The Largest Cave On Earth: Son Doong Cave of Vietnam

Like a castle on a knoll, a rock formation shines beneath a skylight in Hang Son Doong. A storm had just filled the pool, signaling that ...

Like a castle on a knoll, a rock formation shines beneath a skylight in Hang Son Doong. A storm had just filled the pool, signaling that exploring season was coming to an end.

“It is still caving, it's just, it's unlike caving anywhere else on the planet.” Mark Jenkins

His feet move over limestone as sharp as razor blades yet invisible to the naked eye. The darkness is like pitch in the cavernous space, but the smell of moist air given off by the cave and jungle hangs heavily in the air.

To explorer Mark Jenkins, it feels like being inside a mountain. In the silence he can hear water dripping onto limestone and rocks, but whatever his senses tell him, one thing is clear: he is deep in the bowels of the earth, in the largest cave known to man. This is the story of Vietnam's Hang Son Doong, and the extraordinary journey Jenkins undertook to be among the first to fully explore this massive natural wonder.

To put things in perspective about the size of the cave, one section is almost 800 ft high and more than 300 ft wide. You could park a Boeing 747 there or fit a block of skyscrapers 40 stories tall in it. There is space enough for whole villages in this underground expanse.

Life flourishes here too. In the areas under the huge skylights that the exploration party discovered jungle grows and bats and birds flutter, while the areas in pitch dark are home to cave crickets and fish, small, blind and white.

In an extensive interview, Mark Jenkins tells us about his incredible experience on assignment for National Geographic.

The Great Wall of Vietnam was not the only challenging part of the expedition; just getting to the mouth of the cave was a lot of work. In fact, it is one reason that this cave will be off-limits to tourists, Mark tells us. To get here you not only need to be a good caver but an excellent wilderness hiker as well, used to getting through heavy jungle foliage with no trails. Listening to Mark, it was clearly a difficult trek.

“Well we passed through one cave for about 2 km to get into this forbidden paradise, where we are walking along a riverbed for some time. Then we hike up into the jungle once again – this is the second day – and it's real hiking. You're pulling yourself up on branches; sometimes it's almost vertical.

"It's like what the Aussies call bushwalking, where you're scrambling a lot and there is obviously no trail to this because there is no reason for anyone to have gone to this cave. And you are following the guide; he knows, he knows where it is. Half the time you have no idea where you are. You get turned around quite easily. Everything looks exactly the same. Unless you are a botanist and can identify trees, you don't know where you are. You cant see the sun, because it's often misty, cloudy dense foliage.

"So you are just following your guide... and you come upon, you can't see it from a distance... this kind of wall of vines, and you think: 'Oh jeez, there must be a cave somewhere.' And sure enough, you are walking along this wall – it's quite large, about 1 to 200 feet tall – you're walking along it just like something out of Tarzan or the Hobbit or something... And then you see these leaves fluttering, and there is this gaping hole. It's black, utterly black, but you can feel air rushing out of it, so you know you are at a cave. So then you use your headlamps, you start putting in ropes. You rappel, do one rappel, still not down at the bottom; you do another rappel, still not down; you just keep going until you get to the bottom.”



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