We rushed back up the track to find Sweeny kneeling on the ground with Martin’s unconscious and bloodied head resting on his lap. Shit! An unconscious patient with head injuries is not what you want one and a half day’s walk into the jungle …
ALAN JACKSON STC | A mob of pommy cavers (BCRA), led by the irrepressible Howard and Deb Limbert, have been leading caving expeditions to Vietnam since the early 1990s.
I’m sure all of you have heard of Hang Sơn Đoòng—‘the biggest cave in the world’—which has featured in National Geographic and innumerable online publications since its exploration in 2009 on a previous BCRA expedition.
In March-April 2014 I was lucky enough to tag along for the first four weeks of the most recent six-week expedition, having scored a highly coveted invite thanks to the good work of previous Vietnam expeditioners Trevor Wailes and Andy McKenzie; I knew being nice to those two and pretending I like them would pay dividends in the end.
Aside from Hang Sơn Đoòng, countless other epic caves of grand proportions have been discovered, explored and mapped over the last 30-odd years on Howard and Deb’s expeditions.
Many of the early discoveries are now major tourist caves. A thriving tourism industry has been created in the once sleepy rural Quảng Bình province.
The 2014 expedition’s aims were to continue the exploration of the massive limestone landscape between the coast and the Laos border. On my first evening Howard excitedly sat me down with topographic maps of the area and showed me the location and extent of the known caves, the total area prospected since 1990 and the remaining extent of the karst area that is yet to be looked at.
Only about 90% of the total area hasn’t been looked at, so just a small bit of potential! The main impediments of exploration are that the area is principally devoid of anything other than rough foot tracks, the terrain is insanely steep, jagged and dry (in the dry season), and the Vietnamese bureaucracy is second to none.
Thanks to Howard and Deb’s long involvement in the area and assistance from the Hanoi University of Science, much of the karst is now World Heritage listed and enormous economic changes to the area have occurred; Howard and Deb are now minor celebrities in the country and the bureaucratic hurdles are less of a problem than they used to be.
The poor access and nasty terrain, however, have not improved much. Exploration in the past has centred on the road from Quảng Bình to Laos. This road traverses the southern portion of the karst area and provides relatively rapid access to the karst a few kilometres north and south of its alignment.
Despite this, new caves are still being found within very short distances of the road, due to the near-vertical terrain that flanks the road in most spots. These areas can be hit as day trips or short 2-5 day stints in the jungle. More recent expeditions have begun to focus on targets further afield, which require 8+ day forays into the jungle. With no communication, vicious terrain, infrequent water sources and hot, humid weather, stints of this length are rather arduous affairs. But the caves are worth it.
In 2014 fourteen cavers (all of them British apart from myself) participated in the six-week expedition—some there for the whole period, others for between one and four weeks. Local guides spend time in the jungle between expeditions, make a note of any caves they find and report them to Howard and Deb.
A rough itinerary is then drawn up in the six months or so before the expedition sorting out teams, target caves and logistics—guides, porters, permissions etc. Before I flew out of Hobart all I knew was that my name appeared beside a list of areas, cavers and guides, few of which I knew anything about. I’d only ever met and caved with two of this year’s crew.
A Lean Start
Things started badly when good old Qantas failed to shift my checked luggage from my domestic flight to my international flight, so I arrived in Saigon with lots of enthusiasm but very little caving gear. They eventually found my bag languishing in Melbourne but due to another short domestic flight, a Sunday and an immediate caving schedule, I was not to be reunited with my bag for more than a week.
I made do by rummaging through the store of semi-retired and left-over kit from previous expeditions and stealing stuff from the others when they weren’t looking. After a half day touring the town and getting the low-down, the next day was a warm-up, one-day trip.
