Journey to the Centre of the Earth

There was that film of a Jules Verne novel ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ starring James Mason as Professor Lindenbrock. It enthralled a young boy: giant mushrooms! Dimetrodons! A sea at the Earth’s centre! That sea even had clouds over it. Surely no cave was really big enough for clouds? Was it?

Many years later I was destined to find out and write an account of record length.

Under the sunlight of a spreading blue sky and the fresher air of Vietnamese hill country a river stretched below on the other side of the hotel, big enough for various boats and an island on which boys were playing football. On the far side of that was another village and brightly hued church nestling in the jungle below the limestone hills. There was a relaxing view of all that and the village on this side of the river from the top of the hotel where I was. As for my room the bathroom alone was huge enough to swallow some of the hotel accomodation I’d stayed in. Vu – the young Vietnamese guy who’d collected me for the expedtion – joined me to inspect everything I had for it, most of which was okay and I was grateful for his involvment.

Expensive? Well let’s face it, the whole enterprise was a major expense but Oxalis – the company running tours and expeditions through the caves of this region – had made it clear that what I was after was a real challenge, demanding high physical ability. I’d put myself into my own army in attempting to exercise, anything from dancing to indoor climbing plus a 50 mile hike but I was 66 on blood pressure tablets and doing this in the tropical heat of a Vietnam summer so would I make it? Ah well, now I’d got this far and was enjoying a beer or 2 downstairs near the end of the day I was determined to enjoy however much fate allowed me to.

The briefing began in the restaurant area with a roof but no walls as evening dusk approached and fell like a comforting blanket on the valley outside. My research had filled me in on much of what was talked about and shown. We had 2 guides who were British: a tall Lancastrian, John, and a burly Yorkshireman, nicknamed ‘Watto’ by John. The 2 were close friends. There were also around 25 porters and helpers. The group itself consisted mostly of Orientals, most of whom were Vietnamese, though one lived in New York and another, a woman, lived in Singapore. There was actually a group within the group: prize team winners of a ‘Red Bull’ promotional competition sporting red T shirts, one of whom was the only other woman in the whole group. The only 2 white people apart from me were a couple of Danes, whom I initially thought were Australian.

One thing was made clear: this was not a race. Much of the terrain was going to be tough and care was needed. I was glad to hear it since they all seemed younger – apart from the guides and the oriental mystic I’d met in the vehicle – or – in the case of guides and porters – experienced.

Watto wanted to know who’d brought tripods? Several people had, but the one I’d lugged through China in my backpack was the only full sized one. Photography conditions were going to be tough too for this ultimate challenge.

Son Doong Cave or ‘Mountain River Cave’. Only discovered after the Vietnam war by a local, then lost again until a British expedition rediscovered it later. Awesome enough to be the biggest known cave on this planet! Less people had been through it than had been up Everest but we were going there! A days hike though jungle to get there and likewise coming out. 3 days in the cave system and we had to get through another cave to get there: 2 for the price of one then! Son Doong Cave. Over 5 kms long eroded along a fault line with a river flowing through it,150 metres wide and 200 metres high. That’s over 600 feet. Big enough for a jet airliner to fly through parts of it and for its own weather system, for layers of mist formed – yes – rudimentary clouds! Like in that ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ film that had inspired me all those years ago in childhood. In a few places the cave roof had fallen in allowing ever changing sunlight to change local air temperature/humidity creating those clouds and allowing tropical vegetation to grow inside the cavern. So it had it all! Awesome caverns with stalagmites 200 ft high, underground rivers, primeval jungle and clouds! The icing on the cake was the name given to one of these places:- ”Watch Out For Dinosaurs” YEAH! A name like that was rocket fuel to the credulous child within me, the boy who’d refused to grow up and give up his sense of adventure! Sense of wonder. Although there was no way it could be taken literally ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ wasn’t quite so unachievable after all.

Supper was taken with John and his wife. I’m not sure if it was that evening or later I found he was on the British expedition that had rediscovered the cave. I was in good company!

Dawn. A spectacular one I managed to get a photo of. It felt like Christmas when I was a boy: awake early in anticipation.

We were on our way in morning sunlight.  The road threaded up into the hills.

There was a junction and our route led over a bridge, high over a river, scenery carpeted in jungle. The correct name would be rain forest, but I preferred ‘jungle’. Like ‘expedition’ ‘jungle’ suggested ‘adventure’ and after all, wasn’t that what we were on our way to?

We seemed to be the only vehicle on the new road which wound around a lot though banks of tropical foliage and the odd view of green carpeted mountainous hills. Later I learned this was part of the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’. Actually a series of trails leading through the hills down the length of Vietnam.

When I’d got used to that we were suddenly there. Not about to follow a stream up a valley to the cave as I’d thought but a shelter on a mountain. A marshalling point for the start of the expedition proper. People started following the trail by disappearing down into the shrubbery which became tree tops and then you were in very real jungle. This way to an Indiana Jones type adventure!

That was the theme going through my head as I descended into the green depths, trying to get the odd photo without falling far behind, of people disappearing around tropical tree trunks into exotic undergrowth, with the odd liana coiling about like a solidified python, this was the life! Loved every minute of it and this was no pocket adventure for the tourists then back to reality but the real thing: living the dream one has. To my delight the trek just went on and on mostly downhill, this was what it was all about! Surprising how long it was going on for, theme music for more desperate jungle adventures replaced Indiana Jones and to my amusement which gradually became concern the descent just went on and on, hope there was a break soon for although the trail wasn’t rough the distance and incline were taking their toll. Better start praying there’s a break soon.

