Monday, July 20, 2015

The Worlds Below Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park

At one point deep inside the Tu Lan cave system, the members of our tour all pointed our headlamps up at a huge column. The solid sediment looked as liquid as a clock in a Salvador Dali painting. No wonder people are so drawn to touch formations in caves – it’s hard to believe that they are solid. You want to poke it with your finger just to make sure. Luckily for us, the cavern burrowing through the mountain above us and the sharp stalagmites hanging over our heads were very solid. Barring an earthquake, we could have sat in our cave for a thousand years and not notice a single change. With the exception of a bat fluttering by every once in a while, caves are basically controlled laboratories for nature’s geological experiments. While I was at Phong Nha National Park in north-central Vietnam, I spent a fair amount of time deep inside these caves, so I had some time to think about it. Here are my observations about spelunking in the wilds of Vietnam.

View of Phong Nha and the Dr. Seuss mountains behind it

Cave Cricket
First, walking through a cave is a lot like diving on a coral reef. I started realizing this after our guide described a cave formation as looking like a piece of coral. The same subterranean forces that shape the rocks under mountains seem to have the same personalities as the submarine forces that shape the underwater world. Beyond the visual similarities between formations and coral reefs, the whole experience has a lot of parallels. Going into a cave requires a similar checklist as descending below an ocean surface: secure and check all of your gear; do a head count to see how many people are in your group; identify your entry point and then descend. Like diving, descending into caves can be pretty technical and you tend to be really focused on just picking your way down the rocks. When I dive, I’m usually too preoccupied with equalizing my sinus pressure and maintaining a constant descent to really notice what’s going on around me. But then, you reach the bottom and realize that you’ve landed in a different world. You start noticing fish/bats going back and forth overhead; you crane your neck upward to see the coral/rock features tower over head and, as you start traversing the floor of the sea/cave, you start noticing little critters in the crevices and start sticking your mask/headlamp into little corners to watch cave crickets/sea urchins hanging out on their rocks.

You get the same kind of tunnel vision in a cave as underwater. Both worlds require you to observe through a kind of window – either a headlamp in the cave or through a mask underwater. This forces you to process your surroundings piecemeal – it’s difficult to get the wide panoramas that we’re used to with peripheral vision up on the surface. Every once in a while, you have to look up and confirm that there is indeed something above. This tunnel vision helps to maintain some mystery in your surroundings, but it also helps you focus on what’s right in front of you. Sometimes peripheral vision can be a distraction. Up on the surface, our wide field of vision just gives us too many things at once. It’s distracting! Below the surface, the visual field is more suitable to those of us who don’t like to multi-task.
A drop of water forming a stalactite
Also, coral reefs and Vietnamese caves aren’t as far removed as you might think. The layers of rock that form the walls of the caves came from layer-upon-layer of coral reef, underwater plants and life that covered the sea floor millions of years ago. Like most of the world, the caves burrowing under mountains were once sea floors. Some people think caves are haunted. I agree with them, but I don’t think that caves haunted by human spirits – they’re haunted by the billions of pieces of compressed sea-life that make up the walls and ceilings holding up the millions of tons of mountain directly overhead.

View of the entrance to Ken cave from our campsite
Second, I can totally see how previous human civilizations could have mistaken caves for hell. The surface of Phong Nha national park is remarkable for its natural beauty. The karst landscape makes for dramatic mountains that rise up out of nowhere and sheer cliff faces framed in lush jungle. The sun shines brightly, rivers flow through the valleys and humans survive on what the earth provides. But look a little closer at one of those cliff faces or follow a river upstream far enough and you’ll find a gaping hole in what you thought was a relatively solid earth surface. They are dark, mysterious places that don’t seem to provide much support to life – except that bats fly out of their gaping mouths every dusk to prowl the night skies. Caves are weird places and only the bravest/fool hardy of people would venture to go into one without a reliable light source.