Gareth Sewell (Sweeny), Howard Clarke and I were assigned a previous find (Hang Bang) that hadn’t been checked in the upstream direction. While the lead didn’t go far, it was a nice easy trip to get my bearings and familiarise myself with the terrain, the climate, the vegetation—there are some things you don’t touch; the fauna—there are lots of things that want to eat you or send you deaf; and, most importantly, the personalities of Messieurs Sweeny and Clarke—no easy task.
The next day Adam (Spillane, with whom I’d caved with in China 2011), Dave Ramsay and I headed off for a seven-day stint to the Xuong Valley area. I’d been regaled with epic tales of Xuong Valley trips by Andy and Snablet (Peter MacNab)—no water, 10-day-old pork curry-induced dysentery, AK47-toting smugglers and cracking vertical caves.
It took us three days to walk in with five guides/porters. Most of these days weren’t too epic, as the dire water situation often meant you had to stop early in the day as the next reliable water spot was too far away to reach that day.
On day two the first of my scavenged shoes started to disintegrate and had to be tied up with string. On day four we checked out two caves. The first was a streamsink which crapped out after 100 m and the second, Hang Nô, was a wet season resurgence that fed the aforementioned streamsink, which was nice, big horizontal passage for a couple of hundred metres before getting a bit nasty and tight before sumping. It was a crap day by Vietnam standards, but both were caves that would have been more than welcome finds back home.
On the fifth day we relocated camp and were shown to a 3 m diameter, 50 m deep shaft that takes a lot of water in the wet season—Hang Mây. This kept us busy all day, as it progressively got larger and larger before levelling out at -200 m in massive passage (L-50, R-3, U-40, D-1.5 kind of passage). Moments before turn-around time the cave ended abruptly in a pile of mud-covered boulders and we hurried out, derigging without checking any side leads—approximately 1100 m of survey all up for the day. The other shoe crapped itself on day five and more string was required. Days six and seven were spent dragging our leech-covered bodies back to civilisation.
While we were out in the Xuong a second group had gone in to push Khe Tieng, which was the scene of Trevor Wailes’ flood entrapment in 1997. The sump Trevor had reached in 1997 was open and three kilometres of new cave had been surveyed, but no connection was found to the main drain of Khe Ry as expected.
Luggage Found, Cavers Lost
After a brief afternoon of recovery it was time to get ready for the next day’s trip. My bag had finally arrived, so I had the luxury of shiny clean gear (all of which actually fitted me) to play with. Having a pair of shoes that weren’t held together with bits of string was a nice change. The notes on the trip I was down for said ‘large cliffed doline; 100 m deep and 1 km circumference’. It sounded ok. It was earmarked as a five-day trip.
The first day was a disaster. The porters hadn’t been worded up and weren’t prepared. There were lots of last-minute phone calls to find porters, organise supplies and the like. We were dumped on the side of the road to Laos, stumbled into the bush with too much gear and not enough porters and promptly got lost. We ended up camping for the night within earshot of the road.
The next morning the correct path was found but morale was low amongst the porters and the decision to turn around was made. Transport back to Phong Na was arranged and we sat down with Howard and Mr Kanh to formulate plan B.
A few hours later we were back at the side of the road again with some extra porters and a lot more confidence. Day one’s walk was steeply uphill but relatively short to a good water source. Day two was long and hard and ended by putting us beside a cave that had been pushed on an earlier expedition.
At this point we realised we’d just been paralleling the Laos road and had taken three days to get a half day’s walk from the road. We westerners like topographic maps and GPS, but the locals do it all by memory. Their memory and knowledge of the myriad jungle routes is phenomenal, but obviously they stuff up occasionally.
That afternoon we were shown our target cave, Thach Sinh Linh Đông, which was hidden amongst a labyrinth of razor-sharp pinnacle karst and, while it wasn’t as big as the notes suggested, it was a mightily impressive hole in the ground—about 60 m deep on one side, grading down to about 30 m deep on the other, and about 400 m round the outside. The doline floor had a jungle growing in it. We picked our approach point and headed back to our nearby camp with great anticipation for the next day.
