Scrambling in a Mountain
At last I have climbed a mountain in Vietnam. A real mountain not a metaphorical one.
Phong Ke Bang National Park is still relatively unknown to the western world and so it is possible to get to places rarely visited. I joined a group for a two day hike through jungle and caves and over those jagged karst mountain teeth to remote valleys.
Starting from the village of Tan Hoa the rugged limestone rose sharply on all sides. The way out of the village involved a muddy trudge through a field reminiscent of a Cumbrian farm yard.
Then the first river crossing. It looked decidedly cold but as one of my group said, this was what we signed up for. So under the expert guidance of Thang in we plunged. Scrambling out with relief, we were back in within minutes to cross a tributary before heading up the first hill.
First river crossing
Those karst rocks take no prisoners, sharp and jagged as well as slippery with rain and moss. I was glad I’d scrambled up the odd Cumbrian mountain. Though at least the plants in Cumbria don’t present the threat of stinging you into the middle of next week.
Over the first hill into the Hang Ton Valley. A full circle of hills surrounds and the floor is covered in shoulder high vegetation. Rather disappointingly we were unlikely to meet anything more dangerous than one of the local village cows as we climbed up to the dry mouth entrance Hang Ton for lunch.
From the cave to Mango Mountain. A slightly larger tooth and surprisingly with mango trees growing on it! Lots of scrambling and warnings to avoid the tarrow plants, poison ivy, thorns and other malicious foliage.
Able to hold it’s own in a battle with human flesh the variety of plants and foliage appeared infinite. I have been in few other ‘jungle’ regions but have never been so ‘awestruck’.
Our camp appeared in the TuLan Valley, by the entrance to Ken Cave. With only time to be shown round the campsite with its interesting ‘eco loos’ we donned our life jackets and helmets again, and swam into the entrance. Carsten Peter shot a series of photos in this cave which won him a Nat Geo prize.
Inside Ken Cave
Our cameras were carried in sealed plastic tubs by porter and guide. I am actually amazed my camera still works. Despite the precautions it has been well bashed and seen a fair amount of damp, but it survived. Back to the caves. After failing to take an award wining photo we swam back out to camp and food.
Food all cooked and prepared freshly by the river. Water pumped out and filtered onsite so very eco friendly. Washed down with the euphemistically named ‘happy water’. Rice wine strictly rationed so we were fit to walk the next day. Visited by the largest form of wildlife on the whole trip. A large river crab which came in for some easy pickings of dropped food.
Day two passed by in a blur of concentration and information. What can I say and where do I begin? My memory tells me we were in and out of the water every five minutes. In fact I think each stretch was around 20 or 30 minutes. We went straight into the water after breakfast. And then I think, it was Hang Kim Cave. Or rather swimming into it. Looking back from dark to light, bats could be seen as they flitted and squeaked above. But with cameras safely tucked away it was not until we had scrambled up several rock faces and one particularly narrow entrance that there was any chance of photographs.
The rock formations astounded me. At times we were walking through cathedrals scattered with dinosaurs and wedding cakes. Spiders eyes glinted in the torch light while Christmas tress shone with sparkling icing. If it were real, the gold in the ceiling would make the porters millionaires several times over. Then suddenly we were walking on a beach, or even a desert before delicate coral made placing our feet a matter for concern. White ‘eggs’ were nestling in hollows, perhaps there really were dinosaurs down there. Then just as quickly we were climbing up steps akin to the grandest opera house before squeezing in to a chimney.
No sooner were we dry than we were back into water to circumnavigate a waterfall. Heard well before seen. Currents making the safest route clinging to the sides. Even that was fraught with rocks protruding at every angle. Shins liberally sprinkled with bruises.
From Kim Cave we climbed out and down in to the jungle. More huge palm fonds and plant diversity. Sadly with the war and poverty wildlife has just about been hunted to extinction, hopefully the manifestation of a National Park and eco-tourism with help to show the value of the resources as they are. We crossed the largest waterfall in the area before swimming back into Hang Ton through the wet entrance. After a few wash/dry cycles and awe inspiration we finally climbed up a ladder to the same entrance we had lunched in on day one.
A sigh of contentment thinking that was it, we were dry, only to realise that we had another hill to climb, a river to cross and a field of dubious soup before we were really home.
I went with Oxalis. Their organisation and staff were wonderful. Many thanks to the local guides and porters for keeping us safe and so well fed. My boots were a pair of my favourite Keens, still drying out 24 hours later. Quck dry pants from Mammut and last but not least, my camera. Fujifilm X-T1. Which does still work! Only telling you this as one or two people have asked. No sponsorship received…..