limit and will then check out a few entrances to the south east of the Xuong valley. A great trip, some brilliant caving and a good time for us all.
Andy, snablet, Mick the invincible and Sweeney
Just returned from Tu Lan valley with more caves. Initially found in 2010 we returned to check a few leads and found 6 new caves all well developed and a number with a large river. Left one 40m passage with river. The 2 Martins and Jonathan returned to do a quick push for 2 days and bag as much as possible. Thanks to our friends from Oxalis they were well looked after including quality dining in the jungle. The Oxalis team are a proffessional bunch of great Vietnamese lads who have set up a tourist adventure company which takes tourist into the Tu Lan Valley amoungst other things. They came along with us to assist and also have an adventure. We also helped them make a film for Vietnam TV which should show the beautiful area for the Vietnamese public. This is a really smart part of the world and this eco tourism will help the poor local people in terms of jobs when they act as capable porters. The trekking here is excellent and although not as difficult as in the more remote parts of the Ke Bang Massif the scenery is superb and the campsites in the dolines quite outstanding.
The team managed to complete the full traverse of the underground river from sink to the Tu Lan Valley managing to survey over 1km of fine Vietnamese river passage. Unfortunetly Martin Colledge managed to sustain a damaged elbow when he fell a couple of metres. He still managed to help with the surveying but it was thought sensible to visit a hospital for X ray due to large swelling. It turned out to have chipped his ulna and a half cast was put on for support. A quick call to John Burton (Thanks!!) back home eased a few fears and he is resting at base with a good chance he can continue on the expedition in a couple of days.
We have explored and surveyed nearly 15km of new cave now and with 2 teams out for a 9 day stint in the jungle and many other leads to follow things are looking pretty good. A small week long diving expedition is now planned to check out a few easily accessable sites that have good potential for big discoveries.
Our new canyoneering boots have arrived from five ten- Thanks!! Team members are most grateful for the help due to the state of the old boots which have seen a lot of life by now. We will be able to use them on the last part of the expedition as well as in the film making of Hang Son Doong with the Japanese film crew. The Japanese film team are also purchasing boots for the whole team which will make it far easier for them in the difficult terrain of the cave. One member of our team purchashed the up market and more expensive rescue boots which are a tougher version of the boots we use. I think they are worth the extra pennies due to the tougher upper material used. The weight is not a lot different and we will probably use this version for future expeditions. This is because the walking on razor sharp limestone pinnacles causes a lot of damage to the upper material on the canyoneering boots.
However we are very pleased with the performance of the boots .
Likewise our Toshiba laptops have been top class for our use in the field. We have brought them with us on most trips and they have held up to the abuse we have given them. We have been able to plot our survey data and add it all to the digital map of the area whilst in the field which has been very useful in cave prospecting.
A very special thanks must go to our Doc in the UK John Burton who has helped us out on a number of occasions in the past few weeks. It is very reassuring to have someone who we can talk to when we have a problem. Cheers John we owe you a beer or two!!
The same team set out for Hang Ky for another 9 day excursion into country offering major dehydration, crazy amounts of flies, leeches and bugs, bad gastro, gout and of course sensational caving. The 3 day walk in was relatively free of epic tale, although the serious lack of water and 39 degree days should be mentioned. On arrival at Hang Ky we insisted that base camp should be set at the cave entrance, the porters were not keen to stay there due to water shortages. We set camp anyway so that the full day following could be spent pushing Vietnams best going lead. When Mick and Snablet arrived at the streamway below stempleless rift they started surveying downstream whilst Andy and Sweeney pushed to the boulder breakdown to start surveying there. The idea was that we would achieve more if we leap frogged the survey teams into the abyss and we would cover more ground.
From the breakdown the way on takes you through to a 25m by 15m passage, from here we pushed our way through a highly decorated passage to “the big stuff” where the ceiling and one wall is not visible. We dropped through a 100m long chamber where we left lead A into another massive chamber with 5 ways on. We chose the downstream and pushed into some lower level passage with sharp rock and after 400m we finished the passage. The water sinks all in one place, through gravelly bouldery type floor. We spent the rest of the dayexploring a very complicated and highly impressive Hang Ky. Through a fossil phreatic we broke into some lower level huge passage, all ways (very complex!) choking with calcite or flowstone blockages. It needs to be noted that this system is also very pretty, the amount of stal, helectites, columns and flowstone was astounding…
The following day we re-entered Ky for a photo shoot and a de-rig but due to having to get back to the porters camp in daylight we had to have an early turn around time and the really beautiful cave was too far in to get to and photo so we had to make do with the rest – albeit stunning cave…!
After the de-rig Sweeney and Snablet took their shoes off to reveal pretty terrible looking feet, we spent some time wrapping them up just to make the hobble back to the other camp. The porters made a big effort to find out how successful we had been and to look after us that evening knowing that we were unlikely to have achieved much in camp without them!