While we headed off to explore the big hole, another team of locals were heading off to try to find another new cave that had been found in the general vicinity a few years earlier as a backup if our monster cave didn’t go—yeah, as if—and another group sussed a better escape route back to the road. Amazingly, despite the presence of two massive passages heading off either end of the doline, the cave didn’t go any more than a couple of hundred metres in either direction. We were simply astounded. Paul Ibberson said that this cave was almost the same as the Garden of Edam entrance into Hang Sơn Đoòng and that he was expecting it to do something similar. Alas, it was choked at either end. That’s caving.
We returned early to camp to find that the other new cave had not been found but that the short escape route was a goer, so we ate well and prepared for an early exit. The next morning we were up and going early and back at the road around lunch time. Unfortunately, we didn’t have communication and we weren’t expected out till the next day and at a different spot, so we started traipsing down the road trying to hitch rides on passing motorcycles. Some of the guides and porters got lifts and headed back to civilisation to organise a van. As we waited, the lorry carrying the other group, who had been caving down near the Laos border, came past and we tumbled into the back of that with Deb, Sweeny and Adam. They had surveyed several large caves but nothing epic. We had barely got moving again when our minivan arrived and we were presented with the option of bouncing in the back of a lorry getting sunburnt and bruised for 20 km or sitting in an air-conditioned van stocked with cold Coca-Cola and beer. Tough choice.
Two weeks down and this was halfway for me. We had a rest day and welcomed a few new expedition members at the airport. The following day, though, we were back into it, with three independent day trips happening. Sweeny, recent arrival Robbie Burke and I were given a guide, a note sheet which said ’70 m shaft at KM17’ and dumped on the side of the Laos road supposedly at the 17 km point, which was mysteriously further down the road than we’d started our previous trip, apparently at KM20.
The slog in was a minor epic, mostly untracked, ludicrously steep in spots and lots of razor karst. Fun. We were all utterly knackered and thoroughly convinced that our guide had no idea where this shaft really was when we suddenly stumbled across it. The gaping maw with a six second drop we had before us instantly quashed any ill feeling or tiredness.
One hundred and twenty metres and three rebelays later we were at the bottom of this brilliant shaft. A massive horizontal passage headed off at the bottom complete with a deep, slowly flowing lake.
Robbie drew the shortest straw and dived in for a recce. He breast-stroked off into the distance and around the corner and returned a few minutes later. The passage, and the swim, was continuing off out of sight in passage of generous dimensions and we could hear the sound of a drop or rapid ahead. With the time it had taken us to get this far—the walk in consumed a lot of time—we decided to leave it at that but leave the cave rigged for a return later in the expedition; Sweeny and I had a 12-day Xuong Valley trip starting the following day.
Incidentally, once the location of this cave was plotted and its general description bandied about the dinner table, it was generally agreed this cave must be the previously explored cave ‘Hang Nightmare’, which terminated soon after a small cascade in the river passage, and it was placed in the ‘Oh well, it was a fun trip; pity it’s not new’ pile. However, when Deb, who had been present during ‘Hang Nightmare’ exploration, got round to derigging the cave several weeks after the main expedition finished, it was decided that it was actually a new cave after all, and that there had been a datum mix up which placed the two caves so close together.
They were actually a long way apart, so the ‘KM17 Shaft’, as the cave is generally referred to, is now firmly back on the 2016 expedition hit list. Hopefully I’ll get another turn at it then.
Beyond the Xuong
Not knowing at that point that our 120 m shaft was possibly just an old find, I was torn between wanting to go back the next day to push it and embarking on the 12-day Xuong trip written into the schedule.
But twelve days with Sweeny and Snablet, my only chance to cave with Snablet since he was doing the last four weeks of the expedition and I was doing the first four, couldn’t be passed up. A fourth caver, Martin Holroyd, was joining us. The weather turned nasty—mid to high 30s and humid—and that, combined with the amount of food and gear we needed for 12 days in the jungle, made for a nasty walk in. It was slow and hot going; how you can drink six litres of water in a day, only walk 8 km and still be dehydrated was a foreign concept to me until this trip. After four days of slogging it we camped near a couple of new cave possibilities, but neither did anything interesting.
