Khe Trieng - A Tasmanian Tragedy
At the end of the 1997 expedition, Trevor and Cal travelled east from Hang Khe Rhy to the next known sink. It was anticipated that as well as yielding new cave, this may provide an easier route in to the lower reaches of Khe Rhy for our next visit. What was not expected was for their trip to develop into the most serious episode in the history of all our expeditions to Vietnam.
After an arduous walk, the pair entered the sink known then as Khe Tien, little knowing that they would only exit the cave some two and a half days later. Having surveyed to a sump, they began their exit only to find that the door (effectively a “u”-bend in the entrance series) had closed behind them due to flooding. They were obliged to sit it out on a gravel bank in a small chamber with a dim view of daylight somewhere high up in the roof. After a major rescue effort damming and diverting the stream outside the entrance, the water levels subsided enough for them to escape the cave and return to Son Trach with only hours to spare before the end of the expedition.
There the story ended, apart from the obvious question of where the water went and how it fitted in to the Khe Rhy hydrology. It remained one of the major gaps on the map and one to which we had hoped for a long time to return. The chance to revisit the Khe Tien valley finally came this year when we were advised of several caves in the area, of which one was Khe Trieng. “Is that Khe Tien?” we asked. “No” came the reply, “it is Khe Trieng”. It all sounded a bit similar (we wondered if Quang Binh and Hanoi accents varied by as much as, say, Geordie and Mendip), but there seemed to be other caves as well and thus a team set out.
With a long walk in prospect, the plan was for an afternoon walk in to Hang En and then a day walk on from there over to the Khe Tien valley. At the Doong village, Khanh suggested that as we only had a relatively short day, perhaps we should go to look at the sink the older members of the village had told him about. Enthusiasm was not greatly in evidence, but having been told “It is nearby” we unpacked helmets and lights and set off with perhaps the two oldest guides we have ever had.
Across the cultivated area was fine, into the thick, snagging rosebush-type scrub was less so and then we hit the jungle proper. And the leeches. Every time we stopped to de-leech, more of the little blighters jumped aboard. Senses of humour began to fray as we thrashed along overgrown flood channels and balanced along fallen branches. And evicted more leeches from our boots. After about 45 minutes, the old lady rolled her cheroot from one side of her mouth to the other and cackled loudly. “I think we may have forgotten where the entrance is” came the translation...
Scratched, bitten and somewhat irritated, we thrashed our way back to the village and the porters. An hour or so later we were de-leeching again in sight of Hang En as the porters set up camp for the night by the river. In no time at all the riverbank was festooned with hammock frames, a fire was blazing and hot mugs of 3in1 were being consumed. Were it not for the blood, we could almost have forgotten the fruitless leech attraction foray.
The following morning we headed off over the col towards the Khe Tien valley. The path was awkward in places but pretty good overall and clearly well-travelled – although we hadn’t been to this area for a long time it was obvious others had. Perhaps that explained the leech population, one which was far more numerous than we considered necessary. We passed a large open shaft which Deb recognised from a prior expedition and then dropped into a depression which marked new territory. A stiff climb out was followed by a steady descent to the valley. Our GPS mark for Khe Tien came and went; it looked as though we had somehow skirted over it. At a clearing we managed a glimpse across the valley to a col beyond which were the sinks of Hang Khe Rhy, but we could see no evidence of a stream flowing towards Khe Tien. Half an hour later we arrived at our base for the next few days. The porters immediately set to preparing camp (big fire, fishing, snail collection) whilst we headed off for a quick look at the cave. We had been told of a stream sink with a higher entrance and our hopes were high. A couple of hundred metres from camp, we looked down on a fairly miserable low entrance surrounded by flood debris. What looked like a higher entrance appeared to be a choked rift. Spirits sank somewhat. Deb then trawled the memory banks for a 17 year old nightmare. “Is it Trevor’s cave?” we asked. “Could be. It looks different. I’m not sure. There was another sink nearby but it’s all silted now”.
We stooped through the entrance and into a walking passage. The water went into a canal to the left, but under the right wall a dry way continued. Flood debris was everywhere, all manner of detritus organic and otherwise. At least it kept the resident large rat happy. It looked as though the cave spent a lot of the year underwater. Beyond a distinct low arch, Sweeny walked up into a gravel-filled chamber. In the roof, a faint glow of daylight was discernible...
The 17 year wait for a return to Khe Tien was over. Khe Trieng, Khe Tien, Khe whatever – it was the same cave and in truth it didn’t look much more appealing now than it had then. At least we had other things to look at as well. Before that though, we had the job of resurveying, the original notes having never surfaced following the ’97 epic. We resolved to knock that off in the morning and move on. Shortly after breakfast, we were once again at the entrance. Optimism was at such a level that we took no water, no food and no spare lighting.
