The Surreal Underworld of Son Doong

The humidity drenched me in sweat as I pushed through the dense jungle on my way to Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, explored for the first time in 2009. The first night, we camped in Hang En, a massive cave itself, eating dinner and swapping stories with Khanh, the local villager who discovered Son Doong back in 1990. Khanh didn’t venture in. The entrance was too steep, the depths too dark. Too unknown.

Khanh was part of the expedition crew — roughly 30 porters, cooks, and guides — all provided by Oxalis tours. Along with the crew, two British caving experts Adam, and John, accompanied us. Adam was a member of the first descent. John, the second. At night we shared stories of previous tours, including a hilarious tale of a porn star who unknowingly projected her silhouette - 100m high - onto the cavern walls due to a unfortunately placed lamp in her tent. That was a trip the porters would not soon forget.

I recounted the stories in my mind. It helped me pass the time as I trudged forward, my feet heavy, soaked from the many river crossings required to reach the cave. After a few hours of leaving Hang En cave, the air grew cool; a blessed relief from the oppressive heat. Son Doong is so vast it creates it’s own weather system. We were feeling the effects of the natural air conditioning a quarter of a mile before we even saw the entrance. How big is this thing? I wondered. Then we saw it — the gaping maw of Son Doong. We were going down there?

The rising mist enveloped us as we adjusted our harnesses and belayed into the darkness. One by one, our team descending arriving in an surreal underworld of slick rocks, massive stalagmites, the sound of rushing water, and the pensive looks on the teams faces, dimly illuminated in their headlamps.

Hang Son Doong, which translates to mountain river cave, is approximately 5m long and large enough for two 747s to be parked inside and high enough to envelope an 80 story building. More people have been into space than inside this cave. The next 3 hours we ventured deeper into the underworld, traversing knife-edge boulders, tight squeezes, and two more river crossings. If you ever visit Son Doong, the sooner you accept that your feet will be constantly wet, and arms and legs cut and bruised, the sooner you can let go and embrace the adventure ahead.

Our first camp site, situated on a flat surface, aptly named Level Playing Field, was deep within the cave near the first doline. The doline, a collapsed hole in the ceiling of the cave, cast an ethereal glow, wisps of cloud being drawn into the darkness. Distances are hard to judge in Son Doong. The doline, John said, was about 1.5 kilometers away, reachable only via a massive boulder field we would have to traverse tomorrow.

The light faded quickly. The angle of the sun in respect to the doline cast the campsite into darkness by 5pm. We switch on our headlamps, prepared our tents, waited for the porters to conjure another amazing meal, and played Mao Mao — a local game similar to Uno where the looser gets smeared with a black paste made of ash and cave dust. We laughed, and dranked rice wine until our lamps flickered.

I headed to my tent, peering upwards towards the cave ceiling high above and out of reach of the beam of light cast from my headlamp. I expected to see stars. There weren’t any. It didn’t feel like we were in a cave. There was no sense of claustrophobia. I felt as if I was on a ship, far out to sea where no light pollution existed, standing on the bow, a light breeze tingling my skin.

We broke camp early. We had been warned that the boulder field separating us from doline 1 was treacherous. It would take about an hour to traverse before a steep climb up loose scree to reach our goal, the Garden of Edam. Adam joked that the name, the Garden of Edam was a friendly dig at fellow British cavers and Deer Cave in Malaysia. Prior to the discovery, and subsequent exploration, of Son Doong, Deer Cave was considered the largest cave in the world, complete with a jungle at the northeast entrance, dubbed The Garden of Eden. Now Deer Cave was relegated to second. A stinging blow.

Son Doong’s garden was the inspiration of my journey. It was the John Spies spectacular pic atop the moss covered stalagmite that first blew me away. I knew I had to visit as soon as I could. I set myself a challenge of trying to produce such an epic photo.

Standing atop the stalagmite, starring at the portal so far above, left me breathless, gasping for air. It is an experience I will never forget. We celebrated, soaking in the vista, marveling at the untouched beauty of this hidden world.

Son Doong held more secrets ahead. We descended into the mist, making our way back into the underworld and stopped for lunch. We ate dragon fruit, fried rice, and coconut candies with a view of doline 1 and where we had just come from. I didn’t think I could ever be in a place more beautiful than atop the stalagmite, yet 30 minutes later, Son Doong outdid herself once again.

I ate quickly, grabbed my camera, taking shot after shot. The clouds ebbed and flowed like the beating of my heart. Every few minutes the scene changed from a Jurassic landscape, to an pilgrimage inspiring ray of light. It is a photographer’s dream. I did my best, but not sure my photos do it justice. Eventually we had to move on.

The cave changed again. It was no longer a slick field of boulders threatening to slice open my skin, or pitch me down 50m into the blackness, should my footing, or courage, fail. This part of the cave floods less during the wet season; other parts of the immense cave system fill with waters over 80m high. The ground was sandy, and the rocks felt like sandpaper; they had so much grip despite their appearance. We ventured deeper into the inky black underworld. I was in heaven.

Half an hour later, a few of us split off from the rest of the group to scale a 10m wall. Atop the wall was a vantage point John recommended we visit. It was a great spot to set up for a photo of the rest of the team ascending towards doline 2 and the jungle within the cave. I set my tripod, adjusted for the contrast of light and shadow, and watched the team — as small as ants — wind their way up the steep incline.

Photos captured, I packed my gear. We caught up with the rest of the team, waiting at the edge of the jungle. The heat hit me in the gut. Despite still being in the cave, the sun blazed overhead through the doline. I moved quickly through the jungle, legs burning from a combination of heat and fatigue, until we descended down to our final cave campsite.

The respite was brief. We drank coffee, then pushed on towards the Great Wall of Vietnam, an imposing wall of vertical limestone 80m high. First traversed a few years ago, the great wall led to an exit in the cave, and could be used as an emergency exit should something go terribly wrong in the cave. Before departing for Son Doong, I had boasted I could climb it and would see if I could convince the guides to let me try. After forty minutes of navigating through a canyon of mud and water, that reminded me of the scarred landscape and trench warfare of WWI in northern France, we had made it to the end of Son Doong.

We had gone as far as we could. I starred up at the Great Wall, ropes set for an ascent. I checked my ego — there was no way I could climb that. My life motto is trust is the path to adventure. I had to trust myself that that adventure was one I couldn’t do.

We congratulated ourselves for completing a journey so few people have ever accomplished. John explained that there was a proposal to change the trek to a one-way, three day trip, starting with a zipline down from the Great Wall and back the way we came. I nodded thinking that it might eventually be a good idea, especially if the interest in Son Doong continues to capture the world’s imagination. I smiled, a deep smile of satisfaction, casting the beam of my headlamp around at the alien landscape. I’d made it. I’d gone the long way, and now I had to do it all again to head back out towards civilization and a cold beer.

Want to see more pictures, or purchase print quality versions, check out the entire set on 500px.