2018 Expedition

Introduction

2018 was another successful year for the expedition, focussing again on the Phong Nha Ke Bang Massif. Around 30 new entrances were investigated and several existing caves were extended giving a total of 11.7km of surveyed cave. Further exploration continued in the areas of K30 road 20 and valleys to the west of the Chay River in Bo Trach District. In Minh Hoa District teams continued the exploration of Ruc Ma Rinh and Bap Chuoi in Hoa Son Commune, explored 2 new caves in Tan Hoa Commune and extended Turtle Cave, and explored a number of caves in Ban On Commune. We believe there is still a lot of potential for new cave systems in Minh Hoa Province, but as always it takes time to get to know the area and local people. Hang Lang Phu Nhieu a small stream cave was also explored.

Phong Nha Cave was extended by one kilometre with the exploration of a flood inlet passage. Ruc Ma Rinh was extended to 3.35k. Exploration of an inlet extended Turtle Cave by 600m to a length of 1.6k.
The two new caves in Tan Hoa Commune were both high level dry caves, and extremely well decorated. Hang Soong in particular has numerous gour pools filled with coral towers.

The results of the expedition continue to build up the database and knowledge of the caves of Quang Binh Province. The next expedition will continue in 2020.

The expedition would like to thank: Quang Binh Peoples Committee Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park Hanoi University of Science

Lyon Equipment
Oxalis
Kerry Pilkington for expedition shirts All our local guides and porters

All photographs are taken by expedition team members and are the property of Vietnam caving expedition 2018.
Expedition team members write all the articles and every attempt has been made to maintain the original script to ensure their personal reflections are given in the report.

Khe Ry

Ho Khanh, the discoverer of many caves had heard about a cave above Khe Ry. Said to be big and extensive and to the right of Khe Ry and in the direction towards Son Doong. Having been above Khe Ry previously we knew this entailed a vertical climb up. Previously this was rigged by the locals with vines and bamboo, however we added SRT rope to the mix. Equipped with much more gear we set off.

The jungle rig was no longer in place, and our guides took a slightly different route. Nevertheless rope and some form of protection was essential. Stumbling over the rocky ‘valley’ floor above, we then headed up into the forest. Arriving at a dry entrance covered with graffiti, which Snablet soon recognized. A quick trip before noodle lunch confirmed this, but some bits needed pushing. The cave had acquired a new formation, a water bag solidly encrusted with sparkly calcite.

Climbing up over a calcite flow on the right led to a sharp squeeze into an extension of about 100m before closing down
Nearby a narrow canyon was pushed to a conclusion after a few metres.
On the opposite side of the passage an initially ascending passage headed down a few short climbs and a pitch to finally close down after a descent of 30m.

So a few new metres, but not really worth the effort of the ‘Khe Ry climb’! Another itch to be scratched was in Hang Khe Ry. During the initial exploration a side passage was noted, which had not yet been conclusively explored. It was great to re-visit such a magnificent river cave. The passage in question led up quite quickly into a massive collapse area noted on the survey. Another side passage was initially thought to be new until the 5:10 boot prints were noted. We could moan..... but never mind.

Big entrance at K35

In 2016, a team of four set off into the jungle at K35 on road 20. The aim had been a large entrance reportedly similar to Hang En. That trip was unsuccessful, with the guides being unable to relocate the cave. With such a promising lead, and a new guide who was confident a return was made.

We entered the jungle at the same point, but camped in the trees rather than the short cave we used before and actually much more pleasant in the jungle. We explored a couple of shafts quite close by on the first day. Whilst waiting for our guides, we had an exchange of lessons, rope rigging for photography, hence the name of the first cave ‘Next lesson’. A body sized slope dropped about 15m onto a loose slope. The slope funnelled down to the top of a long rift pitch of about 20m. At the bottom a further pitch could be seen, but the rift leading to it was too narrow, but there was a draught!

‘Lesson 2’ was a wide shaft, well covered in vegetation. We started rigging a rope, and of course our guides promptly found a free climbable route. Descending about 10m in the vegetation led to a 3m short climb, and the head of a pitch. Rigging from a boulder, another short drop led to the start of real verticality and bolt rigging. 100m of rope was used to get to the bottom in 3 drops, the lowest being the longest of about 40m. Essentially a long deep rift, a further short drop through boulders led to a final choke.

