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Minh Hoa District
 
To the north west of the expedition’s base area at SonTrach (and crossing the district boundary from Bo Trach to Minh Hoa), there lies a large limestone massif some 80km by 30km, along with smaller outcrops to the north east. The latter were initially visited in 1992 and 1994 when access required a long road journey back to the coast and all the way around the massif. Some significant caves were explored, notably Ruc Mon and Hang Tien, but the long drive made further forays unappealing given exploration opportunities elsewhere.
 
Between 1997 and 2005, several visits were made to the south east corner of the area, usually by means of hitching a ride along the rough tracks on a motorcycle and crossing one’s fingers. In 2006, the construction of the new inland Ho Chi Minh Highway gave us a rapid route into this vast unexplored zone. Permission was not always as easy and a couple of false starts were made, but 2007 saw a small team achieving a significant breakthrough with the exploration of Cha Lo cave. Talk of many more caves in the area led us to return in 2009.
 
Our first day in the district was spent sorting permission out in Quy Dat and hiding from the excess of precipitation which greeted us. However, with formalities complete we headed up to recce the Ban On valley whose steep access road had repulsed a 2007 visit. Mr Cung’s jeep made short work of the steep col which took us over into a hidden valley surrounded by karst features. Expectations were high and a conversation with the local policeman and military confirmed the existence of, amongst other things, an “Elephant Cave”. With dusk nearly upon us and the return journey apparently fraught with “cow hazards” on the HCM Highway (imagine coming upon a herd of Friesians on the M25 and you get the idea) we made plans for a proper visit and headed back to Son Trach.
 
Phase 1 – Ban On
 
The next day our designated transport first had the minor job of dropping off the Hang Vom team at the top of Road 20. The poor weather made this a bit of an epic and two very tired jeep drivers straggled back into Son Trach in mid afternoon. Enthusiasm for driving to Ban On was not high, but with a permission stop in Thuong Hoa needed before 5pm we (Adam, Snablet and Paul) charmed Mr Cung into setting out on our 4 day mission. Half an hour into the journey, the wisdom of this seemed questionable as the driver’s eyes slowly closed and the jeep slowed to a crawl…the rest of the trip was spent alternately talking to him and getting Mr Phuong to wake up and talk to him in Vietnamese! Fortunately we made it in one piece, picked up the commune permission letter and headed up the last leg to Ban On.
Once in the village, we were obviously keen to see the Elephant Cave, which was apparently down at the end of the enclosed depression with the river running across it. Our guide/host suggested we should wait until the morning and go to see Hang En as it was bigger, albeit half a day’s walk. We applied the old NCC principle of “best cave nearest cave” and asked him to take us to the Elephant Cave. Grudgingly he agreed and so off we went in search of caverns measureless.
As dusk fell, we wandered down into the enclosed depression before climbing up towards a col. “What about the sink?” we asked. “No cave there” came the reply and in truth it did look pretty mud-choked. Over the col, we descended back down to stream level and arrived at the resurgence. Given that this was a low, narrow bedding full of water, it was not quite what we imagined. It then transpired that the Elephant Cave was 2km downstream and had no roof…
 
After a solid night of Honda C90s, dogs and eventually cockerels, a sleepy party set off for Hang En, heading south out of the village towards the tower karst. A couple of hours through varied terrain brought us to a steep path leading up a tower. We asked again if there was water in Hang En. “There is a pool” we were told. About three hundred metres higher, we concluded that Hang En was probably not a river cave, although as we reached the top of another scramble up sharp pinnacles, we had to admit that the view which greeted us was impressive. A vast pit 100m wide and 50m across dropped away for around 50-60m below us. Looking up, a towering cliff approx 100m high framed the scores of swifts which flitted around the entrance.
 
Back at the base of the tower, our guides suggested we should stay in the hut of a local couple. We surmised that a brisk walk would have us back in the village well before dark, but all manner of spurious reasons were produced to convince us that this was not possible. Then the local Ruc couple arrived back with two plastic containers full to the brim with a strange colourless liquid… we slept well that night!
 
Another misty dawn saw us heading for our next objective, a cave that supposedly went through the mountain. Hang Lon did indeed go through one of the limestone towers, but being only 154m long it was again something of a disappointment. The main point of interest was a mound in the entrance which looked suspiciously like a grave; which indeed it was – a local man who had liked the view over the valley from the cave entrance!
 
Back in the environs of the village, our next cave was one which had apparently been inhabited by several Ruc families until relatively recently. Clearly we were not to be “the first” explorers of Hang Ca Rung, but at least we did manage almost 300m more survey in a heavily jointed complex of small passages.
 