Lush rice fields on the surface

Imagine a medieval adrenaline junky venturing out of the security of his village to go explore one of these holes in the earth. Maybe he has a torch as a light source. He can’t convince anyone else to leave the village to go on this asinine adventure, so his discoveries can only be translated through the perhaps faulty wiring of his own consciousness. He stumbles his way down sharp, loose rocks, eventually losing the light from the entrance. At the bottom of the cave, darkness is absolute. If it weren’t for his torch, he couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face. The weak light from his flame shows bizarre, twisted formations of rocks. Stone daggers thrust up from the floor and hang down from the ceiling, threatening to impale him at any second. Blobs of collected sediment protrude from the cave walls, eerily resembling slimy monsters that he’s heard described by local fishermen who have sailed far out to sea. He hears noises but they are unfamiliar and he cannot determine their source. Going into a cave is to go into a different, unexplainable world that is so physically close to our own but so far removed. The lush colors of abundant life that make up the outside world immediately turn into a deathly grays and browns below the surface. If our explorer can’t find his way back to the mouth of the cave, if his light goes out, surely he’ll die down there.

I can’t imagine anything closer to the physical manifestation of hell than going down into a cave. Naturally, there aren’t devils dancing around with pitchforks, but if you look at some of those formations from the right angles, the stalagmites and stalactites look like pointy incisors attached to gigantic jaws ready to chomp down on anyone foolish enough to get in their way. With the right mixture of fear, imagination and a few hundred years of creative embellishment, those caves become our modern portrayal of hell. But even if Dante and John Milton were fooled, I’m not. I know that caves are really just spooky abandoned coral reefs.

Nautilus fossil/ghost in the cave wall

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bach Ma National Park

Entrance to Bach Ma National Park
I stood at the front entrance eyeing the road winding 12 miles in front of me up to the peak of Bach Ma mountain. The ranger had just informed me that it would cost $75 to get a ride up to the top in a van. The situation reminded me of how Vietnam does not tend to cater to individual travelers. The van option was tailored to the more normal 10 person Vietnamese tour group. I just couldn't justify giving up a chance to climb a mountain for an overpriced, 30 minute van ride.

Even though Bach Ma National Park is only a few miles away from the coast, I could already feel the cool air beckoning me to ignore the perils of spending an afternoon outside in Vietnam. Bach Ma peak itself was covered in clouds and it just looked like a different world up there. The logician inside me was telling me to wait for a group to come along and share a van with them, but my feet were chomping at the bit to make the summit on their own. And I was off.

The road climbed steadily and steeply the whole way. I kept seeing signs warning of a 10% grade ahead, but really the whole way was a a steep incline upwards. After about 20 minutes, I was already being rewarded with stunning views of the valley below leading out to the sea. The clouds kept their cover, too, so that I didn't melt. Everything was coming together nicely and I was running on the adrenaline rush that kicks in when you semi-spontaneously decide to climb 4,000 feet in a day.

See if you can spot the black tip of the tail curving around the barrier 
As I settled into a good pace, neck craned to my left watching the landscape recede below me, I heard leaves rustle and looked back down at the road. About 4 feet in front of me, a black snake with the slithered ahead. It raised its head and I could make out the unmistakable flare around its neck: a cobra. I froze. Finally, I had the wherewithal to pull out my phone and take a picture of it, but I was so flustered that I kept pushing the home button on my iPhone instead of the big white button for the camera. Once I finally snapped out of it, I was only able to catch the last of its tail as it exited the road for the thicker cover of the jungle. From then on, I proceeded with a little more caution, making sure to walk in the middle of the road.

Luckily, there is very little traffic on the road up to Bach Ma, so walking in the middle of the one lane road wasn't a problem at all. Most tourists drive up first thing in the morning for the sunrise, so my mid-morning start missed most of the heavy traffic.

About half-way up, I started getting up into the clouds and the view disappeared. Even though there was heavy cloud cover, I could still feel the mid-afternoon sun trying hard to burn through the atmosphere. The result was a weird combination of dense, glaring fog and heavy, hot air. I've never been so hot in fog before - my understanding was that you needed cool air to create fog? Left without a view to occupy my attention, I wandered on through the fog for a few miles trying to make sense of the meteorological conundrum I was caught in the middle of. My conclusion: I don't understand weather sometimes.

As I hoofed it over the second pass, lost in the random thoughts that flowed through my brain after several hours of walking through white, it started to rain. As it had been threatening rain all day, I already had my rain gear on and I welcomed the slight relief it brought from the heat. Besides, I was only about another mile from my lodge where I could dry off. I was so happy when I rounded the final corner at mile 12 and saw the one-story stone building waiting in front of me. It had been the first sign of civilization I'd seen in hours. Part of me had started doubting that there actually was anything at the top.

