A version of this article was first published in the Straits Times Newspaper of Singapore on July 7, 2019.
The siren call was simply impossible to resist. The moment I first heard about its existence, I simply knew that I had to find a way to see it with my own eyes. Indeed, Son Doong Cave, or Hang Son Doong as it is also known, is the largest cave in the world. It is an otherworldly place full of wilderness and grandeur, a true masterpiece of nature with awe-inspiring landscapes, and enormous stalagmites and statuesque stalactites, hanging from the ceiling and rising from the ground like alien species. They say life is about great friendships and spectacular adventures. Our week-long jungle expedition to the heart of Son Doong cave in Vietnam turned out to be precisely that, an unforgettable journey to a magical place as ancient as time, where we found ourselves constantly at a loss for words in front of so much stunning beauty and splendour, as we solidified friendships.
Located in the heart of the Unesco-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in the Quang Binh province of Central Vietnam, it was initially discovered by a local lumberjack named Ho Khanh in 1991. He did not dare venture in because he thought the powerful and mysterious wind blowing from inside the cave came from monsters of local mythology. The cave was then explored in 2009-2010 by the British Cave Research Association. It is now open to the public, but only officially since 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 up 30m above ground, and a sinuous river that rushes through its gigantic chambers — distinct features that set the cave 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). Once at the entrance of Song Doong, we harnessed up and abseiled down about 80m through tight and slippery passages, scrambling over huge boulders into the cavernous belly of the mother of all grottos.
Travelling through the cave’s depths required intense concentration. 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 that we could squeeze through tiny crevices, splashing across icy rivers, wading through muddy streams, 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 metres), measuring more than 5 kilometres in length and running approximately nine kilometres in total. Its largest section peaks out at 200m high and 150m wide. The only way to get a real sense of perspective on the sheer size of Son Doong is to have fellow trekkers scatter throughout the limestone galleries. Even then, it’s hard to properly comprehend the enormity of a place that could house an entire New York City block or could even store 68 Boing 777 aircrafts in its main passage.
The difference in temperature between the air inside and outside of the cave creates hovering clouds of mist that give rise to a mysterious and surreal atmosphere, enveloping many areas of the cave in a dense fog and contributing to the eerie sensation. The vegetation is extremely diverse, with lush and green foliage in parts where sun rays break through the openings, and practically non-existent in the hallowed and dark chambers of the cave.
Because of its colossal 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 these exposed sections, creating a mesmerizing light show.
On occasion, during pauses in our itinerary, we would look up and shine our helmet’s torchlights on the colossal limestone ceiling above our heads and marvel at the awe-inspiring majesty and beauty of this underground cavern. In those moments, we would be reminded of how unbelievable and rare this whole experience truly was. In reality, fewer people have seen the inside of Son Doong cave than have stood on the summit of Mount Everest.
Our Vietnamese guide, Vu, shared that 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. One morning on the first day of the expedition, we were awakened by the chirping of hundreds of swifts sweeping across the cavernous hall above our heads. The whole experience was genuinely mystical and surreal.
In truth, it was a spectacular adventure from start to finish. We used ropes once again, to climb out and exit the cave via the Great Wall of Vietnam, a calcite wall totaling 90m in height. This expedition required 28 porters, safety advisors, and guides, who really were the heart and soul of this fantastic journey. In the same way that the Sherpas of Nepal are instrumental to a climber’s success in summiting some of the highest peaks, the local porters of Son Doong are the true heroes of this multi-day caving expedition. These men all hail from Quang Binh, one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam, and come from a variety of working backgrounds such as farming, hunting, and logging. One thing they all have in common is their astounding ability to survive and thrive in the jungles of Phong Nha. All in all, seventeen porters, two chefs, one national park ranger, one porter team leader, five safety guide assistants, one lead guide and one British caving experts made up the team that took us on this remarkable journey inside the world’s largest cave.
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. Thus, from the onset, thanks to this shared vision, our team was united in our purpose and humanity.
As we left the cave, my heart sank because a part of me wanted to run back to this precious 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 look back, the team and I feel privileged to have witnessed a glimpse of what the world must have looked like when dinosaurs roamed the earth and humanity was not even in its nascent stages. Somehow far from civilization’s hustle and bustle, everything seemed so much purer and simpler down there.
Photo credit: Sandra Lim, Oxalis Adventures & HER Planet Earth
They say the best journeys run deep and reconnect us with what it means to be human. Our sailing expedition to one of the most remote corners of the Philippine archipelago, Palawan, turned out to be exactly that - a deeply inspiring and revitalising voyage of self-discovery and exploration. We spent an adventurous week sailing on a stunning traditional 74-foot Paraw sailboat, the largest in the Philippines, which is a revival of an almost forgotten Filipino maritime culture dating back to more than 1000 years. Natural splendour abounded as we camped on deserted white sand beaches, swam through turquoise waters sprinkled with brilliant tropical fish, snorkelled around World War II shipwrecks, sampled native delicacies and simply revelled in the purity and wilderness of one of nature’s last ecological frontiers.
Our ‘HER Planet Earth’ team of explorers formed by ten intrepid women of diverse nationalities and backgrounds hailed from all corners of the world. And what brought us all together in the first place, apart from our adventurous spirit and a yearning to push boundaries, was a genuine desire to empower underprivileged women and to protect our beautiful planet.
