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KM 28 Cave
I awoke, seriously jet-lagged at around 6 am after only a few hours sleep, enthusiasm at an all-time low but breakfast and a coffee sorted this out and the hotel was soon bustling with activity as everyone got ready for the next trips into the jungle. For Deb, Adam and I, this was to be a 5 day trip to investigate a cave in a valley roughly a day's walk from Road 20 (which heads west into Laos). The cave had been found by Mr Khan (the same man who found the entrance to Hang Son Doong back in the 90's, and who along with other locals spends much time between expeditions searching for caves for us to explore). The adventure was to begin with a grueling 2 - 3 hour truck ride up Road 20 which starts well enough on tarmac, but a few miles after crossing the ranger post soon degenerates into a track/deeply-rutted muddy mess. But the surrounding landscape was stunning. Steep hills and cliffs draped in a dense green jungle reverberating with the sounds of birds and insects. At one point, we hopped off the truck to admire the view and were lucky to see a large monkey in a tree above the river, its cover blown as a branch in front of it broke and fell.
Eventually the truck stopped again, at km 28, and we hopped out to go and look at an entrance only a few minutes from the road. Breaking a trail between banana trees soon brought us to a fairly large shaft. A rope was rigged around a tree (NOT a banana tree, which seem rather too easy to push over), and Deb abseiled around 10 m to land on a floor of mud and detritus. I followed and we soon found a way on at the far end. A handline was rigged and we dropped down a greasy, muddy climb into a small chamber with the only way on being a small grovel through a hole surrounded by cobwebs. This was worse than Mendip! Deb quickly disappeared through and into a larger passage. I followed and we were quickly into a solid passage with climbs down to a pitch, with a rift disappearing into a chamber in the distance. We exited to grab the drill and some ropes to continue the exploration, since all we had to do today was make it to a roadside camp at km 30 from where we would set off into the jungle the following day.
Martin Holroyd and Deb began the survey from the entrance while I disappeared back into the cave with drill and ropes. The short pitch was quickly rigged and a short climb dropped into a chamber. By this time, Martin and Deb had caught up and I located the way on in the corner. A greasy climb led into a rift passage with pools to a hole between calcite, which led on to another pitch adorned with calcite. This was around 5 m and was followed by another pitch of around 15 m, the rift beginning to increase in size in beautiful black limestone incised with quartz veins. The walls and floor were polished, indicating the significant quantities of water, which must flow through during the rainy season.
The passage continued on as a fine streamway with several climbs to one requiring a handline. Soon after this was another ~8 m pitch, with a massive block wedged at the top making for a fine natural to rig the rope from.
An aven entered on the left just after this, and the streamway continued until I was gazing down a very fine looking ~20 m pitch. Unfortunately, we had run out of rope and so the survey was stopped and we exited this great little Yorkshire-esque pothole to share our find with the team waiting back at the truck. It was a shame not to be heading back in with more rope, but we continued on to camp. Arriving at camp (which was also occupied with local Vietnamese working on the road), beds were setup and a meal of pork and rice prepared for us by our porters before getting some sleep. As darkness fell, the jungle erupted into life and it was difficult sleeping with all the noise from the insects and animals, but it was certainly amazing to hear.
A few days later, Deb, Martin Holroyd, Martin College and I were able to stop off at km 28 and continue exploration of the cave on the way back to Son Trach, and so by 9 am I was back at the top of the fine ~20 m pitch armed with drill, bolts and rope eager to see what lay beyond.
Unfortunately, the cave didn't 'go big' as we expected, but quickly degenerated into a narrow passage and a wet wallow which was fortunately bypassed by a narrow oxbow to the side. Deb and I continued on with the drill and ropes while the Martins followed with the surveying.
The going soon improved, slightly, and a sporting narrow streamway continued onwards, although it wasn't the friendliest of cave to traverse in Ronhills and thin t-shirts. We soon arrived at a climb with a superb eyehole natural at the top for rigging the hand line. The streamway continued in the same style down a couple more climbs to a chamber and the terminal sump, which although small was definitely diveable. Above this, however, was a climb up to a mud slope, which continued on up to a hole which might bypass the sump, but since we only had a morning to finish explorations in the cave, we headed out meeting the Martins soon later. The drill was packed up and Deb and I exited with the Martins de-rigging and we reached the surface just after 11 am to find lunch had been prepared for us by the track. We were also shown some large cat prints on the road, which we were informed come from a ~40 kg cat, probably similar in size to a large German shepherd. These tracks certainly weren't here a few days ago!
The cave we had just explored was left at around 400 m long and 126 m deep....not too bad for a morning's exploration we thought as we endured another bumpy journey back down to Son Trach, a hot shower and a very refreshing beer. Great stuff!