TRUNG KHANH – NA NGUOM SYSTEM
As every morning at the Tong Cot boundary station, the 5:45 a.m. clank reveille (a pair of pliers erratically pounded into a suspended lorry wheel) wakes us rather earlier than hoped for. With daylight about to break, we peer through the dusty windows to find a handful of young soldiers in shorts, vests, and plastic sandals going through their morning gymnastics, driven by whistles and shouts. We hastily throw our belongings into the jeeps. I am glad to leave Tong Cot boundary station to get on with its military routine and football games. It is going to be a fair drive to the next stop-over point.
Trung Khanh provides the first inkling of things to come.Here, the familiar palaearctic fauna and flora of the higher altitudes begins to give way to wildlife more commonly associated with the tropics. The magpies, great tits and collared crows of northern Cao Bang become scarcer as we drive on, the vegetation infinitely denser and verdant, the air heavy with humidity and enigmatic scents. Giant clumps of bamboo hunker alongside the river banks, tethered horses feed on lush green fields, and water buffaloes wallow in festering mud holes. While waiting to introduce ourselves to the People’s Committee of Trung Khanh, I discover a massive atlas moth resting under the building’s concrete balcony. At last, an insect so large it is difficult to hold! Later, I spot hundreds of giant carpenter bees foraging among the honey scented trees, and then I find a huge moth cocoon. From now walking to the caves will be as exciting as the caving itself.
The vibrant town of Trung Khanh holds a busy market the day we arrive. The only puzzling feature of the town is its loudspeaker system showering the town with Vietnamese music, interspersed with what we assume is propaganda, from dawn until dusk. Fascinating for the first couple of hours, but I cannot imagine that tourists will appreciate this in the long term.
Howard has pointed out a sizeable river that seemingly emerges from the end of a valley, a few miles away. Our aim is to explore the resurgence. Despite the predictable argument with our drivers, weary of having to drive us from cave to cave without a day’s rest, and reluctant to scrape their polished jeeps along ruts in dusty country tracks, we manage to get relatively close to our presumed resurgence. The walk there proceeds along small ridges that frame the ubiquitous rice paddies, into a broad valley with hills rising up both sides. The river is instantly apparent and we keep to its banks, crossing when necessary.
Mick peers into the resurgence and finds it flowing sluggishly through a very deep layer of liquid mud. There is a phenomenal draught. Nobody has the equipment required for a swimming survey in a deep water cave and, after some discussion, Paul, Fiona and I leave to investigate a hole in the hill directly opposite the resurgence, while the others explore a hole above the resurgence, later known as Na Nguom III. We plan to leave the actual resurgence for tomorrow.