We had noticed the striking features of this area on the map for many a year. Having talked to Darryl an American geologist who pointed out this enormous fault from NASA images he had obtained we made great attempts to access this area. Finally we obtained guides under the leadership of Mr Khanh our trusty guide from previous expeditions who knew the area. We planned for an eight day recce into the area with 7 porters. The starting point is the track that leads to Hang Vom a major discovery from 1992/94. We soon left the track and crossed the river and met a good flat path which meandered for an hour near the bank of the river. A good rest stop was reached before a sharp ascent up to a col; this was via a very steep gulley for around 300m. The temperatures were rising and a good sweat was on by the time we reached the col at over 450 asl. Again a good path continued through superb jungle that was quite open by Vietnam standards. A group of monkeys were then seen by the guides who have incredible knowledge and spot things loads before we do. The monkeys chucked a few sticks at us before departing further into the jungle. I spotted a hornbill flying overhead and the hoards of butterflies made the journey a real pleasure. After about 5 hours walking we reached our camp for the night. Again the water situation was dire. This year is an El Nino year and the jungle is very dry and only a small squalid puddle was available to quench 12 persons in our team. Many of the jungle plants were showing signs of lack of water but at least we were promised more water at our next camp.
The views from this camp are tremendous and we had reached the start of the fault that comes all the way from the Xuong valley and heads towards the Chay river resurgence. If a cave could be found in this area we could have a major system on our hands. Surrounded by huge cliffs overlooking a large doline our camp was in a fine situation, however no obvious caves were known by our guides at this location.
The next day dawned hot and sunny and we started early on what turned out to be a 10 hour walk. We followed the huge fault mainly traversing up and over a number of cols thankfully on a very good path. A snake was encountered, a pit viper along the way which the Nat Geo photographers took a liking to. We didn’t so we left them to their world. They finally caught us up at another resting camp again without water. We had again drunk all our rations and with one of the porters becoming very ill with vomiting and diarrhea the pace was slow. We shared out the ill porters load and continued towards the promised water. Finally our camp was reached and the water source again a small pool which looked awful and full of evil wasps and horse flies. A camp was erected by the porters and hammocks placed for the duration. The temperatures were in the high 30’s and the team was very lethargic and soon ready for bed after a long hard day. Finally after around 7pm the temperature dropped and all had a good night’s sleep. The next day we were to visit 2 dry caves whilst the rest of the porters would search for caves. The Xuong valley is a very impressive place an old riverbed at an altitude of approx 280m surrounded by huge cliffs and surely a place for a major cave. We were told that in the wet season the whole valley around 4k wide floods to 4m high. The route from the valley upstream leads into Laos and takes around 10 days. We were told of a large river and caves over 10 hours walk up the valley but that was not to be for this trip out but for future years. Our first cave was reached about 1 hour from camp and involved a very steep walk to 450m on the cliff at the end of the valley. Again we had to resort to drinking from vines during this ascent. The cave was a disappointment and chocked in boulders after only 75m.We descended from the cliff off we went up again to what appeared to be a promising looking cave.Although quite large with a 50m wide entrance the cave was in fact just a large alcove full of swifts. The view however made up for this and a stunning sight up the Xuong valley and towards Laos was obtained. Looking up this valley we just could realize the scale of the place and what potential for major caves in this part of the world. However this was not to be one of them and we returned to camp hot and sweaty. A number of shafts had been found by our guides for us to check out and we started with the ones nearest camp. The first a small 17m deep shaft was soon descended only to finish in clean washed boulders. Another similar one was also checked out with the same disappointing results close by. A return to camp was then made hoping for better things tomorrow. Again the water situation was dire. Other teams of jungle men had arrived at this place that is the only water for 10 hours away and they had taken a good share of the available dubious water. Lots of iodine was used in our drink bottles during the next couple of days. Thankfully the porter who was ill on the way in was now well and we planned the next day for more shaft bashing armed with 1x 50m 9mm rope and 2 slings!!
We were told of a 100m shaft with a good wind 2 hours walk away but with our limited resources of rope we had to leave it for another day. Our guides talked about another large cave as well as a river cave over 10 hours away. In these extremely hot conditions with very little water these also were left for future expeditions. We decided to try our luck again at a few more shafts the porters had found. The first looked very promising and had a reasonable draught but again sadly choked at 70m deep. The draught was in fact not present at any depth and was just circulating wind from another entrance. The final shaft was again choked in the all too familiar fashion and the future for shaft bashing in this area seems very limited.
The area of the Xuong valley has immense potential for huge caves. To achieve any success it would take a major undertaking with a team having to be equipped for around 10 days and be willing to walk in for around 4 days to set up a camp near a good water source. This area near the talked about river must be the key to the finding of the huge cave system that must exist in this very remote part of the Ke Bang massif.We will try and send out our guides before we return on our next expedition to do more work and find us entrances that hopefully will yield success.
The 2 day walk back we just managed to do in one long day. The camps water had dried up so we had no choice to do the 2 day walk in one. A very tired and dry team finally emerged from the jungle to be met by our drivers who kindly brought soft drinks and beer to the road head.