The break was where the trail seemed to end in a jumble of boulders on a steep incline, when one had to slow right down to cope anyway. A necessary water break in the heat.

Just after we got going again I fell over, luckily on some roots instead of rocks. That’s what the trail was now – roots and rocks – with an incline that looked like 1 in 1 if you were lucky. Well it’s what I’d signed up for so when the going gets tough the tough get going. Again the descent just went on and on. If the rest of the journey was going to be as hard as this I was going to be in trouble.

By the time the stream was reached I’d fallen most of the way behind. It was a corner of heaven saving me, with its clear water bathing ones feet amongst the rocks and exotic foliage. Someone mentioned leeches but Watto said there weren’t any in the water itself, though there might be a few in the vegetation near a river we would wade through. Somehow the subject of how I was coping must have come up for although I could I mentioned someone carrying my small backpack could help. The look I got indicated I was to pull my own weight. Fair enough.

As luck would have it the trail on the other side of the stream was much easier. We were off the mountain. Then suddenly I realised we were walking through a village.

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One of thatched huts with floors raised clear of the ground, spaced out amidst a variety of vegetation hinting at cultivation, populated with the odd inhabitant, infants, chickens and short haired slim dogs who spent much of the time lying around as though they were dead. It was straight out of a television documentary on jungle tribes, which is, more or less the sort of place this was. Our arrival seemed routine, as would our return presumably.

Lunch was held under the village headman’s house. Various goodies were laid out on a tarpaulin on a cement floor. The food was anything from exotic spiky fruit which stained my trousers to commercial chocolate bars. A few dogs relaxed in our company by imitating corpses. Across the way near a pawpaw tree a few infants watched us warily. They had a school here, though it was just a hut with a corrugated iron roof and a Vietnamese flag.

After lunch the trail continued to be easy going, across a fence or 2 and then we were at a river. The one that went through the caves. There were a few deep pools but it was more of a shallow stream and although we crossed and recrossed it this was a piece of cake in fact; provided one watched the slippery pebbles. Otherwise the terrain was flat apart from the banks. It was easy enough for me to nip around to various vantage points for good photos not only of the expedition but the fantastic vegetation. Including forest giants sometimes smothered by climbing plant parasites, beds of reeds much higher than the people passing through them and a plant looking like an upright version of a rhubarb with leaves big enough to cover a head and torso, a good meal for a monster. Not that we saw any animals apart from a stick insect someone noticed right under us on the trail. There was the odd tiger in this region but they were very rare.

One of the cave entrances was pointed out: a limestone cliff down the valley that looked overhanging. We would be entering the cave system lower down.

When we got there I was reminded of the scale of nature. Think of a skirting with a small gap between that and the floor with some tiny invertebrates where the dark line of the gap is. Except the skirting is really a curved band of rock, the gap is the cave entrance and the bugs are really people! Somewhat daunting if one dwelt on our existence where natural forces could squash us just as easily as those bugs, but I revelled in the scale of nature anyway.

Time to don the helmets and we were shown how to work the lights on them, which could be powerful. Necessary to cope with the dense darkness of a cave. This entrance to the cave -Hang En Cave – leading to the other, Son Doong, had been eroded by the river and although it was broad the roof was only about room height or less. Some way into the darkness the route struck up towards the left.

There was a precarious scramble up rocks and boulders. All of a sudden it became clear how cosseted we were in the civilised world even if wandering around on foot as I did. Well, this was not only what I’d signed up for but expected: piles of this sort of thing to get over underground. Then we were out of one cave into something much bigger, its roof soaring above. On top of a boulder was a view of a great boulder field slanting up towards the higher distant cave entrance and the other way? The light from the entrance revealed…..

It wasn’t the Lindenbrock Sea but there was actually a lake at the bottom of the boulder field, complete with sandy beach beyond. The awesome thing was the sheer size: those tiny brightly coloured items on this underground beach were really tents and a cooking area, beyond which was a mountainside ascending into darkness. Except it wasn’t a mountainside but part of Hang En Cave. Not a cave as one knows it. It’s size had to be experienced to be believed! I don’t know why the word cavern – with its suggestion of size – wasn’t used with these caves. Maybe a new word should be invented for this dwarfed caverns too.

I gingerly made my way down – in John’s company – to what had resembled a matchstick over the end of the lake. It was a single plank bridge. Once across that there were submerged sandbags to be crossed like stepping stones. Then we’d arrived and one of the last things I expected to see was there: a bottle of red wine upright on the sand. This had the style of eccentric Victorian explorers; who’d go on adventures fashionably attired and down claret or some other pricey plonk in the most unlikely settings. John remarked it wasn’t for tonight but later. My tent was erected I was told. Happy that I was here and it was ready I strode across and shook the hand of the grinning Vietnamese guy who seemed to be in charge. He turned out to be the boss of the porters.

They were putting the finishing touches to the camp and preparing food. Those of us who’d come along for the experience swam in the lake. I swam across and jumped off a big boulder on the other side where others had been diving, then back again. Although it was bound to be cooler underground than outside it wasn’t by much so after the hike the swim was most welcome.

Supper was served and we would always be well fed on this trip. There was even some rice wine to sample, not drink much of though, it could be potent. 2 secluded toilet tents were also explained, with signposts one could swivel to mark ‘vacant’ and ‘occupied’.

The high cave entrance framed great photos of clouds drifting through rain forest trees. Things were flying up there that I initially took to be bats but turned out to be swifts. Later there was a storm. I didn’t sleep well that night though as things turned out it didn’t affect the day after much.

