Report 1999

Article Index



After meeting the Snablet and Simon in Hanoi, the group had travelled south by train to Bo Trach, where a meeting and lunch was held with the People’s Committee, the key interest at the time was the potential for World Heritage Site status which was being investigated for the Ke Bang massif.Our goals were threefold, primarily to complete the investigation of the Khe Rhy river system, secondly to explore a large area of sinks to the north of the main Chay river resurgences and finally to examine several leads in the central area of the massif, either side of Highway 15(the Ho Chi Minh trail).

On arrival in Son Trach, and after a visit to Hang Phong Nha accompanied by a film crew, a short investigation was made up into the scrub above Phong Nha yielding the cave now known as Phong Nha Kho (qv).The team then split into two, with Mr Phai, Howard Limbert, Anette Becher, Pete O’Neil and Simon Davies intending to travel Highway 15a towards Minh Hoa which was the previous limit of exploration some years earlier.The road was now reportedly easier to travel and could be passed using a 4wd as opposed to the seemingly ubiquitous Russian and Chinese 6wd military vehicles.

Our goal was to head round the top of the massif by vehicle and venture into its interior on foot to examine the sinks and watercourses.

The next morning we chortled as the other team’s transport arrived to take them to Ban Ban; the journey from previous experience was going to be tough and unpleasant and we awaited for our promised vehicle to arrive. Of course we thought, they’d have to move that dilapidated old bin lorry first.Our humour came crashing down to earth as we realised that this was the transport which awaited.What followed can only be described as hurried re-negotiation; Howard was doing his level best to convince the owner to go away and get us something decent- a land cruiser perhaps?

Eventually a Nissan 4wd with a nice big V8 and air conditioning arrived.The truck seemed perfect, other than the size.It was immediately apparent that with the a total seating capacity of 4 (if you are small or a contortionist) and 5 team members, plus the driver and his mate, that things could be a little uncomfortable and that sooner or later someone would have to go in the pick up part of the truck.This area was a hard top with nailed shut windows and a propensity to effectively distil the carbon monoxide straight from the exhaust and pipe it directly to the pick up area.

To make matters worse, the temperature was climbing fast as the recent cloudy spell had given way to bright hot sunshine.We decided to load the gear in such a way as to make it moderately comfortable in the back and induce team members into the sauna with a hastily purchased case of beer.We set sail for Son Chay, the first sink we wanted to examine, this was about 2 hours driving but it was two hours in the very jaws of Hades itself.Sitting in the back part of the jeep was nightmarish, the temperature was stifling (at least 40C) with no air whatsoever, opening the tailgate let in fumes and dust, so we decided to take turns.It also became speedily apparent, that our driver was perhaps unsuited to his job as a driver.As soon as the vehicle got moving, he changed straight to 5th and relied on the grunt of the V8 to pull us along while the engine laboured.

On arrival at Son Chay(past the old airfield, 3rd on the left) we disembarked and went cave hunting, a short walk across some neatly cultivated land in very hot sun took us to the end of the valley where the river sank.There was much scrabbling around some boulder collapses, however the river clearly disappeared into a boulder ruckle.Since all the cave in the area had previously been very large, it was felt that to pursue this may not be as fruitful as looking further along the edge of the massif.

After a short discussion with some locals over a cup of green tea, it transpired that they knew of no caves in the area.We pushed on back to the truck to head over the pass on the highway.The highway gradually deteriorated from being a dirt track to some ruts and stones through the jungle.The pass on Highway 15a follows the northern edge of the massif until it crosses some low sandstone hills to the north, the apex of the pass then leads down into now familiar karst geo-morphology common around the edge of the massif, namely spectacular tower karst.After a few hours of this we came upon a small village with an army checkpoint, again the procedure was simple.To find cave in the area, ask the locals, particularly the elders, as many of the caves were strategic in the Vietnam War as staging posts, defendable sites and bunkers from the bombing raids.Talking to the villagers an elderly man claimed knowledge of a cave, not far away - he could walk there, the man grabbed essential kit, torch and pith helmet, and trotted off down the road without waiting to see if we were following.

