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Xuong Valley Third Trip
The team consisting of Snablet, Andy, Sweeny and Mick were in great excitement at the prospect of the discoveries ahead. Hang Ky had been left wide open and time permitting we would visit three more caves. The only down side was the three day approach march. Luckily the weather was dry so some of the slip sliding could be avoided. A late start down at Phong's house saw us collect our seven porters and supplies.
Up at Paradise Cave, the loads were packed with the usual bemused audience of tourists. It looked like all the kit would never be fitted in but as usual there was even enough room for the rice wine.
Some got a lift on the electric show cave cars as we set off in the midday sun. The path now being very familiar, we left the porters struggling with their loads and marched straight to the first camp. The evening was spent consuming some of the rice wine to lighten the load.
Day two dawned even hotter and again we forged ahead of the porters to reach camp two a little after midday feeling the strains of dehydration and heat. The afternoon was spent in shady hammocks, sweating and reading. A new element of annoyance and frustration had appeared in the form of a plague of flies to add to the now prolific leeches. Any exertion meant attracting one's own personal swarm.
Day three and its hot again as Andy and I make a dash up the hill to reach the only running stream on the journey to have a complete bath in the pool before being engulfed in flies and Vietnamese woodsmen onlookers. Once the porters and others caught up it was on up hill to the last water hole and a noodle break.
Half an hour's more punishment uphill brings us finally to base camp. Here by means of drawings and sign language we explained our plan for advanced base at the cave entrance. Repacking essential gear and digging up the previously buried rations, by three pm it was off on the final leg. Of course the flies and leeches were following us now so as we arrived at Hang Ky after an hour of sweating up and down hill, they descended on us with a vengeance. Erecting hammocks was madness-inducing as hands were too busy for swatting and killing. After collecting wood and making us a fire, Ky and the other guides left us to our fate.
By six the next morning the camp was a bustle of activity as we lit fires and packed essential kit for exploration. Into the cave and away from the flies and leaches at last.. Adrenalin Rush Pitch and Boppidy Bop were descended one at a time to avoid killing those below with loose rocks. At the Northern Line Snablet and I set off surveying whilst Andy and Sweeny went to start surveying from the front. With all side passages covered Snab and I finally caught up with a very excited pair at the front. They had reached the top of a boulder pile with seemingly no roof above and a steep slope disappearing into the blackness below. Whoops of excitement received a reverberating echo in reply.
Snab and I were only too happy to take up the invitation to scout ahead and play marker for the Disto.
A long slope down over some slippery calcite took us into a beautifully decorated large passage. Several good side passages were passed on the left. To the right a massive passage ascended to the right until climbs barred progress with avens above. Shortly after on a corner any active stream seemed to sink into some clean washed narrow rifts. Beyond the passage became muddier before ending in a final breakdown chamber. Here Andy and Sweeney made a difficult final climb down the greasy boulders to confirm no way on.
Back at the good formations a fine five by five metre tunnel bored off at right angles leading to the most amazing sculpted rift. A climb up and then traversing on razor sharp flakes led to a sandy passage you could push my wheel chair along. This in turn reached a junction and it became obvious this was not your usual linear Vietnamese cave. We split into two survey teams again and continued to explore and survey all we could. By six pm we had pushed all the easy leads and just had enough energy left to do a couple more back in the main passage.
The trip out seemed long and tiring. I was first out at 10pm and got a fire going to get the tea on. Our fantastic porters had been and left a take away meal and delivered more much needed water supplies. By now Andy had contracted the shits so was not too hungry. The rest of us tucked in ravenously to the tucker and tried to rehydrate with a few brews.
Day five was a sluggish but still early start. We had left a note for the porters to come and collect us at four pm. So we reckoned on photographing till twelve and then dragging. All went to plan although we did not have enough time to do the cave justice. The variety of passage types and formations could justify another trip in its self. There are still a couple of leads left but suspect horizontal development will be limited by the size of the block of limestone we are in. The bottom of the caves here seems to be at the 600metres contour which corresponds with several resurgences in the area. By the number of avens seen I am sure there are several more entrances. If they are all as spectacular as this one there is some great vertical caving to be had.
