I’ve used today’s song as a ‘Flash Back Friday’ post to tell of my story to the biggest cave in the world. I believe it was George Mallory who, when asked why he climbed Everest, said ‘because it is there’. I’m certainly no explorer or climber and my life until I met Captain Caveman was blissfully unaware that cavers existed – I would never had imagined that I would become a fully-fledged member of the ‘Cavers Wives & Girlfriends’ (CWAGs for short) club later down the line.
People kept asking me if I’d been to ‘the big one’ yet, meaning Hang Son Doong, where my other half works at his dream job as a caving expert. To be honest the only reason I had agreed to go on the 5 day expedition trip is because I could and I imagined it would be something I would regret not taking the opportunity when I was given the chance. Plus, I had been curious to see for myself what all the fuss was about – so many of the tourists I’d heard say it was remarkable and one of the best trips they had been on.
I’d met my fellow trekkers the night before at the Oxalis briefing and was looking forward to getting on with the challenge. I was scared but motivated by all the support I’d had from back home, especially as I was raising money for two charities. We were a mixed group of Americans, Canadians, Vietnamese and I was the only British customer.
Captain Caveman was among the Oxalis staff on the tour as he had been swapped after I had booked on to one he wasn’t working. I had mixed feelings about whether I would have been better on a tour without my partner, or not.
Unfortunately one of the female customers was sick and had to make the tough decision on whether she would still be able to proceed and if not, would her husband still go ahead without her. I felt sorry for her as, having already done the first day on a previous Oxalis trip, I knew how hard it would be if she had to turn back. After a group photo with Ho Khanh, we left as a whole group with 2 cave experts and a Vietnamese guide in a bus that picked us all up locally and drove out through the National Park.
The first part of the route was to Hang En, which I had been to before with friends from the UK, so I was hoping it would be familiar and a little easier. It wasn’t and as we got half way down the very steep hill I recalled how hard we had found it almost a couple of years ago. It was also at this point that the lady who was ill had to turn back and head back up the hill with the tour group who were passing us on their way out, while her partner carried on. As Captain Caveman spoke to the other two cave experts in charge of the returning group it was disheartening for me to hear that some of the customers had really struggled and we saw the last of them come up the hill with both hands being held by helpers. The weather was sunny and hot and by the time we got to the start of the river crossings I was beginning to wonder if I’d done the right thing.
I loved the river crossings on the way to Hang En at first. It was refreshing on my feet and I was happy getting wet and walking in my old innov8 trainers that I was used to. They let the water in but didn’t hold much sand which meant less chance of blisters. I tried my best to keep up with Captain Caveman and the Canadian Doctor, who were at the front of the group, but made my first error when I found myself in the middle of a river crossing alone (they were quite a bit in front and the rest of our group was following our guide at a more shallow section of the river). Luckily I didn’t fall in but it was a wakeup call that my camera was in my back pack and could’ve got ruined. A few crossings later the doctor very kindly gave me one of his walking poles to use which really helped me out.
I’d forgot about the rock climbing into the camp at Hang En but managed it at the front of the group while everyone else climbed higher for extra photo opportunities, I didn’t want to use up unnecessary energy and climbed up and down as instructed by Captain Caveman until we reached a plank of a bridge. As it was winter the hot and cold pool I’d previously seen at Hang En were one bigger, deeper pool and required a bit of teetering over the plank to get ashore and to our first campsite.
I had a mini melt down at the bridge but managed it without falling in. I was met by an assistant guide with a hot cup of black tea and the best feeling I had that night was taking off my wet shoes and socks and going for a very cold dip in the water.
Our first meal was out of this world with pork, beef, chicken, tofu and vegetables served hot and with a real flare from the Chef and his team. I was hungry and tucked in. The rice wine was available for all to enjoy but I had about 2 mouthfuls all night knowing that I certainly would struggle the next day if I got a hangover. The tents were bigger and comfier than I remember and so I went off to bed before some of the others.
During the night one of the young ladies was taken ill, probably from dehydration – it’s very easy to not drink enough and in the humid conditions it can be a common issue. While Captain Caveman tended to his customer I tried to get back to sleep but by this time I was starting to worry I wasn’t fit enough to do the next few days. I had found that the slippery wet rocks had made me very nervous and I’d become more scared of falling than ever before. I lay awake worrying even after Captain Caveman had returned to the tent and that’s when the enormity of what I had let myself in for really kicked in. However, the next day I was to find out that no amount of imagination and fear was to prepare me for what I would encounter to get into Hang Song Doong.