Further conversation with army officials revealed to us that there was indeed a cave in the area but it was in an area closed to all personnel and that in any case there were bigger caves further down the valley.Heartened by this news we headed off down the improving road.As we crossed into a low valley with extensive cultivation a large river was spotted.A moment’s deduction led to Pete and Anette skipping off into the undergrowth to look for the source of the river.A large entrance was discovered with a significant amount of water emerging over rocks spewing from an entrance lake.Pete quickly stripped off and swam out to an almost immediate sump.This was confusing; sumps are rarely seen in the massif with only one or two noted. Worse was the water direction, it was flowing away from the Chay resurgence towards Minh Hoa. We pushed on into the nearest town and reported to the army base.

We took tea with the base commander and his assistant (not sure of either rank, but lots of stars and stripes) and were immediately offered a wing of the garrison to use as a base for our explorations.We moved in and prepared our evening meal while eagerly looking at maps for the next excursion.

We intended to climb over the ridge into the cultivated area and examine the two particular water courses which seemed to be a perfect site for a cave.Local knowledge provided us with useful information, the walk over the ridge would not take long, and that there would be a small village on the other side with plenty of paths since this was a main route over into Laos (hence the border post as the town was the first to be arrived if travelling from Laos ).

We set off early the next morning hoping to break the back of the walk before the weather got too hot.We crossed into the village over a small suspension bridge and set about clambering our way past the reservoir over the tower karst.It was amazingly pleasant, no leeches, shady and after a short climb a wonderful plateau with tall trees and leaf litter floor.After a little of this, there was a small stream to cross which was emerging from a pile of boulders, unable to pass the opportunity by, we had a quick paddle to examine the resurgence and declared it a dead end, though the water was icy cold and very clear. Again bizarrely we were up on a limestone plateau and here was a spring.The hydrology was beginning to look a little weird.


On arriving in the village we spoke to the headman for a while and took a bowl of tea and discussed the rivers in the valley and the cave.It was a little disappointing, when we got to the first river which we were expecting to flow from right to left – i.e. in the direction of the Chay resurgence but the thing was flowing the wrong way!The local confirmed that there was no cave at the end of the river but there were a few caves over near Laos some 2 days walk away.We asked about the other river which joined a few hours down stream and asked about the source of this.The man kindly offered to show us the way.We decided that since a good part of the day was gone, to dump unnecessary clobber and head lightweight into the bush. If we had any luck we could return.

The weather was now red hot and it was extremely hot and tiring work keeping up with our newfound friend.At some stage he asked if we were part of the expedition, we answered “what expedition?” The answer came an hour later as we stumbled across a group of low makeshift tents by a bend in the river, populated with Russians.Both sides were amazed and quite pleased to meet and a quick cup of tea ensued.The Russians were entomologists looking at butterflies and insect species; they were also interested in Bats.Bats equals caves and the discussion got interesting.The whole area had been searched for bat roosts (caves especially) without any luck which disappointed us all.

We turned round with a resigned “call it a day” atmosphere descending.

That evening a small cave near the military base was explored which unfortunately did not lead anywhere and contained no running water.After a good night’s kip we rose early and struck out across the flood plain that was opposite the army base. On our way over to the river crossing anenterprising young fellow on a bike was honking a horn and bellowing, we joked that he was selling ice cream out of the big box on the back of his bike.Strangely this was exactly what he was selling, at 300 dong a piece we attacked the chap’s supplies like starving beasts.Refreshed and a little surprised (well he had cycled 60km with the stuff) we pushed on, a promising looking hole was investigated and unfortunately ruled out.We moved to the other side of the valley where a strong draft was found, it was cold and hence promising.We furtled around boulders with no discernable draft and came to the conclusion that it was probably katabatic downdraft caused by the cold air sinking down the tower karst. – there was certainly no sign of any cave !.

Disheartened we made our way back in the searing heat to the army base.An experience only lifted by discovery of a rather nice swimming pool crafted out of a dammed river.It was now time to move on, this was expedited and we headed to the next town.We made our rapid way to the local party official who after a few cups of tea pointed out that the area had already been looked at and the only large cave in the area was Ruc Mon which was explored by the 1992.Thoroughly pissed off we decided to go back to Son Trach and make some forays from that part of the countryside.It was clear that this area was not going to yield the desired results.

Simon Davies

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