Friday, 5 January 2018

Wild Tu Lan Cave Explorer (Quang Binh, Vietnam) - To Mo Valley to Tan Hoa

The final day of a three day guided trek of the Wild Tu Lan Explorer with Oxalis Adventure Tours takes hikers from the To Mo Valley campsite back to the Oxalis headquarters in Tan Hoa. Passing through Hung Ton and Secret Caves, the more relaxed day nevertheless features several adventurous moments, such as a 15 metre ladder climb and squeezing through a tiny cave passage. A fitting final day to a great trek

Distance: ???
Gradient: Some very steep ascent and descents over the course of the day, with some scrambling and a 15 metre ladder climb required.
Quality of Path: Largely clear and well maintained through the jungle, with some uneven sections of rocky limestone. No formed path through the caves, some of which requires squeezing through very tight passages to pass through.
Quality of Signage: Non-existent; this is a guided walk that must be done with Oxalis Adventure Tours.
Experience Required: Previous Walking Experience Recommended
Time: 4 Hours
Steps: Informal steps throughout with some ladders.
Best Time to Visit: Not during the wet season.
Entry Fee: Yes; walk must be completed with Oxalis Adenture Tours. 
Getting There: Pick up from a local hotel is included in the price of the tour.

After a less than optimal sleep on our second night, Alissa and I woke up fairly early to start our third and final day of the Wild Tu Lan Cave Explorer. We were not the only ones up early however, and we got the fire going again as we sat around chatting before breakfast. After another excellent meal, we all thanked the excellent cooks for their work, as we would be heading in a different direction for the rest of the day.

Our trekking began in earnest given that our first cave was just a short walk away. With the rushing waters being rough at this time of year, our guides organised a boat to take us through our next cave.

The porters had impressed us with their strength, dexterity and amazing ability to remain relatively mud free throughout the trip, so seeing one of them pick up a heavy boat, carry it over his head and take the difficult way into the cave was just another incredible feat to add to the tally.

Heading left and around the edge of the river, we followed our guides through a smaller but safer passageway into Hung Ton Cave.

Scrambling down a series of rocks led us to the water's edge . While a few of the group decided that they wanted to swim, most of us accepted the easier option of being ferried two by two across to the dry passage beyond.

Across on the other side, our guide Ken pointed out a massive tree branch high up in the cave. This was a perfect indicator of how high the water level gets in Hung Ton Cave during the wet season. Ken had shown us a time lapse video of water filling up Hang En Cave the previous night, and it was just incredible to see how flooded these caves can get.

While waiting for all the others getting ferried across, we were able to marvel at some of the beautiful formations in Hung Ton's dry passage.

Continuing along, we passed a 15 metre ladder leading up to the cave's exit. While Ken and one of the porters climbed up to prepare the way for us, Hiếu took us further into the cave to see a few of the more unusual features of Hung Ton Cave.

One of these unusual features is cave pearls. While not actually pearls, these round balls form when calcium begins to form around a single grain of sand. Hiếu pointed at a stalagmite nearby and indicated that these cave pearls form at half the speed, and yet there are massive cave pearls the size of baseballs in Son Doong - the biggest cave in the world.

Another interesting feature of the cave was the appearance of a fossil lodged in the cave wall. Although a different rock type to the sandstone of somewhere like the Grampians or the iron-banded formations of Karijini in Australia, the limestone of the Tu Lan Cave system was formed as sedimentary layers in an ancient sea bed as the sea shell fossil clearly indicates.

After checking out the fossil, we returned to the ladder and began the ascent. While the 15 metre ladder may seem daunting, it was actually quite an easy climb. Additionally, we were provided with the added peace of mind of a rope and harness just in case.

After the group made its way up the ladder, we next used a length of rope to climb up a smooth and somewhat slippery slope. This was again a fairly easy climb, but one that added to the adventurous nature of the walk.

Once up the slope, it was only a short walk to the cave's exit and stunning views of the jungle beyond.

As we regrouped by the cave entrance, we watched as another Oxalis group passed by. We asked Ken and Hiếu which tour they were doing, and we found out they were doing a custom tour. Given that they appeared to have taken an easier route around the cave rather than through, we joked that they were not as hardcore as us.

Once we'd given them enough space, the group continued along through the jungle before reaching a clearing in the forest. This was the first time since day one that we had hiked through open terrain and was a nice change of pace.

The open terrain did not last long however, and we were soon back in the jungle scrambling up to our next cave - Secret Cave.

While the jungle trekking was relatively clear and easy to follow, the cave's entrance was narrow and inconspicuous; it certainly lived up to its name of Secret Cave.

The cave entrance was so narrow we had to crawl in single file, with Ken going in first to show us the way. The narrow passage was extremely muddy, and having to crawl and squeeze through meant we all got pretty filthy by the end of it.

Given the narrowness, we all formed a line and passed our bags through one by one.

Once through the narrow passage, we had an even smaller obstacle ahead of us - an awkward hole we had to climb through to get to the other side. This required us having to push ourselves up and over the hole. As I went through, my boot got stuck in a crevice and I had to work extra hard to both push myself up and over and dislodge myself at the same time.

On the other side of the passageway, we encountered a cavern filled with a large number of cave pearls. Given the dark and narrow passage, it was good that the cave had been cordoned off in sections to prevent hikers walking over the fragile pearls.

Once we were all through, we continued on through the cave to its exit while enjoying the cave's formations.

Through to the exit, we noted the somewhat phallic appearance of a nearby column. During the discussion, Alissa and I told the group about the Pinnacles in Western Australia and the prevalence of some fairly phallic formations that can be seen along the Pinnacles Desert View Trail.

After a quick picnic morning tea break, we pressed on through the cave exit to cross the same river we had encountered on our first day.

Before we could get to the river, we had to descend a steep, muddy and slippery path leading to the river crossing.

Being through what is essentially a floodplain, this part of the walk was the most insanely muddy of the entire trip. While we were already filthy from crawling through Secret Cave, we were getting even filthier falling over into the mud. The river crossing was sounding more and more inviting to get clean.

Reaching the river, the guides tested the water to ensure that it wasn't too deep or too swift for us to safely cross. Once they'd confirmed that it was safe to proceed, we all made our way across. Alissa and I have had a lot of experience crossing rivers (sometimes dangerously so), and we ended up helping some of the less confident get across by walking with arms interlinked.

Once across the river, it was an easy walk back to the Tan Hoa headquarters to gather the rest of our belongings and for a much-needed shower. After we were all cleaned up, Ken and Hiếu took us to the nearby village for a beer and a delicious bowl of noodle soup. From there, we were taken back to our hotels or onwards to Dong Hoi for transfers to flights or the train.

This was an excellent and relatively easy final day of the walk, given that it featured less scrambling and/or jungle trekking than the previous two days. While less impressive than the caves of day two, Hung Ton and Secret Cave had their own personality and charms, and the adventurous ladder and rope climbs were memorable parts of the day. Overall, the Wild Tu Lan Cave Explorer was an absolutely incredible walk and one that Alissa and I thoroughly enjoyed. Talking amongst the group, we agreed that this was right up there with some of the best hiking we'd done and it would rank right up there in terms of uniqueness and natural beauty with much more famous walks like the Overland Track in Tasmania. Thoroughly recommended. 


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