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Hang Dai Cao Report (Hang Nam, Hang Nghia)

 
Day 1
 
This seven day trip was otherwise known as "the lady Debs tour".
Following frantic packing, loading the minibus and then transferring all the kit onto a truck we were finally off. Just how rough could road 20 actually be to justify a truck? All would be revealed shortly.
Truck
Having finally arrived at km24 both teams set off. The Hang Dai Cao team being Myself (Clarky), Watto, Sweeny, Debs, Phuong (translator), Nguyen, three other porters and one park ranger. Easy walking until the two teams stopped for a light meal before leaving our separate ways.

This stop prompted a camp cook competition. Which team could put together the best camp and deliver the best cuisine? Not only did we win hands down on both counts,
Nguyen even had time to carve our team water buffalo a new head stock!!carving
The route we had taken to Dai Cao wasn't the usual trade route so there was much slipping and sliding before the first views of Dai Cao were revealed, a beautiful cave entrance with crystal clear water. The actual camp was to be a little past Dai Cao, at the side of a small lake next to Maze cave. This was a truly idyllic camp once we had checked for tiger
paw prints. It was comforting to know we would be fine, as Watto's open larder hammock construction would be a far easier target for any hungry cats!!

The camp was frequently inhabited by the park rangers and woodmen and therefore was relatively easy to set up camp and settle down for the night before the challenging walk / climb to Hang Nghia.
 
Debs had the privilege of having her hammock erected by Nguyen (hence lady Debs). How well it looked! Hung from a large log, tarp tensioned to perfection and mosquito net in place.Hammock
Debs was all ready to slip into a blissful sleep. Much to our amusement the frog chorus then started. The beautifully erected hammock with all its soft furnishings just happened to be where the entire population of camp frogs enjoyed their evening sing song. Oops
 
Day 2

During the night Sweeny's feet had been quite severely bitten by mosquitoes / sand flies. Hopefully they wouldn't get worse and cause any more discomfort on the trek to Hang Nghia. The climb up to Nghia took four grueling hours. Steep hard terrain with short breaks was the order of the day. The favourite porter pastime was to tease Watto on the climb up; telling him it was only to get worse. Expression filled language was spat back in response, much to the porters delight.
 
Hang Nghia

The large 65m entrance shaft was a real welcome sight after the hard climb. Within minutes Sweeny was hanging over the edge and starting to rig. This was an ideal opportunity for "Lady Debs" to be fed.debsleaf
Having descended the shaft we started surveying. Myself on compass and clino, Debs route finding and Sweeny on drawing. The shaft looked so promising from the surface, however it wasn't to be. The vegetation covered slope ended in a large calcite choke. Debs took some atmospheric photos of the stall chamber on the way out. Total depth 103m and 222m long. The scramble down back to Dai Cao camp was much easier than the assent, although much care had to be taken on the slippery sharp limestone. It was a hard but very enjoyable 9 hour trip.
 
Day 3

The next day came around too quickly. A little stiff from the day before and nursing a few aches and pains, we started to break camp. Sweeny having taken himself to a quiet part of the camp started to inspect his feet before attempting to put his boots on. They were not looking too good. Some blisters had burst and had started weeping. His swollen foot was cleaned with Betadine and a dressing applied.
foot
We set off at the usual brisk pace, passing time by cajoling and teasing fellow team members. As time passed we had gained some considerable height and some of the views were quite spectacular. Sweeny was suffering with his feet but wasn't complaining too much. Maybe we should have given him some extra weight in his already overfull pack. Lots of toys (even had a wood burning stoke in the pack). Finally arriving at Heaven's Gate after a day's walk we set up camp. Unfortunately there was a distinct lack of water near the cave. Having found a volunteer to go in search of some clean water, we set about hanging hammocks. Watto's frame proved quite a challenge for the lightweight hammock frames our porters are happy to hang from. An ingenious array of slings and ropes made the frame a little more Watto compatible. Finally the water arrived, an Exped sack with a plastic liner brimming over with water. The weight of that sack must have been monstrous to carry back to the camp.
After the evening meal the porters decided it was about time they challenged Watto to an arm wrestling competition. Our champion had the advantage that his fore arm was larger than the other competitor's legs.
legandarm
Day 4
Hang Nam was approx. ten minutes walk from Heaven's Gate. The large entrance was easily accessible down a small slope. After an initial quick look in the cave we started surveying Hang Nam. Myself on compass, clino and Disto. Watto and Debs route finding with Sweeny drawing. Easy going level floor turning sharply to the right under boulders leads to a large well decorated passage. Steep climb to right continues with slippery slope down to pristine pool. From pool climb up to right into beautiful stal filled chamber, with no way on. Time was spent taking photographs of the stal chamber along with numerous attempts at firing Magi cubes to get a pool shot. Watto still has the charred fingers for his efforts.
 