With the de-rig complete the porters escorted us back to base camp along with our fly escort. Next morning it was a big pack up and down hill to the waterhole for a welcome wash. Next it was off up hill again on a new trail. My legs seemed to have lost all power and I was soon trailing at the back. Once again we ascended on to a new mountain block with thinning woodland, like an English wood in autumn. Down to a small stream crossing and short climb to a Malham Cove type feature that had a camp under the cliff and a small sink cave below. I was too knackered to take an interest, so the others went down and pushed the small muddy passage. With no way on the porters stripped the camp of some planks and set off a short distance up hill. A new camp was made complete with table and chairs and joy oh joy the flies seemed to have gone.
After a nice rest in the hammock it was off to see Ky's next find, Vuc Boom. This was only five minutes away and resembled a large Hunt Pot, for those who don't know a pot hole in Yorkshire. Rocks thrown excitedly in certainly did booom encouraging giggles of anticipation for a descent. It was a re-energised team that quickly returned to camp to pack the tackle. It was Sweeny's turn to rig and I teased him that if it was too scary or tiresome I would be happy to relieve him of his duties.
Back at the shaft we moved to the opposite side for an airy take off into the abyss. Complex deviation ropes were thrown to Andy on the other side to tension off. Sweeney disappeared off down through the sunbeams and became a speck in the distance before he placed his first rebelay bolt. I delivered some more rope and some fluids before re-ascending to start surveying. Snablet headed nervously down and I followed.
The shaft is magnificent especially with the star burst effect of sun light coming through the trees above. A great rig by Sweeney with several rebelays saw us regrouped at the bottom of the 122metre deep shaft. Much larger on the eliptical boulder strewn floor than the top. We proceeded as one onward to the lip of the next pitch. Once again it was more Vuc Boom with rocks thrown down. Estimates were sixty metres and with no more rope and tea time approaching it was time for an exit. It was a great night in camp with no f lies, sat around the table. Whilst Snablet drew cartoons for our guides Andy anticipated the morrow as it was his turn to rig.
A fine morning and Andy seemed to have forgotten the state of his bowels. Away in front with Sweeny to nurture I could soon hear the sound of the drill as I came down behind Snablet. As I arrived Andy was not too happy and somewhat frustrated. The drill had died and the reserve battery was f lat. They decided this shaft could not be descended without bolts. What a shame and Sweeney said at least it would be a fantastic lead for the next expedition. No way, I thought this is my last expedition. Make way for an expendable old fart! I tied all the short bits of rope together and took the few slings we had left and plunged over the edge. Surprisingly I found two thread rebelays in calcite and continued down to the first knot change. This successfully completed I continued to where a small boss of rock gave a marginal rebelay. Then oh shit another delicate knot change. I reached the floor with two metres of rope to spare and Swan Song pitch was complete.
A call to the others could only induce Sweeny down gingerly for an inspection of the way on. With more rope we set off down the steep slope in a very large high passage. A calcite slope was rigged down to what looked like a final vertical drop. This was six metres protected with a tackle bag over the lip to the ongoing passage floor. Unfortunately after only fifty metres the roof came down almost to the sandy floor. A loud noise through a hole at the end created by the draught is an incentive to dig here. Never have I felt so cheated. Oh for a spade and crowbar! Going by what else I have seen up here I am sure there is a good system beyond.
Our time up here was drawing to a close. On returning to the foot of Swan Song the whole cave was lit up by the sun's rays allowing a few small plants to flourish. We ascended with our disappointment. It only remained for a quick look at an entrance nearby. Vuc Booms baby got Andy and Sweeny excited and very nearly bitten by a snake as the entrance is home to several of the blighters. No time or drill for rigging leaves it for others.
Day eight the march out began with all tired and dehydrated. We'd not gone far before Sweeny's being sick and shitting his pants. The temperature reaches a new high and we feel lucky to reach Xuong valley camp in one piece. Sweeny collapses in to his hammock and we are all pinned down in the trees to avoid the sun.
The final day, nine, and it's an alpine start in the dark to try and get out before the sun destroys us. Luckily Sweeny has recovered somewhat. It's a very grateful team that stumbles in to the river at Paradise cave after one of my toughest Vietnam experiences.
This is a great new area for exploration with so much potential for exciting vertical systems.
I doubt they will go below the 600 metre contour as Vuc Boom also levelled out at this depth. On the walk down from it there was resurgence at this level. What others may well find are good exciting complex caves up to 250 metres deep and 3 to 5 kilometres long. A base camp mounted expedition supplied by porters would save on all the trekking and expensive porters remaining idle in camp. Water will always be the restricting factor out here though. For a generation of hard fit cavers who like a bit of misery this is the place!