Mother nature’s alarm clock began to ring as soon as light shone through Hang En’s massive entrance above us; with any luck we’d arrive at Son Doong by this afternoon but as the chorus of cicadas and swifts convinced me to check my watch I decided that could wait. 5:15AM, I think I’ll snooze for another hour or so.
My second wake up was on my own accord as I met Howard, Deb and Thanh by the fire. Declining tea or coffee I opted for a brief swim to wake me up instead. Over a steaming breakfast of Vietnamese noodles with veggies and eggs we discussed some of the cultural American anomalies and stereotypes. After deciding colour vs color, why the imperial system is just plain ridiculous and hearing a few caving stories it was time to get moving.
First we took a brief detour staying in Hang En’s main chamber. Bouldering up the sandy rocks afforded us a dazzling view of our campsite below. In spite of being half-broken down by our porters it was still a spectacular view. We soon climbed back down and donned our remaining gear. The trek out of Hang En sported some massive passageways and difficult terrain.
We crossed the Son river at least once and climbed some hundred odd meters to a glorious overlook. Playing with the silhouettes and lighting we were able to snag some sweet shots as the porter team disappeared in the distance. But now it was time to say goodbye to this former contender for world’s largest cave. We began our descent and quickly approached the monstrous mouth of the cave and exited back into the jungle. We would follow the river for nearly 2 hours before climbing up the gigantic riverbank and back into the undergrowth.
Along the trek the sun beat down on us as butterflies stole the stage. Every few hundred meters we encountered a swarm of the symmetrical critters. Howard learned (from a National Geographic team) that the best way to attract the beautiful insects is actually to urinate. No one tried it since they seemed to be flocking to us anyway.
Sloshing through the knee-deep river when it finally came time to exit the waterway we were quite ecstatic. Little did we know that the wooded path before us would be much more difficult. We weaved around and over muddy rocks and logs while the trail snaked upwards as slippery as it was steep. Deb pointed out hand and foot hold as I trailed the group taking photographs of our jungle journey.
Distracted by the natural chorus and beauty all around I ignored Deb’s hand hold trusting my own balance when the log beneath my feet suddenly gave way! Reaching out I caught my camera in my left hand and grasped a slick log with my right. Luckily my left foot landed firmly on a rock after only sliding a foot or two. Checking myself for injuries I was relieved to find I only banged up my shin but it certainly was a necessary wake-up call as to the potential peril’s of our trek.
After a quick recovery and another 30 minutes of climbing the trail leveled off. We were told “5 minutes more” before a lunch break within view of Son Doong’s entrance! Slowly finishing our morning journey Deb and I were chatting away. I probed her with questions about the jungle and the local people, I was intrigued by her and Howard’s worldly adventures that frankly seemed otherworldly to a simple laymen like myself. Suddenly I spotted something black and yellow glittering just above our heads. “Stop!” I shouted to Deb, “What is that?” I pointed to a spider hanging just off the path. A wondrous web was sprawled out nearly a meter across with a fist-sized Golden Orb spider lurking in the middle.
I mentioned to Deb that I’d seen much smaller Golden Orbs in the Costa Rican rainforest near Arenal Volcano and she reminded me that the natives collect the web for nets just like the aboriginal Costa Ricans. I went around the next bend to grab any non-arachnophobia companions and show them the journey’s biggest creature so far. We posed with gloved hands for scale of the black and yellow critter. It’s spots and stripes shown in the afternoon sun as our stomachs rumbled louder luring us back to the permanent camp for Son Doong’s “guards.” There are two rangers/guides posted at all times just in case.
Upon arrival we were greeted with heaping plates of homemade spring rolls, fresh watermelon, bananas and snacks galore. We ate and enjoyed some bird watching as the anticipation of our momentous descent became too much to handle. As we finished eating the porters began fitting harnesses while Howard and Deb reviewed some safety techniques and protocol.
The first few feet of our descent brought a cool embrace from a light breeze exiting the black abyss below. A short rope climb brought us to the last stretch of jungle before I squeezed feet first through a tiny hole. Crouching low my backpack snagged on a rock behind me; I reached behind and detached my tripod releasing me from the clutches of the sharp stone.
