Bukhansan National Park’s highest peak – Baegundae

Last summer I made the responsible (albeit disappointing) choice to skip mudfest in lieu of staying healthy and climbing Bukhansan National Park’s highest peak, Baegundae.  Leaving the following Thursday for an extreme trip through Vietnam  I knew that I didn’t want to fight a multi-day hangover or any bruised limbs from the alcohol supported escapades at one of the dirtiest festivals in the world.  As a result I offered to lead a hike up Baegundae with Seoul Hiking Group.  That’s how Brian and I came to meet some new hiking buddies, Heidi & Jason!

The Korean language barrier presented some difficulties finding the right entrance.  At first we ended up at the same entrance Brian & I had taken a few months back which was a 4 hour trek to the base of Baegundae.  This time we were searching for the 1.5 hour route!  Luckily my Korean was capable enough to buy a map and ask for directions so we quikcly found a cab and arrived at the Baegundae-Sogwicheon Information Center.

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When first stepping on the trail we had roughly 500m of vertical remaining in the 835m climb up Baegundae.  It began as rough cut stone steps and boulders surrounded by th_DSC6490e natural beauty of Bukhansan in the summer.  Green trees with the occasional flower flanked our path as the sweat rolled down our faces.  Jason, a first time hiker was soon converted to a naturalist and took regular breaks to get a full feel for mother nature’s splendor.

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A few minutes in we found ourselves at a “temple.”  It had none of the usual pizazz with a bland roof instead of the typical painted parapet.  We were greeted by two “mountain dogs” as a Korean woman approached.  There was a small antechamber for prayer with a spectacular buddha but otherwise this locale appeared to be the simple residence of these pleasant folk.  We played with the dogs for a few moments and said our thanks before continuing the trek.

 

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Son Doong Day 4 – The most glorious bath ever taken

Grimy and ready for a bath, we arrived at Son Doong Camp 2 after frolicking beneath the Great Wall of Vietnam in the muddy Passchendaele Trench.  We were greeted with our porter’s friendly smiles.  Most of them refused a hug and instead adroitly maneuvering a cup of tea into my hand convincing me to chow down on a scrumptious lunch.  We cleaned off (barely) and ate up before setting off again.  Ahead of us were two dolines and hundreds of meters of cave between the jungles; with any luck we’d arrive in time to take a detour to our first scrub since the river crossing near the cave’s entrance._DSC8071

Our bittersweet departure meant that we would soon be leaving this enchanted fantasy world.  A world of awe inspiring natural beauty just around each bend.  Beauty shrouded in a seemingly endless blackness that melts away as we approach.  Son Doong captivated us on the way in and was sure to follow through on its promise to amaze as we climbed back into the Garden of Edam._DSC8090

 

Immediately the heat began beating down on us; a gentle reminder that deep inside Vietnam’s Phong Nha Quang Binh National Park Queen ruled with a merciless red-hot fist.  With every step, with every boulder, every precipice we surpassed Mother Nature continued to crank up the heat.  Just past noon we happily took a shady break in the jungle but quickly moved on; we were even more excited to descend the far side of this mini-mountain in search of cooler temperatures.  Resting at the edge of the shade we pondered abandoning our lives awaiting us back home and simply turning back into the wonderland._DSC8094

 

A cold rinse in the cave’s river was enough to motivate my legs so the dreams quickly dispersed and off we went venturing back into the refreshing darkness.  The descent grew trickier as the trail fell lower; we took a different path with massive razor sharp boulders lining the trail.  No, not lining the trail.  They were the trail!  These multi-meter jagged edges were common throughout Son Doong but never before in such prevalence.  One thing was certain, this passage made me incredibly thankful for Oxalis’s bright orange Kevlar-like gloves.  I paused to don the glowing gauntlets and by happenschance turned around catching a truly magical sight.

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Rain began to fall in the doline behind us!  Floating hundreds of meters down amusingly similar to snow in the 40+ degree Celsius forest I couldn’t help but crack a smile!  Slowly the flurry transformed into a downpour and I decided to snap one quick photo before turning back around.  I thought it would be best to continue onward before the already slick rocks became even more perilous.  The maze of boulders beneath me made for slow going but luckily the rest of my party wasn’t far ahead.  Before I knew it I approached a sheer cliff where a few of my companions lingered.