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At long last light returned to the upper cave entrance. The light of dawn. At breakfast we decided I would wear contact lenses instead of glasses from now on – glasses slid off my face too easily – and I’d also don the gloves I’d brought for going over rocks. There was the advised option too of lightening ones load here for the trip ahead and collecting it on the way out.

Next day’s adventures began with a tough climb up the underground mountainside. But near the top I could catch my breath as my photo was taken with a view of Hang En camp for a background. John had apologised for an excitable card game last night but I’d assured him that even a whisper would be hard to hide in such an echoing expanse and I didn’t like to stop people having fun. One last noteworthy detail of the place: there were signs on the far wall of locals scaling giddy heights to reach birds nests and their valuable eggs.

At the top was a smaller part of Hang En Cave in the total darkness. My tripod was set up and we got to grips with the difficulties of cave photography.

Further on was the surprise of a tree trunk stuck on some boulders. An enormous flood which would have put our campsite well underwater had left it there! Just after that was a rocky descent to leave Hang En cave. It’s rear entrance like the mouth of a colossal railway tunnel.

The ground was sandy and the going good, so I had time to take photos. The first view really did look like a lost valley comic illustration come to life: the expedition members wandering off down a boulder strewn stream through a lush steep sided valley hidden from civilisation, speech balloons above them would have been declaring things like “So it really does exist” and “The legend said there were Dinosaurs here.” On the near right a bank of foliage fantastic with gigantic leaves was crying out for the illustrator to part it with the head of a monster!

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Wading after them ankle deep down the crystal clear gravelly bottomed stream I just revelled in walking through this incredible place one should dream about. The triumphant ‘sense of wonder’ part of the ‘Jurassic Park’ theme music was playing through my mind now! John took photos of me while I felt a compulsion to check over my shoulder, in case that Brachiosaurus was coming round a bend in the stream craning its neck to reach that tall tree behind me!

Downstream there was a tree trunk across the stream to climb over. It had been there for a long time judging by the bromeliads growing out of it. Then there was a stretch where there was an overhanging cliff on the right. We had a break just beyond that. Where I decided to relax by just laying down in the stream, yes with clothing and kit, apart from the camera. “Just having a bath” I explained to John, who calmly accepted it. One could do that sort of thing in the heat here. A beautiful bronze butterfly joined us that I couldn’t stop taking photos of.

The only other way into this valley was by a 19km long cave – more than 10 miles – which is – bearing in mind the terrain and darkness – a hell of a long way underground! A valley that could only be reached by caves was truly ‘a lost valley’!

When we got going again there was a long hard climb. Rocks and roots again though it flattened out or became easier in a few areas, but it was a climb that went on and on, relieved now and then with photostops for an orchid like flower Watto had noticed, another butterfly, a buttress tree and shots of the jungle. It would be easy to hide a lot in this kind of country: limestone karst scenery and old limestone at that, out of which very tough terrain and massive caves could be eroded, all smothered in jungle. Glimpses of the valley proved it again, especially if the cave entrance was high up on the hillside.

Level ground was reached in a grove of banana trees, or relatives of them. There was serious rock climbing gear here. I spotted a discrepancy in my mine to John’s approval. I’d heard we were to be roped up for one section and had thought that maybe it was a health and safety thing but as things were explained and we set off through increasingly jagged terrain it was becoming clear that this was the real thing instead! Son Doong cave entrance was reached, not a big entrance like Hang En, no wonder they lost it for a few years. Within, the descent consisted of 2 ropes going down a rock slope and dropping out of sight into a black void. John had told me that though it was counterintuitive one was to lean backwards so ones feet could get a better grip. Harnessed and hooked up to a rope I walked backwards down the slope and leaned backwards as I went over the edge holding on to the rope into the black abyss below!

It wasn’t actually a sheer drop but a near vertical slope one wouldn’t want to fall down. Speaking of which be sure to unclip one clip at a time and clip up again when getting round a knot in the rope, (safety measure I assume) never both at the same time which courted disaster. I did that efficiently at least and got on with the job in hand, working my way down while making a point of ignoring the black darkness outside my lamplight and the fear lurking within that. But the audacity of it! Making a go of it despite never having done it in my life before! Talk about living intensely. But I was having less luck with getting a grip, with my feet slipping when I’d thought I’d mastered the knack of leaning backwards. I flopped over an overhang but it was only a small one and the end of the descent was below.

The first one anyway. Despite it being partially rocky here this break in the descent was a narrow shelf providing an easy traverse across the cave to the next descent. This one down another precipitous slope with a black void around one. Get stuck in again which won’t give you time to become worried. I was going down what looked like an eroded water channel with John above this time shouting advice and encouragement when I sussed that the best way of coping was planting ones feet firmly either side of the channel and going down that way. “Good! Good. Good!”

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Eventually one edged around a shoulder of rock, then down a sloping ledge and you’d reached the bottom. I’d got a photo or 2 after the first descent and did the same thing here. Much later when I brightened one up enough on Adobe Photoshop I found a bat in flight in the photo! The same thing had happened with an underground river in the Philippines where I bagged about 6 without even knowing they were there. They were here as well and had plenty of space. I even wondered later whether mysterious bright dots on photos of the vast reaches of the cave were bats eyes?

Thought the light from my helmet was powerful it still faded into blackness as I aimed it into what was beyond, hinting at the size of what we were in. Welcome to Son Doong Cave. Would I have the strength to get out of it again?