We began our expedition in El Nido and made our way to Coron, meandering through the beautiful Linapacan island group. From the onset, the weather and tides dictated the itinerary and schedule. The wind in this part of the world blows strong, and reliably. It is sunny almost all the time, and there are literally thousands of islands in the Philippines - 7,107 at last count. Just a few days prior to our departure, a storm had prevented boats from setting sail from El Nido. Luckily, the weather Gods were on our side, and as we embarked on our journey, the sun shone brightly in the deep blue sky. The fair weather lasted throughout most of our trip, allowing us to combine stretches of pure, calm sailing with exploration of the islands, reefs and caves - carved into towering grey limestone cliffs estimated to be over 250 million years old. Palawan, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, literally looks like a Jurassic world, with its dramatic jagged rock faces and lush, green tropical foliage. And as we reached our base camp on the first night, we left the boat safely anchored in the bay, while we swam noiselessly ashore with the full moon suspended in the pitch-black sky above our heads to guide us forward.
Founded by eco-conscious British and Filipino Entrepreneurs, TAO, our local partners on this expedition, started a decade ago by running sailing trips across the islands, establishing a network with local families and fishermen. Today, they have grown it into a social enterprise that aims to immerse participants into the true Filipino island life, while at the same time support the remote communities of Northern Palawan. In Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines, ‘TAO’ means ‘human’ and is pronounced TA-O, in two syllables not one. To me who grew up in the Philippines and who has travelled to many parts of the world, their expeditions, although not for the faint of heart, are probably one of the most authentic things you could ever experience in my home country.
The highlight of the trip was discovering Tao’s Kalahi Foundation & Farm projects - all of which focus on the advancement of women, children's education, organic farming and local traditional crafts for this precious region of Palawan.
Founded in 2008 the Foundation works like an extended family in a sustainable micro-economy across a 200km stretch of islands. Creating jobs and providing opportunities for women’s group, food production, water security, schools, and scholarships – offering alternative means of livelihood and access to education among families challenged by isolation and the collapse of the fishing industry. The foundation works with what is already available in the islands; utilising abundant resources and harnessing existing skills to come up with sustainable solutions.
Tao’s main base camp is on Culion Island, where we stayed for one night. From there, they run a children’s school, a women’s association which focuses on teaching them how to give massages, weave and make organics soaps and shampoos. The foundation also educates the islanders on responsible and sustainable farming, from maintaining an organic farm to domesticating animals and producing their own vinegar - one of the main ingredients in Filipino cuisine.
During our trip, we slept in bamboo huts on the beach. The huts or ‘Tukas’ as they are a called locally, are built to survive strong winds and even typhoons. Because they are not anchored to the ground by concrete bases, they tend to bend with the wind and occasionally get blown away during typhoons - hopefully not too far- so that they can be picked up, straightened out and re-used after the storm has passed.
For showers on the islands - if we had access to fresh water - we would wash using a bucket in makeshift outdoor showers or at a local spring. At night, the crew, who were nicknamed ‘The Lost Boys’ - because they truly were the heart and soul of this adventure - would build a bonfire and bring out their guitar to sing along with everyone.
One very important member or the crew was a pet Jack Russel named Amo, who answers to no one but his master, Gener, the boat’s Captain. Amo was our little expedition mascot! He was often patrolling the horizon watching out for intruders and made sure he was always the first to get off the boat when we came ashore – jumping eagerly into the transport kayaks before anyone could even get a seat.
Everything we ate during the expedition was delicious and prepared with the freshest ingredients found on the islands, either farmed or grown in the wild. A typical meal consisted of fresh fruit and greens, rice, and fish or pork. Seafood was bought every morning from local fishermen, livestock used for consumption are always raised on the Tao farms and surrounding communities. Most importantly, fruit and vegetables are grown without harmful chemicals, so as to minimise the ecological footprint of the whole operation.
As I reflect on our expedition, I realise how important such journeys are to open up new perspectives and recalibrate our priorities. They force us to step out of our comfort zone, grow as adventurers and empower ourselves, so that we can in turn empower others. The team and I are deeply grateful for these unique life experiences, because we learn so much about the issues many underprivileged people face around the globe, especially women - making us understand how fortunate we are and as a result how much more we should try to support this kind of sustainable and responsible tourism.
Indeed, at the heart of sustainable development is a deep respect for the earth and future generations. No matter how remote we feel from the problem, every act each one of us takes in our everyday lives affects our planet’s fragile ecosystem. Climate change and environmental degradation are barriers to sustainable development, augmenting existing inequalities. And gender often remains the untold story in this dilemma.
In many countries, women are among the most vulnerable to climate change and environmental impacts, partly because they make up the larger share of the agricultural workforce and tend to have access to fewer income-earning jobs. The destructive forces of nature, warped by rising global temperatures, manifest in typhoons, floods and other extreme weather conditions can act as negative force multipliers in societies already riven by inequality. While climate change is a global phenomenon, its impact is not spread across a level playing field. In fact, its effects are felt locally, and poor people suffer the most – and nowhere is this more apparent than in places like the Philippines.
During our time there, we were privileged to meet authentic and untouched communities. We learnt about their many life challenges, hopes and dreams. Ultimately, such expeditions are exceptional because they are made up of what each traveller brings with them on the journey, and this gets intertwined with the stories of the people we meet along the way. And while ‘The Lost Boys’ did their utmost to look after our every need, it was truly an unforgettable voyage through some of the most isolated and hidden frontiers of the Philippine archipelago, where every day is an adventure and were new discoveries await explorers at every turn.