When Howard Limbert and his fellow cavers first arrived in Vietnam in 1990, they had no idea that 19 years later they would be exploring the largest cave in the world.
Born in Bradford, Yorkshire in Northern England, Howard’s obsession with caves started when he was 15.
“Our outdoors activities teacher offered me the chance of either doing athletics or going caving and climbing,” he recalls. “I looked out the window and it was [raining really heavily] and so cold. I put my hand up for caving. Me and three others went caving and we got hooked.”
With the Yorkshire Dales on his doorstep, an area he says is the best place for caves in the UK, very quickly he was going caving three or four days a week and all weekend. But after a time, together with his friends he had exhausted all the caves in the area and started searching out what was available overseas.
“We went to Europe, did all the major caves there, and then I started leading expeditions to Austria,” he says. “In the 1980s I started running trips to Mexico. I lead about five or six trips, pushing all the deep caves in Mexico and all around the world.”
That was when the idea of exploring Southeast Asia came up.
“In 1989 I wrote three letters — one to Laos, one to what was then Burma and one to Vietnam — for permission to come, because no one had ever been to those three countries. Laos and Burma told me they weren’t interested, but Vietnam’s Hanoi University of Science wrote back saying ‘please come’.”
In 1990 Howard and his wife Deb arrived in Hanoi as part of a group of 10 people. At the time there were no maps available, so they had no clue about the geology. However, the university had a plan for them to follow, so they went with it.
“By fluke, two members of the Faculty of Geography of Hanoi University were born in Quang Binh and had heard of Phong Nha Cave,” says Howard. “So we travelled down four days from Hanoi to Quang Binh, and the first cave they took us to was Phong Nha Cave. Straight away we knew we’d cracked it.”
In 1992, Howard and Deb returned, and they completed Phong Nha Cave, Hang Toi, and discovered Hang Bong and Paradise Cave. “That’s when it really started,” says Howard. “We were here for two months exploring caves.”
From the start, Howard and Deb used local people to help them with their expeditions. “When we first came [to Quang Binh] the authorities were quite worried for our security because it was quite a rough place and very basic. So we used to go out in the jungle with guns — there were wild animals in those days and the possibility of bandits coming and attacking us. We always used to have police and people from the community with us who were jungle men. They took us to the caves.”
One of those men was a well-respected porter called Ho Khanh.
“I happened to be the first group to go to Hang En [the third largest cave in the world], and as a caver it’s pretty obvious that if there’s Hang En Cave and you follow the river downstream, there should be another continuing cave that will be just as big,” says Howard.
So they tried for a long time to find a way to get in to the other cave, but couldn’t find the entrance. It was only when they talked to Ho Khanh and were drawing pictures in the sands of caves that they struck gold.
“I asked him do you know any caves down there?” says Howard. “He said ‘yeah I know a cave. This cave’s got a big wind coming out of it, steam coming out of it like cloud, and you can hear a river.’ I asked him where it was! And he said, ‘I can’t remember, it was 1990 when I found it.’”
So Howard sent two expeditions down with Khanh to try and find this elusive cave. But never got anywhere near it. Deb got the closest — within 100m of the entrance — but where she was you would never have guessed there was a cave nearby.
Eventually Khanh decided to go out on his own and search out the cave. He found it by himself in 2008.
“When we arrived here in 2009, the unknown cave was on our list of many caves to do that year. So we had three teams, and we sent them off in every direction to do caves, and one of them was Son Doong.”
After finally entering Son Doong and taking measurements, for about a year Howard and his fellow cavers had no idea that they had just discovered the largest cave in the world. They thought there were caves in China that were much bigger.
Then a geologist wrote to members of the expedition, and he told them that it was probably the largest cave in the world.
“‘Only five caves are over 80m by 80m in the world,’ he said, ‘and yours is bigger than that all the way and a lot longer!’ We had no idea.”
Since the discovery and exploration of Son Doong, Howard and Deb have settled in Phong Nha and work as safety advisors for the travel company, Oxalis. In just five years they’ve seen the company grow from a team of five to almost 500.
“Me and Deb directly set up the Son Doong tour to protect it from mass tourism and it’s working very well,” says Howard. “It’s promoting the country, Quang Binh especially, and I think it can continue like that. It’s growing very well.
“I’m also pleased to see all the local people getting employment. They’re using the money sensibly. A lot of people are investing in homestays, in little restaurants and things like that. That’s my only concern — the local people.”
He adds: “Before long, all the big businesses will start coming in from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and it will start changing here. But at the moment there’s opportunity for all these local people to start businesses.”