Thach Sinh Linh Dong – a.k.a. A Long Walk around Co Khu
One of the big leads for this expedition was a shaft which was estimated to be 100m deep with a passage visible below and also with a surface circumference of 1km! Most places this would be dismissed as bovine excrement, but in Vietnam you know there is a fair chance it may turn out to be true.
With a long walk in, we were expecting a short afternoon saunter to an intermediate camp and then a day’s walk to the cave. Apparently we were heading over to the Vuc Tang/Hang Du area so we had a reasonable idea of the terrain to expect. Or so we thought...
Our arranged 10.30 pickup time from the Thanh Dhat Hotel came and went, but as we only had a relatively short walk we were fairly relaxed about the delay. Eventually we were under way and headed up to Ho Khanh’s house where we were a little surprised to find no porters. It transpired they had gone off to buy food for the trip, having had a little misunderstanding about who was doing what and when. Ah well, we still had plenty of time.
Once supplies were sorted, we then had a hasty reassignment of porters – one of our guys was needed for the trip up to KM58 near the border with Laos, hence a replacement was quickly found. What we didn’t realise at the time was that he was found in a bar, where he had clearly been for some time.
Arriving at KM18 around 1.00pm we unloaded the gear and our porters began the usual process of repacking all the swag into rice sacks. Our replacement porter produced his sack, which was clearly his day sack rather than his “going out in the jungle for a week” sack. The pile of gear looked large. The faces of the porters displayed concern. The porter who had been on the rice wine fell over. This was not going at all to plan, but at least we only had a short walk in prospect.
Somehow all the kit made it into rice sacks, a couple of which were very heavy indeed. The day sack was filled with ironmongery and we started off into the jungle, pausing only to seek Uy’s reassurance that the day sack and its contents wouldn’t become a pillow for sleeping off a rice wine session. The early thrash and subsequent dry river bed were familiar, then a decent path up to a small campsite. We stopped for a breather. Of the day sack, there was no sign. We waited for around 20 minutes and then Uy set off back down. He returned 20 minutes later with the day sack on his shoulders and its erstwhile carrier stumbling along behind. Sympathetic as always the other porters had found a larger rice sack in the camp and proceeded to decant the ironmongery and add a few other items to the load. We did wonder if this might end up being counterproductive, but on the contrary it seemed to perk up the porter in question. Off he went up the hill in front!
My recollection of this area was that we went up a way and then along and up, with a decent track leading us to a notable large tree on the way to Vuc Tang. Signed conversations with our main guide appeared to confirm that agenda, but instead we headed off steeply up a stream bed punctuated by tufa dams. The water dried up and still we went on and up. Our GPS and map data suggested we were heading straight for the top of Co Khu, the biggest hill around. We had no idea where the supposed camp was located and by now it was starting to get late. After some discussion, we were advised that the porters didn’t think we would be able to make it to the planned camp that night and we needed to go back to the last point we saw water. We worked out that having travelled a couple of kilometres in a big arc, we were 900 m from the drop off point on Road 20.
Back at the water, we fashioned a bivi for the night and the lads sorted out fire, drinks and food, except for one of their number whose first act was to put up his hammock and his second was to fall into it and start snoring loudly. It still amazes me that no matter where you are, all human life somehow finds a way to distil alcohol!
After a meal, Uy told us that the porters were not sure they could make the camp near the cave the following day with all the equipment we had brought. He could still phone back to get an extra porter to come up very early in the morning and that would help. We had to admit there was a lot of kit – a 100 m deep shaft in an area with a 170 m entrance to a 300 m deep cave and a separate 200 m deep cave certainly indicated that if we were going out for a week we should not go empty-handed. The extra porter did seem like a good idea though and we agreed before settling down for the night with the sound of vehicles on the road somewhat closer than we had expected.
The following morning, our reinforcement porter arrived and we set off back down and across the hill; back in fact to the main path we knew from previous journeys around the hill. After some jungle bashing we found the path and started off up it. A little further on there was some discussion amongst the porters. “We are not sure if we can get to the cave today” came the translation. This was definitely not going to plan! We decided to cut our losses and head back to Son Trach and then try to sort out a 3 day trip. As we had a phone signal, calls were made back and forth to Khanh and Howard, who fortunately had not left for Hang Son Doong.
