It was 2 years ago this week that I shared my experiences of my Tu Lan adventures with my friends and family via a private Facebook group. I first heard this song when Jules Holland had Emiliana on his show years ago and I instantly loved it, the video though reminds me of me in the jungle on this trip – completely out of place and a bit of a joke.
It was 39 degrees in the shade and maybe the reason I had been making choices to do things that would get me out of our sweaty glass house.
On the day of the decision it was not even 5pm and I had had 5 showers, numerous litres of water, several soft drinks and a river swim. We had no air con in our rooms and it was unbearable, so I agreed to go on the Tu Lan 4 day expedition with Oxalis Adventure Tours. My fitness levels were poor, I was overweight and was not used to the tropical climate at all.
Colin had already done the 4 day Tu Lan expedition a few weeks ago and he convinced me that I could do it and would love it, despite being claustrophobic and scared of most things.
So at 7.45am on a Sunday we were waiting to get picked up. I had borrowed clothes from Captain Caveman as I had nothing to cover me up and was even wearing his underwear for comfort.
On the way to Tan Hoa we picked up the other customers so that there were 7 of us in total.
We also had 2 guides with us, Kien and Uy, who I know and are colleagues and friends of Captain Caveman.
Dave was our cave expert and couldn’t see why I was on the trip as he thought I wasn’t fit enough and kept joking that he would send me back before too long.
After we had watched the others do their practice abseil we all set off and did a 2.5km flat walk to Rao Nan river, we walked across it and then climbed rocks 50m up to Secret cave.
Panic number one started as I saw massive spiders and the 2 ‘squeezy’ bits of cave that I had to push myself through. We learned afterwards that the following day this part had 2 poisonous snakes in.
I got through eventually but it wasn’t easy and by this time I was pretty hot and sweaty.
We climbed down 100m to Hung Ton valley where a picnic was waiting for us. I wasn’t hungry and was regretting going on the trip but there was no way I would go back through secret cave. So I forced down the bread, sausage and cheese knowing I would need the energy.
After lunch we crossed the valley and up Hung Ton mountain. It was about 2km to Mango Mountain and then another 2km to Tu Lan valley.
The first campsite was gorgeous. We quickly dumped our bags and put our helmets lights and gloves on and took a quick trip over some rocks and in to Tu Lan cave. There were rock pools and a waterfall and we swam about 200m fully clothed. I loved this part.
Afterwards we sat at a picnic bench and ate a delicious feast of pork, tofu, rice, veg, washed down with a shot of rice wine.
Later at bedtime panic number two came. My hammock had a plastic sheet across, in case of rain, which was so close to my head that I couldn’t bear it. Aly kindly took it off and I slept being able to see the moon and stars through my mosquito net.
Day 2 of the expedition started very early, after a restless night and little sleep, we had pancakes and bananas for breakfast.
First we went in to the dry part of Tu Lan cave and that’s where we did the 15m abseil down a cliff and in to the makeshift boats. As you can imagine everyone else did theirs perfectly. Mine was done with lots of ‘oohing’ and squealing once I accidentally turned upside down. No one was amused except for Colin who was taking the piss out of me. I can’t believe how tricky it was compared to the ones I’d done down the side of our house.
Finally at the bottom I had to balance on the edge of the rubber rings and 4 pieces of bamboo that they called boats. We rowed 1.5km inside the cave over to a dam, where we got a puncture. By the time we rowed all the way back again my waist was underwater so we got off and swam the very last bit. Back at camp we had fried rice for lunch and, my energy waning, I tucked in to a few sweet snacks.
After lunch we swam for about 200m into Ken Cave where we did lots of swimming. As the lights on our heads attracted moths, the bats would swoop down and eat the moths from in front of us so sometimes I turned my light off and floated on my back.
In our wet clothes we trekked 500m to Hang Kim where we swam some more before climbing through the cave, up a 15m steel ladder tied on to with rope. Surprisingly panic number 3 crept up on me here as I thought I was ok but suddenly I was exhausted, emotional and wondering why the hell I was being tied to a rope to climb a ladder if it wasn’t dangerous. I started to panic I wouldn’t find my way back to ground level and so went up the ladder tentatively. Colin, John and I went on ahead to the exit so I could stop panicking. We exited at Mo valley and trekked to Hung Ton where we swam to our next campsite. I had a cool dip in the river and even washed my hair before a nice meal sat on a plastic sheet. We had bbq pork, peanuts, cabbage, tofu and rice.
I knew day 3 was the hardest and Captain Caveman had suggested that if I was offered a shortcut or a get out I should take it. All the group didn’t want me to take it and as it was just trekking for 30km up and down mountains in 40 degree heat my decision was obviously hard to make. The guides however encouraged that taking an alternative easier day might be best for me (due to me not being fit enough).
We talked it over and I made my decision so off to bed we went. Aly somehow ended up in her hammock upside down and then fell out.
Day 3 started with a good shake of our clothes to remove the bugs before breakfast of spicy fried noodles and spring rolls. I avoided the noodles given my stomach doesn’t tolerate chilies well at the best of times, never mind on an adventure tour. I was pretty dehydrated too despite the quantity of fluids and without being too personal most of us were managing around half a wee per day on average.
