Eva shares her account of the first day of our trek.
On the 17th, we embarked on a three day trek into the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park where we would climb through three of the biggest caves in the world. Our lead guide went by Captain, the English translation of his Vietnamese name. He led us through seemingly impenetrable jungle as if he were going for a casual stroll. Meanwhile the rest of us struggled to stay upright as we slipped along the muddy trail. The guide at the rear of our group, who went by Messi, made sure that nobody veered off the trail, never to be seen again.
I expected this trip to be more touristy, and by touristy I mean anything other than being pushed physically more than I have ever been pushed before, discover a new, well-earned fear of leeches, and almost lose my balance while perched 70 feet above the cave floor (Captain and Messi caught me preemptively).
The trek began, like all Explorations adventures, with rain despite what we had been promised the day before. We began by essentially foot sledding through a valley only to climb an 80% slope, grabbing onto trees and vines to keep from falling. This continued for the first two kilometers of the nine we would be hiking. The Vietnamese do not believe in switchbacks, so we trudged straight up the hills only to slide right back down again, collecting more and more leeches, in the process. Eventually we scrambled up a hill using a vine, Indiana Jones style, scrambled through a crevice, and, after another half a kilometer of scrambling on giant rocks, we found ourselves at the gaping entrance to Tiger Cave.
We climbed inside, and I felt like I was on a different planet. Only 100 people had ever been inside, so the dust from thousands of years was still settled on every surface. Further inside the land gave way to water, serene and completely still. Now that we could walk no more, we put on life-jackets, swam around a bend, and delved deeper into the cave. At one point, I aimed my light straight up. The light could not reach the top of the cavern. We ended up swimming nearly one thousand feet before we returned to land and finally reached the other side of the cave. We then swam all the way back and returned to the entrance of Tiger cave where we started some straight up rock climbing to get to Hangover Cave. As we approached camp I asked Captain if we had been a good group. With typical Vietnamese honesty he chuckled and gestured towards the porters. “They don’t think so,” he replied. We were the biggest group to ever do this trek, and 10 porters had each carried 90 lbs of gear to make this trip happen.
Inside the cave, we saw the benefits of so much luxury being brought along the journey. The porters had set up a kitchen. Behind them, our tents were already set up, their bright green sides contrasting against the warm tones of dirt and clay. They were surrounded by elaborate rock formations reaching down from the ceiling and seeming to appear at random from the ground. This was the stuff of dreams. We rested briefly until being called to dinner. They had set up 80 feet of soft mats, with plates, bowls, and silverware waiting for us. They then proceeded to place a feast like no other before us. Dozens of plates filled with countless Vietnamese specialties, each more delicious than the last. In short, this trip was not the typical Explorations camping experience.
It’s not too late to make a gift that will enhance the experience for all Explorations Academy students.