As I set off for Son Doong, Phong Nha Town is awash with concerned gossip. A European cable car company is in the caves conducting a feasibility study. The idea of building the longest cable car in the world to the largest cave in the world is back on again. Lots of -ests here. Guinness Book of Records type -ests.
I understand the need to protect this delicate place, this cave that has formed over millions of years with startling rock formations, its own special geology, a cave so large that it has its own climate and its own ecosystem. As the safety expert on our trip, Trevor Wailes explains, to build an elevator to take people down into the cave, importing concrete and steel, would be the equivalent of vandalism.
Yet I also see how bringing 2,000 people a day to Son Doong could benefit the area. It would bring in revenue and create jobs. And after all, why shouldn’t people be allowed to see the natural wonder that is Son Doong? At the moment only 500 people a year manage to go through the cave. This will shortly increase to 1,000. It’s still not many.
But that is before I experience the mystery of Son Doong, its otherworldliness, its unearthly beauty, its magic. Three days in and I don’t want to leave. I’ve left civilization behind and I want it to stay that way. Three days in and I’m no longer torn.
Into the Jungle
Unless you’re wealthy enough to pay for a helicopter to take you part of the way, trips to Son Doong start with a 10km jungle hike to Hang En or Swallow Cave. The first kilometre takes you 400m down the side of a mountain into a valley and then through Ban Doong Village, home of the ethnic Bru-Van Kieu. From there you follow the river until you reach Hang En. It’s a pleasant hike, and after clambering over rocks you find yourself on a sand beach surrounded by a lake. It’s here that you camp the first night with an orchestra of hundreds of thousands of swallows chirping away above. They fly in at dusk, hook themselves to the ceiling of the cave, then leave at dawn. It’s surreal.
Day two and we trek to the other side of the cave and then along the river and through more jungle to the entrance of Son Doong. After lunch, ropes attached, we descend into the gloom of Son Doong, into this alien world that has formed over millions of years. Through the darkness, we head towards Camp 1 and then above see the most astonishing sight, the first sinkhole, or doline. At some point in this cavern’s history the ceiling of the cave collapsed, diverting the river and letting light in from above. Like a hollowed-out volcano there is now a sparse jungle in its centre. We stop, jaws open in astonishment and we pinch ourselves. We’re in a jungle in a cave. A jungle inside not just any cave. We’re in a jungle in the world’s largest cave.
When we see the second doline the following day we’re even more astonished. The jungle here is thick and coloured an emerald green, so green it has a different light to it, a light I’ve never seen before. When this doline was discovered it was supposed to be called The Garden of Eden, but somehow the name got written down wrong. Instead, Eden was replaced by Edam, the Dutch cheese, and the name has stuck.
During the trip you are cut off from civilization. No phone. No social media. No email. No news of the outside world. No nothing. This is life as it once was before communications invaded every part of our existence.
Instead, on the breaks between hikes, between scrambling down rocks or climbing up steep banks with ropes or wading through rivers, we talk. Talk about ourselves, find out about the other people in our group, immerse ourselves in conversation.
There are 10 people doing the tour, from diverse backgrounds. Me, two bankers, a vet and his wife who teaches movement, a well-known Vietnamese lawyer and his partner who has vertigo and is claustrophobic (for her the challenge is conquering her fears), a German civil engineer, a lawyer turned risk assessor and a Viet Kieu from Australia. In support is our guide, Bamboo, Trevor Wailes, five safety assistants and a team of chefs and porters. 35 people in all. It is a group who would not normally interact or come in contact with one other, and yet we bond.
Much of the bonding takes place at night around the dinner table and over glasses of whisky (we brought our own with us) and rice wine. And within a couple of days the common joke revolves around Donald Trump. Would he be assassinated while we are cut off from civilization? And would we hear of it? We keep on asking the question, and then someone says: “If it does happen, well, there’s a satellite phone with us for emergencies. Surely our guide will let us know.”
Fortunately for the present administration in the White House, Donald Trump survives the trip. So do we.
Beauty and the Beast
On the third night I stay up late talking to Trevor about a little bit of everything and of course the caves. We go through too much rice wine and gradually the topic returns to the cable car.
Part of the original expedition to Son Doong in 2009 and born in the UK, Trevor has been caving all his life. For him the cable car would be a disaster for the conservation of Son Doong, as it would mean building non-natural structures and an elevator inside the cave. He also feels that financially it would only benefit a few people.
“What they’ll do is ship them in for the day,” he says. “The tourists will stay in Dong Hoi, come to the area, get the cable car in and then go back out again without spending any money in Phong Nha.”
For me, the objection is different. Being in Son Doong is like being on another planet, a forgotten planet untouched by human hands. Part of the experience is the physical exertion and effort it takes to get here. Four days without a shower, waking up and changing into wet boots and clothes, trekking over 50km, forgoing all the comforts of modern life. Here there is no such thing as society or keeping up appearances. It is this as well as the cave and the jungle that makes the trip into an otherworldly experience.
Building the cable car would destroy all that. People would come in and see the beauty, but they would never have the experience.
It’s the final day and we’re heading out of the jungle towards the main road. Three-and-a-half years before when I’d done the trip to Hang En, we’d taken the same route, but I’d been out of shape and was struggling with an old sporting injury to my right knee. It was fine until the final ascent when we had to climb 400m. After 50m my right knee collapsed. So I put my weight on the left. 50m further on, the left knee went, too. I ended up crawling to the top on all fours. It was a wake-up call.
This time I am much fitter and am determined to get up in one piece.
I manage it, but it is tough. My calves scream with pain and my lower back aches from the camera equipment I am carrying. So, I go 50 steps or so, stop for five or 10 seconds to catch my breath, and continue. I make it to the top in one piece, a beer awaiting me on my arrival.
Sitting on the bus back to Phong Nha, we are quiet. The journey has ended but the memory and the visions of that surreal world will last forever.
Suddenly my phone goes beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. All those missed messages are coming in.
We’re back in civilization.
Photos by Nick Ross / March 2017