Day 5

Morning spent prospecting for a reported cave about hour walk from Heaven's Gate. With little potential of finding water and Nguyen struggling to find the cave, we headed back down to the Hang Dai Cao camp. That evening and not wanting to be "out done" by Watto, Sweeny decided to unleash his wood burning stove, a fantastic bit of kit, which finally worked very well. However our resident Ray Mears showed us how to light the stove using cotton wool soaked in Vaseline. Very effective this technique was, however Rays (alias Sweeny) also had a generous coating of Vaseline on his hands. Not only did the stove go up in flames but Sweeny's hands also. Watto 1 Sweeny 1.
 
Day 6

A day trip into Maze Cave, with a view to accurately GPS entrances and exits. Explore valley between Maze and Pitch Cave. Once we had successfully negotiated our way through Maze Cave (including the swims) and started exploring the beautiful valley with boulder piles, rocky alcoves and light vegetation beyond, we realised just how remote we were. After much scrambling and exploring we came across a large camp in a huge alcove.
mazecavegroup
Writing on the walls along with camp debris indicated once, despite its remote feeling had been quite a popular camp. After thoroughly checking the alcove for leads we set off back to Maze. Everything was going well re negotiating our way through Maze until we reached the swims. One of the tackle sacks lost its buoyancy and started to pull Phuong under. Luckily we were close at hand to dive in and drag our spluttering translator to safety.
 
Day7
The final day and walk out.
 
