Page 15 of 24
A Four Day Walk
It was a long caravan of folk who set off into the forest to the west of the river
Tro oc. The seven cavers were laden with high tech lightweight camping equipment and were intent on finding capacious caves in which they could camp. After several hours of trekking, a path side tree was annotated with a special mark and we followed our guides into the thick of the forest. Scrambling down a stream we arrived at cave number one, a shaft. No chance of camping underground here we thought, as we cleared vegetation from a flat area of forest floor to lay out our bivi bags and sleeping mats. Not too many bugs, nor much rain, nor much noise … just enough sleep.
At dawn Chris, Andy, Robbie and most of our rope were left to explore the shaft, Sweeny, Deb and 2 x Martin moved on with the promise of three caves to come. By late morning we’d arrived at our first caving objective, or so we thought. The overhanging bowl of a cliff did have dry streambeds issuing from beneath, but sadly any potential entrances were completely buried with boulders. A good digging prospect if only it was in the UK. A lunchtime snack of flapjack and a chat with two passing locals, who told of a cave two hours walk away. Yes, they could take us there but would have to go for their lunch first. We waited a while, then we waited some more but we didn’t see them again.
The paths we were following got narrower as the hours ticked by, and then off we go again into the dense forest. Again we scrambled down a watercourse and reached a small sloping ledge … a rest? … no, a campsite! Our porters rigged their usual affair of campfire surrounded by a pole construction on which they could sling their hammocks. We should be so lucky, another night on the forest floor, once the vegetation, dead wood and large black scorpion were removed it didn’t look too bad; but it was. A pole across the bottom of the slope enabled us to brace or feet to stop us sliding away in the night; at least we had a bed of banana leaves to iron out the bumps and lumps. Then the rainstorm came. We listened with trepidation as a giant tree, somewhere nearby, crashed through the forest canopy and thudded to the floor. Then it rained some more. It rained so much that water was running down the banana leaves beneath me, into my bivi bag and collecting as a pool by my feet. Oh for a hammock!
Caving at last; steeply down we scrambled to the foot of a large grey cliff. Beyond a collection of boulders we entered the darkness of White Stone Cave. A pitch was easily bypassed by a climb down a parallel chimney. Skirting the edge of a large breakdown chamber we descended quickly in a clean washed passage. Using what little rope we had to protect the steeper sections. The deeper we climbed the more beautiful were the walls of this aptly named cave. Black limestone injected with white quartz and all polished smooth by years of surging water.
Ah, but no more rope and one more climb. Being the lightest in our team, Sweeny generously offered to be lowered down the smooth and sloping drop whilst tied to our survey tape. “Ten minutes, then turn back,” we shouted as he scuttled onwards. But the character of the cave had changed. Sweeney explored some 500 metres of descending passage to a low chamber with other inlets, but no obvious way on downstream.
An hour’s walk steeply over a col took us to a small depression and our next objective, Hang Nuoc. Again, our porters and guides got the plum sleeping quarters. A hammock camp gently nestled under the entrance arch of the cave. But we boldly ventured into the twilight zone; this was after all what we craved … a cave to sleep in. But truth can be stranger than fiction and Hang Nuoc Hotel wasn’t a five star establishment. There were just enough flats for us to nestle down among the spiders and cobwebs and dust. But Martin H found a snake, well he would! Bo kindly woke it up and chased it round the cave with a stick. Once the writhing mass of pink and black was bagged into a sock things didn’t seem so bad. We turned out the lights to sleep. About five minutes later Sweeny was the first to stir; head torch on … “Crikey, look at the size of that rat!” Martin H entombed within his hooped bivi tent was reluctant to move, but inquisitiveness obviously got the better of him. Zzzip went the zip, Martin went ballistic … another snake was slithering past his bed. Chasing the rat no doubt. During the ensuing din the rat disappeared but the snake did not. The ever-helpful Bo was called to assist and nobly fought the snake and carried it away. And so to bed, except this time with a comfort torch left on … to scare away the snakes. Sleep? Not much!
The well-visited and initially dusty entrance passage of Hang Nuoc gives way to cleaner going amongst a fair collection of calcite formations. The cave was explored to a calcite-encrusted balcony, over looking a drop that we estimated to be 30 – 40 metres. We had insufficient rope so have left its further exploration for another day. Nearby we were shown a shaft and managed to free climb boulders part way down. A vantage point was reached from where we could see the foot of the shaft and a short section on ongoing passage. Again we rued the lack of rope. Previous experience in the Phong Nha area has been of horizontal cave development. This little corner of forest potentially hosts caves of a very different character.
And back to Son Trach; first a cold drink, then it’s off to market and into the comfort zone, “I’ll have a blue hammock please”.