The next obstacle was an underground river. We were to cross just above a waterfall which reminded me of ones on the Greenland ice sheet plunging into a sheer drop and certain icy death below if one got swept in. One rope stretched across and that was all we had to hang on to! Gripping that tightly I began my crossing, thinking at least the current isn’t much here, then fell down a hole! Vu was at my side fast but I righted myself just before he could grab me and before the current swept me over the edge to a sticky end. Yes it really was such classic Hollywood cliff hanger stuff it was corny! Supplied by yours truly. The rest of the crossing was smooth enough although somewhat cautious in my case, then one edged past a fellow protecting one from falling down the waterfall in spite of everything, up a rock cleft and one was in the clear. The waterfall wasn’t a sheer drop after all and most likely survivable, but one would also most likely be bashed about (broken bones) I was assured. The tripod was set up for photos.

For awhile the going seemed easy enough along what was generally a terrace with a drop into the river on the right. Geological wonders were on the wall to the left. Particularly a big crystalline pattern shaped roughly like a long leaf with a white streak at its centre. John described it as a ‘crystalline fault’ and I had to get photos, thinking of a geologist girlfriend at home. There were white veins in the rock reminding me of marble. Don’t know if it was that but there might have been some down here since marble’s metamorphosed from limestone.

Further on were wonders such as a mass of banding in rock that was actually a broken chunk of huge stalagmite; the banding showed its growth like a cross section of a tree. At the other end of the scale were small stones like twigs with the sand worn away around them so they formed the tops of miniature sheer sided mesas and buttes, like a model of some alien Monument Valley.

By then we were working our way through an expanse of rocks of every description, size and shape; jagged, rounded, smooth and looking slippery though they were firm, rough but slippery. It was hard to tell what the surrounding black expanses of the cave were like and whether – unless we were lost – we were working our way around huge stalagmites. One had to focus on getting on with the job without breaking any bones. Before this trip a friend had broken his arm on a curb in Portsmouth and I was aware of just how much easier it would be to do that sort of thing in here.

A long way in front was a light, like the light at the end of some immense tunnel containing piles of rubble. The light was where the roof had fallen in; I was aware it had in a few places. At the top of an incline one of the helpers was on a bulbous stalagmite formation in front and light was being flashed about this colossal chaotic space. It was a technique known as ‘painting’ where the camera would pick up all the cave that had been lit in the time it took to take the photo. Profiled against the light was a formation known as ‘Hand of Dog’. It looked more like a dog’s head to me.

Down and up towards that through another trackless jumble of rock. Work out each move step by step, jump by jump, twist ones limbs every which way as required and just have the stamina to keep going. This was where the exercise I’d been doing in preparation for the expedition really counted. Had I done enough? Missed out on one activity too many? Now it was being proved one way or the other in a ding dong battle of endurance with the sweat simply pouring out of me.

My T shirts became as sodden throughout this cave as they would have been in a washing machine without spin drying, all with sweat! That’s why it was so important to carry a good supply of water throughout this expedition.

John told me that up ahead was something he’d think would impress me. I had some idea of what it was anyway but the sight had to be seen to be fully believed.

Watch out for Dinosaurs. I could almost see the Pterosaurs sailing through the clouds.

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This is a life defining moment.” I declared. “Awesome!” “The dogs bollocks!” The praise even if profane could never encompass the sight before us. The life defining moment was the terrific victory of winning through – despite being 66 – to the sight of such an immense cave as this in which there really were those clouds, ever changing ethereal veils of mist like imagination or a dream at work weaving reality from a fantastic fantasy;- like something out of ‘Excalibur’ leading ones eye up from a chasm of gigantic stalagmites, pinnacles and building sized boulders to faraway tiers of green under a tremendous sunlit cliff ascending out of sight into the world above. Just the right setting for Pterosaurs, Dinosaurs, explorers and heroes; this was ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ for real! Watch out for Dinosaurs was an area under what is known as a ‘doline’: where a cave roof has collapsed forming a skylight allowing daylight to enter the cave and vegetation to grow within. Perched by this scene of almighty grandeur to the right was a broad sandy shelf of rock on which was what looked like an minor infestation of brightly coloured bugs. It was our next camp!

We set up the tripod and I think we took turns taking photos though my memory’s unclear but if the photo featured here was taken by John the credit should go to him. Some images on the internet are more focused but conditions were the very toughest for photography.

We made our way down to the camp. The first tent was a porters one in which they were merrily playing cards; an oddly comforting outpost of civilisation in surroundings of such gigantic scale. I can only describe the porters as being superhuman; as though human evolution was taking a fork like the Morlocks and the Eloi in ‘The Time Machine’. On the one hand were small, wiry, youthful lads, jungle born and bred, who were incredibly tough since they could cheerfully carry the heaviest loads through the toughest terrain at speed while wearing flip flops of all things! Well that’s what their sandals looked like. On the other hand there was the easier lifestyle and frequent overweight of larger westerners, Britain in particular where ill health seemed to take over from the weather as the main topic of conversation. I felt I belonged to a nation of invalids by comparison and began to realise what the Americans were up against during the Vietnam war; these men in the Vietcong would have made formidably endurable and resourceful adversaries. Not that the porters didn’t have their problems; smoking like chimneys they were prone to lung cancer. Frankly I admired them and brought up the subject of tipping them at mealtime, which John latched on to.

Another wiry Vietnamese Oxalis staff member would be assisting me over rocks. I’d worked out that on a steep descent it was sometimes better just to sit down on the job, a rock, for a moment rather than take a great downward step off it. “Sit down David!” became one of his 2 cheerfull commands. “Let go David!” was when it was quicker for him to haul me up rather than me grappling with a rock on ascent. Just like the porters his size belied his strength and I would have trusted him with my life. To my shame I can’t remember his name.