The next day our guides set off to find the large entrance, and we followed to check another cave. Unfortunately this turned out to be Paparazzi Pot, explored in 2016. We checked a few other short holes, and disturbed a large snake. Our guides returned late, tired and hungry, and said it was not possible to get to the cave this way. The next day we retreated to K30 and set up camp, the guides being dispatched ahead to find the way to the big cave. Ky found us another shaft about 20 mins from the road at K28. This looked quite promising, but needed bolts. With three teams out, we had limited drill power so rigged the cave using natural belays. A slope of loose boulders led to the head of a 25m pitch. Rigged from boulders and calcite threads the pitch landed on a large ledge. The pitch continues below and estimated at 20m. With no rope left it was decided we should save this for the ‘big one’.

Definitely worth another trip here. We paused at the road in the dusk and were lucky to see a small group of Ha TInh Langurs.
The next morning we set off along the familiar but more overgrown K30 valley. After about 1 hour we headed up very steeply on the south side. Reaching the top of the col, we could see another valley, and another set of hills. Our guides informed us the cave was in the far range. The descent was an epic. Climbing, scrambling and teetering on pinnacles, until finally we reached the valley floor and level going. A break for lunch, and 

the guides were off again. The route was still not clear, so we sat for some hours, then another vertical section, upwards this time. Passing a pool in the rocks we were told, don’t step in this it’s our water supply! Soon had a nice jungle camp set up.

The next day the guides set off again, and we explored 3 short caves. The first ‘the alcove’ a short climb down into boulders with no way off. The second cave ‘ 3 entrances’ involved an abseil down for about 20m into a large passage. Mud floored but with a bit of running water and a large pool. This closed down to the right, but climbing up and some grovelling lead into a reasonable extension. To the left led to a choke and the other 2 entrances.

The third cave ‘Bird’s nest’ had 2 entrances. Luckily the smaller of the entrances gave an easier rig, with hand lines down to the floor of quite a large passage. Well decorated walking passage led to a calcite choke. Martin climbed up about 10m, but there was no way on. A clear deep pool on the right was very pretty so we helped Ryan with some photos on the way out.

Finally the guides had located the big entrance and had a photo. We were becoming concerned about our proximity to the exit of Cua Nho Cave, which does have a big exit. The photo could not rule this out, so the next morning we set off. Sadly after a couple of hours, this was the case. So some arduous jungle trekking with not much reward, but at least the mystery of the big entrance was finally solved.

As fewer people are now hunting and logging, the old routes are becoming lost, so rediscovering entrances is becoming more and more difficult. Entrances that they would be confident of finding a few years ago are now proving a challenge to find.

Ban On - Minh Hoa District - April 2018

We based ourselves for the first week in April in the centre of the small rural village of Ban On at the edge of the limestone massif. The village president kindly provided us with accommodation in his house and guided us to a number of cave entrances in close proximity to the village.

Hang Ruc Doac

Located in the cow paddock 700m from the village, a small entrance squeezes through boulders into a sizeable walking passage. The cave passage is linear in nature and heads into the solitary tower cone back towards the direction of the HCM highway. The main passage crosses a number of pits in the floor (averaging 9m deep). A number of the pits where descended into a lower passage series, unfortunately they reached sumps or choked with silt. We were unable to descend a strongly drafting bottle shaped 3m pit at the end of the upper passage due to lack of rope. This lead appears to be the best prospect for extending the cave.

Hang Cong Chau

Located high on top of the tower Karst overlooking the HCM highway approximately 2 hours walk from the village. The cave consists of two entrances with a short through trip between them. From the larger entrance a steep slope through stal and boulders leads into a dry well decorated passage that ends in a stal choke. People entering the jungle and travelling along a well-formed path that leads to Cha Noi use the cave as a campsite.

Hang Hay Boag

Located in a valley on the same hill as Hang Cong Chao, a steep boulder slope up to a large entrance at the base of a cliff. A short passage on the left contained a fantastic cluster of cricket ball sized cave pearls. The main way on involved an 8m sketchy free climb into a high level gallery. The passage lead through a maze of stalagmites and short climbs up to a sky light entrance and a large well decorated passage with a small bat roost.

Hang Mun

Located half way up the same hill as Hang Cong Chao overlooking the village of Ban On at the base of a cliff. Descent of the steep entrance is assisted by the aid of bamboo ladders that drop into a sizeable passage containing house-sized boulders. The passage ends in a chamber with a liberal spreading of stalagmites.

Hang Pa Nun

Located in a stream gulley below the road, just after the pass to Ban On in the same karst tower as Hang Ruc Doac. A large entrance leads to a short climb (aided by bamboo ladders) up to a tall narrow passage. After 60m an 8m climb provides access to the final calcite chamber.

