01 Jun Son Doong – an exhilarating off the beaten track adventure experience
This is story from Chris Miller about his amazing trip to Son Dong cave in the first tourist season. He was one of a lucky guy to discover the World’s biggest cave. According to him, in an age of accessible travel, in a world that has been extensively explored, the opportunities for off the beaten track adventures seem far and few between: “I’ve been to a fair few places over the years and I have to say this ranks up there with the best of them”. Here below is his post:
Chris Miller has just returned from his adventure in central Vietnam, being only one of 220 tourists who will enter the world’s largest cave this year. Whilst he admits it’s impossible to capture just how incredible the location is with words and pictures, his talent as a photographer helps convey it’s vastness, beauty and uniqueness.
And he’s kindly offered some of his photographs and thoughts about the experience for me to share with you on my blog.
But first: a little more about Son Doong.
The discovery of Son Doong Cave
Once upon a time, a young Vietnamese boy named Ho Khanh was collecting firewood in the jungle, when he came across the entrance to a cave. Not having ropes or light, he resisted the urge to enter it’s pitch black interior and returned home. Tales of his discovery spread throughout his village. But despite many attempts to return, the location of the cave remained a mystery, concealed by the challenging dense jungle.
Although he had just stumbled across the entrance to what is now known to be the largest cave in the world, Ho Khanh would not see it again for eighteen years.
In 2009 he re-discovered the long-lost entrance and was finally able to confirm his childhood story. Now a local farmer, Khanh joined an expedition with the British Cave Research Association, leading them through the jungle to climb into the entrance he first laid eyes on nearly twenty years ago.
About Son Doong Cave
“Son Doong” means “mountain river cave” and was created 2-5 million years ago by river water eroding limestone beneath a mountain. It is located in the remote jungle of Phong Nha National Park in central Vietnam, 15km or so from the border of Laos. It is part of a network of 150 or so caves, many still not surveyed, in the Annamite Mountains. It is more than 5km long and in some parts reaches 200m high with a width of 150m.
It is the largest cave in the world.
Within the cave are large jungles, a river and enough space to hold forty skyscrapers! Two collapsed roof sections (dolines) provide pockets of natural light into an otherwise pitch-black area. The cave is home to 30 metre high trees, giant stalagmites reaching as high as 80 metres, large rhinestone pools, giant cave pearls and fossils dating back 300 millions years.
After a number of exploration expeditions in 2009/2010, the local Government recently opened up the cave to a series of “pilot” tours, permitting just 220 visitors through the cave in 2014.
Chris Miller was one of them. And in his own words “I’ve been to a fair few places over the years and I have to say this ranks up there with the best of them.”
Tours to Son Doong Cave
Currently, each our is limited to eight tourists and costs USD3,000 per person. Joined by twenty additional support staff including porters, cooks, caving experts and guides, the eight-day adventure includes jungle trekking, caving, river crossing, underground camping and meeting the Bru VanKieu minority people of Doong Village.
Chris describes getting to the cave as an adventure in itself, with nearly two days trekking each way. “There was heat to deal with, hills to climb, jungle to tackle, rivers to cross, leaches and horseflies to avoid”.
But with challenge comes rewards and arriving at the cave’s entrance signifies the beginning of an adventure very few people have had the opportunity to enjoy.
In Chris’s words “once we finally made it inside Son Doong we often just had our jaws on the floor or suspected it was a trick and we were actually on an elaborate movie set instead of a real place”.
As I looked through Chris’s photographs, I constantly found what I thought was my favourite, until I looked at the next one. Not unlike, according the Chris, the experience of walking through the cave itself, where one seemingly unsurpassed highlight was matched or beaten around the next corner.
Photographing Son Doong Cave
As a keen photographer, I was interested in the logistical challenges a location such as this presents. Chris reflected on the photography experience as challenging but fun.
“There was usually very low or even no light, lots of mist and condensation, mud dirt and sand, harsh extremes between shadows, headlamps and sun, difficult and dangerous terrain, rapidly changing light conditions, unwanted movement during long exposures, limited battery power for the trip…and the list goes on.”
Carrying a Canon 5DIII and lenses ranging from 16-35mm, 24-105mm and 70-200mm he told me that at times, the 16-35mm didn’t even feel wide enough to capture the vastness of the great cave.
Including another person or tents in the shot helped somewhat to create a sense of scale, like this photograph of one of the guides looking towards a small solitary figure standing in the distance on the stalagmite known as “Hand of the Dog”.
Is Son Doong Cave for You?
If you have a thirst for adventure, are reasonably fit, enjoy wandering off the beaten track, are motivated by the opportunity to visit a location very few people have seen or are inspired by the photos Chris has shared with us, then Son Doong Cave may just be for you. But don’t wait too long – with only 220 permits granted in 2014, tours have filled up fast and it won’t be long before 2105 dates are also booked out.
As word is spreading, so will the popularity of this location. And this provokes the next question:
What will tourism do to Son Doong Cave?
We live in a world of conflicted values and Son Doong Cave is the latest prize in a struggle between tourism and conservation. Restricting the number of travellers per year and only permitting access to a travel operator with very strong feelings about conservation and safety feels like a good start. Oxalis tours are led by two of the very best caving experts from the UK, have equipment that meet European safety standards and employee local porters, cooks and guides.
But how long will it be before the attraction of more tourism income becomes too tempting and outweighs the importance of conserving such a special discovery. Time will only tell and we can only hope that a healthy balance between tourism and conservation prevails.
I now have a new dream location to add to my wish list – how about you?
Thanks to Chris for sharing his experiences and photographs