Obviously I decided to take the shortcut. In my mind there was no question as Captain Caveman (before I went), and the guides all thought it would be for the best and they do this trip often. If I’d been on the trip with a load of lazy, overweight, unfit ‘slowies’ (like me) I may have let them persuade me. There were no fears to address for me on the itinerary that day so I was happy to take the get out option.
The others set off an hour early as they wanted to get started. There was not a breeze in the air and the temperature would be about 38 degrees.
I sat about watching the 4 porters pack everything in to their big backpacks – 30kg each. We then walked for between 30-60 minutes, with breaks, to the back exit of Rat Cave.
We walked through rat cave, almost in the dark, and across the river where a motorbike and Mr Dinh were waiting for me to take me back to Tu Lan office. It’s a good job I was still wearing my sports bra!
At the office I was offered a cold soft drink and a shower, both of which I declined. I was hoping to complete the tour with the others and felt bad that they would be absolutely boiling walking in the open today, drinking only the warm water we had. My clothes were wet and filthy so if I showered I would feel worse having to put them back on. I did smell but didn’t care. Captain Caveman phoned to check I was ok and he said I’d done the best thing missing the hill walk today.
The staff at the office brought me 2 fried eggs and a baguette for lunch and even though I don’t eat eggs I ate as much of it as I could.
Captain Caveman did mention that my return route to camp would be ‘interesting’ but nothing prepared me for the motorbike ride from Tu Lan to the road edge about an hour from Hang Tien. Mr Dinh, his 30kg bag and me got on a small motorbike and rode for just over an hour. We went on road, sand, rock, a wooden floating bridge across a river full of water buffalo, through woods lined with stinging nettles and only fell off a couple of times. He didn’t have a helmet so I wore my caving helmet just in case.
We stopped in the middle of nowhere at a shed with chickens and the porters ate watermelon and I think they picked up a couple of chickens for tea (I didn’t see them killed). We walked for just less than an hour through jungle, over rocks, in rivers and along logs until we came to our campsite at Hang Tien.
I had just arrived when the rest of the group appeared. They looked pretty broken and some of them couldn’t even speak. Luckily our campsite had a deep cold rock pool to dip in and although we had to climb sharp rocks to get to it we were grateful to cool off.
Food was good that night with an additional dish of fried chicken. After dinner we lay on the plastic sheeting and watched the stars. I saw the plough, shooting stars and satellites. Tan told me I didn’t miss anything special today and that the walk was intense in the relentless heat.
Later I watched a huge electrical storm from my hammock and finally fell asleep about 3am.
By the time I woke up on day 4 most of the others were up and about. By now I had so many insect bites that it took longer to put the antihistamine cream on than to get dressed. My trousers had been drying on a twig made in to a washing line and had 4 flying cockroach type bugs in them which I shook off and killed one, the others escaped.
We had pancakes again for breakfast and I had three cups of black tea and a rehydration drink as my legs were in agony. Hugh had told me he had been massaging his own legs to stop the cramps so I did the same but my thighs were solid.
A dark coloured snake slithered in to camp and most of us saw it. The guides and porters told us not to go near it and it disappeared. I’ve never seen a big snake in the wild and it was very impressive, beautiful even.
Before 9am we were once again clambering over rocks towards the entrance to Hang Tien. Colin had foot rot and his boots were painful to walk in while I kept feeling sharpness in my quivering thigh muscle. The others were like hyper kids in an underground playground and went off at speed.
After a while there was just Kien and I at the back going quite slowly and my thigh was hurting more so I said I need to check my leg and turned away from Kien. Panic number 4, one of those bloody flying cockroach things was still in my trousers and had bit me three times. Mortified I flicked it out and I carried on over the rocks to catch up to Kien. There were a few big rocks I had to climb over and as I was standing on the top of one trying to work out where my next footing was a green snake slid over the rock I had just stepped off. Kien was scared and told me to quickly move forward but I just stared at it and it went away from us.
At the mouth of the cave I realised I was exhausted and could not be bothered to go in to Hang Tien, by this time I was ready to go home, so I sat on a rock with Colin and waited for the others to resurface from the cave.
At noon they came back and we went back the way we came, to the campsite for lunch. We had the most delicious soup with beef, cabbage, pineapple, and noodles in but I could only manage a half portion.
After lunch we walked out through jungle, rivers and rocks for about one and a half hours until we got to the road.
There were beers and soft drinks waiting for us on ice. We put the ice down each other’s tops and I kept a chunk in my bra. I was broken.
I did manage to let my friends and family know I was back from my caving and trekking ordeal, I mean trip. I wrote at the end of Day 4;
I am bruised, bitten and broken. I can honestly say it was physically and mentally the hardest thing I have done in my life.
The tight spaces were tight and I endured slight nipple injuries, ripped clothing and sheer panic. There were many spiders (some as big as dinner plates with eyes you could look into), bats, and snakes.
The rocks were rough, slippery and sharp.
I messed up the abseil in the dark cave and ended up swinging upside down from the rope above the water.
I swam in some gorgeous caves and met some great people (most of whom were either extreme adventure junkies or super fit).
I slept in a hammock outdoors in the jungle and ate amazing food.
I am so happy to have survived.