The rest of the journey into Son Doong cave.
The first doline
We went on about 2km through the sharp rocks in the darkness to reach the light of the first doline. This was a giant shoe shape hole created by a corruption millions of years ago. The rumbles of the corruption created a small mountain within the doline. Light, rain and bird droppings painted a part of that mountain with plants. We went up and down the mountain to our first base camp. Our tents were erected on the high and flat surface of the cave floor. There was no water for a bath so we had to clean our bodies with a towel before putting on dry clothes. I smelt the cooked food and suddenly felt starved. The food was far from what we expected!
The task on day two was to march to the cave’s end and back to the camp in the second doline. It was a 10km trip but we had to make two uphill climbs in the two dolines. Even though I carefully put on two socks to absorb the force, my toes started to turn purple.
Starting at 9am, we first climbed up the mountain in doline one. It was tiresome but easier than the way down. It took us an hour to reach the top. This is where all the great pictures were taken. Another hour was spent for taking pictures but it did not seem enough. An, our youngest team member, took this chance to show off her yoga master level poses. The girl was so energetic that she always tried some stunning yoga positions at all the stops while we just lay down and tried to catch our breath. At our camp sites she opened a short yoga course and had some students among us and the porters as well.
Our main photographer was Trang, a gentle girl from the former royal capital city of Huế. According to some Oxalis guide, she may be the first person from Huế to ever visit Sơn Đoòng Cave. She had a passion for photography and definitely got my admiration. We had to thank her for sharing thousands of pictures she took in our trip.
Another hour passed by the time we reached the foot of the mountain after much exertion.
The second doline
On the way down, instead of hard rocks, we saw a huge green area resembling a terraced rice field. We saw huge brown stones turning green in the sunlight and many more amazing things that we had never seen before. However, when we got to the other side, we were presented with a spectacular view when the sunlight shone through the giant hole to the doline bottom.
The surface was filled with quiet water pools resembling mirrors for taking ideal pictures. The path to this doline two was the toughest. Even with the headlights on we barely saw what was above or under. The rocks were so slippery that I could not avoid sliding several times even though I was very careful. And the slope, while being shorter, was much steeper, rockier and higher than that of the last day. We arrived at the next camp in the second doline at 15:00 with our shirt soaked with sweat.
The camping site looked tiny from above. The plain ground was paper white and lay on the edge of the cave bottom. The sand was as smooth as plaster dusts. It stuck to everything just as powder in tempura. The route from there to the cave’s end was easier. We followed it along an underground river. At this time of the year there was no water and the river was filled with sand. Our team set us up to take pictures. It was so huge inside that our whole team lined up 5 to 10 metres apart from each other so it could be viewed from atop. Another river, this time full of water, appeared at the end of the route, hidden after a narrow turn.
The water was crystal clear. Our boat forwarded slowly in the absolute darkness. With the headlight we saw the cave open wider as we sailed on. When the river turned to a big lake, we faced a big wall of a wet rock. It was 60 metres – high and marked the end of Sơn Đoòng Cave: We had reached the Great Wall of Việt Nam.
Spillane said all the water would run out of the cave through a small hidden underground tunnel. Future trips may let visitors climb this wall but for now, we could only take some pictures and we reluctantly got back to shore. After two days of walking and climbing without cleaning, the water was so appealing. We dived right in.
Our spirits were high at that time. Big Brother led us to singing all songs from all the musical periods after some drinking. We also gave Spillane some Beatles songs and he was happy to sing Hey Jude! along with us. Everyone then got back to their tents except An and me. He wandered from tent to tent chatting, playing cards with the porters waiting for others to sleep. I stayed back near the fire to dry my stuff.
My tent-mate woke up before me. Now, we were going back to Én Cave, the place we stopped for lunch at day one.
The way out was not exactly the same as the way in. But even when we were on the old path, we could not recognise it. Things were different from the other perspectives and the light also painted the scenery with distinctive colours.
After a quick snack on the spring bank, we chose to go by the waterway because my legs were already fed up with the slopes. Though we had to sail against the current, it was a good decision. Now we had more time to enjoy the great view of the forest instead of gazing at the rocks beyond our feet. We arrived at Én Cave late afternoon. The trip back was easier than we thought.
The night was so amusing. Everyone was happy that the difficulties had been taken care of. The men were cracking jokes over drinks and the women were playing with the camera’s slow exposure.
Mission accomplished, and opens new doors
It was the last day so I decided to push our porters a bit. I put all my belongings in their pack and left nothing in my back pack except the helmet.
We departed at 8:40am and immediately got wet when starting day four, wasting all my efforts drying my gear last night. The sun was shining early. The road back to Đoòng village was straight forward. Spillane was so quick on his feet that by the time I arrived in the village, he was about to move on. There was only one slope left, and Trang, An and I quickly followed him, skipping the break. I got tired very soon and had to stop at every turn.
I began to feel as if the thirst was slowly squeezing out of me whatever little strength I had left. Trang was very kind to offer me a little water she brought along. Then I met Spillane waiting for us midway.
“Only ten minutes more,” he said and walked slowly along, giving me some moral support. I guessed it was much longer than ten minutes.
Just when I thought I could go no farther, I heard An’s voice. I was sure this was the merriest sound I had heard since morning. It signalled that the drop spot was close. My knee and back pain disappeared at once. When I reached the drop zone, the watch showed 11:45am. My days with Sơn Đoòng were over. I took off everything sticky on my body and rewarded myself with a can of Huda beer.
As I was cooling down, a strange feeling started to grow inside me. I was missing Sơn Đoòng but I did not think it would start so soon. My team members all told me they had a similar feeling the last night when we had dinner.
I visited my cousins and boasted about my experience. “What was your lifetime adventurous activities used to be our daily routines,” one of them told me.
Our team made some records anyway: We were the first team full of Vietnamese, and the first tourist team to conquer Sơn Đoòng Cave in only four days and three nights. Mrs Phương was the oldest Vietnamese woman to finish the trip until now. Trang maybe the first Huế resident to visit the cave and An was probably the first woman to finish ahead of the team.
We heard during the trip that there was a plan to install a cable car across Sơn Đoòng. But as Mrs Phương bluntly told a local official upon hearing him boast about the project, “Once you have visited the cave, you would never want it to be spoiled by anything!”
This is because exploring Sơn Đoòng is much more than just a visit to see the cave. To me, it was an opportunity to make new friends and a lifetime’s experience to surpass my limits.
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