Monday, 17 April 2017

Day 9: Rest day in Đồng Hới; we explore The Dark Cave.

Đồng Hới is the capital of Quang Binh province and lies on the coast.  Our hotel is across from the beach, and here we can see fishing boats painted red, blue and green sitting on the water. 
Last night we headed out to a pizza place a mile away but as an open-air taxi-cart passed by, the five of us hopped on, glad not to have to use our legs after 114km in the blazing sun.  
The pizza place menu promised us wine, lasagne and passionfruit juice but none of those things were actually available.  In the end, we opted for variations of soggy pizza and beer.  It seems however, that this place wasn’t expecting 20 loud and hungry people and at some point ran out of food.  In the pan-Asian style of “Saving Face” (or, perhaps, not wanting us all to leave), they didn’t tell us that they didn’t have enough food to fill our order. Instead, they said nothing until someone, on the verge of collapse, politely asked if any more food would be forthcoming; the waitress shook her head.
The next day we hopped on a tour bus and headed back to Phong Nha.  It was a late start, as some people had been up until dawn being entertained by the tricks of a beach-side magician (sorry, Illusions, Michael, illusions). The guide told us that despite the high-30s temperatures experienced yesterday, it was still a pretty cool time of year by the standards of Quang Binh province.  Here, you can expect it to hit 48 degrees in the summer (so plan your trips to Phong Nha accordingly!).
There are various cave systems that can be explored in Phong Nha.  The tour of Sơn Đoòng costs USD3000 and there are limited places available each year.   The places for 2017 sold out in less than a day.   This means that there is less footfall through Sơn Đoòng and helps to preserve it.  The downside is that fewer (and only privileged) people can experience it.  
Our group had been sent on the tour of The Dark Cave (Hang Tối) but hadn’t thought too much about it until we got there and the guide ominously told us to take off our shoes and backpacks, and to leave our valuables on the bus.  We were told not to bring cameras unless they were waterproof.
We were then given a waiver to sign in case we got injured (?!) then herded through a queue to be put into zipline harnesses, life jackets and hard hats.  Again: ?!  I had been hoping for a civilised stroll through semi-darkness broken by the occasional skylight through the top of cave that would illuminate its interior in a photogenic manner – not to re-enact The Temple of Doom.
It turned out that stage 1 of Dark Cave exploration involved ziplining across a large blue-green river, along the side of a limestone hill.  Grand.  This was pretty fun except the harness was not very gentle on one’s downtown area and after a week of long days in the saddle, said downtown area was threatening to close down for business.
On the other side, we went down some steps into the beautiful but icy cold river where we swam to the entrance of the cave.  Once in, we waded through thigh-high water (the ground below was covered in small, jagged pebbles which, along with the cold water, made me nostalgic for English seaside holidays).  The headlights on the hard hats lit the way through the cave which had a high ceiling and many jagged stalactites, some of which came down to head-height.  This did not reassure the risk-averse lawyer in me.  We clambered over some sand banks, down into another pool of water (chest-height this time and colder than the lake).  At this point we started getting a bit paranoid because the guide who was with us hadn’t said a word and was just herding us about by nodding and indicating with his torch.  We knew nothing about the cave, how it came into being or its significance.  It was like the opening scene of some hostel-based horror film:  a bunch of foreigners go on a touristic jaunt, are herded into a dark cave and made to form a human centipede.  Now, I’m not saying this wasn’t fun, it was just surreal.  And a tiny bit cold.
On we went through a narrow passage between walls of rock.  The ground below our feet become soft and sticky and there were pools of muddy water that hid potholes.  At this point, some of us became a bit anxious about injuries that could take us out of the ride.  But we pushed on through another chamber where the ground was thick with mud.  The guide said nothing, clambered up a rock, sat there and pointed with his torch to a dark opening.  Like lemmings we went through without protest, although the little German boy in front held back and told us to go first.  Inside, was dark brown water that gradually became chest deep.  We were wallowing around in the dark – in mud!  Surprisingly, it made us very buoyant and we rolled about floating on top of the mud-water, delighted and confused.
You could scoop up chunks of clay-like mud from the bottom and the sides of the cave (which can’t be good for its long term-preservation), smear it on yourself, or throw it at your mates.  
Eventually, we emerged like mole-people into the sunlight and were put into rubber canoes to row back to the shower area.  Others opted to swim instead, which was pretty brave of them because our canoe was being piloted by two hopeless uncos who almost torpedoed a couple of Americans.  I nearly knocked out another man in the water.  It turned out to be the German boy’s father so I desisted, but it was a close run thing.

The Dark Cave play area; there was an outdoor, water based obstacle course as well.

Back at the hotel, we befriended the establishment canine and christened her “Trash Dog”, because of the simple pleasure she got from fetching strewn garbage.  We’d throw a flattened tetrapak and she’d zoom off to fetch it, drop it at our feet and playfully gnaw at our legs.  She didn’t draw any blood (though it would have been a good way to test those rabies shots I got last year), she just liked to put her teeth around our limbs.
That evening, we celebrated our Dear Leader, Zak’s birthday!
Tomorrow: 115 kilometres to Đông Hà.  ZOUNDS.
Trash Dog isn’t like those spoilt city dogs with their fancy toys out in Thao Dien.  She’s just happy rolling about in garbage and chewing on rocks.  Or your leg.

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