Hang Gio

Located on the left side of the river at the base of the main mountain, near the village of Ban Moooo (Ca Giun), 1km before the frontier army station. A small drafting entrance leads into a walking sized passage with stalagmites. Part way through the cave a high level passage was free climbed into until the stal got too steep (approximately 30m climb requiring a rope to abseil out of). The cave ended in chamber with a high level passage steeply ascending, we were able to free climb approximately 30m until it got too slippery to continue, the draught comes from the aven above.

Future Prospects for the Ban On area:
We did not find anyone to take us into the Ke Bang - Phong Nha Massif proper, all the known caves (with the exception of Hang Gio) were located in the solitary tower cones that surround Ban On village. This may be due to a large percentage of the population being transmigrated in to the area, they have only lived in the area for approximately 15 years. If local guides can be found who know paths and caves to the interior Ban On & Ban Moooo would provide exceptional access to an uncharted area of limestone. Specific Military Permission is essential for exploring caves in this frontier area.

Hang Bom 2

18 March
Sarah Gilbert, Martin Holroyd, Alan Jackson

A pleasant ‘warm up’ day trip to start the expedition off. Intelligence indicated the target lead was in the area of Hang Bom (explored in 2016) so I was allocated to this trip to minimise the risk of unknowingly exploring the same cave again. The entrance we were taken too was not Hang Bom. It was about 15 m wide by 7 m high with a steep (hand line recommended) boulder-strewn slope to a seven metre stepped pitch over flowstone to a pool. Martin had a swim about and it sumped at both ends.
We were then shown another entrance a short distance away that I soon recognised as the upstream entrance to Hang Bom. We filled in the day by powering through the cave to check the far end (as it was left going in 2016). Upon reaching the limit of 2016 exploration we swam for about 30 m then popped out into the jungle. A pretty soft effort by the 2016 team, clearly. It was such a short extension we didn’t bother surveying it (but have updated the 2016 map).
The first cave was most likely an upstream section of Hang Bom passage. We exhausted our creative juices and called it Hang Bom 2.

Phong Nha via Hang Victory entrance

19 March
Sarah Gilbert, Martin Holroyd, Alan Jackson

Another ‘ease into it’ day trip. Having recovered from the disappointment of 2017’s Hang Victory just being the back end of Phong Nha Cave, we figured it was worth pushing the main lead we’d left in there. We bobbed our way down the stream to where the large ascending passage spears off and found ourselves in spacious muddy upper level flood passage. We surveyed our way round in circles for about a kilometre, found an entrance out into the searing heat of the jungle (not wetsuit friendly climes) and returned to the delicious cool of the main river. On the way out we resurveyed the main river passage upstream from the junction with the Hang Victory entrance passage on a mission from Deb, who clearly didn’t trust the typhoid-inhibited data from the early 1990s. There was a large snake kindly hiding in our change of clothes at the bottom of the rubble slope. Bastard.

Hang Mau Son

10/04/18
RGS, AS, Taco

Two day walk via Hang Dai Cao over the usual jungle covered pinnacle Karst.
A large entrance in the cliff side leads to a dry remnant cave festooned in sparkling calcite. Various chambers found at different levels all choked.

Hang Viet Ran Can (Snake bite Cave) and Hang Trung

28 March – 1 April
Sarah Gilbert, Alan Jackson, Adam Spillane

Started at Paradise Cave and took what looked like was going to be the Xuong Valley track but it was something else (but equally as steep and bloody horrible). We went up all bloody day (camp at ~800 m elevation).

Day 2 was more of the same (but with lots of steep down too in order to be able to regain all that elevation again later). One of the porters was bitten on the foot by a small brown pit viper. He didn’t seem all that fussed, some magic nut juice was rubbed on the bite (which clearly hurt) and we soldiered on. Hard as nails, these boys. Light was failing and there was a lot of discussion about where the track was but we got there eventually, all of us suitably shattered. Camped at 600 m.

Day 3: Snakebite man was still alive and looking perky but Mr Thang sick as a dog with some cold or flu. We were led a short distance (50 m?) to a nice horizontal entrance. It did what all-horizontal fossil caves do at this kind of elevation – went for about 100 m then terminated in a flowstone blockage. We called the cave Hang Viet Ran Can (Snake bite Cave). We found our own way back to camp, which was virtually deserted as the lads were out making sure they could find the other targets. We had a lazy rest of the day reading and discussing inane rubbish.

