We joined a two day trek to Hang En (Swallow Cave), the third largest cave in the world. Our group of 16 came from Japan, Switzerland, Denmark and the USA including six from Seattle. The path was so steep that tree roots made steps downhill. We descended for over an hour on a slope that was easily at 45 degrees and steeper in places. We dodged spiked trailing creepers and poison ivy.
A picnic lunch including fresh spring rolls was laid-out on a tarpaulin in a dry river bed and soon afterwards we made it to an indigenous village. A dozen wooden huts, chickens, dogs and 40 or so locals busy collecting wood. Small fires gave everything and everyone a strong smokey smell. We continued down a sandy river delta, wading knee-deep through the river every 10 minutes. The jungle was pristine. The valley was surrounded by overgrown limestone karsk mountains on every side. A truly hidden world, it felt like Jurassic Park!
The cave loomed into view around a bend in the river, a black arch breaking the rhythm of trees. We contemplated its sheer size as we approached. Superlatives are inadequate, this was a cave filling a mountain. The river swung to the right and disappeared; all that water must be going somewhere. We were standing on a shingle beach under a long, low gash in the mountainside. A second, lower and geologically newer cave entrance. It was perhaps 70m wide and 5m high with one central pillar set off-centre. Inside was blackness and a dim, sparking reflection as the river wound its way inside.
More wading through black water and then we climbed up to one side. Rocks and soft sand at our feet lit only by twitching head torches. The rocky ceiling was a few metres above but the cave walls were out of torch range. The passage opened onto a fresh vista; the first cave entrance high above cast slanting light onto a beach within a massive cavern below. I’m sure this is the biggest space I’ve ever been in, perhaps 70m wide and the same tall.
The enormous mountain above us preyed on our minds at first but the feeling passed and we swam in the warm, clear lake inside the cave. Later we sat down for dinner with only swallows, bats and the rock arching above us. A little rice wine mixed with our earlier exertions made for an early night and sound sleep after a game of dice and a massage train around the fire.
We woke to a gentle hum of birds and bats and donned helmets and lights again. We left our small but reassuring slither of sky behind and climbed the rocky slope at the back of the chamber. There were dim shadows of far-away walls beyond our torches as we discovered new depths to the cave. We climbed up and down picking-out stalactites, stalagmites and fossils. A kilometre later, our eyes picked-up the slightest hint of natural light. This led us on to a grandstand view of the tall, perfectly arched cave exit. Below us the river bubbled past and back into the jungle. Above the shingle beaches emerald green vegetation climbing the steep valley sides. The scale was apparent only once we could see our fellow explorers ant-like below.
We returned by tracing the river through the cave along its most recent course, wading hand in hand through the hurried water and back to camp. After all the darkness the jungle appeared bright as we re-traced our steps up the river and through the village. On the final climb drizzle and misty clouds turned the path into a muddy ladder. We arrived at the top wet and cold and very happy to have spent two days exploring fantastic un-touched scenery. Alex also took some cracking pictures to add memories to our walls.