Before we left the area, we felt it important to check out the source of the river flowing into the enclosed depression visited on the first evening. After a call at the military post, we were guided a couple of kilometres westwards to a series of resurgences. The river emerged from several areas of boulders over a hundred metres or so. Only one of these allowed any access and that only for 70m or so along a hading rift, but the volume and temperature of the water being emitted led us to conclude that somewhere up in the misty mountains there was definitely some cave to be found somewhere.
 
Phase 2 – Caving by Jeep
 
Our next foray to the area involved considerably less walking as Martin H, Snablet and myself decided to try to break into the central area of the massif from the north from several locations along the Ho Chi Minh Highway. Shortly after the turn off to the administrative centre of Quy Dat, we asked locals if there were caves in the hills nearby. Receiving a positive response, we recruited a guide to take us to the entrance. As usual, we had arranged for this walk to take place in the hottest part of the day and it wasn’t long before Mr Phuong decided that the shelter of a nearby café would be a much more sensible idea. Half an hour later, we were toiling up towards a col between two enclosed depressions and wishing we had been more sensible.
The second doline opened out into a well-cultivated area before a bit more jungle-bashing took us to a part of the forest which seemed to be ideal habitat for leeches. Amongst the trees, a dry stream bed led to a boulder choked sink, but nearby was a slot to a muddy slope into a decent-sized lake. Changing into caving gear entailed the occasional shriek as leeches made a bid for soft fleshy bits, but soon Martin had slithered down into the pool and was swimming across to what appeared to be a passage. It occurred to me that the slope was going to be slippery when wet…The “passage” closed down immediately, but Snablet dutifully descended to ensure we had the survey measurements, the refreshing dip in the water being purely incidental! Exiting the pool did indeed prove entertaining
 
(for me watching) and we quickly left the leeches behind to brave the heat of the day once more. Three hours for thirty metres was not exactly the return we had been hoping for. The long hot walk back improved immeasurably once we made it back to the café and made the most important discovery of the day – bottles of iced green tea, which tasted absolutely wonderful. Yes, we were thirsty!
On the way back to Son Trach, we checked out the downstream end of the Ban On water course. Although not marked on our maps, the area plan in Quy Dat had indicated a dam at the upstream end of the river which flowed alongside the HCM Highway. Dams at the base of limestone have previously led us to some significant discoveries, but in this case our hopes were dashed once more as the water level met the roof level extremely close to the resurgence.
 
Phase 3 – Cha Lo
 
The 2007 expedition had visited the western end of the massif and returned with a 4.5km cave and tales of many more in the area. Hence a team of 4 (Howard, two Martins and Paul) was despatched to build on that work and hopefully improve our metres surveyed to kilometres walked ratio.
 
Approaching Cha Lo, it was clear that we had travelled beyond the end of the limestone and were then skirting up the edge of the massif. The whole area felt different from Son Trach; higher, less forested, different houses and people. Cha Lo itself is on the main road through to Laos, with the border being very close to our intended area of work. We made the obligatory call at the local military post, where the English-speaking commander was clearly disappointed that his language skills were patently more advanced than ours. Nevertheless, permissions were duly granted and we set about finding a place to stay.
One empty house was made available to us, conveniently situated directly opposite the bar. About 5 minutes after we had unpacked all our gear and set up camp, the village policeman came and told us we couldn’t stay there and both we and our equipment would be much safer at his house. Much grumbling followed as we loaded everything back up again, but in hindsight our hosts were probably right that it was safer to leave our spare kit in an occupied house rather than a shack by the pub.
With a couple of guides recruited, the following day saw us leaving the road and heading east into the hills. Tales of a river sinking at the base of a 200m cliff helped to spur us on through the jungle and up and over a couple of steep ridges. After about 3 hours walking, we arrived at a small woodcutters’ camp by a stream. It looked a pleasant spot for a camp if the nearby cave went.
Unfortunately, the stream sank into boulders and mud and Mr Huy then started to hack a trail out of the doline through the thickest section of jungle of the day. Over another col, the path then descended steeply (very, very steeply!) and we began to consider how much fun it would be to haul a lot of kit this way. Then, somewhere below we heard the unmistakeable sound of running water and eventually we emerged in a gully strewn with huge boulders. A stream cascaded down and down and as we followed, our eyes were drawn to the birds which circled up against the backdrop of a massive cliff of clean white limestone. Jaws dropped and expletives were exchanged. Then several more expletives as empirical evidence (falling on our arses) suggested that the recent rain had given the boulders in the gully a negative coefficient of friction!
 