Day 4: A ~40 minute walk to a MASSIVE entrance (70 m wide and 15 m high) which did the usual thing (~200 m to a flowstone blockage). Mr Trung was the guide, so Hang Trung it was. On the way back we were taken to another entrance (Hang Trung 2) which started small, got bigger then terminated in (you guessed it) a flowstone blockage after 100 m. Yawn. Not long after getting back to camp there was much activity when a few others arrived in camp. Trung, Thang and Hai hurriedly packed light bags and took off. It later proved Thang’s father in law had died.

Day 5: Out in one day with just as much gear but three fewer porters. Early start, hectic pace, BIG bags for the three remaining porters but amazingly got out around 2 pm.

Hang Ho Van Luc

2-5 April
Sarah Gilbert, Martin Holroyd, Alan Jackson

A late start (~3 pm Phong Nha departure) which was useful for recovering from hangovers and entering survey data. Headed to Paradise Cave tourist area and stomped up the valley for an hour or so to the base of the big hill and set up camp. Next day was very up (went past ‘Daylight Beckons’ shaft into the Hang Vom system, I believe). We were in camp by lunchtime though and the cave was only 40 m away so we set to it. It was an interesting zigzagging cave of nice dimensions and lots of pretties but everything closed down in flowstone eventually. The far end of one of the branches had a nice false floor with a flowstone rimmed pit to a collapsed lower level. Over 500 m of data collected but we never got more than 100 m from the entrance. Cave nomenclature followed the tried and tested theme of naming it after yourself – Hang Ho Van Luc.

Day 3 saw us walking ten minutes to another entrance. It was pretty spectacular but the inevitable flowstone blockage was expected. A 40 x 30 m entrance to a steep descending rubble slope that promptly hit a 15 m wall we had to aid climb. 50 m later it came to a screaming halt and we headed back to camp with 120 m of passage on the books. Hang Ho Van Luc 2 (just for something different). We could have easily made it out that afternoon but the lads weren’t keen so we passed the time before heading out early the following day.

Hang Lang Phu Nhieu

24/03/18
Snablet, Dave Ramsey, Martin Holroyd

This trip had a double purpose to the exploration, as part of the expedition leads and also possible use by Oxalis adventure tours. After descending from the pass on the drive towards Tu Lan the walk started at Km19 along an obvious path and an official looking building. The walk took around an hour to reach a small riverbed and stream sinking into the cave entrance. Here our guides set about a campfire and lunch whilst we donned caving equipment and sorting survey responsibilities. “Who has a GPS?” silence, oops. Thank goodness for Google maps on smart phones. Clambering over the flood debris at the entrance led into an impressive section of cave, however the volume of flood debris didn’t bode well and sure enough as the stream sank in the floor on the right hand wall the cave passage starts to narrow. The passage ahead continued on split-levels with false floors and oxbows above. Beyond a mud climb to the right led to a small mud filled passage. A number of holes in the floor are crossed. A number of bats were found in the area where the cave passage lowered to a crawl. This ended at a calcite blockage with a strong draught, where a hammer and chisel would be required to enlarge.

Back at the junction the main passage continued small to a terminal sump with a strong draught issuing from a small inlet on the left of the sump pool.

A climb just before the u bend crawl led to a high level series of oxbow passages. A narrow climb was left undescended in the oxbow, as a rope is required. However the strong draught would be worth further investigation.

Ruc Ma Rinh

We based ourselves for the first week in April in the centre of the small rural village of Ban On at the edge of the limestone massif. The village president kindly provided us with accommodation in his house and guided us to a number of cave entrances in close proximity to the village.

21st March 2018

Third team visit to RMR. Adam, Alan, Sarah, porters and myself.

A hot sunny day and a new route to reach the cave. 8am start and a pleasant valley walk to the edge of the escarpment and the start of the encroaching jungle. As the greenery thickens, the previous year’s storm’s impact became increasingly tangible with numerous tree-falls impeding progress. Presumably in an attempt to circumnavigate the ensuing labyrinthic timber chaos, we headed out of the trees to the foot of a large, 45-degree hill covered in the bastard, sharp-edged, hybrid offspring of an unnatural relationship twixt bamboo and reed. The next two hours or so was spent walking, stooping and finally crawling along a twisting, narrow path in this 3m high foliage. Breaks in density were far and few between and simply resulted in then being exposed to a merciless, beating sun and losing even more precious body fluid to the waiting hordes of flying nasties.

Eventually the hill topped and we were back under the usual verdure jungle canopy. Ten hours after having set off; we arrived at camp!