There was endless and excited talk of ‘Hang Moi’. Everything we found proved to be called ‘Hang Moi’, yet there was always more talk of ‘Hang Moi’ the next day. We figured ‘Moi’ must have been an active prospector in this region and had named all the caves after himself.
Eventually the Hang Moi stuff was getting a bit ridiculous, so with the help of a Vietnamese phrase book of Snablet’s, we discovered that ‘moi’ meant ‘new’. ‘Hang Moi’ then became the running joke for the trek.
On day five we did one last walking day to reach our target area. On day six we were led a short distance to our first proper ‘Hang Moi’; we ended up calling it Hang Moi For Real. This proved to be a small-dimension cave in a disproportionately large doline. There was lots of swimming and near-ducks, a healthy bat population and almost no vertical element; all the previous Xuong trips had yielded 200-300 m deep shaft systems to base level horizontal caves.
But plotting our position on the map showed we were well and truly beyond the Xuong now. We racked up 600 m of cave for the day. On the following day we were informed that we needed rope because we had a ‘Vuc’ (shaft) entrance. We amused ourselves by naming this cave Vuc Moi. It was about a 30-minute walk from camp and in slightly different terrain. The cave was of a totally different character to that of the previous day. Small and vertical, much like the stuff I’m used to at home in the Junee-Florentine, it took us two days to bottom this 250 m deep, 500 m long pothole.
The cave consisted of small pitch after small pitch after small pitch and consumed a lot of time and rope to rig. The only reason we reached the ‘bottom’ on the second day was because I was sent back to scavenge whatever I could from the previous pitches in order to cobble together enough rope and rigging gear to get down the last few pitches.
At the bottom the cave turned horizontal and there was evidence of backing up during the wet season. Snablet refused to let a small rock blockage halt progress and hammered his way through into more vile, slippery horizontal passage. Eventually, mainly due to time constraints but partly due to a slippery boulder strewn floor with deadly voids and no more rigging gear, the passage was left wide open and beckoning. Next time.
Vuc Moi was abandoned and we spent day nine pushing more horizontal streamsinks closer to camp. One was small and short (100 m) and the other was large and a bit longer (250 m). We relocated camp to a magnificent limestone cliff a short distance back along the track that afternoon, where I experienced the novelty of stringing my hammock up between two bolts. On day 10 we were guided to another nearby horizontal stream sink (Hang Moi Lan).
The first kilometre of cave was large, dry horizontal passage, although a major conduit during the wet season though, which then dropped slightly to a lower level and became smaller and wetter. Lots of swimming and ducks until finally a sump—the kind of sump that would send any cave diver giddy with excitement (at least that’s what it did to Martin) but not an easy place to cart tanks to. It was a nice cave to finish the trip on (1230 m all up), even if I was shivering so badly that keeping book was farcical.
With severely depleted food stores making for light packs, two days were budgeted for the walk out.
The first day saw us take an alternative route back to the Xuong Valley main camp. This route took us through the area I’d visited on the seven-day trip I’d done earlier in the expedition. Once I knew where I was I started recounting to the others the horrors of one particularly nasty steep pass we would have to negotiate. My warnings proved to be justified.
As we descended the nasty col, Snablet and I were halted by panicked and urgent hollering from behind us. It was all in Vietnamese so we stood still hoping for some direction in English; Sweeny and Martin were behind us too. It became apparent we had a real problem when one of the porters from in front of us came hurtling through with the dreaded Darren drum marked ‘C – First Aid’ and its bearer saying ‘Sweeny? Martin?’
