QUANG BINH (Vietnam) - The moment I heard about its existence, I knew I had to see it with my own eyes.
Son Doong Cave, or Hang Son Doong as it is also known, is the largest cave in the world. It is an otherworldly place, a masterpiece of nature with awe-inspiring landscapes, and enormous stalagmites and statuesque stalactites rising from the ground and hanging from the ceiling like an alien species.
A week-long jungle expedition to the heart of Son Doong Cave turned out to be an unforgettable journey to a place as ancient as time.
Located in the heart of the Unesco-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Quang Binh province in central Vietnam, the cave was discovered by a local lumberjack named Ho Khanh in 1991. He did not dare venture in because he thought the powerful wind blowing from inside the cave came from the monsters of local mythology.
It was only around 2009 and 2010 that the cave was explored by the British Cave Research Association. It was officially opened to the public in 2013.
In Vietnamese, Hang Son Doong means "Mountain River Cave" and the grotto wears its name well, since it has its own underground jungle and ecosystem, with trees rising 30m above ground and a sinuous river that rushes through its gigantic chambers - features that set it apart from many other grottos around the world.
The journey to the entrance of Son Doong Cave involved two days of intense trekking through the thick jungle, multiple river crossings and one night of camping in Hang En Cave, the third-largest cave in the world.
I went there with nine others from HER Planet Earth, a non-profit organisation headquartered in Singapore.
At the entrance of Son Doong, we harnessed up and abseiled down about 80m through tight and slippery passages, scrambling over huge boulders into the cavernous belly. We had to stay alert at all times, lest we trip on the slippery rocks and tumble down into a ravine lined with razor-sharp stones.
Up and down we went, using the wooden ladders wedged between the rocks, sometimes removing our backpacks so we could squeeze through tiny crevices, splashing across icy rivers, pulling ourselves up with ropes or sliding down on our muddy bums over sloping stone walls, and balancing precariously on narrow and rickety bridges to cross wide-open echoing spaces.
The cave's proportions are extraordinary. Its main chamber is the largest in the world by volume (38.5 million cubic m), measuring more than 5km in length and running approximately 9km in total. Its largest section peaks at 200m high and 150m wide.
The only way to get a sense of perspective on the sheer size of Son Doong is to have fellow trekkers scatter throughout the limestone galleries. Even then, it is hard to properly comprehend the enormity of a place that could house an entire New York City block or could even store 68 Boeing 777 aircraft in its main passage.
The difference in temperature between the air inside and outside the cave creates hovering clouds of mist that give rise to a mysterious and surreal atmosphere.
The vegetation is extremely diverse, with lush and green foliage in parts where sunrays break through the openings and practically non-existent in the hallowed and dark chambers of the cave.
Because of its size and the high levels of rainfall in the region, erosion happens at an accelerated rate.
Occasionally, the weight of the limestone gives way and collapses, creating what is known as a "doline", derived from the Slovenian word "dolina", meaning "valley".
These sinkholes form huge gateways to the outside world, and at certain times of the year when the conditions are right, incredible sunbeams penetrate through the exposed sections, creating a mesmerising light show.
We would sometimes look up and shine our helmets' torches on the colossal limestone ceiling and marvel at the majesty of this underground cavern, and be reminded of how rare this experience is. There are fewer people who have seen the inside of Son Doong Cave than those who have stood on the summit of Mount Everest.
Our Vietnamese guide, Vu, said the cave was estimated to be about two to five million years old and was initially formed by river water eroding away the weak limestone underneath the mountain, creating huge skylights.
In many parts of the cave, we saw fossils believed to be millions of years old and thousands of cave pearls neatly packed into terraced compartments on the grotto's floor. The cave pearls are a natural phenomenon formed over hundreds of years when dripping water creates layers of calcite that build up around grains of sand.
At times, we would encounter crawling white insects, almost transparent in hue, that had probably never seen the light of day. Other times, we would step over the remains of small animals such as deer or rats, their bones mixed with mud and dust.
The trip was a spectacular adventure from start to finish. We used ropes again to climb out and exit the cave via the Great Wall of Vietnam, a calcite wall 90m high.
This expedition required 28 porters, safety advisers and guides, who were the heart and soul of this journey. These men all hail from Quang Binh, one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam, and have an astounding ability to survive and thrive in the jungles of Phong Nha.
The voyage was made even more poignant because our HER Planet Earth team was supporting a significant cause. This expedition aimed to raise awareness and funds for programmes that help the economic empowerment of women in rural Vietnam, strengthening their climate-change resiliency.
As we left the cave, my heart sank because a part of me wanted to run back to this Garden of Eden. Had we stepped back in time through a magical passage, deep inside the earth's inner core? Or perhaps taken a voyage to a lost world millions of years old?
It felt that way to me. So much so that returning to my daily life took some time and readjustment.
As we looked back, the team and I felt privileged to have witnessed a glimpse of what the world must have looked like when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Far from civilisation's hustle and bustle, everything seemed so much purer and simpler down there.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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