Na Nguom I+III
Mick has worked out an easier way to the caves, approaching the valley from the near end. This does not only make for a more straight-forward walk, but also avoids the inevitable attempt at mutiny on the drivers’ side. We pass between the steep karst towers framing the valley, back-lit by the morning sun and softened by the ever-present haze. The lush, grassy river bank provides the perfect kitting-up site. Originally we meant to leapfrog, but we discover that one team have left their survey tape in the jeep, meaning we end up as a somewhat overpowered fivesome.
I know that it is going to be hip-deep mud, but nevertheless am surprised by what comes next. Martin strides off powerfully, wellies on head. After a few steps the name of the passage suggests itself from Martin’s repeatedly expressed disgust (For F.... Sake!) with the state of this streamway. Initially, I find this mud is quite a lark. After a few steps, however, I run out of momentum and begin to sink deeper and deeper with every move designed to pull my legs out. Eventually, the glutinous mud closes around my hips with a lip-smacking sound. Everyone else seems miles ahead, and panic rises. Meanwhile the few onlookers from the village giggle at my feeble attempts to keep up. Surely, they are not going to leave me here to be swallowed by the resurgence. Hearing my pathetic calls for help, Mick and Steve eventually come to my rescue. I proceed in the middle of the stream, where I manage to make forward progress with relative ease, adopting a floating-wallow style.
After about fifteen meters, we reach a low arch. This has got to be a duck or sump in high water conditions. Here, the draught howls with such strength that it blows out my carbide light. Shortly after, a muddy chamber appears. Turning left, we climb a small sediment dam, over which the streamway idly trickles. We then cross two short canals. At this point, the low, muddy aspect of the cave gives way to clean-washed limestone, and the cave becomes lofty and quite pretty. We swim through emerald-green water along the third deep canal and climb up a miniature waterfall into a section partly constricted by white stalbosses. The streamway flows merrily. A further swim produces what at first seems a dead end. Mick climbs out of the water, up several crumbly boulders, and then scales a giant flowstone that towers above us hinting at a large, black space beyond. The way on. John and Martin more or less push me up this steep climb with additional help from my wetsuit, which sticks to the crystal-covered formations like Velcro.
More swimming, followed by wading over soft, popcorn-encrusted gour pools. For the second time, there is no apparent way on. Eventually, we notice a very low duck in the sump pool. Martin takes a deep breath and ducks under - thumbs up! We follow, one by one, to find yet more lofty passage, this time surrounded by substantial muddy banks. The river is wider and much shallower here. We carry on walking along the meandering streamway, past the mud banks into the next part of this tall passage. Beyond a shallow pool – another sump. We refuse to give up. Mick and Martin begin to climb the surrounding flowstone. One area looks particularly promising, and it seems that the draught might go up along it. Opinions are divided as to whether the black space we can just about infer beyond the flowstone wall is the way on, or merely forms part of the fossil meander we have already seen. There is only one way to find out: John and Mick return to the entrance to collect a 20m rope which will be used to belay the climber. Martin volunteers for this task. Nearly two hours and several dodgy belays later, Martin is confident that there is no easy way on here. This does not mean there is not a higher level passage to bypass this sump, but if we are to get to Cao Bang this evening, we need to call it a day.
Outside the resurgence, the entire village has congregated. Forgetting the waterbuffaloes they are supposed to be minding, the villagers come over to inspect our wetsuits and other gear. They grin at our white skin, pull the hair on our arms and generally make friendly contact, while the water buffaloes blissfully chomp their way through the crops.