CAO BANG PROVINCE
Cao Bang , a province in the north of the country bordering China has been visited on many expeditions before, always with excellent results. Longer than expected was spent in Cao Bang for the 2003 trip but again we were never disappointed.
HANG KI LU(The Deep End)
The cave's possible existence was calculated by virtue of the map showing a large surface streamway disappearing into the limestone karst. On this occasion we got exactly what it said on the box, a 5m wide stream disappearing invitingly into a 10m high entrance porch.
Eight team members, plus Mr Phucfrom the Hanoi University, were deposited at the end of the ongoing tarmac road and followed the gently descending, unfinished, track for 90 minutes into a distinct, enclosed, valley. The continuing track headed eastward paralleling a surface watercourse as it headed directly into the unbroken cliffs ahead. Perfect river-cave country.
Big scenic entrance, cool draft, knee-deep, gently flowing water. Excellent. It was decided to speed surveying up by splitting into two groups, Martin, Martin, Dinky and Snablet would shoot on ahead for an hour or so and then commence surveying while the rest of would start from the entrance & leap-frog past once we hit their first station.
Moving out of the daylight the cave grew bigger and bigger, the stream curving ahead with coarse sand beaches either side. Stal and calcite formations began to appear at regular intervals as the passage continued ahead as lazy 'S' bends. No tape leg less than 30m, the roof & left-hand wall soaring out of sight, what could possibly go wrong? A roaring ahead gave the answer as the entire water entered a narrow canyon, doglegged right & dropped down a 5m deep, 1.5m wide rift! It looked free-climbable, albeit wet, but was this was the way the first team had gone or had they instead chosen the drier, & considerably larger, high level passage above.
The descending rift had a slippy, spray-hidden ledge 2m down from which a slight traverse out led to a drier climb down into a pool and short swim to a limestone ledge. Howard and Deb dressed only in Ron Hills and thermals, suffered from the spray, draught and short immersion. The passage, however, continued in sporting style having turned into a 2 to 3m wide, 4m high canyon with numerous short drops. Traverse, swims where unavoidable, climbs along and down, short 10 - 15m survey legs, along a washed in tree trunk led to a fine scalloped descending rift. Straddling downwards; a window of daylight appeared 25m above before the passage opened out into the bottom of a huge, sun-bathed doline.
No way could be seen to ascend the 30 or so metres to the jungle above but the cave clearly continued ahead in the same watery vein. Moving forward the passage widened & dropped down a 3m waterfall, passable on the right, before a 2nd unclimbable 8m fall. It was decided to enjoy the sunrays at the bottom of the doline and take a welcome powerbar snack. It was clear from what we could see ahead that Howard and Deb would need wetsuits if they were to safely continue much further and we remained uncertain as to whether we were in fact still on the trail of the leading group or not.
Looking again at the unclimbable 2nd waterfall, a dry descent on the far left of the passage was spotted. Dropping down a traverse on the left-hand wall led into a fast-flowing, steeply descending rift with the sound of further waterfalls. Ahead the water dropped 8/9m in a torrent of spray into a further sun-lit chamber revealing the magnificent sight of a distinct spiral of mist swirling up and out of another doline entrance. Even better, a tied-off expedition rope and cunning trail of ingeniously belayed tape slings proved the first group to be ahead. Their dry route led to the chamber bottom where a note on a large tabletop boulder confirmed it as being the 1st team's starting station.
Turning round we headed back to look at the massive continuing dry passage above the 1st wet climb. This continued as an ascending balcony high on the left-hand sidewall. Once proved as a going concern we decided to call it a day, as we knew we would have to return tomorrow with photoing gear. Back at the entrance and after an hour's lazing in the sun and re-hydrating the 1st team returned to say they had pushed the cave to a conclusion having followed the wet ongoing passage out into daylight.
Lower streamway (goldrush series)
The thrill and excitement of the cascade series had our adrenaline for exploration pumping even harder having already grabbed the first 800m. Now it was time for us to do our share of the surveying. The large block that formed the belay for the final 3m-ladder pitch was our start point. A hastily scribbled note was left for the following team to mark the station. As our eyes struggled to adjust from the sharp bright light of the open shaft above, a chilly 20m swim led gloomily into darkness, particularly for Martin minus a wetsuit. Ahead a wonderful stream passage meandered gracefully into the darkness. Wading through canals, large mud banks would provide respites and allow survey stations to be constructed, enabling an accurate survey to be maintained despite our rapid progress. A fishing net lay on one bank overlooking a large pool, evidence yet again of the resourcefulness of the local people. Further on a large catfish lay motionless upside down at the edge of a pool. A ‘missed catch’ or ‘natural causes,’ its size was reason enough to understand why locals came here to fish. As we meandered downstream with haste, Snablet’s light could be seen in the distance piercing the blackness, giving an excellent perspective of the ever-increasing dimensions. His cries of excitement hinted to us that it might be good. The passage increasing up to 20m wide and 3m high with large stal bosses littering the cave, at one point almost blocking the way on. Where the canals and lakes became shallow the stream noisily cascaded over cobbles. At times I felt the need to run down the passage in order to keep up with Martin & Chris as they rapidly took the cave measurements, their shouted figures echoing satisfyingly around the passage. Finally, almost with relief Snablet confirmed we had reached an exit. Suffering writers cramp I completed the notes whilst Snablet and Chris vanished onto the surface. On their return a few minutes later, they had in their possession a fertiliser bag marked with Chinese writing. This conjured all sorts of covert stories, had we reached China? We felt it best to retreat back in to the cave for a snack attack just in case we had.
We had completed over two kilometres of surveying on top of the grabbed passage. As we returned through the cave I had time to reflect on the cave. Ki L u for me epitomised a classic Vietnamese adventure. A possible entrance identified on the map requiring a long walk through beautiful remote countryside. The people we met were always friendly and helpful and for once didn’t drag us into their homes to share rice wine with us. The only electricity was from a home made hydro system at the entrance to a huge cave passage. Massive passage, followed by a superb series of cascades finishing with a long section of river passage involving swims and formations completed the perfect trip. The banter didn’t disappoint either.
High level series
Howard, Deb, Martin, Woody and Sweeny returned complete with big bulbs, the infamous, grey hair turning, exploding flashguns and cameras with the intent of photographing the cave and continuing the high level exploration and surveying.
Just into the cave, the group was surprised to be passed by a Vietnamese spear fisherman complete with Chinese dry-cell headtorch, looking to catch fish caught in pools along the main passage. Happily posing first for photos in his rudimentary kit; he then insisted in showing us the hidden footholds along the deep, wet bits so as to avoid total immersion.
The high level passage continued in magnificent fashion. Massive calcite encrusted walls and a high, high roof. An exposed route on the left-hand wall, with a large drop on the right, led upwards for about 250m until eventually daylight could been seen in the distance. An 8m climb up a calcite wall exited onto a ledge high above the first doline entrance where we had yesterday taken had our powerbar break. This chamber and the continuing fine ribbon stream could be seen far below but above a thin trail through increasingly thickening vegetation led upwards to the rim of the doline and out onto the surface.
With the survey completed the final task was to photo the main passage and take some action shots in the streamway below before exiting into sunlight & changing for the long walk back. This was enlivened by Woody standing on a bamboo stick, causing it to snap and spring upwards to pierce his calf leaving a deeply embedded tip.
This was later removed back at base camp by Dr Dan with the assistance of Sister Morphine.
All in all a very enjoyable and sporting trip.