Before supper there was another place for a swim. In a small side cave at the bottom of what had looked like a chasm from the Hand of Dog. The drop into it from the shelf turned out to be a negotiable slope. I’d been warned that access wasn’t easy though and when I got there the scene was one of a slot crammed with people and sounds of splashing from around a corner. No level ground anywhere and no room for boots so I was obliged to swim in them. John had asked me if I could swim out of my depth? I didn’t want to with boots on so I consoled myself with a rock pool further back that turned out to be the coldest thing I’d encountered on this trip. Refreshing then.

Back at the camp the conversation included news that the Chinese wanted to open up this cave to the masses with a cablecar. This was likely to ruin the whole nature of the place and since I’d just experienced Chinese tourism no man was more well aware of that than me. It was the same old story: beautiful environments and the natural world being under threat from intrusive commercial excesses. John and I held similar views on the ecology of the planet being under threat, apart from me being more optimistic or less realistic. Watto alluded to some pollution disaster at Dong Hoi too. Maybe that was why I might have had a peaceful swim just north of there: no sea life left.

I’d always been at odds with the commercial world and distrusted marketing PR hype, the sort of positive thinking that wasn’t based on fact and accuracy, which I much preferred having worked with maps maybe. Now an honest assesment of my strengths and weaknesses had led to a reliance on mental stamina and maybe just enough exercise to punch above my weight and get through what I regarded as my Mount Everest of physical achievements. That was my strategy and it had got me this far! Not everybody made it. One of the porters had carried somebody back at speed with a ruptured blood vessel it seemed. Another porter went missing for a day because he had to carry a woman back up the mountain to the road, she hadn’t been allowed to proceed further through being unfit. People could underestimate what was needed for this expedition.

I slept better that night, despite being close to the card game.

Morning daylight. Just outside the camp the oriental mystic I’d met when I was picked up for this adventure sat absolutely motionless. Remaining like that for a long time watching daylight and sunlight from a fringe of jungle around the far above skylight play on the ever changing ethereal mist clouds. It was like a subtle act of worship and I regretted that I’d lost his patience. The wonders of nature were all around us. Stalactite formations that looked as high as skyscrapers – and maybe were the equal of shorter ones – drooped and dropped down the opposite chasm wall. Giger – the artist who worked on ‘Alien’ – would have been inspired. Rimstone dams – determining the shape of previous pools by forming on their edges – writhed across cave floor gradients.

Watto would accompany me today. I asked him what the going would be like up to ‘Watch out for Dinosaurs? “There’s a tricky bit” he admitted. That sounded ominous and I couldn’t find my gloves. John thought I’d left them behind at Hand of Dog when being overwhelmed by the view but I wasn’t going back to get them. It became normal for the guides to leave camp with me early because I was slower moving and the last thing I wanted to do was hold the group up.

The ‘tricky bit’ turned out to be an alternative to the original route which was blocked by a landslide: a descent into the mother of all rockpiles where at one point one’s feet had to go along either side of a ‘V’ shaped gap, followed by contortions under boulders instead of over them, followed by a terrific mountainous ascent. Again taxing my reserves to the utmost.

At the top was a kind of mini plateau between the part of the cave we had just emerged from and where we were going, formed from what was the cave roof presumably at the bottom of the huge doline hole. Back below we could see the others making their way through the boulders as the tiniest bugs yet. As for the camp all we could see of that were one or two of the porters visible only as dots! Up here the vegetation was not so much jungle as savannah sprinkled with saplings and huge ferns just right for Dinosaurs, mysterious in the occasional swirling mist. The ground was not so rocky, indicating this cave collapse might have happened a long time ago. Off towards the rest of Son Doong cave were surprisingly regular looking features green with short plants. They looked like fortifications and just might have been truncated stalagmites, broken when the roof caved in.

We took our photos on top of them and one flat topped circular ringed feature further down – perhaps formed in the same way – and descended into the rest of Son Doong Cave.

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It was a predictably steep and rocky descent but we didn’t seem to go as far down as we’d been on the other side. At the bottom was a vast hall of a cavern with pools and a series of rimstone walls or dams snaking about. Rimstone’s formed from water flowing over the edge of pools. Calcite is crystallised out there and forms walls of any size from miniature ones of millimetres to much begger ones metres in height. One area was cordoned off for conservation.

Watto set up the tripod, declared he didn’t like Nikons – guess what my camera was – and muttered about not getting a clear image. I thought it best to stay clear for awhile and let him get on with it while I became clammy with all the sweat in my ‘NEVER STOP EXPLORING’ T shirt. Maybe I should have thanked him more for his effort. I’m fairly sure he took the one featured here looking up towards Watch out for Dinosaurs and the credit should go to him. Like me he was a perfectionist but our approach to photography was one of opposites: my strength lay in composition and lacking technical ability I was an opportunistic risk taker, whereas he was much more thorough in the technical department. His approach was better in such an place as this.

Whatever one’s shortcomings there’s usually someone worse. Like one millionaire with a Leica who – after they’d assembled on top of a formation for that unforgettable shot – presented the guides with the camera in its box and expected them to take it from there.

Other photos included me in explorer pose with Watch out for Dinosaurs in the background, grimacing because I was trying to hold my balance on a rock. There were also attempts to record a great shaft of sunlight beaming down, leaves fluttering down within looking like flecks of gold.

Watto and I shared some banter. I’d taken a chance on winding him up with Monty Python’s ‘4 Yorkshiremen’ sketch which he initially called “inane,” but he got into the spirit of it and continued in the same spirit later with John.