Back at KM18, more phone calls were contradictory; stay there and we’ll send up someone who knows the way; come back and we’ll sort it here. The bus turned up and we went back. Howard and Khanh had come up with a plan and, after a feed in Son Trach, we were back on the bus and back up to KM18. One and a half days in and we were back at square one, albeit we now had a total of 8 porters/guides.
A couple of hours on the right track saw us arrive at a camp in a much wider and seemingly more pleasant stream bed than the previous night. We ate well and settled in to our hammocks as darkness fell. Then the frogs started up. We had obviously chosen to camp at “Frog Find-a-Mate Central” and sleep was a rare commodity that night, especially for Dave who added about 30 minutes onto his cumulative expedition sleep total of not-as-much-as-needed. It was a bleary-eyed bunch who set off at 8.00am the following morning. At 9.00, we passed the Vuc Tang tree and at 10.00 we arrived at a small camp against a cliff. I guessed what would happen here, having passed this way in 2010, but Alan and Dave were astounded when the porters lit a fire and started to prepare lunch! “There is no more water for 5 hours” we were told. “How far is it to camp then?” we asked. “4 hours”. Hhmmm, are we missing something there?
After lunch, we were off again. The path was as rough as I remembered and made more interesting by many fallen trees and the previous week’s rain. We played the frustrating game of “How far now?” a few times, but gave up after a series of random 3 hours, 1 hour, 4 hours, 2 hours answers. In fact it was around 3 hours of tripping, stumbling, sliding, snagging and grumbling before we emerged in a clearing with a small but just about serviceable pool. “We will camp here” said Uy. Looking at our GPS location and the map, we noted a black marker pen dot which corresponded to our current location. Next to the dot was the note “Hang Du”. “Ah”, we said, “is Hang Du around here?” “No” came the reply, “no cave here”. Then Phong arrived, took one look at the clearing and said “No way are we camping here, we’ll go 100m up this stream bed and camp at Hang Du”.
As the porters settled in to camp, we started the “where is the cave now” game. One hour was the first estimate and given that it was only 2pm we suggested going to check out the entrance and get an idea for the best rig point etc. We were told that the guide who knew the way was tired. Sympathetically, we suggested that there would be time to rest the following day and right now we needed him to show us the way to the cave. (At least part of the logic here being the avoidance of another day fruitlessly wandering the hillside). “He thinks it is more than one hour and it will be dark on the way back”. Count to 10... “Well he’d better bring a torch then!”
35 minutes later we were looking over the edge of a VERY big hole. We estimated 80-90m, with the cliffs to our left rising a further 30-40m. The far wall was around 100m away and the right hand wall out of sight in the jungle. Big smiles all round. We checked around for a good place to start rigging and settled on a point where a few trees appeared to overhang a clean drop of around 60-70m. Happier than we had been for 3 days, we slept more easily that night (with the exception of Alan who’d had a close encounter with a stinging plant earlier in the day and spent the night in sporadic bouts of agony).
The cave was christened (by its discoverer) Thach Sinh Linh Dong. We wondered why there was a guffaw from the porters until the name was translated as Mr Linh’s Rock Life Cave, but I dare say we’ve all come up with names which didn’t receive universal approval and as the cave was located in an area of rough and dramatic pinnacles we had to concede he had something of a point.
The morning of Day 4 saw us back at the top of the shaft. A brand new 100m of reassuringly thick rope was tied off and Alan headed down. A couple of (t)re(e)belays later he advised that a bolt or two would give a free hang to the base of the pitch. Dave and I began the survey and were on leg 2 when Alan’s voice echoed up from below “Down. Rope Free.” “Eh” we said in unison, “what happened to the bolts?” In fact, defacing the cave with iron had proved unnecessary as a small sapling was situated in an ideal position for another tree belay. Its roots appeared to be held to the limestone by Superglue; hence cavers under 12 stone (Alan and Dave) were likely not to break the bond. Heavier cavers (me) were forced to avert our eyes and instead concentrate on the MASSIVE passage heading off under the previously obscured North end of the shaft.