22nd March 2018

Leisurely start, breakfast and prepare kit. An decided he would like to also survey/explore so we root out spare SRT kit and life-jacket. A short walk to the large entrance and finally we are underground. Through the entrance passage, turning right to the 8m and 4m pitches dropping into ‘Whose Fault Is That?’ The convoluted way into the stream is marked using Snablet’s technique of building miniature cairns as appropriate. Water levels are significant but encouragingly nothing like as high as last year and this time we have brought sufficient rope to leave the 10 ‘The Baboon’s Arse’ and 5m climbs rigged so as to make exiting easier.

Last year we had stopped just beyond the head of a 5m climb into a fiercely flowing, narrow, wet rift leading to the head of an undescended 7m pitch; from this point onwards keeping the drill, survey gear etc out of the water would be a constant challenge. Although we didn’t know it at the time, the next 1km or so of passage was to retain this same theme of generally being in narrow, 1m – 1.5m wide, passage with deep and fast-flowing water.

Adam rigged and dropped the previously undescended pitch into a deep 4m x 4m pool with a strong current as the water rushed off along a high rift. I stayed with An whilst Sarah and Alan followed on surveying. Being swept across the pool and into the rift, you could not help but be conscious that this was an active cave and you were at the mercy of the conditions: it wasn’t exactly the friendliest of environments being more akin to what you might expect of alpine, rather than the tropics, caving. It was, however, incredibly sporting and great fun.

150m forwards and the rift narrowed to .5m, slanting, 3m climb down rigged with a hand line. An, wearing an oversized neoprene shorty, said he was cold but insisted he wanted to continue. Down the climb and the passage widened slightly with a swim leading to yet more, narrow rift passage. The noise of the water meant communication was possible only by mouth to ear as the flow raced ahead tumbling down cascades, chutes and drops. A further 200m forwards and the rift dog-legged right into a small chamber, the water roaring ahead as it dropped down through a window and what turned out to be another 7m pitch ‘The Lustrate’. Fortunately, the head of this pitch allowed you to climb out of the water and onto a black and white marbled limestone bench. Searching for the drill bit; to my chagrin I discovered the same had gone AWOL (presumably in one of the many swims/cascades) from the small bolting bag clipped to my belt and hence this signalled the end of the day’s exploration. Personally, I didn’t consider this an absolute disaster: An was cold and wanted to go out, we had learnt a lot from the trip, had a better idea of what to expect and had 300m+ of hard-won new passage surveyed. Alan’s contemporaneous diary note, which he sent to me after the expedition, offers a different perspective calling us (and by us I presume he meant just me) ‘wankers!’

Exiting uphill against the flow was fairly tough going and, despite being more in the water than out, I found myself regularly overheating even in just a 2mm wetsuit. ‘The Baboon’s Arse’, a very aquatic climb last year, proved a lot easier with an in-situ rope and progress out steadily made through ‘Whose Fault Is That?’ Following the cairned route toward daylight and exiting around 3pm.

The porters had a meal ready and waiting and it was pleasant to have a couple of hours reading before getting some much-needed sleep.

23rd March 2018

Up and awake at around 6ish. Gear still wet from night before. Distributed 3 drill bits into various tackle bags in the hope at least one of them would this time make it to the head of the undescended pitch. An decided RMR was not for him being too cold and wet. My ‘extensive subcutaneous insulation’ (ok, fat) posed the opposite problem: how to keep cool in a wetsuit when engaged in high levels of physical activity? Eventually I resorted to my trusty Ronnies and a short-sleeved thermal top, which whilst cold when hanging about, proved a workable compromise.

By 8:15am we were underground; 1 hour later we are back at yesterday’s end point and rigging the aptly named ’The Lustrate’ (to purify by water), a superb 7m pitch into a black and white marbled chamber and new territory. A short swim across the chamber pitch and down a continuing 3m pitch. Sarah and Alan surveyed behind whilst Adam headed off route finding and I followed on with the tackle. It’s quite something being ostensibly alone in a very active, wet cave. There’s increased excitement as to what is ahead, and what obstacles you are about to encounter, enhanced by the constant noise and physicality of being in moving water. Approximately 300m of wet rift swimming and wading followed with no climbs that necessitated being rigged. The passage widened and a pebbly beach on the left temporarily allowed a respite from being in water before swimming in a deep, wide passage was followed by entry into an ankle-deep lake and small, 15m by 10m, chamber: ‘Dick O’Flenac’s Surgery’.