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Dozens of meters below we could make out the faint sound of hear a stream in the pitch black.  We weren’t heading all the way to that tumultuous waterway but our 10 meter journey required a safety rope.  Deb began tying a bowline around us before guiding each of us one by one along the last few meters of this descent.  One at a time we half climbed-half swung from razors edge to the safety ropes.  Mr. Ky awaited us below as the river grew into a thunderous echo throughout the chamber!  After a quick horizontal stint we finally began to emerge from a small tunnel; our campsite directly in front of us and the doline to the left illuminated the end of today’s journey._DSC8124

If trekking teaches you anything its certainly that just because something is within your sight that doesn’t make it “close.”  Another hour or so of bouldering brought us back to the world’s best campsite.  We dropped our packs and grabbed some soap, tonight we could gloriously clean off 3 days of filth.  Mud, BO and grime combined with other unpleasantries Son Doong threw at us turning each of us into a foul aromatic concoction!  Miraculously the journey to this narrow waterway brought us past yet another marvel; a chamber who’s walls were lined with million year old fossils!  In awe of these creatures frozen for eternity we eventually surrendered to the thought of being clean and sought out that refreshing water.

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Swimming into the chilly creek was another reminder how deep we were.  The water felt great but it was enough to prickle your goose bumps.  I should point out that our bathtub was narrower than an airplane aisle; we had to go in single-file for a scrub; oh and it was deep.  Who knows how deep but within seconds none of us could stand and we began bracing our backs and legs on opposite walls.  Getting out proved even more difficult that returning as the first bathers stayed near the edge and we swam under or somehow gallivanted over each other.

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I ventured further for a blind swim as the rocky walls gave way to an expansive chamber.  Without light to guide me I decided it best to keep my journey to a minimum.  There was no way of telling how big it truly was but swimming back to the small gap with light and playful sounds of new friends was an entirely unique experience for my senses.  Practically no sound came from the river or cave down here and there was definitely a complete lack of light.  I imagined myself being in a sensory deprivation tank in a psych experiment before freaking myself out and heading for shore.

After some extensive scrubbing we were all sufficiently “not dirty.”  No one was clean.  We were still in the jungle after all and bathed while wearing some of the dirtiest clothes I’ve ever had the misfortune of donning.  Oh well, it’ll have to do until tomorrow night when we can have a proper swim in Hang En!  We ventured back to our campsite with the world’s best bathroom view.

By the time we arrived the fried chicken and array of Vietnamese delicacies complimenting Howard’s chips were ready.  Everyone enjoyed the rest of the rice wine with this meal since a few porters promised to rush ahead and get another shipment from a friend meeting him on the road (they do this all the time and love their rice wine even more than we do!)  After eating the meal a few of the Vietnamese joined us for a game of Tien Len and somehow our faces were all covered in charcoal as punishment for losing again!  So much for that bath.

When the rice wine ran out talk about how porters like to arm wrestle began rustling around the table.  Trying our luck amongst the foreigners a few matches gave clear results.  The most obvious was that I wasn’t going to win.  Toby, Chris & Julian all fought hard but Julian came out as our champion in a finals match between Julian and Toby that the porters were placing bets on!

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Moments later a heavily tattooed porter showed up; the one who had recently spent a few years in Taiwan but more importantly had schlepped over 70kg all day!  Julian stood half a head taller and clearly had broader shoulders.  But this guy was a muscle man for a living.  He was clearly in better shape than any of us and was the porter’s favorite.

Thanh walked over to referee announcing a best of 3 matches.  First and last would be lefty!  A murmur went through the crowd as most of the contestants groaned.  All but Toby  who hid his left handed dominance in our preliminary matches.  He suddenly became a surprise favorite and the bets started to bring our campsite to a dull roar when Thanh gathered everyone’s attention for the first match: Julian vs. our tattooed trekker. Continue reading

Son Doong Day 4 – Great Wall of Vietnam

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.

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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._DSC7864

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.

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Son Doong

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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.