The others caught up with us, we had lunch, then continued. The cave terrain through this stretch was not nearly so rocky so progress was less severe from what it had been to easy going. Also there was light at the end of the tunnel again which could be made out from as far back as Watch out for Dinosaurs. It was the other doline and before too long it seemed we’d trekked through the mysterious dark shapes of this cavern and were approaching the ascent up to it.

This was a long one but easier in some ways than the previous ones for instead of rocks a series of rimstone dams of the bigger sort formed a natural surreal staircase on a grand scale.

I’m not sure if it was here I saw more cave pearls. They would often occur within rimstone dams and the ones I’d seen earlier around the size of marbles neatly compartmented within little partitions of calcite. Like some mentally disturbed design for a for a ‘shopping experience’ with a difference in a jewelry store. Cave pearls were formed when water dripping into a cave too fast to form stalagmites precipitated calcite around a nucleus such as a grain of sand. Given time they tended to grow into perfect spherical stones, usually smooth and often glossy. Some in Son Doong were the size of baseballs.

It was still tiring repeatedly stepping over abrupt ridges of rock but the other doline was near. Here was ‘The Garden of Edam’. The play on the obvious name was because the explorer naming it didn’t like organised religion. There was a real jungle this time, big enough to hide primeval monsters, beginning with a few weedy plants on the rimstone staircase steadily increasing in number and size to a striking stand of rain forest up ahead like a paradise at the bottom of another colossal hole fringed by more forest above. The ground should level out now I thought.

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Instead of level ground though the jungle at The Garden of Edam concealed all the rocks in creation it seemed. It was like trying to get over a record rockery in a hothouse! Some of the toughest terrain yet and the sight of the final camp was a lifesaver.

That could be seen on a stretch of sand in another tunnel shaped cavern from way above. The cavern entrance could have housed a cathedral. It wasn’t the end of today’s journey though. Before that I was to see perhaps the most bizarre place I’ve experienced in a lifetime.

When the expedition was together at the camp a further foray went into the darkness beyond. I met a cave centipede: a black creature several inches long with multiple long legs as thin as hairs propelling it away on an expanse of slick rock to the left. Since then I’ve read there are snakes and even monkeys in parts of Son Doong cave. Sorry I didn’t come across any snakes in the garden of Edam. I’m the kind of nut who seeks them.

There were cave formations out of this world. Bulbous masses of fascinating textured detail. Glimpses in the darkness of a building sized stalagmite mass like a gigantic upright fir cone, stalagmites coloured and shaped in the manner of some alien organ. There was even a stalagtite formation known as ‘The Dogs Bollocks’ and there was some resemblance.

The going was very easy. Like walking along a beach of firm sand though there were still areas of smooth rock to cross, lulling one into a false sense of security perhaps for as we were about to go down through a small gap in the rock I – whoops/Wallop! – slipped and skinned my left elbow. I was lucky to get away with that when I thought of my friend’s broken arm. Just a case of ‘this’ll sting a bit’ with some iodine and then carry on as normal. Although I sported this injury for awhile and can still see the mark this really was superficial stuff. Got off lightly.

There seemed to be a general progression from mostly rocky terrain to mostly sandy throughout the length of Son Doong Cave. I could be wrong but wondered if it was down to deposition caused by whatever lay ahead?

After my fall we could see the main attraction: a massive ‘V’ shaped trench below us winding off into the darkness. We were warned not to take cameras further. They called it ‘Passchendaele’.

Seriously. It was named that because it was reminiscent of that First World War battle in the mud. All the mud of Son Doong cave was here because further on was a calcite formation known as the ‘Great Wall of Vietnam’ across the cave blocking the underground river apart from one small exit. The result was an undergound lake when the river level was up and so much mud deposited when it was low that there was an enormous eroded trench of it to explore now.

Despite it dwarfing human beings the trench at the bottom consisted of a channel too narrow to walk down normally: one had to put one foot in front of the other down its length. Progress was okay though for it was gravelly underfoot with a few inches of water apart from the odd low rock creating a shallow pool to slosh through.

Eventually we were at the Great Wall of Vietnam. A sheer vertically fluted wall ascending into the blackness above covered in mud. How could there be anything worse to climb? But explorers had climbed that and found not so much another doline on the other side but the other end entrance of the cave. John drew my attention to a hole at the bottom of the wall about the size of a small sink, where the river went under the wall. That explained why there was so much deposition here. ‘The Devil’s Arsehole’ it was known as and since we were in a place that reminded me of old illustrations of the deeper reaches of Dantes Inferno without the tormented sinners who was I to disagree?

The route was narrow so we were obliged to climb the side of the trench then circle back into it to go up it again. Slipping into the mud on the way up roused a cheer, others following my bad example got mud everywhere creating hilarity in hell; but I just had to go one better by misjudging the depth of a footprint. The daunting darkness of the backside of Son Doong cave was rent by a colossal fart of a noise as mud shot out of the hole on to the backside of one of the Danes in front of me, followed by my grave diagnosis at the sight of the Dane’s brown bum.

Oh dear. Severe case of diarrhoea there I’m afraid.”

This fairly slew with laughter the Vietnamese ‘sit down David let go David’ fellow helping me. He might not have understood all the English but sure got the jist of it. Boy did he have a sense of humour!

And he continued giggling all the way back up the trench. Yup. Just made a friend for life there.

Morning. Somehow I’d cleaned all the mud off me. My friend for life and John accompanied me on the rocky climb after breakfast, starting back before the others, taking photos of each other on the way up. I regaled John with the mud incident and how all it would take was one rude noise from me to set ‘Let go David’ off again. “See what I mean?”

