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Hang Song Doong – Discovery and Exploration.
Snablet, Trevor, Adam, Helen and I teamed up with Mr Tang, Mr Phong, Mr Kanh and Hanh our Hanoi University member, to undertake a six day trek through the jungle, with three cave entrances to check out. None of them sounded particularly promising, and the prospect of free climbing an 80M cliff on day three was a little worrying. Nevertheless, morale was high with the prospects of camping in the entrance to Hang En, a huge 1.5KM long river cave, lifting our spirits. The first day’s walk was very pleasant, along easy tracks, initially down hill, through a small Ruc settlement and a banana forest along the river to the cave. The impressive fossil entrance to Hang En came into view at least 1½ KM before we reached it, an awe-inspiring sight with giant trees forced to lean at jaunty angles by the strong draughts emitted by this gargantuan cave. Our camp was to be at the active stream sink, a far more modest affair, but an excellent campsite nonetheless.
We soon established ourselves with the Brits camping about 50M inside the cave and the (somewhat wiser) locals closer to the entrance. The redoubtable Tang and Phong brothers soon had a fire going and supper on; a couple of minutes later a rather ominous looking 5litre yellow bottle appeared, and Tang called us over. This was to be my first introduction to the local rice wine; a potent brew with a kick like a mule on steroids. During the evening we discussed our forthcoming trip, with Snablet describing the route we would be taking after checking out the first cave; further mention of the 80M free climb and the difficulty of the terrain made us all hope that this first prospect turned out to be sufficiently good that we could justify staying at the “Hang En Hilton” for the duration.
Up at 6am, breakfast and off; we were soon wading through the waist deep waters of the magnificent Hang En, over a couple of boulder piles where Snablet spotted a particularly evil looking black and white millipede, with long legs. “You don’t want to get bitten by one of those” he said cheerfully, “their bite makes all your flesh rot”.
After emerging from the cave and a splishy splashy hour’s stroll down the river, we came to Log Jam cave on the left where all the water disappeared underground (surprisingly enough into a log jam, then a sump), not to be seen again for many kilometres. Leaving the streambed to the right, we started a short ascent over a col to the small depression and cave entrance that was to be our objective for the day. The entrance was fairly small by Vietnamese standards and trending steeply downwards.
“Bloody ‘ell” said Trevor as he lent over and the draft nearly blew his helmet off, “I think we might have found something here”. Without further ado I got out my trusty Shetland Attack Pony (that did not work) and Disto (a laser measuring device) ready to start surveying.
“Looks like we will be using compass and clino” I said, thankful that I had brought them along as a back up. Jobs were allocated, Snablet rigging, Trevor doing notes, me instruments with Helen acting as Disto target and Adam looking out for photo opportunities. Off we set down into the cave, which descended steeply for about 100M.
“I’m putting a sling on this bit because it is exposed and a bit tricky” said Snablet, about half way down.
“Stand by that stall over there Helen and I’ll shine the Disto on your bag” I shouted. Hmm, I don’t seem to be able to get a reading. “Come back a bit please!” Eventually success; “62.3Meters!” I shouted, realising that the stal that Helen had originally gone to must have been over 100M away –quite big this cave- I thought, the powerful Hope lights we were using having made the distance look much smaller. As we progressed, the sound of an underground river started to get louder and louder; after about 400M I caught up with a nervous looking Snablet (a weak swimmer) at the edge of a very substantial river.
“Must be the river that sank in Log Jam Cave” said Trevor. This was not the like the nice cool pleasant wading through Hang En and in the doline, this was a confined, fast flowing very noisy cataract with strong currents interspersed with rapids.
“I don’t fancy getting washed away in that” said Snablet, looking nervously at a set of rapids. “If I can lasso that rock on the other side, we might be able to get across.”
After ½ dozen unsuccessful attempts we heard Adam shout, “It looks a bit easier here.” He managed to get across and secure the rope. Up the other bank after 100M we ended up traversing on a narrow ledge with a 15M drop to the raging torrent below.