 

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Son Doong

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Son Doong Day 3 – The Garden of Edam

 

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Hiking from Watch out for Dinosaurs to Garden of Edam

Son Doong’s Garden of Edam peeked through the next passage like a half moon keeping a wary eye on foreign travelers.  Hiking once more in the dark, our headlamps illuminated bulbous calcite deposits left by a millennia of rainy seasons carving its way through this ancient waterway.  In another million years our passageway will likely be sealed by this natural cave evolution._DSC7659

_DSC7660Sending Deb and Mr. Ky ahead as our models, we made use of the vantage point provided by the calcite domes. Setting up the photograph wasn’t too difficult with such natural beauty.  The tricky part was accounting for the clouds that kept rolling in.  At first I thought they would bring some stunning contrast to the shot but quickly realized we would have to wait for them to clear.

 

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Hiking from Watch out for Dinosaurs to Garden of Edam

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Climbing into The Garden of Edam

Finally the clouds dissipated with a resounding “ooo, ah!” and “holy f*ck!” from us white folk.  Snapping a shot of the Garden of Edam’s lush entryway with white stalactites completing a scene that will be ingrained in my brain forever.  Eager to join the jungle’s chorus (or at least get a closer vantage point) we went out once again.  Climbing down the calcite stalagmites proved to be a simple task. As we reached the left wall. a dried up riverbed lead the way among boulders as we headed straight for the doline’s base.

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Slick, but not as fickle as Watch out for Dinosaurs’ red carpet we were able to make the ascent as a group.  Of course Thanh, Carla and I trailed for some excess photography.  By the time we reached the mouth of Son Doong’s second jungle (that former watchful eye) everyone was relaxing on a vine-laden outcropping while a misty cloud surrounded us.  We joined for a water break and some friendly banter about the differences between British, American, Canadian and French Canadian English.

 

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Climbing into The Garden of Edam

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Climbing into The Garden of Edam

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Climbing into The Garden of Edam

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Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam

Garden of Edam’s lush overgrowth was littered with all stages of life.  We found dozens of crushed snails, many as big as a baseball!  Monkeys descend the treacherous walls of this doline from the deep jungle outside, especially when it rains.  Once down below they smash these snails for a quick snack.

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Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam

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Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam

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Looking back at our ascent

Massive trees loomed 30 meters above while Thanh pointed out 3 stages of a gorgeous mystery flower. It bloomed by sprouting a pink stalk that eventually fanned out for a peacock like display.  We climbed over downed banana trees and every moss or fern you can imagine as a cacophony of birds and bugs echoed from nearly 300 meters above!

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Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam

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Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam

The heat & humidity climbed the further that we did.  Coupled with the thought of our next feast being prepared by Mr. Tu and the porter team, we were convinced not to dwell up here for too long.  It took about 30 minutes to get through three doline where we could barely make out the campsite below. At first on our right was an archway massive enough to house a skyscraper!  Howard let us know that passage was sealed off although the river previously flowed through it. Within the last few million the calcite formations grew too large and diverted the river.  That very change in course created the cavern we had just passed through and rewarded us with a wonderful vantage point after a brief climb.  The river is apparently now creating a 3rd path since ours was nearly stopped up and may be impassable in a few hundred million years.

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Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam

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Desending to Hang Son Doong’s Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam

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Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam

Moments after arrival Mr. Tu and the porter crew laid a new feast before us.  It was impossible to predict that fried chicken & french fries would be freshly made this deep into the jungle but they were just as delicious as the Vietnamese stir fry that accompanied tonight’s dinner.  After eating we switched over to Vietnamese card games and challenged the porters managing to walk away a little cleaner than the night before.    The bad news was that we walked away cleaner because of a new penalty, we still lost 9 out of 10 games and were delivered rice wine and kneeling penalties which meant you had to kneel on the hard rocks until you won a round!

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Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam

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Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam

 

After the sun set we went into overdrive setting up a night shot of the campsite surrounded by the green mouth of the doline.  Thanh, Mr. Ky and Chris hiked partway up the boulders and used our headlamps to illuminate the scene.  Half of the remaining crew lit the foreground while Carla and I snapped these once in a lifetime pictures of the entrance to Son Doong’s 2nd doline.

 

When Howard brought the BBC reporter to this very same location he approached from the darkness behind us.  They rappelled down the Great Wall of Vietnam (which I would get to see tomorrow); upon turning the corner the commentator saw The Garden of Edam and exclaimed “Fuckin’ Hell!”