More photos in the Garden of Edam gave a true sense of the scale. Look closely at the photo of the place in this account for there is a human figure there. Then when we started the descent from there a mist mass swept over us and I looked back taking photos of porters who were just grey silhouettes on a rocky slope in this. Looked just like a Scottish mountainside in bad weather. There really was cloud in Son Doong Cave.

Beyond that I thought the going was smoother than I remembered until we realised I’d lost track of where we were and thought we were further forward. John said this often happened with tourists.Then there was ‘Watch out for Dinosaurs’ with the descent to the mother of all rockpiles on the other side. What happens if one of those boulders is unstable and should ….? John’s response was one of ‘well that’s a risk of caving that one lives with’. He and Watto had mentioned that one the size of a truck had fallen – together with a tree – off the top of the Garden of Edam, making a grand slam of an impact and a cloud of dust. I thought of a name for the area around where one contorted under the boulders: ‘The Meat Grinder’. Only members of the expedition discovering the cave had the right to name parts of it but as names went that wasn’t bad I was told.

After lunch at the Watch out for Dinosaurs camp Watto took over. I’ve no memory of things being especially tough through the rocky region around Hand of Dog. Maybe I’d got used to it but there was still the underground river and whether I could climb out of Son Doong after that without a major embarrassing rescue. I suggested a quick water break above the cleft leading to the crossing which we duly took and I ended. “Alright gentlemen, shall we continue?” The river crossing went smoothly.

When John caught up with us below the roped up rock climb he triumphantly flourished my gloves! I’d left them exactly where he thought I had at the Hand of Dog. Then there was the question of who was going up first on the ropes. “You are” was his response. Maybe because I’d mentioned I wasn’t sure if I could get up that climb again without help.

Put your foot over the rope!” yelled Watto sergeant major fashion from below. “Which foot?” I shouted back. “The right one!” “Okay that’s something I can work with.” In this fashion I met the challenge, working my way up the near vertical heights of the water channel. It was best to pretend I was in the army. Wasn’t so far from the truth since I felt a Marine would have found some of this expedition ‘interesting’. Be all you can be! With a confusion of voices shouting support and advice from below.

I made the half way shelf and got my breather while being managed and harnessed up for the next haul upwards. Again: gung ho up we go without giving oneself time to think and worry. This time it was the small overhang. Just when I thought I’d made it over my feet slipped and down I went. Starting again the same thing happened. Then repeatedly to my chagrin until sounds of running feet below led to hands thrust on to my bum shoving me up over the slippery bit. The Oxalis staff guys had run up the short slope and given me the necessary if undignified kick start to this climb. Now it was all up to my skinny arms – my weakest feature – and my willpower to pull through.

Again the ding dong battle of mind over matter. My arms were really aching or tired, not even sure which but those knots in the rope one had to unclip and clip around were lifesaving objectives now, for once above one you couldn’t fall down the rope you’d come up. I felt the tough times in my life had developed my ability to tough it out, to train me up to this point. Failure is not an option! But you could really run out of strength and will to go on upwards on this climb. But the top of the near precipice was near and I was making it and to my surprise those above ran down the easy slope above to grab me! Could have got up it but I was past arguing.

When I reached the very top Vu was there and on impulse I hugged him with relief! And yes: I did feel proud now! With plenty of time for my heart to slow down and stop hammering, to recover from exhaustion, to drink enough water and relax, while the others came up. Could I make it out of Son Doong cave? I just had and things were going to be easier from here.

Then it was photography and the trek to Hang En Cave. Down the jungle slope, an easy stroll through the beautiful lost valley but not another climb once inside Hang En. Instead to my relief we were led through a cave section like the one where we’d first entered the whole system: wide but low, eroded by the river. Then to my surprise the camp was right in front of us.

When I got to my tent I stripped off my gear and just ran into the lake. The cool water being such bliss after the exertions of the day. Back in the camp Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ was played from Watto’s tent in this far out place. It was his birthday.

That night we celebrated that and everything for weren’t we heroes? Partying in a setting more suitable for Lord Of The Rings than present day Earth, drinking everything in sight including rice wine and that red wine I’d seen while toasting in Vietnamese: “Mot, Hai, Bai Yo!” (‘1,2,3, Go’ in English) “Again! So I learn!” Yup. This demand was a sure sign I was drunk and to my delight the revelry descended with oriental enthusiasm into purple underwear. My compliments to the lady concerned, who was a good companion and didn’t seem to mind at all.

John, myself and ‘Let Go David’ left camp early after breakfast on the trek back to civilisation. Emerging from the cave we made rapid progress up the valley. Pausing for photos of ‘Let Go David’ and me beside one of the upright rhubarbs for scale and John beside ‘2nd Wife’;- a plant possessing a sting which would last for a long time. It felt like a carefree end to the adventure but the adventure wasn’t over yet.

We reached the village and I took photos under the village headman’s house again in a leisurely fashion. John approached me with a real surprise. There’d just been a request from the village headman for me to take photographs of him and his lady upstairs. Nobody had been invited up there before so it was an honour. What a splendid conclusion to the expedition! I had to get a move on though taking my boots off and hurriedly asked John if there was anything else I should do or remove? There wasn’t and overawed by this development that was in best tradition of adventure stories I made my way upstairs.

I bowed at the entrance for lack of a better idea. I was waved impatiently out of that with a chuckle by a thin wizened but still healthy looking man: the village headman. I don’t remember much furniture at all in the large room apart from a mat covering most of the floor and a black and white photo of the family – presumably – on the opposite wall. His lady was with him. I took photos of them under that photo. The flash tended to blot out the details on that but I got a few decent ones and to reinforce that took more of them downstairs including one of his lady kissing him. There were also a few of him and me. I looked every inch the grizzled explorer since my electric razor had broken down in the cave and I had several days stubble. Much later I sent a selection to Vietnam and nagged Oxalis to get them to him. I was absolutely determined not to let this chief down who’d honoured me. The rainy season really delayed things but it seems the photos arrived at the village around Christmas.