“We had better put a rope on that on the way out” said Snablet “One slip and you’d be a goner”. We climbed back down to the river and another crossing; this time it was a little wider and we were able to swim across by ferry gliding into the current. As we climbed up the sharp, loose rocks the scale of the cave passage started to become apparent; it was consistently well over 100M wide.
“Can I name something?” shouted Helen, full of youthful enthusiasm.
“Yes of course you can.”
“I want to call this ‘The Hand of God,’ “she said referring to a very large and prominent stalagmite.
“wazzat?” shouted Trevor, a bit too far away to hear.
“The Hand of Dog” someone helpfully relayed.
“The Hand of Dog it is!” confirmed Trevor scribbling furiously in his notebook.
A shaft of daylight could now be seen coming down the passage, and as we topped the boulder pile we beheld a wondrous sight. In front of us was dead flat sandy stretch going on for 100M, with a steep chasm to the left leading down to the river, at least 60M below, which, unlike small children, could be heard but not seen. In the distance was a skylight and below it some tall trees had taken root. The light now enabled us to get a clear look at the majesty and splendour of this gargantuan passage. “Can someone climb to the top of that boulder slope by the skylight so I can photograph them?” asked Adam. Snablet volunteered, handed his bag over to Trevor and off he raced. The boulder pile under the skylight turned out to be considerably further away than we thought and by the time Snablet was perched on the huge green rock at the top, we could barely see him!
We then started to survey toward the skylight, which turned out be about 800M from
where we first saw daylight, by climbing down onto the sandy Level Playing Field, then down a series of flowstone dams and up another unstable boulder pile. At the
top of this pile we could see an easier route than the one Snablet had taken and later described as ‘horrendous, unstable and he never wanted to do it again!’ This made a suitable end point to our first day’s exploration as it was getting late and we were aiming to get back to Hang En before dark.
That night we reflected upon the huge passage we had found, with 1500M of challenging cave surveyed, much of it comprising sharp and unstable boulder piles, two interesting river crossings, a 100M climb down in the entrance series and finally an impressive skylight with a forested floor. “At least we don’t have to do the 6 day walk through the jungle now!” exclaimed Snablet with some relief; none of us were relishing that. He went on to describe the strange vegetation at the top of the slope with its very tall but thin trees and giant pitcher plants.
The next morning we set off, this time planning to spend longer in the cave with a return after dark. We marked the route down the river and over the col in order to make the return easier (moving through the jungle at night can be a tad tricky). As we entered the cave Snablet decided to put a hand line down the steepest section, reasoning that it was likely to get increasingly slippery with traffic. The river was noticeably lower now and the two crossings appreciably easier, indicating that the effects of earlier rainfall were now wearing off. We stopped for a few minutes at the Level Playing Field again to admire the fantastic view before tacking the final boulder slopes and pushing onwards into the unknown.
We climbed down from our previous survey limit to the base of Snablet’s big boulder slope, and found a bypass to it. This was right over the river and very noisy with the water rushing past 45M below us. After about 200M we popped out under the skylight. Here the passage became really huge, and as I struggled to get readings with my Disto I started to realise that Sotano De Las Golandrinas (a cave in Mexico popular with both cavers and base jumpers) would just about fit inside the passage at this point. After looking at the strange flora Snablet headed off through the stygian forest “Watch out for Dinosaurs!” I shouted, Snablet, now taking the survey notes, scribbled furiously.
“I can see another skylight; it looks like it is at least 500M away.” Having mounted a giant green stalagmite we could see the cave disappearing into the distance. This was much easier going than the earlier part as we raced along a “Ratrun” (in honour of Tony Jarat) of narrow flowstone ledges that were nice and stable and provided good footing. The passage was still an incredible size, and with readings of over 100M to the right I sent Helen off to see if there was a side passage whilst we carried on surveying.
“There’s no side passage, it is just enormous!” she called. After 800M of this incredible
passage we reached the second skylight. There was a passage off to the right that we thought
might bypass this second arboreal abyss, so we headed that way for 250M through narrow passages.
