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Having successfully managed to pack five days kit into one Petzl canyoning
bag I was ready for anything. Myself, Adam, Sweeny, Howard and Andy were
dropped at the roadside along with Liem (Hanoi University) Khanh our
indispensable jungle guide and four porters.
Having seen how much gear the
porters were carrying I thought we must be in for an easy walk in. How wrong
one person can be. We were to walk about 3-4 hours on tracks (loosely
named) through a traditional Vietnamese village to our first camp at Hang En
Walking briskly down steep undulating terrain and after several
drinking stops we reached a small stream where we were to eat. Don’t know if
was the sheer elation of stopping or the place, but it was a truly magical
twenty minutes. The porters wanting to eat a proper meal were left behind as
we headed off to the village half an hour away.
The village was a traditional village (houses on stilts). Very similar to villages I’d seen in northern Thailand. Many of the villages remembered Howard and other team members that had passed through on previous expeditions. The digital cameras were a real hit even for the shyest. Once the initial stampede had died down and all sweets were eaten, the porters arrived. Not being in any rush to set off we sat with the porters as they re arranged their loads. Adam having suffered a stomach bug sat and recuperated in the shade. The walk to Hang En was ever changing, dense grasses, large leafy vegetation and sandy riverbeds.
The SealSkin socks were a real success, by keeping both water and leaches out. However if in real deep water the socks could fill up giving you fat ankles. Little things please little minds. On route woodcutters were passed carrying rare woods weighing in excess of 70kgs on their backs. With a value of £600 it was a hard but profitable activity.
The cave entrance at Hang En was spectacular. A river meandering into the jungle from the caves 100m wide entrance. The cave was ideal for a camp with a large flat, sandy expanse close to water. The porters were quick in setting up camp, whilst we hung our hammocks from the cave roof. Some of the acrobatics were quite amusing as we tried to find the safest hang.After much effort, photo opportunities and swearing we had ourselves an excellent
camp. Adam having put a real effort in getting to camp crawled into his hammock to die. Andy trying to prove his culinary skills set to work on dinner.
Howard found himself two new photographic assistants in Sweeny and myself.
Having had a surprisingly good nights sleep in the newly acquired extra large hammock, we ate and set off to follow a few new leads found by
Khung. A mere 300m from camp in the main watercourse an inlet was found. Climbing out of the river and over large boulders we located the source of the water. A crystal clear pool, just waiting to be explored. I couldn’t believe our luck. 300m from camp and a new cave. Really excited and keen to get caving we all kitted up (buoyancy aids and all), lowered ourselves into the pool and set off surveying using tapes clino and compass. After tying myself up in the tape several times we all seemed to develop a routine.
Things couldn’t be going better, new passage and it seemed to be continuing. Or was it? Yes Howard had squeezed through a tube and found writing on the wall. I tried to convince myself it wasn’t, but no matter how we looked at it. Writing it was! After a long swim upstream we deemed it time to return to the entrance. Great cave, shame it wasn’t a new find. Welcome to Hang Ca, found by Debs and Snablet on a prior expedition. Back at Hang En with time on our sides we went through the cave. An ideal opportunity to take some photos before the long walk to the new lead the next day. Although only 1.4km long it seemed huge. Massive chambers, huge boulders and the river gently winding it’s way through the caves majestical grandeur almost left me speechless (hard to believe). Looking at the rest of the cave I could see why camp was made where it was. Swallows were abundant in the cave, leaving their calling cards at every opportunity! With photos taken, shouting and whooping finished back to camp we went. The night came so quickly, dark by 5.30pm. Lying in the hammocks and listening to the jungle noise was therapeutic. Disturbed by peels of laughter I peered out of my hammock. The porters were laid in a big heap all wrapped up in their child sized hammocks. Obviously the wooden frame they erected to hang six hammocks from wasn’t strong enough! All awake they deemed it a good time to go fishing (machete style). Shine a light into the river and hit the prey with a machete. Fish, frogs, fingers and toes all fried up made a delicious evening snack. Or was it the effects of copious amounts of rice wine that made it taste so good?
With rice wine induced sleep the morning came all too quickly. Breakfast eaten, kit packed and surplus equipment hidden in the jungle. We set off on a five and a half-hour slog to the next lead (Ho Nui). Really steep hard climbing (fantastic cardio work out) was unrelenting, but enjoyable. Everyone was in good spirits and Adam was slowly recovering. With interesting makeshift ladder climbs scaled and the steepest parts of the climbs passed we started the decent. The going was now much easier, but with new hazards around the corner. What’s this small yellow cricket ball sized thing on legs? Whoops, so that’s what a mine looks like. The place was littered with spent land mines. Wonder if I could get one through customs? Shortly after we reached a so-called well. A small hole with a plastic container in the bottom to aid replenishing water bottles. I bet that container once had rice wine in it!
Ho Nui (named by Nguyen, the only porter’s name I could remember due to an association with the New Inn at Clapham) was enormous. A huge boulder filled incline leading down to the cave mouth. It was hard to decide at what point the incline became the entrance. Much discussion took place as to the cave name. Aeroplane cave due to its dimensions, but Nguyen had the final say. It was to be Ho Nui (Mountain Lake). A fantastic name for a cave in which we were desperately seeking water with no avail. The camp was quickly set up. Tarps acting as funnels to catch drips of water were laid. Off we went to start surveying and taking photos. The MDL was fantastic, taking clino, distance and direction in seconds. Using this kit gave us much more time to explore. The cave was awe inspiring, with beautiful crystalline caverns, pristine formations and a real feel of being somewhere special. Unfortunately no way on was found, but the sheer scale of the cave was still impressive. Having taken many photos, one of, which was a crystallised imprint left by a primate we left for camp. Another great camp, but a lack of water meant we could only stay the one night.
The next day a smokey cloud produced by our fires overnight hung eerily above as we started the steep assent from the camp. The walk back to Hang En and our final night out didn’t seem so
hard. Maybe it was because we were more familiar with the terrain? Back at camp Khung, Andy and two porters set out on a recce trip. Andy soon
returned with tales of horrific exposed climbs with no protection. Khung and the small team carried on. The following day with Khung and co still not back,
we had to leave to meet the jeep. Khung and the porters were collected at the roadside the following day, tired but in good spirits. A fantastic few days. First impressions – don’t come much better.