We rushed back up the track to find Sweeny kneeling on the ground with Martin’s unconscious and bloodied head resting on his lap. Shit! An unconscious patient with head injuries is not what you want one and a half day’s walk into the jungle. And Martin is a strapping lad, too; six foot and well built—we wouldn’t be carrying the sod anywhere easily.
Thankfully, Martin regained consciousness and was able to sit up and run us through where it hurt; he’s a firefighter in the UK and does lots of car accident trauma first aid, which helped.
He had two nasty gashes on the top of his head, but apparently no skull fracture, and a left thumb that looked like it had been pulled off and put back on the wrong way. He had stumbled in a bad spot just before a 2.5 m drop off and landed head down, bum up on a big chunk of razor-sharp limestone. Luckily for his skull he managed to get a hand out to take the brunt of the fall before ploughing into the rock with his head. A depressed skull fracture could easily prove fatal at that distance from proper medical help.
Thanks to a well-stocked first aid kit and a bit of Boy Scout nous we got Martin bandaged up like a front rower, divided his gear amongst all the others and nursed him down the rest of the steep descent to our planned camp site. Early that evening, during the shift change between the horrible daytime biting creatures and the nasty night-time biting creatures, we removed our earlier efforts and had a proper clean and inspection of the wounds. We gave Martin a very fashionable haircut, drowned him in iodine again and packaged him back up in a much more professional manner. His hand was now extremely swollen and looked by far the worse injury.
At least he could walk.
Day 12 dawned and we made an early start to escape the heat. We did in one day what had taken us three to get in and we all enjoyed a few cold ones from the Paradise Cave show cave markets. The tourists didn’t quite know what to make of this mob of stinky, filthy, blood-stained vagrants who had stumbled into their midst.
Back at Sơn Trạch, Chrissy, Ian Watson’s wife, who is a nurse, inspected Martin’s injuries and confirmed our suspicions—head not so bad but hand really bad. We took to Martin’s head with a shaver to make his haircut a little more socially acceptable. We decided to take him to nearby Dong Hoi hospital while dropping me off at the airport the following morning .
All that was left for me was to pack my bags and deal with the fact that my visa expiry problem, which had remained persistently unresolved since I arrived, was still unresolved. It was dealt with by saying, ‘Here’s US$50; that should sort any problems out’ and adjourning to a big session at the bar.
While the hangover was no help at all, the $50 turned the immigration official’s serious frown into a ‘no worries’ expression and I made it out of the country without a stint in prison.
It turned out that Martin had fractured his thumb in a few places and required surgery with pins and months of rehab. His head wounds, while spectacular bleeders, were superficial. It was the end of his expedition, though, and he headed home early to explain himself to his wife and child.
The remaining two weeks of expedition didn’t turn up anything startling by Vietnam standards, but it was productive nonetheless. The post-expedition summary claimed 17 km of cave explored and surveyed. Considering the high speed surveying we were doing, I reckon that could be extrapolated into about 30 km if I’d been surveying it by my normal but not over-the -top anal surveying methods at home and at least 50 km if there’d been any Yanks on the team.
Not a bad little expedition. At times I nearly cried; I frequently ranted at voracious invertebrate wildlife and cursed the weather, vegetation and terrain, but that was all months ago now and I simply can’t wait to get back there in 2016.
A huge thank you to:
Trev and Andy for getting me there;
Howard and Deb for their unrelenting enthusiasm, diligence and expedition organising;
All the other cavers for putting up with my uncouth Antipodean behaviour;
Trusty guides Mr Phong, Mr Linh, Mr Kanh and the others whose names I’ve forgotten or with whom I didn’t have the pleasure of trekking;
All the poor young lads of Quảng Bình province who get to drag our food and ropes around the countryside for us and then cook up spectacular, although a little predictable after twelve days, fare in two pots on an open fire;
And the University of Hanoi for sorting out visas (most of the time), permissions and interpreting.
Wailes, T. 2009. Khe Tien, East of Ban Ban, Vietnam 1997. Caves Australia 178: 7-11 CA Issue 178 (PDF)