“It’s a bit bloody tight this, you could only just get a London bus through sideways!” We stopped at a cross junction as it was now time to head out.
The next day we decided to rest and prepare for a much longer trip on the day following. Snablet had contracted a nasty case of Mulu Foot so was relieved to be able to let them dry out for a while. “It’s a good job Howard is not here or he would give us a right bollocking” someone commented as we drank our seventh cup of tea.
The next day we prepared for what was bound to be an extended trip as transit time to the end of exploration was now about 4 hours each way. Extra packets of Duong (a Vietnamese bar that has a similar effect on tired cavers as Getafix’ brew has on Asterix) were taken. Adam had left his photo gear in the cave and he collected it as we headed up into the tangled undergrowth below the second skylight. Adam and Helen went directly for where we thought the continuation would be, whilst Snablet Trevor and I decided to survey around the right hand wall. As we set off into the Garden of Edam (it is a good job cavers are slightly dyslexic or we would come up with some awful names for passages), we struggled up a huge pile of dry guano and soon discovered the difficulties of using a Disto in dense forest. “Can you move that leaf out of the way? No not that one you bloody fool! That one! The green one!” After about an hour of struggling, we came to a 100M wide passage, with its own system of clouds in the roof. “I wonder if this is the way on or if Adam and Helen have found anything”
“Adam! Does it go?”
“muffblmf!” came the distant reply.
“What did he say?”
“I haven’t a bloody clue!”
“He would have come back by now if there was no passage that way” we reasoned, regretting not bringing radios with us.
“It’s just a side passage, it won’t go” said Trevor, the expedition veteran, referring to our passage.
I looked again at the 100M by 100M opening, then at Trevor, who was rooting trough the first aid kit, and thought he had gone stark raving mad.
“I’m telling you, it won’t go!” he insisted. Time proved him right as a later trip only found the 200 or so meters of passage that we could see.
Having circumnavigated The Garden of Edam, we were back in fine passage again.
Adam and Helen were sent off to take some photos while we continued surveying down some very pleasant sections with white sandy floors and flowstone, leaving another huge side passage for later, to a huge flowstone formation. After this the cave floor changed and became full of mud. Snablet and I were clever enough to climb high over it, whilst Trevor followed the trickle of water right at the bottom. We could not see our erstwhile companion, but knew he was there, and his approximate position from the never ending string of expletives.
“Sounds pretty grim down there”
“Yes, I am glad we went high”
After about 200M we came to a shear mud drop of about 15M. Trevor had been right again, and we were forced to retrace our steps and follow his route. This was a 1 ½ M wide muddy trench with the passage widening to about 100M over our heads, with no way to get up into it!
“We’ve gone from The Sublime to the ridiculous!” Scribble scribble scribble, and another passage named. After another few hundred meters we came to a 20M high flowstone wall across the entire width of the passage, with the prospect of a slimy dismal crawl in liquid mud underneath. We could however, see a very distant opening, at least 500M away and probably another skylight.
“Does any one fancy checking that out?”
I thought “not, me neither.”
“We have surveyed about 2KM, so that will do for today, we need to come back with a bolting kit and climb the Great Wall of Vietnam””
“What was the name of a First World War battle?”
“That will do nicely!”
On the way out we investigated the area where the mud started and found a static sump; this probably resurges during high water and must have been the source of all the mud.
We found Adam and Helen near the Garden of Edam.
“Did you check out that side passage?”
“What side passage?” asked Adam? Easy to miss I suppose, it was only 60M wide. Having done a quick survey down The Common Cormorant, we headed for the Garden of Edam and our five-hour trip back to Camp. Crossing boulder piles in this cave was always problematic, but crossing one in this jungle filled catacomb in the middle of the night was doubly difficult.
Back at Hang En, we grabbed a couple of hours sleep before an early start back to our pick-up point and the opportunity to regale the rest of the team with tales of adventure and of caverns measured by man.
Credit for the discovery and exploration of this cave should go not to the five of us, but to Howard and Deb Limbert whose hard work over the last 20 years made this series of expeditions possible.