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Salt, Pepper and Rice Wine in the Jungle
We met the gang of woodcutters at the bottom of a steep climb. They gazed curiously at the foreigners sweating up their jungle path. We stared back at them – each was carrying a stupefying, body-crushing weight of hardwood, felled over the border in Laos and smuggled out to Vietnam. This was deforestation the hard way! Our jungle guides, mildly fortified with rice wine, led us on up the steep track and the gang continued steadily on their way down, their sparse sinewy bodies dwarfed by the trees on their backs.
We were on our way to look for 3 caves, separated from each other by a full day’s walk. Our guide Phong had told us of their existence in this high, remote area, via painstaking translations by our friends from Hanoi. Otherwise we only had a vague idea of what to expect over the next four days. Only Phong knew where the caves were, so we were all walking up together to camp near the first cave. This would be explored by one team the following day, while the second team went on to explore the second and third caves.
By the mid-afternoon we were descending alongside a small streamway in a large river bed. Our guides called a halt, started a campfire and lashed hammocks and shelters between trees using vines and leafy branches. Their jungle craft was a joy to watch. It was strangely reassuring that the older Vietnamese had spent a previous life in the jungle waiting for the occasional unfortunate American to pass by. Phong and his brother led a few of us on down the streamway to make a first recce of the cave entrance. As the slick green streambed plunged steeply downwards, we traversed around the side of what appeared to be a large depression. The dense jungle hid even the most impressive karst features until you were only a few yards away. Local knowledge was essential. It had taken us a while to realise that Vietnamese game hunters also made the best cave hunters. Even now, in these remote parts of the jungle monkeys, bears and tigers could be found, in particular near streams. In this karst area streams held a similar attraction to us cavers, but we were not so thrilled by the idea of meeting bears and tigers coming for a drink! Of course, we were glad the Vietnamese government had made this into a national park, had banned all hunting and tree cutting, and that the caving expeditions led by Howard and Deb Limbert over so many years had played such a large part in this being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Unfortunately for us, it also generated a great deal of beaurocracy. Gathering permission from the regional government, the district government, the commune, the army, the police, and finally the Park Authority had been frustrating, not least because each body had only a limited idea of the jurisdiction of the other bodies. It also made it difficult to get introductions to our jungle experts. The Park Authority wardens were not impressed when jeeps turned up at their gates laden with Westerners and game hunters.
Yet here we were at last, circling in on our prey. From Phong we were expecting a hole in the ground where large quantities of water disappeared in the wet season. The ground steepened, and we sensed a large space below. Razor sharp blades of rock jutted up through tree roots and creepers. Phong swung delicately across on a vine to reach the lip. I fumbled with my video camera as he threw a rock into the space. Three, four… Bang! The sound echoed around the walls of an immense rift. So far on this expedition, the most productive pushing trip I had been on was 1200 m of flat out crawling in mud with swimming ducks and exit squeezes through a sharp boulder choke. This looked considerably more promising!
Phong and his brother began traversing across the far side of the rift. We followed, my video camera swinging wildly. Steep slabs offered some security with jagged spikes for hands and feet, and tree roots locked into deep grooves. After a 6m descent down a chimney, we realised we had completed the circuit of the shaft and were standing at the point where the river would cascade over the lip in the wet season. Sweeney gingerly climbed down to a treacherous green slime covered balcony. Another rock disappeared into the void… Boom! Another 4 second drop – must be about 80 m I thought. By the time we returned to camp it was almost dark, but the campfires were well established and food was on the way. A mug of rice wine gave the dance of the fireflies an ethereal quality.
In the morning the second team prepared to set off for the next 2 caves together with Phong, our fount of knowledge, leaving his brother and Phi with me, Robbie and Andy to descend the shaft. We discussed who should do what. Robbie was worried that I would throw myself down the shaft, camera and all, if I did much more filming. So we agreed that I would rig down the shaft while he filmed. I was happy with that! Somehow we were using a 17 year old rope so conservative rigging was in order, hand bolting notwithstanding. A ‘Y’ hang and three deviations weaved down between flakes. A knot changeover was avoided when a smooth wall materialised at the same time as the knot at -50m. We had timed our descent perfectly. While I was rigging, the sun lit up the entire shaft with a beam of translucent light. I paused while hammering in another bolt and looked down to the ramp of enormous boulders stacked 30 m below. This was a far cry from the swims in river caves that had been our experience so far in this part of Vietnam! After placing a total of 5 bolts I was at the bottom, and climbed to the top of a house-sized boulder at the downstream end of the rift. Only now could I see – the shaft was not choked, a dark shadow showed a passage leading off at the bottom. The rock was stunning – black and white banding eroded to form abstract designs penetrating massive rock sculpture. White and Black. Salt and Pepper Pot. I looked up to a huge gash of white sky, with silhouetted jungle cascading in from the sides. Robbie’s and Andy’s lights appeared as insignificant as fire-flies as they descended to the bottom. Exploration fever carried us down the first climb. We halted at the top of a second, harder climb. I couldn’t wait for Robbie to return with the tail-end of the pitch rope, and bridged down between the crazily striped wedged boulders hammered smooth by the summer torrents. Hopping our way along, we were stopped by another huge boulder wedged above a drop. Once more, we found a climb zig-zagging down one side. The passage opened out into a high chamber and our hopes soared. We checked out a few options, choosing another tricky climb-down as the best way on. The passage was now only a few metres wide, but it was still going. Again, a few choices. A ramp doubled back and climbed steeply before reaching a pitch head. We returned to continue on and were stopped by a slot in the floor: this would need to be rigged. The passage continued ahead, but this flood overflow soon silted up. It was time to head back, as none of us wanted to search for the campsite at night in the jungle.
Back at camp Robbie and Andy tried a Vietnamese style double-decker hammock rig, while I kept faith with my bivvi bag. It rained all night and we were soaked. The Vietnamese, with their canopies of polythene sheet slung over a washing-line vine, kept bone dry. We still had a lot to learn! After warming ourselves at breakfast by the fire, we returned to survey and film Salt & Pepper Pot. Andy and I surveyed and filmed our way in while Robbie went on to rig the two separate pitches we had found yesterday. Before we reached the end, Robbie was on his way back. Both leads had closed down! Our hopes had already drained away overnight, either from the dampness or as we reflected on the lack of draft and ever-decreasing passage size. Somewhere beneath the boulders was a streamway, but it was closed to us. The shaft was 80?m deep with ?? m passage at the bottom. It was yet another disappointment after all.
Another rainy night in the jungle could have dampened our spirits further, but good old Phi kept his tiny, tinny transistor radio on all night, approximately tuned in to some rousingVietnamese military marches. The next morning, we had an eight-hour tramp through the jungle to look forward to. Half-way down, we met a group of woodcutters heading up. They brought out a few cloudy bottles of rice wine. I seized the opportunity to relieve the drudgery of the journey. The Vietnamese appeared impressed by the quantity of the draft I knocked back, and offered me some more. I thought: “You guys can carry hard – we can only drink hard!” Cloudy wine, cloudy judgment. The remainder of the journey certainly passed quicker for me – I can remember little of it!