A spectacular free hang landed amid the palm trees at the base of the shaft. It was like arriving in the Garden of Edam again, with thick jungle everywhere. Alan was hopping up and down with excitement and frankly who could blame him! Dave alighted having Go-Pro’d the descent and we set off into the passage. Hugging the wall, we managed to avoid the thicker vegetation and soon we were on boulders and ancient gours. Straight on choked, but the passage curled around to the East... and choked. Not quite what we’d hoped for.
There was still the south end of the shaft though and that was where the passage visible from the surface had appeared to continue. We surveyed around the western wall of the shaft, firstly up the collapse cone and then down the other side. Alan climbed down a slightly dodgy-looking gully and, hoping for an easier descent, I headed into the foliage with survey pad and pencil in hand and promptly slithered onto my rear end in a spiky bush!
The slope descended quite steeply down boulders, gours and jungle-covered scree. With an air of inevitability we arrived in a further choke. Alan found a way through boulders to a climb that needed gear, but our travelling rope was back at the pitch. With no draught to speak of, we felt going back for it would be a waste of time. At least Alan was able to fulfil a long-held ambition to make an exploratory descent on available foot loops, cowstails and other assorted tat which was to hand! Apart from a couple of decorated chambers though, this effort did not yield the extension we were hoping for.
We completed a circumnavigation of the base of the pitch without finding any continuation, although there was evidence of the last primate to descend the shaft, a monkey who clearly lacked both SRT experience and a rope. We hoped the small sapling and Superglue would be sufficient for us to avoid remaining with him.
We exited steadily, “admiring the view” (well that’s my excuse anyway, nothing to do with being hot, tired and slow) and de-rigged carefully to avoid dislodging debris, jamming bags or loosening Superglue. It was a spectacular spot of that there is no doubt, but it was still disappointing that the cave that must lie below was full of rocks.
Meanwhile, our porters had been busy on two other tasks. Two had gone in search of a shaft they had noted previously which was estimated to be 50m deep, whilst two others had been delegated to find a short cut back to the road. We had realised that being at Hang Du put us around 2.5km from Road 20 at KM22 and following the valley upwards should take us to a ridge leading down which would avoid the long walk back. To our dismay, neither of these missions had been successful. The shaft had not been found, although as it had previously been approached from a completely different direction we had some sympathy with the search team. The short cut team on the other hand claimed there was no path, something which we immediately decided was either a) nonsense or b) irrelevant as we weren’t going the long way back.
The following morning we packed up camp and headed up the Hang Du stream valley. A wide, open series of tufa dams with waterfalls and pools shortly closed in and the going became more difficult with many fallen trees to negotiate. Nevertheless, we made good progress towards the estimated GPS location of the col at the head of the valley and eventually we arrived on a flatter area with a decent path. A little further we began the descent down the ridge towards Road 20. Just over two hours after leaving Hang Du we stepped out of the jungle onto the tarmac. It had been quite a trip out from base, one which in hindsight could have been undertaken much more quickly, although that would then have left us with less of a story to tell.
The final twist to the long walk was that as there was no mobile signal at KM21/22, we had to start walking back towards Son Trach. Porters one by one hitched on passing motor bikes until only Ki and Linh were left. We took refuge under a tree until the truck with Deb, Adam and Sweeny arrived on its way back from KM58. Jumping aboard for the bounce home, we quickly had to disembark as a minibus (complete with cool box of beer) arrived. Our pleasure was only slightly tempered by the fact that the driver was of the view that sounding his horn frequently and loudly was a guarantee of immortality and hence obviated the need to slow down at blind bends. Fortunately we made it back in one piece, having retrieved most of the porters on the way and some fine views of Sweeny’s rear end when he mooned us from the back of the truck. Thanks are due to Phong, Ky, Dung, Uy, Linh, Quan, Cuong and Phap – it was frustrating at times, but we would have been properly lost without them. On occasion, a straight answer would have been good though!