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Searching for a needle in a jungle.

I remember it well; ‘it will be one of the best through trips in the world’, what will be? my ears start to listen as I am backing out of a flat out bedding dig on Scales Moor, thinking that sounds better than this, I had better sign up for this. Two years later getting into jeeps seven of us set of up the Ho Chi Minh road (highway 20) to Ban Ban on the Vietnam/Lao border. We arrive at the village of Ruc to start the walk in, Helens bag smelt like Morison’s petrol station in Skipton, everything is covered in petrol, worst still we had lost some of the fuel for the stove, never mind we will have to cook on the open fires. The walk down is pleasant until a recently cleared area of jungle and the track disappears under the brash, eventually we relocate the track and a steep descent takes us to the first river crossing a slippery affair. Here our guides catch up, great; they have brought half the village dogs with them. A pleasant walk down the valley brought us to the entrance of Ruc Caroon.

This is a short pleasant through trip accompanied by the guides and dogs. We emerge back into the jungle and a walk of approximately one hour brings us to the impressive entrance of Hang En (Pygmy). Here we leave the guides and we are finally on our own. This is a dramatic cave. We spent some time in the entrance guessing the passage dimensions against the disto, the original explorers had somewhat underestimated the size of the passage. Half way through a tricky climb up calcite is aided by a fixed knotted wire! Exposed traverses over stal followed including a short hands and knees crawl. The climb out is equally impressive again in a huge passage. Our progress was captured on the movie camera. We crossed a short doline through thick jungle and the razor sharp Karst to a low entrance with a draught, of Hang Over. The cave was extremely well decorated and some time was spent photographing the impressive chamber and passages. Part of the cave was better suited to the skills of Torvil and Dean and not a group of cavers as the mud deposits underfoot were extremely slippery and was reflected in some of the passage names.

An exit lead into jungle, in the fading light finding the best way through was difficult. We arrived at Monster passage a massive tunnel forming part of the Hang Ho cave. The passage then drops to a lake and a 200m swim brought us to our bivi at the cave exit. Problem! Helen is vomiting and unable to keep any food down. Big Nose the expedition physician examines her whilst we cook tea. A mixture of petrol stove and open fire ensure tea is quickly prepared and consumed. Bedtime. There are a lot of complaints relating to snoring, no names mentioned but I am easily offended..
The next morning we are informed that we have to find a needle in the haystack. We set off down an extremely hazardous and slippery riverbed; a welcome relief was the use of a short bypass cave of 100m. At a point of a landslip near the base of a large cliff and the bottom entrance of Pitch Cave we climb out of the river bed and strike uphill out of the valley to reach a col, where the small entrance into Pitch cave that bypasses the pitch is located! This was last used in 1997 so some there were some concerns as to whether we could locate this small entrance again. This was the key to our successful through trip of the Vom traverse and more pressing meeting with the porters at Hang Dai Cao with our food. Needless to say we spent a number of hours searching in vain.
We thought we had cracked it when a drafting cave was found, this was partly blocked with boulders but a bit of Yorkshire persuasion soon unblocked the entrance, but it actually turned out to be a new discovery and not the connection we were seeking. The hunt continued without success and we therefore had to retreat back to Hang Ho. Helen was still unwell (a slight problem) a bigger problem is we now have no food. Helen was in her sleeping bag, throwing up on a regular basis. A whip round and a root through all the bags produced a meal for six comprising of: two salt biscuits, 4 Wine gums, and a small handful of peanuts. This was followed by a tin of sardines shared between six of us but Howard said he was ‘full’ so didn’t want any leaving five to share the Sardines. It was a long night; breakfast was short, very short. We had a choice to make, either return the way we came from Ruc and a 40km walk back down highway 20 or exit Hang Ho through a different exit and a long walk back through the jungle to KM 24. The only downside of this option was only Howard and Martin had ever done the walk in the jungle before and couldn’t be sure of finding the way. However we decided on this option as given Helens condition it would be a much shorter option if we found the way.
To reach the exit a long swim was needed, Trevor opted to keep his clothes dry and stripped naked for the swim and this was not a pleasant sight. The weather was hot for the walk however it was reassuring when sections of the walk were recognised by Howard or Martin and we arrived safely at KM24. We walked the 10 km to the shrine where we were able to hitch a lift on a motorbike to Son Trach and send the vehicle to pick the remainder up. The porters returned a day later with all our unused provisions.
 

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