Adam sat on a ledge 2m above the water. Anticipating a sump, instead, 150m ahead, he’d reached the start of a big chamber. Taking on Adam’s suggestion that I have a look ahead whilst he waited for the survey team, I dumped the kit and swam/waded forwarded. The chamber ‘Does The Moon Still Shine On Us?’rose up from a sandy beach with a roof quickly reaching heights in excess of 20m. Keeping to the left-hand wall, I follow a route up then down to a T-junction with the water coming in from the left. A rift climb at floor level on the right entered continuing downstream passage. Cairning this obscure drop, I followed the wide, 2m high, pebbly passage downstream to where it hit another T junction, water joining in from the right, before calling it a day and returning back towards Adam. Re-grouped, we surveyed as team of four to the big chamber where we started hitting 40m legs. Having four lights scattered along the chamber emphasised just how big ‘Does The Moon Still Shine On Us?’ was. It was not only the dimensions that came as a surprise but also the fact we were now in substantial-sized, dry passage. We moved forward, slowly drip-drying as we shouted out bearings and measurements.

The ceiling shot upwards with a large, high-level passage appearing to come in on the right. We descended my cairned, floor-level, rift climb back into the wide, pebbly passage. At the T-junction, we followed the downstream passage (the substantive inlet on the right being later connected back to the large chamber) entering another wet rift passage. 200m of surveying down cascades, chutes and small drops and a wet 7m pitch stopped us ‘Wet Woman Pitch’. It is now 3:30pm and we are over 7 hours into the trip, Sarah and Alan having done a magnificent 1,500m of surveying in often testing conditions. It is a unanimous, and frankly somewhat relieved, decision to call it a day. For some strange reason it takes us to ‘Dick O’Flenacs’ before questioning why we appear to be carrying the drill & ropes all the way back out. We stash the gear and slowly exit to a relieved surface party at around 7pm after 11 hours of caving.

Hang Mun

Down to a team of three as Adam needs a rest day in camp (later, on the walk back to the car, Adam starts to vomit having caught a bug going through some of the expedition members. 48hrs later I experience the same projectile vomiting and diarrhoea creating a noise which Martin described as sounding like someone being shot.) An autopilot trip back to the undescended pitch, reached 3 hours after entering the cave. ‘Wet Woman Pitch, is a sporting 7m deep drop into a higher and wider rift passage than that preceding ‘Does The Moon Still Shine On Us?’ A short swim leads onto a sandy, pebbly-floored continuation. Elbow bends right then left before, 250m from base of ‘Wet Woman Pitch’ the cave dramatically changed character. Huge fallen blocks now appeared in a massive rift ‘The Moveable Feast’. Clambering and traversing along the top, you are conscious of a big drop down to the stream. A couple of exposed steps and we are then able to climb safely down. The continuing rift passage is more comfortable but has a distinct feel of shortly sumping with muddy walls rather than water-blasted clean rock. Sure enough, 200m forward and we hit a massive lake; walls only just discernible in the distance. After 700m of surveying, it looks like the end but to be sure, and after waiting a couple of minutes in the hope one of the others might volunteer, I ask to borrow Sarah’s life-jacket and, possibly the worst swimmer of the expedition, gingerly steps into a very wide, very, very, deep lake and slowly dog-paddles round the huge circumference in the hope of continuing passage. Shoals of white fish rise from the depths attracted by my light/splashing/smell before disappearing back into the dark. It crosses my mind that if I was a fish whose life hereto consisted of existing in absolute, stygian darkness, and whose highlight was a visit by some hitherto unsuspected alien life-form, I’d have hoped for something that looked a little more prepossessing.

Slowly circumnavigated the chamber wall I arrive back at my starting point. Apart from a couple of blind rifts on the opposite wall, no other passages is noted and I am confident the only way on is underwater

Alan shoulders the heaviest bag and we plod out. It feels good once we are past the lottery of ‘The Moveable Feast’ and onto safe ground although this is admittedly a subjective view dependant on whether you are concerned more by being either potentially crushed by moving boulders than falling to your death or being drowned in fast-flowing water.

Back out at around 7:30pm making it a second, consecutive, 11-hour caving trip. Feel a bit sad about having apparently concluded the main part of the cave; it was one of those trips that you really wanted to go forever.

25th March 2018

Last trip to check out and survey ‘Does The Moon Still Shine On Us?’ chamber, de-rig the in-situ ropes and take photos. Sarah opted to stay in camp, as she wanted to give a damaged hand a chance to recuperate. The dichotomy of multiple 11-hour trips in tight rifts wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt becomes glaring obvious as my arms, criss-crossed with gashes, scrapes and abrasions, result in infections that are unpleasantly hot and accompany a raised body temperature but, on a positive note, dropping into cold, deep water now becomes an absolute pleasure.

