Vietnam: Journey to the Centre of the Earth Part I

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.

Under the sunlight of a spreading blue sky and the fresh air of Vietnamese hill country, a river stretched below the hotel balcony I was standing on, big enough for boats and an island on which boys were playing football. On the far side of the river, nestling in the jungle beneath the limestone hills was a village and a brightly hued church. Vu, the young Vietnamese guy who’d collected me for the expedition, joined me to inspect everything I had. Most of it was OK.

Was this expedition 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 the biggest 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 downstairs near the end of the day, I was determined to enjoy as much of this experience as fate would allow.

As the dusk fell like a comforting blanket on the valley, the briefing began in the hotel restaurant with a roof but no walls. We had two guides who were British: a tall Lancastrian, John, and a burly Yorkshireman nicknamed “Watto”. They were close friends. There were also around 25 porters and helpers. The group itself consisted mostly of Asians, most of whom were Vietnamese, though one lived in New York and another, a woman, dwelled 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 two 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 is the biggest known cave on this panet. It was only discovered after the Vietnam War by a local, then lost again until a British expedition rediscovered it later. Fewer people had been through it than had been up Everest but we were going there. It’d take a day’s hike through jungle to get there and likewise coming out. We’d then have to spend three days in the cave system before getting through another cave in order to access Son Doong: two 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 Journey to the Centre of the Earth. In a few places the cave roof had fallen in, allowing ever-changing sunlight to alter local air temperature/humidity and creating those clouds and allowing tropical vegetation to grow inside the cavern.

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’.  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. Although there was no way it could be taken literally, my own Journey to the Centre of the Earth seemed achievable after all.

I took supper 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 rainforest, 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 through 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 hill trails leading down the length of Vietnam.

When I’d got used to that we were suddenly at shelter on a mountain. I’d thought we were going to follow a stream up a valley to the cave.  But the shelter was the 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.

Indiana Jones was going through my head as I descended into the green depths, trying to get the odd photo of people disappearing around tropical tree trunks into exotic undergrowth, with the odd liana coiling about like a solidified python. To my delight the trek just went on and on mostly downhill. It was surprising how long it was going on for, my mental soundtrack replaced Indiana Jones with the theme tunes of more desperate jungle adventures. The descent just went on and on. I hoped 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. 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 one in one if you were lucky. If the rest of the journey was going to be as hard as this I was going to be in trouble.

By the time we reached the stream I’d fallen most of the way behind. It was a corner of heaven saving me, with its clear water bathing my feet amongst the rocks and exotic foliage. Someone had 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 later. I mentioned that someone could help me out by carrying my small backpack. The look I got indicated I should 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 I realised we were walking through a village.

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 two 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. This included 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. I’d heard of 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 you dwell on our existence where natural forces could squash us just as easily as those bugs. But I revelled in the scale.

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 Hang En Cave led to the other, Son Doong, and had been eroded by the river. 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 when 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…

…Well 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 these smaller caverns.

In John’s company I gingerly made my way down 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. I was happy that I was here and that 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.

The porters 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; we would always be well fed on this trip. There was even some rice wine to sample. I did not drink much of though, it could be potent. Two secluded toilet tents were also available, with signposts you 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.

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. I’d also don the gloves I’d brought for going over rocks. There was the advised option too of lightening my 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. I set my tripod 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 we left it there. Just after that was a rocky descent to leave Hang En cave. Its rear entrance was 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.

I waded after them, ankle deep down in the crystal clear gravelly-bottomed stream. I just revelled in walking through this incredible place I could only have dreamed 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 lying 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. You could do that sort of thing in the heat here. A beautiful bronze butterfly joined us. I couldn’t stop taking photos of it.

The only other way into this valley was via 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’!

Photography by David Angus.