The others caught up so we moved on to the stream. Oh well, just the mountain to get up now.

That mountain nearly killed me. That’s how it felt. Everyone left John and me behind as I just seemed to be running out of energy more and more, like a battery running down. Inclines were my weakness it seemed, should have trained more for that at home! Surely I wasn’t going to fail now? But my breaks had to become frequent and although I kept drinking water it just seemed to go straight through me in the tropical heat, from my mouth straight to my skin pores. John carried my backpack. I ran out of water, he assured me he had plenty more. Again there’s that lesson: water is the most important thing on a trek across tricky terrain. I couldn’t catch my breath when I made any sustained effort, then not at all on that neverending slope of rocks and roots in front of my eyes.

At long last I just made the ½ way mark: the break with boulders, collapsing and lying flat on my back at the lower edge of them. The rocks beneath me felt like a comfortable mattress in comparison to the discomfort I’d just been through. Feeling that a mountainous hillside in Vietnam on a sunny day was a good place to die I lay there heart pounding and gasping like a stranded fish! I probably had died at this spot if the theory of parallel worlds with alternate lives is true. Some porters with their towering loads came charging up the slope I’d just crawled up greeting me cheerfully as they steamed past. This comical contrast was emphasised when one of them with a fan shaped leaf decided to fan me with it while passing. Their irrepressible spirit began to bring me round. Then John and a few others there told me to look at a tree by my left side. A lizard had come down the trunk to check I was alright. That’s the way it seemed.

It gets easier from here” said John. I was recovered enough to move on up, on my own to my surprise. John just stayed chatting. I knew he was right though; above the boulders the trail was a path through the jungle compared to before, with an easier incline, even levelling out in one or two places. I still needed to stop often though, on my own in the jungle. The trail just went on and on as I knew it would. I was seriously worn out. Surely I wasn’t far from the road now and was that a murmur of voices up ahead? Then I heard Watto’s holding forth. No mistaking that. He couldn’t know it but his voice was a lifeline keeping me going up that final stretch.

As soon as they noticed I’d emerged from the jungle a massed cheer went up! Why? I disguised my embarrassment and gratitude with a casually triumphant raised arm and fist. The first person to speak to me was the oriental mystic who put it into perspective: I’d inspired the younger ones by coming through it all despite my age. Or to put it more accurately not holding the group up much I felt. All I could do in reply was ask for a drink. And there was beer here.

The road back to civilisation wound back through the verdant green hills while I just relaxed into a daze, getting used to modern air conditioned luxury while thinking occasionally about what the mystic guy had said. We didn’t stop at the expedition hotel but kept going over the river then back towards the hills.

We were arriving at a hotel complex built – judging by its name – on a farm. Still looked pretty open and green. On the left was a luxury kidney shaped swimming pool, on the right the office. I found myself holding a glass of congratulatory champagne, along with the others. A nice surprise but truly weird. Just hours after being honoured in a jungle village that might have been around when the Ice Age was on in Europe. I felt like a confused time traveller arriving back in the 21st century future.

I couldn’t phone home though for there was an ‘issue’ with the phones; an unexpected setback. Later I rediscovered a 21’st century hazard too: a luxurious bill after sampling luxuries.

The manager was a Canadian woman. She told us the Americans had dropped a lot of ordinance in the hills during the war that had failed to explode because it was WW2 vintage. Unexploded ordnance was a hazard I was aware of before coming to Vietnam but forgot about during the expedition. Another hazard was the storm I’d seen from within Hang En cave on the first night. It had hit the expedition hotel and we were asked why we weren’t flooded?

We were shown to our rooms through a park like setting. Mine was upstairs in one of the many house sized spanking new white blocks of 4 bedrooms to each block. Feeling as though I’d gone further into the future than the 21st century I got up to mine, showered and so on, then slept for a few hours in this impossibly clean place.

Then I joined the others at the pool. The Red Bull group invited me to a promotional interview and I was able to tell them it was one of the drinks I’d quaffed in a pocket heatwave on a sponsored walk I did from London to Chichester. Then I relaxed by the pool and in it.

Watto was having a birthday party elsewhere but John was here and was head of ceremonies at the evening farewell banquet. Another surprise: we actually received medals for ‘conquering’ Son Doong cave. I would have preferred ‘experienced’ or ‘explored’ but I treasured the medal and would be wearing it to parties and evening meals back in the UK like a military honour. This was the icing on the cake and it was a thorough job, possessing a similar weight to a gold medal I’d handled worn by a cosmonaut. A hero of the Soviet Union.

I did alright” I remarked to John. “You did good” replied John.

After John had gone we gathered by the pool in the tropical night drinking continuously until midnight and beyond, telling each other our life stories. What a great bunch of people I was with and what a shame we were splitting up just a few days after we’d met and shared the adventure of a lifetime. But over time the significance of what the mystic man had told me would become clear. When I was a teenager a man by the name of Sir Francis Chichester had sailed around the world in a yacht on his own, in his eighties! I admired that not only for the achievement but because it made me feel I had much more time than I thought to accomplish things. If what the man said was true it seemed that by chasing Dinosaurs I’d found myself wandering into the same kind of territory: showing others that old age needn’t be the end of it all, that one had more time than one thought. It was perhaps the best achievment of this adventure: the realisation that I now had the this kind of inspirational power. It was a pretty good way to be when one was over 60.

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