‘Does The Moon Still Shine On Us?’ proves bigger and more complex than first thought. The ‘team of 3’ became a disparate, separate bunch of 3 individuals doing their own thing. An uncommunicative Alan goes off in one direction in what turns out to be a solo-surveying trip; Adam goes off another and myself a third. Eventually we re-group, call it a draw and head out. This was a slow plod with gear and taking some photos before reaching the surface after 9.5 hours.

Conclusion

RMR is a magnificent, sporty, very, very wet cave. There is little chance of escape from floodwater in long stretches of passage. Easy climbs and cascades become impossible with only small rise in water levels. The survey suggests there is a couple of passages in ‘Does The Moon Still Shine On Us?’that need re-looking at and, being such a great trip, that this would be no hardship. Where, and how far-away, does the water resurge? It seems unlikely there are no other caves in the area and it might make the basis of a great water-tracing project. RMR proved to be one of my favourite ‘Nam trips.

Bap Chuoi

Sarah, Adam, Alan, Sweeny

With Ruc Ma Rinh finished, a by now somewhat jaded team made the 1⁄2 day walk to the 2nd campsite near Bap Chuoi (Banana flower) arriving at around 1pm. The jungle bivy lay adjacent to the dry streambed which, if followed upstream, leads after a straightforward 10-minute walk to the entrances of Bap Chuoi, previously explored as far as a reputedly 100m deep pitch in 2017. With plenty of time before dark, it was decided to tackle the entrance series and descend the big pitch. Adam and Sarah explained that whilst they were happy to carry tackle they did not particularly want to descend the unexplored pitch that day resulting in Alan and myself forming a somewhat unlikely partnership.

Down the more obvious of the two entrance rifts, the ensuing previously awkward 2m, 4m, and 5m free climbs of 2017 were easily dispatched with the judicious use of hand lines and we arrived at the undescended pitch head after only 15 minutes of straightforward caving. Water conditions were considerably lower than the previous year, but the pitch was still a magnificent sight with the whole stream disappearing at a right-angle over the lip and with so much spray it was impossible to judge the depth or see the opposite wall. I pointed to the climb on the right that led to a calcite balcony overlooking the pitch and postulated this as being a better, drier, take-off. We ascended and started to unpack SRT gear and rope. Kitting up, I suggested to Alan we agree how this was going to work only to be met by silence and his then tying onto the now belayed rope before shuffling down the angled calcite slope onto the drop and then down and out of sight. Alan, it appeared, wanted to go first.

Tensioning leftwards (facing balcony), Alan fixed a re-belay before continuing downward. All too soon for an expected 100m drop, Alan’s voice could be heard shouting something which, with the rope now becoming slack, I interpreted as a shout to follow on. The falling stream only lightly sprayed the pitch and nowhere near as wet as last year’s trip had led me to expect. After only about 30m, the rope ended at the base of a massive aven. The anticipated additional 70m was nowhere to be seen but a continuing passage to the left (back to rope) appeared to be a way on and I then spotted Alan’s light as he made his way along it. Following on down two 3-4m climbs and then a water chute we met up at the head of a 12m pitch. Below the stream passage continued downward at a 45% angle before levelling off with a waterfall entering from above. Through the curtain of spray, the stream passage dropped down a further 5m climb before unexpectedly ending at a perched sump. Not as expected. A dry oxbow passage was also explored but this too shortly sumped.

We quickly surveyed back to the 30m pitch. I ascended first, my floating leg- loop snapping at the re-belay much to Alan’s disgust who shouted up to ask if I was deliberately leaving it behind or did I want him to bring it up?

On the survey notes, Alan later sarcastically named the 30m pitch as ‘Deaf, Dumb & Blind’. The gross over-guestimate of the pitch depth was based upon a calculation in 2017 as to how long it had taken for a couple of stones to land when thrown over the lip. Whether the sound heard was instead other rocks clashing together in the then faster flowing water or the stones falling not just down the pitch but also down the climbs and continuing pitches is a matter for conjecture. Nevertheless, it was an interesting trip and, together with Ruc Ma Rinh, evidences this as area that might re-pay further investigation.

Misty Mountain Cave (Hang Soong)

Some of the local porters had mentioned a dry cave near Tomo valley. Some Oxalis staff had been to check it out, and when we returned from a visit to England, they were in a rush to survey it and see if there was any potential for adventure tourism.

