Tuesday, October 25, 2011
An expedition to Vietnam’s Son Doong Cave – what could go wrong?
My eyes startle open from the sudden jolt of the overnight train as we pull into Dong Hoi. I watch my husband, son and daughter (aged 13 and 12) stir in their bunks when the realisation of our situation hits me like a brick. Few people in the world, let alone an ordinary family from Australia, have done what we are about to embark upon – a journey which will change our lives forever.
The obsession started seven months earlier when I read about Vietnam’s Hang Son Doong Cave in the January 2011 issue of National Geographic. Known as Mountain River Cave, Hang Son Doong is hidden deep within the remote and rugged mountains of central Vietnam’s Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. A cave so huge that stalagmites are the size of multi-story buildings and where underground islands of jungle the size of football fields flourish beneath skylights of fallen ceilings long ago. And here we now are after months of preparation – an ordinary family of four with our local support crew of eight.
The start of the trail commences high on a misty, windy mountain and disappears rapidly down into a seemingly impenetrable, humid jungle. Suitably clad in our expensive hiking gear, our packs containing equipment and supplies for any contingency, I am worried that our support crew is a little unprepared - wearing flimsy rubber sandals and packs seemingly fashioned from rice bags and rope. Our guide informs us that we need to take an alternative route because the river, which would need to be crossed multiple times, is flooded from the recent typhoon. We enthusiastically agree without realising the consequences – the new route is twice as long (12 kms) and traverses across multiple, steep mountain ranges.
By nightfall we still haven’t reached our campsite and the trail is slippery and treacherous. Every muscle aches and I long to discard all unnecessary items from my pack. My backside, knees and palms are bruised and I can no longer muster the strength to pull the leeches from my ankles. I start to realise that I’m out of my depth. What kind of living hell have I dragged my family into? We are not experienced cavers, nor hikers for that matter. Was I crazy to think that this ordinary family had the stamina to undertake such an arduous adventure? But I can’t give in – the lure of the cave musters an inner strength that urges me on.
The next morning we continue our battle through thick jungle until we suddenly break into a clearing. As our eyes adjust to the sunlight, we find ourselves perched high on a ledge above a raging river and we gasp at what we see before us. The river runs into a cave and disappears into the darkness like it is being swallowed up by a dragon. “We have reached Hang En” yells our guide with a delighted, yet somewhat relieved smile. “…this is called Swallow Cave ” and he flaps his hands like a little bird. But as I watch the crew prepare to rope us across the river, I can’t help imagine being swallowed up by that cave, never to be seen again.
Safely across we continue on, leaving five of the crew behind with all of our gear. We have long since ditched our hiking boots for the same flimsy rubber sandals that our crew are wearing. They prove to be amazingly light and able to grip to any surface! We put our rudimentary rock climbing skills to the test as we ascend the sharp limestone mountain and finally reach another entrance to Hang En. The cavern is enormous – possibly 200 feet high. We scramble over car-sized boulders to the furthest ledge and look down into the cave where the raging river emerges once again from the dragon’s belly. But the current is too strong for us to navigate, forming an impasse for further exploration into Hang En.
As we return from Hang En to meet our crew I prepare myself for another 3 hour hike to reach Hang Son Doong. The plan is to explore one of the underground cave jungles and I’m reeling with nervous anticipation at the idea of abseiling hundreds of feet into a forested void. But our guide frowns as he looks up to the overcast sky above. Ho Khanh, who first discovered Hang Son Doong when he was a boy, has an immense knowledge of the region and an innate sense which can only come from being at one with the land. “We must turn back”, he urges “… a storm is on the way”.
With some urgency Ho Khanh leads us through the valley via a shorter route through bamboo thickets, wild banana forests and thickets laden with stinging nettles. We cross the river multiple times using ropes when necessary or otherwise forming a human chain as we help each other across the fast-flowing waters. It’s night once again as we ascend the last mountain climb to reach our waiting mini-van. We are exhausted and yet grinning from ear to ear. A few of us let out howls of joy – not from the relief of arriving back safely, but at the realisation of the feat which we have just conquered.
As we wind our way down to Son Trach village the group is silent, interrupted occasionally by “I’ve found another leech” from my daughter as she inspects herself with a torch. I look around at our sleepy, weary crew and ‘the old guy’ raises one eye, gives me a smile and a nod of acceptance. It’s then that I understand the real journey that we’ve been on. Next to me rests an extra-ordinary family - one that has endured so much without once complaining, abandoned selfishness for concern for others and yet still managed to appreciate the unique and untamed beauty of Vietnam’s mountains.
A typhoon arrived that night causing extensive flooding throughout the region.
Written by: Raelene Kwong,