Right as I entered the front lobby, the rain started pouring down in earnest. I had been lucky. Lucky not only to have made it in time to miss the brunt of the rainstorm, but to have ended up in such a beautiful place. The lodge I had booked a room in was an old French villa built by well-to-do colonialists in the 1930s. I felt like I was in a wine cellar somewhere in France: the rounded stone walls supported a conical ceiling with a single stone column in the middle of the room. A staircase followed the rounded wall up to the rooms. It was such a cool space.

However, the girl at the reception desk had to deliver the bad news that I actually would not be able to stay there that night as the electricity was out. I'd have to go another mile up the road to the next lodge. Under other circumstances, I would have been devastated. Anyone who has climbed a mountain knows that you count down every foot for those last few miles to the top. To add a whole 5,280 feet to my countdown was a blow to morale. But the rainstorm outside was intensifying. Lightning was flashing directly overhead and the wind was straining at the windows. Electricity or no, I was at least waiting out the storm in that grand, French entrance hall.

As I watched the storm, I realized that I had started the day somewhere in tropical Vietnam and in just a few hours had somehow made it to Oregon. The lodge was surrounded by pine trees that padded the ground below them in needles. Wisps of clouds blew up the side of the mountain and the rain kept driving down. Every time lightning struck, I heard a zap come from the fuse box on the back wall and began to understand how the lodge had lost its electricity.

About an hour later, the rain finally slowed down. The receptionist gave me a poncho and I set off on my final mile, teeth actually chattering in the cold aftermath of the storm. I had never imagined that I would one day be cold in Vietnam, but it's possible.

I spent the second day exploring the trails around the peak of the mountain. I got up early for sunrise at the peak and then made my way down through the leech infested forests to a series of waterfalls. At one point, finding a leech on my ankle, I freaked out in the middle of the road, flinging my shoes and socks off in an effort to get rid of the little suckers. I found five of them on me in all, with many more wriggling around in the bottom of my shoe. Once I had removed them all, I fashioned a pair of leech socks out of my poncho: I'd rather be wet than covered in leeches. It seemed to do the trick, as I went the rest of the day leech free.

The highlight of that second day was Rhododendron falls, the grand finale of a series of waterfalls winding down the mountain. And yes, I walked the nearly 700 steps down to the base of the waterfall and then back up. And these aren't your friendly, OSHA approved staircases; these are crude, concrete terraces of varying height scaling the side of a cliff. After climbing back up those steps, I was done for the day. I went back to the lodge in time to miss another afternoon rainstorm. I left my window open and watched clouds spill over into my room. I still can't really believe that all happened in Vietnam. It really is a different world up there.

The top of Rhododendron Falls

The base of the falls, nearly 700 steps down

 Buddha in the jungle

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Cat Tien National Park

To get in the mood for this first section, I recommend listening to this sound clip that I recorded on the evening when we begin. 

The rain finally came Sunday night at around 3am. It was late, though, and made for a tense evening. The previous four days it had rained all afternoon, washing the accumulated heat and dirt off of the day and cooling the evenings. But Sunday night, I lost my patience waiting around for the rain and went to bed feeling like the day wasn’t quite complete. I had been waiting lazily enough, reading and swinging myself in a hammock out on a deck overlooking the Dong Nai River. The waiting was getting uncomfortable, though. The mosquitoes had already managed to score a few bites on my butt, which I have to point out was covered in two layers of clothing. I retreated back to my bungalow and behind the protection of my mosquito net. By then, even the crickets, cicadas and frogs had gone to bed and it was dead still outside as everyone just kept waiting for that inevitable rain to finally come. I turned on the fan in my room to blow away the tension in the air. It’s amazing how heavy the air feels right before a storm.

Typical afternoon rainstorm on the banks of the Dong Nai River. Cat Tien forest is on the opposite bank.