As it was December the weather was not the best. The hastily made track, which is very steep, was very muddy and tedious going up and down. The entrance was quite large and dry, and located almost at the top of the limestone.

A short way in was an impassable draughting hole. By climbing up and dropping down a slot it was possible to access the rest of the cave. To make it easier for tourists, this hole was enlarged, which took quite a lot of time.

A climb of around 4m on flowstone dropped into a large passage with flowstone and cave pearls, quite typical of Vietnamese dry caves. To the left the passage ended quite quickly, and to the right led up steeply to another entrance

Climbing almost out, we then dropped into a small low passage to the head of another 4m drop. A hand line was very useful. At the bottom there were some nice helictites and more cave pearls. Passing through a narrow slot the cave opened up again, with yet another entrance, daylight at the top of an aven.

A muddy slope led down to a floor of thousands of small orange cave pearls. The passage from here onwards is almost totally covered in calcite of various

forms.

Picking our way through the formations, we soon came to the main feature of this cave. There are numerous shallow gour pools filled with coral towers. Shapes and sizes varied according to the pool.

Luckily it was possible to find a route around these gours. Passing through various columns

we noted some quite orange stals and flowstone.

At the end of this passage the continuation was a low crawl, very painful on hands and knees, and requiring great car so as not to damage anything. The

passage enlarged to walking size, again filled with lots of beautiful formations, though not coral towers. The passage ended in calcite chokes. A large calcited collapse in the floor led nowhere.

We surveyed 638m of extremely well decorated cave.

The first two thirds are now used for adventure tourism, after marking a clear path through the formations.

Dry Ken Cave

Early one morning at Tu Lan campsite, we noticed a number of Swiftlets appearing. As these birds typically choose large dry entrances for nesting, we wondered where they might be coming from. A discussion with the porters

revealed that the local people apparently knew a cave but were reluctant to tell anyone about it. We forgot about it, until some time later we heard about a large entrance that had been found, on a par with Hang Tien. The route was up the hill from camp, to the left of Ken Cave, and then around behind Ken. The entrance was indeed quite large although not as big as Tien. It was liberally coated in foul monkey droppings though.

The entrance slope led down to a flat- floored passage with lots of old stal. Some nice formations and some cave pearls. Ahead through a gap in some stals led to a boulder section. Climbing up and over the large boulders we dropped into a well decorated passage. Lots of black and white popcorn coral and coral towers covering the floor.

Treading carefully we got to where the passage seemed to close down. A 2m climb on the left led through delicate columns to a drop down behind the blockage. Passing a fine curtain we descended a gour-floored slope to an enlarging passage.

Lots of large stalagmites almost filling the passage. The passage enlarged again with a calcite flowstone slope on the left, and a sandy slope to the bottom.

The way on was hands and knees for a short section with lots more black and white popcorn. As the passage opened up we noticed a band of crystals on the left hand wall. More tower coral in the floor, until abruptly all calcite disappeared and the floor was small pieces of broken rock everywhere. Shortly after that the passage ended. A very small hole through calcite showed no way on.

A well decorated side passage was surveyed to a calcite choke. In total 778m was surveyed in a very beautiful cave.

Hang Rua/Turtle Cave

In 2016 the expedition explored this cave near to the Oxalis office in Than Hoa. We revisited the cave primarily to have a second look at its suitability for an Oxalis tour. After a jungle bash trying to avoid the dense stinging nettle plants, we reached the pleasant resurgence entrance. Early into the trip we noticed a large inlet on the right-hand side of the cave, having earlier scanned the survey notes neither of us remember this being marked. Following the trip, we revisited the notes to find that the passage was not marked on. Talking to some of the local guides they spoke of a passage that exited close to the local village. We returned the next day complete with survey kit. The inlet starts in Dowbergill fashion, the route being found on multiple levels. At time we were wading and swimming the next we were thrutching on mud covered walls struggling to avoid a free fall to the depths below. Following a couple of exposed and strenuous climbs we entered a more defined cave passage with a solid floor and leaving any sign of the river below. At times the passage was extremely well decorated walking passage, other times it was just mud crawls. Sadly, the passage closed down into tight calcite blockages. We never found the connection to the village, whether that was in the stream we are not sure as it effectively became to low and sumped. Back outside we were glad of the river to wash off the worst of the mud.

Vietnam 2018

 

Howard Limbert
Deb Limbert
Alan Jackson
Adam Spillane
Dave Ramsey
Gareth “Sweeny” Sewell
Ryan Deboodt
Martin Holroyd
Sarah Gilbert
Taco Van Ieperen
Peter "Snablet" Macnab

 


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