We cautiously negotiated the boulders and tufa dams that led us to a spectacular sink entrance at the base of the cliff – spectacular, but by now beginning to feel quite a long way from home. The two Martins carried on down to recce the entrance and quickly reported back that we needed rope and SRT gear to get down a pitch. This was a bit of a problem, given that we had neither, and the drop was christened Yellow Card.
Back with the guides, we packed up and headed out, obviously vowing to return a.s.a.p. The route home was somewhat circuitous, at one point being only 300m from the rendezvous with the vehicle, but still with about 1km of meandering to get back to that point. That night we sought further information on caves near the sink of Ruc Ca Xai and there did indeed seem to be several other possibilities as well.
 
The next day, we loaded up 4 guides/porters with a pile of gear and headed back out to the sink. A steeper but more direct route was taken and at the end a detour to a larger but more squalid camp inhabited by an abundance of horse flies. With cave to push, we decided to defer this problem until later.
Once at the sink, surveying and rigging were quickly under way. In our wisdom, we had decided that one SRT kit between 4 was adequate for this one pitch into the main cave as we could easily pass it up and down the pitch. Three of us watched as Martin C made the first descent and carefully set about putting in a deviation; fortunately he realised the error before we could heap too much abuse on him!
At the base of the pitch, a squeeze past a huge boulder gave access to a pleasant stream passage over boulders and cascades. Beyond a wading section (Early Bath), the passage
began to take on a more traditional Vietnamese river cave feel. Our first 50m survey leg landed us on a sandbank, from which a slope led down to a lake which had no draught and the appearance of being somewhat terminal. Martin H swam across and confirmed our worst fears. Ruc Ca Xai had indeed shown us the Red Card at a considerably earlier point than we had hoped. At around half a kilometre, the cave had not quite lived up to its 5km+ potential.
With the cave photographed and derigged, we were back at camp by midday and hoping to move on to the next target - either a sink called Cho Can or an old dry cave which it was claimed could hold a division of soldiers. Our guides advised us that the dry cave was a day’s walk and Cho Can was half a day and they still had to have lunch. As it became clear that the next target would have to wait, we busied ourselves with the task of setting an example by tidying the camp and a couple of hours were spent gathering and burning all manner of detritus from the immediate area.
 
Hoping for an early start the following day, we ate early. This meant that we were fortunately still full when the guides’ elaborate trap by the camp emitted the squeals of a rat which then became the subject of an impromptu barbeque. (“Oh no, sorry, I couldn’t eat another thing tonight!”).
 
Our fourth day in the area was marked by much dragging of feet and changes in length of walk estimates by the guides, but eventually we did the 5-6 hours walk in about 4 hours. Good paths, poor paths, stream beds, clearings, thick jungle – it had been an interesting day which ended at a camp worse than the previous one. The cave was apparently 100m away, so we decided to go and see if the entrance offered any better alternative. It didn’t really, being a low stream sink against a small outcrop, but we decided it was the best solution.
 
Whilst the two Martins sorted gear, Howard and Paul went in for a quick peek in the hope of finding some nice, soft sandbanks or similar. What we in fact found was a stooping cobbly, stream passage leading to climbs and cascades. Howard then adopted a strange pose whilst looking into a low section and didn’t move for a while. It transpired his back had gone. We were only a few tens of metres into the cave, but it was a painful exit for Howard which partly involved being dragged along on a handy woodcutter’s plank. Having dosed him up on painkillers, we decided that the cave needed doing and headed on in.
 
The cascades and climbs continued in a sporting rift until a short pitch barred the way. Martin H had a close call as a natural belay snapped off as he descended, but fortunately the backup held before he completed the descent in a less orderly manner than planned. We just began to wonder if there was a third incident around the corner, but a couple more drops led to a hading rift and a conclusive choke. Another one that didn’t quite live up to its potential.
 
Back on the surface, we spent a couple of hours debating how we could carry Howard all the way back to the road. Various combinations of rope/hammock stretchers were discussed at length. This ensured that when he woke up, Howard rose like Lazarus from his (plank) bed, muttered something about not being trussed up and hobbled out of camp. Fortunately the path back was a good one and much more direct, such that we were back on the main road in around 3 hours and back in Son Trach by late afternoon.
 
Conclusion
 
Our time spent in Minh Hoa seemed to constantly feed us with interesting possibilities which subsequently proved to be largely disappointing. A lot of ground was covered and a fair number of sites visited, but the amount of cave surveyed did not quite do justice to the effort put in.
 
However, we saw and heard enough to convince us that the district still has a great deal of potential. We were told of many other caves that we did not have time to visit and the prospect of finding major systems remains. As always, finding caves in this type of terrain is virtually impossible without the help of the local people, but there are many woodcutters who work hard in these forests and may well be able to lead future explorers to other stunning locations like the sink of Ruc Ca Xai. To date, we have scratched the surface and although there are unlikely to be easy pickings, there remains a lot of work to be done and a vast area to be covered. Somewhere up there is the source of the river at Ban On…
 
Paul Ibberson

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