Howard Clarke
 
The Hills Are Alive ...
...with the sound of gunshots. No, seriously, I am not an expert in explosive sounds, but these bang noises that reverberate around the Hang Dai A sink and cause a few corvid dollar birds to leap up into the sky sound suspiciously like gun shots. I look at our guides and mimic shooting a monkey out of a tree. Vigorous head shaking and lip pursing by Mssrs. Khanh and Ky. It may "just" be someone blowing up the stump of a perfume tree, decapitated and chopped into slices long ago. There should, of course, be no sounds of this sort in the World Heritage Site. Rather, we should be enveloped by bird song, monkeys howling, tigers growling, and bears grunting.
... with heaps of smugglers. On our way to Hang Dai A, part of the Hang Vom system, and every day on our way to various leads we saw numerous well-used tracks and many signs of human activity.
The hills are also alive with Vietnamese cavers and Vietnamese guides! Having reached Hang Dai A (an alternative name for one of the entrances to Hang Ho) and struck camp, Mr Hung took us for a warm up trip via the steep right hand bank (when facing Hang Dai A). We revisited two of the three Hang Ho entrances that lie in the vicinity of each other. Mr Hung enjoys steep climbs with beautiful views, precarious drop offs and sharp, but grippy hand and foot holds. This warm up trip did not disappoint. After a brief rest back at camp we climbed back up the same river bank. After a good walk Mr Hung indicated we were to wait next to an 80m drop off and disappeared only to return brandishing his mobile phone. He showed us a photo asking if we would like to see this cave or another cave. Dial a cave by digital photo – whatever next. We agreed to visit Hai Cua.
The large entrance is split in half by a large stal boss. To the right, there are a number of ways on. A steep drop on the right hand wall leads into a boulder choke. The same boulder choke is easier to descend via one of several holes in the muddy floor about 20m to the left of the right hand wall. Mick descended the hole and discovered a hip-deep stream way before finding his way back up through the boulder maze. Later this was surveyed by Mick and Anette only to sump after about 30m. To the left of the entrance stal boss is another way on that quickly leads to second entrance largely blocked by a sizeable boulder and hidden by an overhanging curtain of vines.
The next day it drizzled and we literally fell through the forest, boots like skates without brakes, over, under and around the jagged but polished limestone crags, slippery roots, and tangled vines of the forest. The owners of those ubiquitous brown plastic sandals miraculously glide, sure footedly, tirelessly and perfectly balanced where we stumble, crash, exhaust and injure ourselves. Our cave was Hang Ky, reached by climbing up the left bank of the stream bed, right next to Hang Dai A's fetid entrance lake. Hang Ky's large entrance is awash with stal and flow stones. To the back on the right hand wall, Mick carefully climbed a tiered flow stone to discover a small pool tiled with shampoo sachets. On hearing of the pool, Mr Ky and Mr Khanh nonchalantly ran up the same flowstone that Mick had climbed so methodically. Presumably this ready-made water depot near the main smuggling track was news to them. Belayed by a rope, we descended a drop on the left hand side of the cave wall. At the bottom we discovered more water, animal bones calcited into the floor, and a nest full of live, pink baby rats but no obvious way on. Howard photographed Mick climbing back up the rope, and we fell, slithered, and scraped our way back to our camp site fighting off hungry leeches all the way.
The next morning saw us climbing up the left river bank again, once more meeting local walking parties along this track with its numerous cross roads. After the previous day's rain we thoroughly enjoyed more slipping along the muddy track and its ankle grinding, pock marked limestone excrescences –here, walking to the cave is easily more hazardous than the caving itself. Eventually we climbed a ledge to reach an uncharacteristically small cave entrance. A strong draught clearly prompted the cave's name Hang Gio (Wind Cave). On our knees we either crawled over or under a short, smooth terraced flow stone rift. The rift leads into a heavily decorated chamber - so well decorated as to appear stuffed. Unfortunately, some of the stal is damaged, providing a taste of things to come. The floor of this antechamber is littered with rubbish. Moving on, the cave opens out into a much larger and airier chamber with superb sizeable formations. It is also reasonably populated with arthropods and fresh water crustaceans. Further towards the end of the lofty chamber a large second entrance opens into the leafy green forest, explaining the draught.
The hills are also alive with the sound of croaking. In the evening, there was a bit of banter about the frogs that were using the cave entrance as a ready-made amplifier. A search party armed with head torches and sticks went out and returned with a fistful of frogs. The frog soup we had for supper was extremely tasty, and we saw millions of tadpoles, guaranteeing continued abundance of frogs in this stream bed. Perhaps because of our supper, we had a very slow start to the next day. We finally left to inspect Hang Nuoc Dung just after lunch time. No longer was I surprised to find three groups of folk encamped near Hang About. One group was a family of local Ruc people, there was a party of villagers from Son Trach looking for something in the boulders, and a third party of about eight men was encamped nearby. This cave is at the bottom of a 30m doline that can be descended using a rock ramp. It has characteristic twin entrances with lakes. We realised we had surveyed it before but used the opportunity to have a bath.

On our final day, Mr. Phuong, Mr Hung, Mick and I went for a walk up the right hand side of the Hang Dai A stream bed, as I had had enough of falling through the forest for a while. We walked along the obvious path and then turned off to the left at the first obvious fork. Eventually we reached a flat sandy stream bed with a blocked resurgence at the foot of the cliff. Mr. Hung and Mr. Phuong collected some betel leaves from a vine. The cave was named after these (Hang Trau/Betel Tree). We checked out the entrance that must resurge into the stream bed during the wet season, but could not find a way in. Moving up the cliff, we were shown a 25m wide and 10m high entrance to a cave. Mick and I turned left to descend a small sandy tube. However, there was no draught and the instruments steamed up horrendously. Fortuitously, Mr Hung and Mr Phuong eventually showed us a sizeable pitch, characterised by a 15m long elephant's trunk of a stalactite hanging right over the Centre.
elephantstrunk
We climbed down to a ledge, but despite looking well worn, we felt the remainder of the pitch was sufficiently hairy to require a rope. Mr Hung was keen to climb down it, but we dissuaded him. He is a superb climber, but there was little point in him going down on his own, as I certainly would be unable to follow him. This pitch is probably likely to choke, but this still has to be confirmed.
Mick went for a long walk with Ky and Uy to Khe Ngang. This proved to be disappointing. Three dry streambeds entered a steeply descending passage, 5 metres high and 4 metres wide. A low air space duck and gravel ascent led up to muddy chamber. A muddy steep descent on the far side led to a scummy sump.
 
Anette Becher
HanGio
 

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