“Cut!” shouted his director.  BBC is family friendly so they had to reshoot the entrance a few times before finally managing “Fffffreaking hell” which was usable.  Howard’s anecdotal stories like this were a great addition to the trip.  ONe of my other favorites was his adventure to Coral Reef, 18 hours beyond the Great Barrier Reef; well maybe the camera man he brought to Son Doong who accidentally burned Howards hand and then forced him to carry all the equipment in a climb after nearly breaking his “good” hand.  If you want to hear them the best thing is to head to Phong Nha and join one of these trips!

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Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam

 

Son Doong Day 3 – Watch out for Dinosaurs

Breakfast our second morning in Son Doong proved even more delicious than the first.  Sitting at a picnic table eating fruit-filled fresh crepes boggled our minds as we imagined the prehistoric scene awaiting us in the distance.  We broke camp and were on the trail by 9:15 AM heading under the boulders on a new path towards Watch out for Dinosaurs.

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Son Doong Campsite #1

Howard and Deb had been taking people on a more perilous elevated path where the stones were less secure.  Luckily they recently discovered a lower route which required ducking and crawling among the jagged edges surrounding us.  I closely followed Thanh and he regularly reminded me to keep my hands off the camera on this dangerous stretch.

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Son Doong – On the trek to Watch Out for Dinosaurs

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Son Doong – On the trek to Watch Out for Dinosaurs

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Skylight above Watch Out for Dinosaurs

Squeezing through we reached the cavern’s right wall and were greeted with a cloudy sky leaking into the doline.  Watch out for Dinosaurs began with a treacherous climb among slippery mosses and loose rocks.  We split us up into groups of 2 plus a guide in case loose stones began raining down from above.

I waited patiently at the bottom hoping to snap pictures on both ends and left in the 3rd group.  The climb slowly turned from gigantic stones into a mossy fern-filled path.  Rocks were replaced with pebbles as a slick dusty path snaked its way upwards. Climbing through the cloud nature’s green presence continued to grow.  By the time we reached the summit we were deep into a jungle with the first peak offering a mind-blowing view of our ascent.  90 degrees to the left a series of verdant stalagmites, smooth and rounded with age, stoically defended us from the abyss.

 

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Son Doong – Climbing Watch Out for Dinosaurs

Next to these green guardians were a set of plate-like green gours filled with life.  Droplets glistened as they fell from the massive opening to the jungle hundreds of meters above.  By the time I reached the top Kate & Chris were playfully catching droplets in their mouths while Howard supervised with a camera in a scene out of a Flintstones grade school recess.

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Eager to join the fun and games I reluctantly stayed my crossing to snap some shots from a distance.  The next chamber silhouetted everything beyond with an unimaginable darkness.  That darkness we would eventually penetrate after a leisurely afternoon in nature’s green playground.

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Son Doong – Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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Son Doong – Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

I_DSC7522t was atop the second precipice that I met Mr. Phuoc, a park ranger, who completed this scene with a broad Vietnamese smile.  after I ventured out and back he patiently waited for me to be the last one down the far side of the doline.  Along this descent Mr. Phuoc pointed out scenery and some alien insects while assisting with my photography.  Despite a distinct lack of English we communicated and carried on very well.

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Son Doong park ranger – Mr. Phuoc relaxing in Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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_DSC7507We soon caught up to Chris who had paused his venture to setup a brilliant shot with Kate & the whole doline.  I took the cue on the scenery and managed to find a pool that sported a magnificent reflection of Watch out for Dinosaurs.  Thanh waited at the top and was an excellent model as a few others climbed a nearby calcite mound for a higher perspective.  By the end of our photo session Mr. Tu (our cook) had arranged a glorious picnic for all.

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Han Song Doong – Leaving Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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Han Song Doong – Leaving Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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Han Song Doong – Leaving Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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Han Song Doong – Picnic with a view of Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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Han Song Doong – Picnic with a view of Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

The afternoon meal had tons of Vietnamese snacks sitting between sliced fruit and dozens of peeled hard boiledeggs.  There were crackers, cheese and coconut Vietnamese snacks.  Oh, and don’t forget the kit-kats & oreos!  We devoured the meal before departing for the dark cavern; a speck of sunshine barely visible from the next doline.

 

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Han Song Doong – Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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Han Song Doong – Watch Out for Dinosaurs!