During the 1997 expedition, we had visited an area of Ha Quang districtin the vicinity of the main road through to Pac Bo. This allowed us relatively easy access to a number of potentially very interesting sites. Only one of these locations yielded any surveyed cave, but at both Pac Bo and Na Giang, major resurgences were noted. Although no dry cave existed, the volume of water issuing from the base of the massif gave us hope that somewhere in the range of hills to the north we might just find the way into another superb Vietnamese cave system.
Two years later we arrived at the border post above the village of Tong Cot. With a larger team than in 1997 and the whole of 30km by 10km plateau to be investigated, we had high hopes. The major problem we had at the time was that the area was suffering a severe water shortage. Tankers were being used by the Vietnamese to bring water to the villages perched high on this arid plateau and the people had more important concerns than answering silly questions from a load of westerners about holes in the ground ! However, as always in Vietnam, we were made more than welcome by the locals and they viewed our strange fascinations with a kind of quizzical amusement.
Having driven up the long valley from Tra Linh in the morning, Team Grab decided that an obvious hole was the most promising lead and headed off to scoop some passage. Deb took another group to check out some leads back down the valley which we had been told about in 1997. This left Howard, Martin, Fiona and myself to set off uphill onto the plateau proper. Being slightly less impulsive than some (and not fancying a fruitless trudge in the heat of the day), we first asked some of the locals where the caves were to be found. Very soon we had a guide and were on our way up the road on foot. After about 1km, amidst mutterings regarding the eminent suitability of the track for our jeeps, a major paddy from the expedition leader was averted as our guide took a left turn onto a rough single-person trail.
About half an hour later, we reached a col above the village of Thieng Ngoa and took a well earned breather. To the north and east lay the tower karst of China and to the south and west, the Ha Quang massif. A truly spectacular resting point and a clear indication of the potential of the area.
Just below the col, our destination; an obvious doline with a cave entrance at its lower end. A quick look revealed a vadose canyon with a floor of dry cobbles. It could almost have been the Dales, were it not for the fact that we were in T shirts and standing up in a passage at least a metre wide. 100m was quickly surveyed to the head of a PITCH. On this occasion we had no rope, so a return was immediately planned for the following day.
Although we had expected some vertical development, logistical factors had dictated that we could only manage to get about 200m of rope to Tong Cot. This was duly stuffed into tackle bags and carted up the hill. The team’s composition for the up and down bits was slightly different, with Howard and Fiona being replaced by Steve and John.
The first pitch was swiftly descended, landing on a ledge above a further drop. Handy naturals made rigging an easy task. Another short drop followed in the canyon, before a rub point forced the application of the bolt kit for the last 14m section. Beyond this, naturals gave good hangs for two more pitches to a hading rift. Still on the rope, the rift opened onto a larger section and finally a flat bit. This cave was turning out to be a little different from the norm.
The horizontal section went on for at least 35m until another pitch blocked our progress. It sounded big. Our last rope was 45m of 8mm. I placed one bolt and then tactically smacked my thumb with the hammer. Big Nose took over bolting and having completed the rigging felt obliged to make the first descent. Knowing there was a good chance of dangling at the end of a bit of 8mm over a big hole, I reluctantly had to concede the honour.
The rope did make it as far as a ledge about 30m down the shaft, but was not quite long enough to reach the bottom, wherever that may be…
Once the numbers were crunched, we found Cam Thon to be 282m long and 145m deep to the ledge. Not exactly a world beater, but with the likely resurgence 10km to the south and around 800m lower, this cave will be a major objective for the next expedition. More rope has already been ordered.