At 1.00pm, we took stock. Hungry. Thirsty. Not sure how much more life in our light batteries. 87 stations in and to quote Clarkey “Still she keeps giving!” It had already been quite a day – the entrance series had been fairly dismal, but each low wet stoop or cobbled crawl was followed by something a bit better. Several wet sections were obvious places to avoid were there any precipitation about. One section stooping along a 10m wide passage with around 20cm of airspace was probably Trev and Cal’s limit. Beyond that the cave gradually became better and better. Large walking passage followed and then suddenly we all stopped. We’d all heard it, the roar of a river. Beaming smiles and expletives. The roar came from a narrow rift, but a larger passage carried on ahead. Following the latter, we stooped under an arch and the stood up in the biggest section of the cave to date. A large chamber had formed where the cave met a joint and the passage made an abrupt turn back towards the water... except the passage was completely dry! Returning to the rift, we realised that the roar was a draught howling through a small triangular arch with a pool at its base. The draught was whipping through the pool and creating waves which were amplified along the rift. We all felt a little sheepish.
2.00pm. the 95th station was atop a boulder pile. To the left a canal, to the right a high chamber. Straight on... a big, black void! We’d reached the turnaround point and Deb’s quick summation had us at about 2.5km for the day. Proper Vietnam caving, with the only downside being the thought that we might be a long way from our emergency lighting. Two hours later we were back at the entrance and little while later we were toasting a fine cave with a dram of the Isle of Jura’s finest.
The following day we returned somewhat better equipped. The black void boomed off in great style, a large walking streamway allowing long survey legs and plenty of admiring comments. Then it stopped. A huge boulder pile filled the passage. There appeared to be surface debris higher up, but despite a good look around we could find no safe way through. Many of the house-sized blocks looked to be supported by very little and we concluded that as we were now a very long way from home it was no place for anything foolish.
The survey indicated that Khe Trieng (or Tien as was) was separate from the Khe Rhy drainage system. More likely it would be part of upstream Hang En via the 2001 discovery Hang Lanh. Although the two caves appear to have little in common in terms of passage size and nature, Khe Trieng is more or less on a collision course with the known end of Hang Lanh. The reason for the 1997 GPS location being around 1.5km away from the actual location is unclear, but one thing for certain is that Hang Khe Trieng is 3.2km of classic Vietnamese underworld. Commiserations to Trevor and Cal, who on another day could have been counting survey legs rather than water level markers.
Having completed Khe Trieng, we moved on to other targets. Day 5 of the trip saw us following Mr Hoa back towards the previous presumed location of Khe Tien. Climbing up the hill, we surmised that a river cave was not in prospect, but a large rift entrance greeted us at Hang Dam. A climb down amongst boulders bypassed the obvious entrance pitch and then a series of climbs in a boulder collapse added a degree of interest. The descent from one climb up a calcite ramp had Clarkey twitching and seeking assistance. “Is that sling well belayed?” he asked. “Course it is” replied Sweeny, although even from 30m away I could see his nose was beginning to elongate as he said it! Fortunately the belay was not tested and all returned to base. An interesting feature, but not the going cave we hoped for.
Day 6 saw us pack up camp and start back for Son Trach. On the way we made a short detour to Hang Hoa. This was another large entrance, but yet again one that stopped some considerable distance short of its potential.
Back at the first night’s camp site, we were told of a cave which Mr Hung knew. Taking helmets and lights with us, we followed him back in the direction of Hang En. Branching right and following the edge of the limestone, we were soon jungle-bashing again. It was leech city once more, one crawl under a fallen tree being a very popular spot for hitchhiking nasty’s.
Eventually we climbed up and arrived at a large and spectacular entrance. We started surveying in, first down the boulders then up over boulders and across ancient gours. A small passage appeared to lead off from the top of the calcite so I headed that way. “Does that ramp lead to a low passage and a decorated chamber” asked Deb. “Er, Yes. How did you know that?” “It’s Hang Long” she replied, “we did it a few years ago from Hang En”.
Thus we illustrated one of the current problems with the Quang Binh expeditions. As more people are asked about caves, it is inevitable that there will be crossovers. Different names, different routes which arrive at the same end point, explorers new to a particular area unsure of previous work. All of these are genuine concerns and as highlighted by Khe Tien, some GPS locations are questionable. An important next stage will be to validate GPS data and ensure that this information is taken into the field by all groups.
To summarise, our 7 days in the jungle led to 3 (ish) days caving during which time we surveyed around 3.5km of cave. Thanks must definitely go to Khanh, Uy, Ky, Hung, Hoa and Hoan who looked after us superbly and also to Trevor and Cal for picking a wet day to go cavingJ.