You will be wet and uncomfortable for two days.
The preparatory speech was short and savagely uninspiring, its conclusion hanging in the air like a cold draft in a warm room. Our guide — a youthful, wiry man with high cheekbones — was smiling as if he hoped we would misconstrue this for good news.
Uneasily, we strapped on army-issue jungle boots and fussed with the few belongings we had been permitted to bring while rain tapped a morse-code message on the rusting sheet-metal above us. As we apprehensively filed out of the hut, past the dripping hat-brims of buffalo-herders and onto a vast field, we stepped off the last inch of moist hard-pack earth and onto a trail of viscous, grasping mud. The singular question on everyone’s mind was one I often ask myself at the beginnings of long and arduous adventures: “what the hell am I doing here?”
Days prior I had somehow convinced myself, as well as my good friend & travelling partner Patrick, that buying two underpowered motorcycles and driving hundreds of kilometres North from Hue, Vietnam to Phong Nha was a good idea. Weeks before, I’d learned from a rock-climber in Saigon that the area was home to a cave large enough to fit a 747 inside. What had not occurred to me was the reason for the existence of such a gigantic cave: Phong Nha (and the surrounding areas) receive at least eight feet — or 2,500 millimetres — of non-stop rainfall per year. It had been raining steadily since we first put our keys in the rusted ignitions of our beat-up bikes — and this cold, beautiful countryside, filled with towering limestone karsts and overflowing rivers, was no exception.
Unfortunately, what had also not occurred to me was that wildly fluctuating water-levels would make access to the larger caves impossible, and we were greeted upon arrival in Phong Nha with that resolute imperative that all Vietnamese know and exercise when they deem a task undoable because of possibility of death, priority of an upcoming nap, or for anything other reason at all: “Can Not.” Despite numerous attempts to persuade otherwise, the original plan had to be abandoned.
There was, luckily, another option: we could join an expedition into the Tu Lan cave system, a more remote set of caves buried under the Annamite mountain range, seventy kilometres into the jungle and out of the national park, along the border of Laos. It was there that we found ourselves questioning our sanity just twelve hours later.
After wading through mud, heads down, our porters struggling intently beside us for what felt like days, we came finally to a break in the path for the reason of a wide and fast-flowing river. This river, our guide cheerily informed us, was very deep and very cold (save for a small sand-bar), and the current strong. If we fell off the sand-bar, we would likely be swept downstream at great peril. We prepared to enter, fully clothed, in pairs, with the absolute absurdity of paying to trudge through mud and plunge into freezing, treacherous water occupying the forefront of my mind. As I slipped into the current, our guide’s enthusiastic broken english followed me like buzzards follow a dying animal: “Don’t worry, this is the very easy part.”
There is a point, somewhere along the growth curve of mounting cold, hunger, exhaustion and grit, that discomfort becomes a boon rather than a hindrance. Adrenaline kicks in, like jumping into an icy lake in mid-winter, and an intense focus on extending your life knocks out all other pretences and priorities.
As we proceeded into the jungle on that first day, trekking through underbrush and swimming down rivers into cavernous holes so black and frigid they seemed like portals to the underworld, this adrenaline-fuelled psychosis overtook my faculties, one-by-one; the continuous video-feed of vision slowed until it was a simple succession of frames. I recall only specific things: a giant stalagmite, large as six-story building, looming out of dark water; teeth chattering and jaws clenching; the flutter of a thousand tiny bat wings; tiny tunnels of light punching holes in an endless, silent void; climbing hand-over-hand up a vertical cavern wall to scramble through a hole; silver and gold-veined columns like tree trunks.
The youngest among the ten caves in Tu Lan is three million years old — yet the caves have only been known to contemporary humans since 1992. The gravity of such age is too massive for the conscious and understanding mind. Yet it was omnipresent, hovering just outside thoughts that floated in and out as we traveled through the jungle, often in silent single-file. These stones had seen extinctions, outlasted the rise and fall of empires, and watched the earth slowly burn from the inside out as all of life on its paper-thin surface fought tooth-and-nail, simply to exist.
The effect was profound and although no element of imagination was needed, a sort of apotheosis took place as we wandered through the caves, miserable and dripping and full of awe. I can only describe the feeling of insignificance, but to feel it you have to stand next to something that is millennia older than you in a place where few footsteps have fallen.
Finally, after what felt like eons but was only two days, we swam out of the last cave and stepped onto land for the final time, miraculously alive and with all of our limbs attached.
It is amazing how well the mind calibrates itself to exertion, misery, and intense fatigue - so that after repeatedly swimming in and out of frozen black hell and bush-whacking through dense jungle in dripping clothes, cold rain and knee-deep mud seem luxurious.
It is amazing too how the promise of warm food and dry clothes can instil energy where there is none remaining. When we finally walked out of the forest, squelching happily back into the knee-deep mud that we had struggled miserably through just a day before, I remember passing the buffalo-herders in their conical straw hats and wondering if they knew, or cared, of the immense wonders that lay just beyond their door-step.