I felt like I had barely closed my eyes when I woke up to thunder in the distance. It was a welcome sound and I lay in bed listening to it gradually get closer. Within a few minutes, the thunder was peeling directly over me, starting just behind my head and continuing down past my toes.  I waited for the drops to start falling, but they didn’t. Despite the lingering anticipation, I fell back asleep. The next time I woke up, I heard footsteps approaching my bamboo bungalow. I held my breath and strained to listen where they were headed. They approached my bungalow, then started heading away from it, then sideways, parallel to my room then… on my roof? Eventually, my senses sharpened and I realized that the footsteps were in fact the rain beginning to fall around me. The slow, heavy start transitioned to a steady rhythm that played nicely on the thatch roof above me. With the tension finally cut, I fell back into a deeper sleep.

I dreamed of dinosaurs that night: specifically, a T-Rex wreaking havoc on a ship. It was like “Jurassic Park: The Lost World” except that my brain was playing all the scenes that took place on the boat that the movie didn’t show. My dream ended differently, too, with the boat finally pulling up to a curb along a Mexican sea-front plaza. The shallow water caused the ship to tip over, releasing its deadly cargo into the party town. I can only imagine that my dream was (at least partially) inspired by Cat Tien National Park. The forest I spent the last 5 days in is a prehistoric kind of place that seems to be fit more for giant lizards than soft skinned humans. The giant “Tung” trees, for example, must have been around for the dinosaurs - they kind of look like dinosaurs. Their long, ascending roots are like dragons, with smaller, secondary roots coming off the main roots that make for believable looking legs. Maybe my dream influenced that simile, though. A few days before my dream, I had walked around a Tung tree comparing its giant roots to flying buttresses of some medieval church or castle. I like the dragon simile better though – it’s more likely you’ll see a dragon in that dense, ancient forest than a gothic cathedral.

A massive root coming off a massive Tung tree.
I celebrated my last day in the Cat Tien forest by crossing the length of the park to Crocodile Lake. I didn’t actually see any crocodiles there, but that didn’t take away from the experience. I rode my bike and walked through dense jungle for about 3 hours to get there and the grand expanse of the lake was a dramatic contrast. I don’t tend to get claustrophobic, but walking through Cat Tien tested the limits of my senses. My eyes couldn’t do much more than watch the path directly in front of me. As soon as I looked up to either side of me, I was blinded by green. In the beginning, I’d try to use my eyes to follow up on clues my ears were receiving – a rustling tree here, a flutter of wings there – but my eyes usually couldn’t provide much help.  Once, while watching a tree top shake violently, I saw a monkey fly through the air on its way to another tree, but other than that my eyes were pretty much useless. By the end of my trek, I was relying on my ears. Instead of trying to spot birds through the dense leaf cover, I stopped periodically to listen to the symphony of calls all around me. At Crocodile Lake, though, the jungle opens up to an expansive wetland where the eyes finally got to join in again: cranes circling over the water looking for a place to land, brightly colored birds darting over the tops of the reeds and red-headed ducks waddling through the shallow wetlands.

Lava stone footpath to Crocodile Lake - chiseled and placed by hand.

I returned to the lodge sweaty, muddy and beat. It was 3pm and hot and I had just covered 20 miles over bumpy, muddy roads and narrow jungle paths. I was hungry and thirsty, as all I had during my trek was a Cliff Bar and two bottles of water. Luckily, the lodge I was staying at served an awesome river fish steamed in pineapples, tomatoes and peppers. After I devoured that and finished off a liter of water, I crashed into bed to sleep off the heat of the afternoon. The bamboo bungalows make air conditioning futile, but the gaps in the wall allow natural ventilation to keep the rooms cool. I actually visited another lodge down the road that had brick built rooms and a/c, but they were still hotter than my little bamboo bungalow. The technology may be a thousand years old, but it works.

My humble bungalow. The stockings hanging behind the chair are my leech socks. 

Steamed fish from the river right below this table. 

Later that evening, the owner of the lodge I was staying in showed me around his garden. He had planted about 40 hardwood trees that would grow there for over a thousand years. Even though the lodge had only been open for two years, the owner was obviously planning for a long future. The trees he was planting would barely be adolescents (in tree years) by the end of his life. But that’s the cool part about forests, I guess. The giant trees that are already over a thousand years old transport you back in time – even if not quite back to the dinosaur era, at least back to the gothic age. The little saplings that reach up to your chest and are as big around as your thumb transport you a thousand years into the future. Who knows what the banks of the Dong Nai River and Cat Tien national park will look like a thousand years from now. I hope it still looks similar. It was nice to have my weekend there in the middle of both.

The full span of a Tung tree.