Bats swooped around the corner just over Deb’s head. As I came around the bend I noticed my companions peering into the blackness as Howard and the rest of the Vietnamese team checked the ropes. After getting the all clear we got a quick tutorial and began one at a time.
A series of 4 ropes would bring us halfway to the bottom. In between each we had to disconnect and reconnect with some veteran help. Below us the river rambled through rock formations in the darkness. The second half of our entry would bring us closer to that waterway but didn’t require safety ropes. Carefully we climbed down the bulbous stalagmites to arrive at the first river crossing. An orange rope dangled above as a handhold in case the current was swift in this waist deep passage.
After crossing we took a water break while the bats continued to zip around us. Howard told more stories from his treks around Vietnam and most notably Son Doong’s original exploration. Eager to see more of this main event scoured the vicinity with our headlamps. This damp chamber was full of fabulous rock formations but Howard sensed our anticipation and we quickly moved onward.
The pathway ahead was strewn with massive boulders. Thanh led the way under each rock as our passage grew narrower you got a sense that above these massive stones the chamber was many times as big. Before long we met the next river which would act as our guide over the next series of boulders before we arrived at the crossing. On the other side we took our packs off, grabbed some soap and had a group “bath.” This would be our last wash for the next 3 days!
As clean as we could get deep in the Vietnam’s jungle we set out one more time. The trail on the far side of this river was slippery but we managed to keep a good pace anyway. The following chamber’s sandy pathway weaved through spider webs. No, web isnt’ the right word. These are more like nests of white silk half-burrowed into the sand. As the webs thinned out the crickets grew more prevalent when someone spotted fresh mushrooms on the left, perhaps they would be added to tonight’s dinner.
Suddenly the cavern expanded; blackness surrounded us as we hugged the right wall and were told a great landscape lay just ahead. The Hand of Dog is a massive stalagmite, not quite as large as the world’s biggest in the previous chamber. The structure itself is dwarfed by the chamber surrounding it instead of taking up the almost every cubic meter making it a much more formidable sight in one of the most voluminous caverns in the world. To make it even more impressive just past Hand of Dog’s peak is the first doline, a collapsed portion of the cave where light and rain come in turning it into a green oasis.
Deb was sent ahead to climb the stalagmite while Thanh posed significantly closer on a “small” round stalagmite. Kate set up shop on another rotund rock near the cameras and after a few practice shots Howard assigned “light painters.” Their job is to pan back and forth with their headlamps while we use a long exposure to capture as much of the scene as possible. In a few takes we had what everyone hoped were stellar photographs (see for yourself!) and continued towards the sunlight in the distance.
We crept closer to Hang Son Doong’s first doline, aptly named “Watch out for Dinosaurs.” As we approached following the line of stalagmites along the western wall it was instantly apparent that the abyss beneath us fell off in a sudden cliff. Focused on the encompassing darkness I nearly missed the stunning campground that appeared as I slipped past Hand of Dog. A cloud formed just beneath the doline as the temperature changed.
The green gours in Watch out for Dinosaurs peaked through a cloud that formed above our tents but would elude us until the following day. Arriving at the 2nd campsite our tents were already set up by the porters and soon began our feast. Tonight’s Vietnamese dinner was a barbecued set of pork ribs, beef paired with a chicken & veggie stir fry. One of my new favorites, a spicy tofu was present with our rice & rice wine staples.
After eating Thanh taught us the Vietnamese version of the card games Uno and Asshole/President (Mau Mau & Tien Len). These games are wildly popular among the porter team but after arriving at camp by 4pm we were still able to hear Howard’s jungle rescue story after a flash flood trapped some of his team in a distant cave for nearly 2 days. He reminded us that the breathtaking view here would easily make it the “best toilet in the world,” the alien jungle bursting forth in the distance promised an enjoyable stay on the throne but wasn’t enough to keep me from going back to the card games. Unfortunately they instituted a “loser gets painted with charcoal” rule. You can tell us foreigners need practice.