Starring James Mason as Professor Lidenbrock, the 1959 film of the Jules Verne novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth enthralled a young boy named David Angus, who is now a Portsmouth-based travel writer and planetary modeller. The young David marvelled over the giant mushrooms, dimetrodons and the sea at the Earth’s centre. That sea even had clouds over it. Surely no cave was really big enough for clouds? Many years later, David would travel not quite to the centre of the Earth but pretty far down, and he would find out whether a cave could have clouds.
The jungle at the so-called Garden of Edam was not so even. Some of the toughest terrain yet, it was like trying to get over a rockery in a hothouse.
I could see the camp on a stretch of sand in another tunnel-shaped cavern. The cavern entrance could have housed a cathedral. It wasn’t the end of today’s journey though. Before that I came across perhaps the most bizarre place I’ve ever seen.
After re-joining the expedition at the camp, I went into the darkness and 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. Since then I’ve read there are snakes and even monkeys in parts of Son Doong Cave. I was sorry I didn’t come across any snakes in the Garden of Edam. I’m the kind of nut who seeks them out.
The cave formations were bulbous masses of fascinating textured detail. Glimpses in the darkness of a building-sized stalagmite like a gigantic upright fir cone, other stalagmites coloured and shaped in the manner of some alien organ. There was even a formation known as the ‘Dog’s 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 a while 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’. 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: I had to put one foot in front of the other down its length. Progress was OK 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 Dante’s 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, or mud-hole. 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 gist 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?’
When we started the descent from there a mist swept over us and I looked back taking photos of porters who had become grey silhouettes on a rocky slope. 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 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, ‘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!’
‘OK, 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 halfway shelf and got my breather while being managed and harnessed up for the next haul upwards. Again: gung ho up we go without giving ourselves 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. 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. I had 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 Vietnamese)
‘Again! So I learn!’ Yup. This demand was a sure sign I was drunk and to my delight the revelry descended with 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 headman’s house again. 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. I took my boots off and hurriedly asked John if there was anything else I should do. 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 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. I took photos of he and his lady 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 was 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 I behind as I just seemed to be running out of energy, 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? 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. When 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 never-ending slope of rocks and roots in front of my eyes.
At long last I just made the halfway mark: the break with boulders. I collapsed and lay 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, greeting me cheerfully as they steamed past. This comical contrast was emphasised when one of them decided to fan me with a large leaf. Their irrepressible spirit began to bring me round. Then John and a few others 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, anyway.
‘It gets easier from here,’ said John. I had 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. It had 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 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 huge cheer went up. Why? I disguised my embarrassment and gratitude with a casually triumphant raised 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.
I couldn’t phone home, though, for there was an ‘issue’ with the phones; an unexpected setback. Later I rediscovered a 21st 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 World War II vintage. Unexploded bombs were 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 spanking new white blocks, four bedrooms in each. Feeling as though I’d gone further into the future than the 21st century I got up to mine, showered and 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 Red Bull 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.
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 who was 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 achievement of this adventure: the realisation that I now had the this kind of inspirational power. It was a pretty good way to be for a man over sixty years old.
Photography by David Angus.