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On our first afternoon in Tra Linh prior to moving “up the hill” to the plateau above the resurgences visited in 1997, a team set out to visit some interesting sites noted close to the Cao Bang to Tra Linh road at Quang Dau. Splitting into two teams, half were despatched to an obvious sink at Nguom Sua whilst the remainder headed upstream to investigate a probable resurgence cave.

The sink team found a heavily silted choke and little else, but were rewarded with a pleasant walk through some of the most stunningly beautiful scenery we have come across even given that Cao Bang is an outstandingly scenic province.

The upstream team of Paul, Steve and “Grabber” O’Neill had a little more success. The water did in fact emerge from a cave at the head of the valley, but only a short swim lay between the entrance and the sump – scant reward for Steve’s bold effort in headtorch and underpants! At least the sight proved amusing to the locals who accompanied us to the entrance. In wet weather, this would no doubt be an impressive site as the far side of the ridge contains the sink for much of the water in the Tra Linh valley.

Heading back downstream, we noted a possible entrance a little way up the valley side. Whilst Pete and Paul set off to investigate, Steve was drawn to an altogether more impressive spot – a perfect karst cone at the head of the valley had at some time in the distant past been intersected by a huge fossil passage. With the erosion of the surrounding area, this passage now manifested itself as a giant eyehole in the cone. It might well be called the F*** M* Eyehole as this was the expression of everyone as they first saw the sight from the head of the valley. In Steve’s eyes, it was a passage worth visiting.

Back at the lesser entrance, we had noted a decent draught and a dry walking size passage. We returned to daylight to call over Steve with the survey gear, only to hear a distant rustling, grunting and the rumble of loose rocks from somewhere halfway up the cliff below the eyehole. Clearly he was otherwise engaged, so we decided to check out the cave a bit further.

With one very used carbide (Pete) and a glow-worm headtorch (Paul), progress was not rapid, especially as a couple of calcite ramps and climbs made us a little wary. A traverse around a pit with a murky-looking pool initially stopped the lone Grabber, but with glow-worm backup, he was ready to have a go. We decided that as time was getting on and as we had no survey gear it would be best to check the passage continued and return the following day to complete the job properly.

Once across the traverse, Pete dropped into a continuation of the main passage - large, walking and wide open! With the immortal line “I’m sorry Paul, I can’t control myself!” the “leave it until tomorrow” plan was aborted and more metres were grabbed, unfortunately sufficient metres to reach the exit on the far side of the ridge.

On returning to the traverse, Pete estimated some 200-300m to the exit. This would give us perhaps 500-600m in total and we agreed that we would return to survey the next day.

Unfortunately, the following day we moved en masse to Tong Cot to begin exploration on the plateau and did not manage to return to finish what we had started. A thoroughly reprehensible situation which just goes to emphasise the importance of surveying as you go. So really we explored half a kilometre more than the records show, but we know we can’t claim it. At least the next expedition can already count on 500m or so of survey before any serious searching begins! And most of all, whoever takes on the left-over duty of the 1999 expedition (and we definitely will if we are around) is assured of a gentle stroll through some amazing countryside and a few easy metres of survey courtesy of the Arch Grabbers. Oh, and for future reference, a hot, dirty and bleeding Mr. Milner was of the opinion that the view from the eyehole was more than adequate compensation for negotiating the vertical jungle and loose rock.

Paul Ibberson

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