The next morning with Hang Ky de-rigged and finished, a weary team set off for location B. In the Xuong valley Phong had pointed out another path south east of the Hang Hai Ha area with 3 caves – a “water going in cave” (streamsink), “a water coming out cave” (resurgence) and a vuc (shaft). Apparently we would need 300m rope for the shaft..! On arrival at shaft A we quickly realised the location was good but we would need a bolting kit to even look at the 4 second drop for a stone. There was heaps of waterways heading north. On arrival at the water going in cave we quickly terminated a recce after 25 metres of god awful caving, you couldn’t even crawl in this terrible passage! 5 minutes up the valley we set camp and went to look at shaft B. This was a surprise, we were expecting a resurgence from Phongs description which had caused some confusion due to the altitude we were at. We had passed off the 4 second drop shaft as the “300m rope needed” shaft, but, maybe, just maybe the 7 second drop for a stone was more relevant of that description! The shaft was named Vuc Boom! due to the free falling stone not rattling and just flying down and landing hard! Things had hotted up!
Sweeney led the assault with Mick hot on his heels, I backed up the rigging with 2 10-15 metre deviations right across the shaft, a double bolt rebelay and away we went into a deep dark hole! At 122m the entrance pitch stopped and 10 metres away was a stunning pitch head guessed at 60m. back up to camp to leave this pitch for the morning, what a superbly exciting lead! The way on looked HUGE!
The next morning I was feeling slightly nervous but extremely lucky as it my rigging day and I would attack the verticalpitches with Sweeney as my 2nd. Dropping down the shaft was well good, arrival at the undescended 60 even better and getting my first bolt in was just purekly sexy. All of the kit was set perfectly on my harness, the only problem was lask of a long rope but lots of shorties but to hell with worrying about that – today was our last exploratory session and I had 2 full batteries so I simply planned to put a bolt in for each length of rope! 2nd bolt and the first battery died, I swore pretty badly, Mick had said these were good for 14-17 spits and we had only put in 8… second battery was full so as long as I was less aggressive with the bolting we were still in luck, but after ¼ depth spit hole the battery died. “MICK! WHAT THE *&^$?!” however, I soon realised that theres no way Mick wouldof forgotten to charge all batteries or had picked up dead ones, that simply was not possible for a bolting maniac like Mick. It was decided that due to the 2 iPod batteries that had been destroyed back at the hotel, and the fact someone was using the hotel power supply to run a welder in the back shed then maybe the batteries were just dud! Ah man, here we were at the top of a huge bit of cave and we couldn’t descend. Sweeney and I decided it would be suicidal to drop the pitch on naturals so we sat and swore some more.
Mick: “Step aside youth if you’re not going to have a look…”
Andy, Sweeney and Snablet in unison: “Mick, you cant be serious..?!”
And away Mick went, with much protestations from us and a lot of what he called “(jiggery pokery init?” 2 hours later he had rigged a highly dangerous and much feared pitch and was stood at the bottom of the pitch.
Snablet: “No, Nover, No way!”
Sweeney: “Ag man! Someone has to follow him with survey kit!”
Andy “Well Sweeney you ARE already on the rope”
Sweeney had been providing a little rigging assistance and was indeed already on the rope so he decided he would have a look and turn around if he didn’t like it. With horrendous rub on 9mm he also made the floor. He stopped to photograph the bottom rebelay, a dyneema sling loosely wrapped around a sloping thread with a knot change 10m below it…
Andy and Snablet “Whats it like?”
Mick “You might want to do something about that last rebelay!”
So whilst Snablet and I sat sunning ourselves 122m underground watching the rays of sunlight hit the floor at the bottom of the Jiggery Pokery pitch Mick and Sweeney rigged a handline pitch or 2 and followed the cave to see if Snablet and I should follow them. After 200m the cave stopped in a boulder choke, the ceiling almost 180m above their heads. We de-rigged both pitches, took a few snaps and headed back to camp. On arrival we were all a bit tired but guess what?! Mr Ky had of course been out looking for more caves and had found something 300m away that he named Vuc Em Boom! loosely translated as Baby Boom! Shaft. This is obviously the same catchment 300m away, a little lower in altitude and he said it went in and then there was a 5 second drop. This would possibly put us out past the boulder choke in Boom! proper. As soon as I squeezed through the entrance onto the top of a god awful climb I said 4 words to snablet “Feels a bit snakey…”
I spent a good 10 minutes throwing boulders down the 4 second drop, shouting and gauging a 3 second+ echo and feeling the draught in my face. Sweeney came in whilst snablet got lost in the 10m of boulder choke we had simply not entered and we spent further time throwing rocks. As soon as we started to exit I noticed the snake. My Ky said “of course – when we went in there were hundreds!” thanks for the heads up mate!
We spent a fun evening talking with the porters and started our epic 2 day trek back to the road. On the first day Sweeney was very ill, ill enough for everyone to get very worried, ill enough to collapse half an hour later. We limped him back to camp where we were quietly imformed there was no water! We were all super de-hydrated, Sweeney being a huge concern since he had lost all liquid and food completely and we prayed for water the next morning, we were lucky to find some. The last day was epic, it’s a long hard walk and it was 39 degrees celcius, so imagine our delight when we all collapsed into the river at Vom and happily drank beer after beer after beer when we arrived back in Son Trach!
Beach camp photo Carsten Peter
- 20/04/2012 – Hang Soong Dong, the great storm and a spot of boating!!
Hang Son Doong: Photo Carsten Peter
We arrived back in Phong Nha after a few days in Ho Chi Minh City.