Vietnam: Journey to the Centre of the Earth Part II

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.

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. I was 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.

We reached level ground in a grove of banana trees, or relatives of them.There was serious rock climbing gear here. I’d heard we were to be roped up for one section and assumed it was a health and safety requirement, but as things were explained and we set off through increasingly jagged terrain, it became clear that this was the real thing instead. We reached Son Doong cave entrance – not a big entrance like Hang En, no wonder they lost it for a few years. Within, the descent involved two ropes going down a rock slope and dropping out of sight into a black void. John had told me that, though it was counter-intuitive, you were supposed to lean backwards so your feet could get a better grip. Harnessed and hooked up to a rope, I walked backwards down the slope and leaned back as I went over the edge holding on to the rope, and went into the black abyss below.

It wasn’t actually a sheer drop but a near vertical slope you wouldn’t want to fall down.  I was told to 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 and got on with the job in hand, working my way down while making a point of ignoring the fearful darkness outside my lamplight. But the audacity of making a go of it despite never having done it in my life before! 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 near enough.

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 was down another precipitous slope with a black void around one. 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 my feet firmly either side of the channel and going down that way.

‘Good!  Good!  Good!’

Eventually I edged around a shoulder of rock, then down a sloping ledge and I reached the bottom. I’d got a photo or two 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 pic. The same thing had happened with an underground river in the Philippines where I bagged about six 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.

Though 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 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. I 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. It was classic Hollywood cliffhanger stuff! Supplied by yours truly. The rest of the crossing was smooth enough although somewhat cautious in my case, then I edged past a fellow protecting me from disappearing down the waterfall in spite of everything. I went up a rock cleft and I was in the clear. The waterfall wasn’t a sheer drop after all and most likely survivable, but you would also most likely be bashed about and break some bones, I was assured. The tripod was set up for photos.

For a while the going seemed easy enough along essentially 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 friend 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 treasures 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.

I went down and up towards that through another trackless jumble of rock. I had to 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 sweat-sodden throughout this cave as they would have been in a washing machine. 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. Watch out for dinosaurs. I could almost see the pterosaurs sailing through the clouds.

‘This is a life defining moment,’  I declared.  ‘Awesome!’

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 years old – to the sight of such an immense cave as this in which there really were those clouds, ever-changing ethereal veils of mist; like something out of ‘Excalibur’ leading your eyes 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 to the right of this scene of almighty grandeur 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 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 contained porters 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 HG Wells’ 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. On the other hand there was the easier lifestyle and frequent overweight of larger Westerners, British 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 two cheerful commands. ‘Let go David!’ was for 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 cable car. 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 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 sealife 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. Now an honest assessment 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. 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 the oriental mystic – whom I’d met in the vehicle that picked me up – sat absolutely motionless. He remained 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 mist. 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 the Alien film – 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 my 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, this taxed 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 the cave roof 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.

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. Rimstones 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 ‘Four 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.

Photography by David Angus.