Rising early I enjoyed some hot tea while listening to Son Doong’s morning chorus of insects filled with an avian duet, buzzing beetles and the occasional hooting owl. I hoped to hear a monkey or spot some of this magnificent wildlife, perhaps even the fabled flying foxes Howard mentioned. Sipping my tea I settled for the best that nature would give me and enjoyed the serenade as our camp flickered into life with rays of morning light gleaming through the misty jungle from the aptly named doline, Garden of Edam.
A hearty breakfast of fresh fruit and veggie filled ramen topped with eggs came out as my traveling partners emerged from their tents. Today’s journey would take us o the mud filled trench named after WWI’s Passchendaele, a battle that claimed 310,000 Allied lives for a measly 5 mile gain. After sloshing through the trenches we hoped to watch Deb rappel down the Great Wall of Vietnam, a 200 foot cliff, with the head of national parks and our tour company.
Donning a grimy set of clothes we left our porters behind. After trekking to the wall wee would return to camp for lunch before beginning our 3 day journey back to town. As the campsite grew smaller so did our window into the sky. We stopped for a gorgeous silhouette photo making good use of the 2nd doline’s green aperture. Hanging right between 2 massive stalagmites the cave eyt again showed how monstrous it was. This massive chamber wound around rock formations in rooms larger than my house when suddenly a slithering snake greeted us.
Mr. Ky shined his light warning us with a swift “No!” before backing away. There was no translation for this jungle creature’s name other than “very dangerous,” and lets not forget that we are a 3 day journey from the road. The meter-long serpent probably eats bats according to Thanh, who helped me keep a safe distance as I photographed the beast.
Continuing onward we found the floor in the next chamber filled with a yellow sand and littered with dozens of white cotton patches! What could these be? Approaching a few I quickly realized that they were in fact spider nests. They likely fed on the massive crickets inhabiting the cavern but were shy with humans. Paying them little attention we climbed into another room and were presented with a muddy descent. The last perilous steps even had a rope attached. I debated climbing down after seeing a few of my companions slide along the slick hill before taking my first step and gracefully plopping down for a muddy ride.
We carefully staged some model’s and light painters as the camera crew slipped into a muddy position. After photographing the soggy stalagmites we continued our journey. The path grew wetter and our gear browner when suddenly Howard stopped everyone.We shut the lights off for a moment and daylight could be seen creeping in far above us from a distant entrance above the Wall of Vietnam. Howard and I began discussing a brand new photo opportunity, one that no one had ever taken. We would send most of the group into Passchendaele, the mud-filled trench below, spacing them out just right to illuminate the entire cavern. Thanh would stay with me and my tripod.
Suddenly the walkie talkie crackled to life. Deb had begun her climb and the guests were almost ready. We had to hurry here if we hoped to also snap the first shots of anyone climbing the Wall of Vietnam. I climbed a nearby stalagmite only to find it too short of a vantage point. Thanh helped me to another treacherous muddy mountain as Howard led everyone else through the trench. Using the walkie talkies I was able to organize the crew and direct the shot. Quickly everyone began fooling around in the mud while I adjusted and managed to catch just the right frame.
Thanh and I beamed a massive grin before I shouted “that’s a wrap” and the warfare really began! I climbed down into the gorge as everyone else began lobbing mudballs in every direction. Within seconds we were caked in slimy brown goo and cackling like schoolchildren. Julian took a giant mudball to the face and suddenly became dirtier than the 2 nights prior when he was covered in charcoal.
As the fight in each of us died down it became apparent that the ferocity was irrelevant. The path shrunk and was barely big enough for one foot to stand; even if you managed that feat you found yourself sinking to your knees in muddy water. A few of us took the lead from Mr. Ky and our Vietnamese friends by jumping from side to side. This strategy ensured at least one slip and faceplant for the foreigners while exhausting any strength left.
Adapting the technique a few of us tried shimming horizontally. Both arms on one side I too attempted to stretch completely over the river of chocolate milk beneath us. Moving one hand at a time I managed a measly few feet before deciding I preferred to get dirty.
While us foreigners muddily fumbled around the Vietnamese managed to escape nearly scot free. Their ability to skillfully navigate this dense jungle continued to impress us and keep them quite clean. Trudging along we finally spotted the daylight creeping in. Climbing the dirty bank proved a feat in itself but once at the top all you could do was gaze upwards.
200 meters above us Deb was meeting the big shots and discussing a zipline project. Soon they would descend. Any moment now we would watch their climb down but until then Howard decided to show everyone where it was safe to slide down. Well, actually he told Thanh to demonstrate with a quick run and jump into the slippery slope. Once at the bottom Thanh pointed out the massive rock to be avoided.
Everyone else followed suit while I set up my tripod. After catching a few shots I had a chance to join in the fun before Deb made a solo descent. Turns out the head honchos chicken out so we were able to pick up the pace back through the trenches hoping to find lunch waiting for us. While trekking through the abyss suddenly a “no” could be heard echoing through the chamber. Mr. Ky spotted another venomous viper. This creature was smaller than our first but seemed to provoke a wider girth from our guides. Just around the next bend the Garden’ of Edam’s green hue began peeking through the cracks. Just a little further and we had a wonderful reunion at our campsite on the edge of the abyss.
View of the Garden of Edam in Son Doong