Da Dong (The rather un-original but accurately named "BIG CAVE")

Da Dong (The rather un-original but accurately named "BIG CAVE")

by Rich Gerrish, January 2004

Mr. Zhang's farm after snow
Rich Gerrish is a caver living in Hong Kong. Here he recounts his adventures on a recent expedition to Zhangjiajie in China's Hunan Province with the Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society.

I shuffled from the plane onto the steps down to the tarmac. The cold air slammed into my face and filled my lungs. After two months in the heat and humidity of Hong Kong the icy caress was at once refreshing and comforting, reminding me of home. The mist obscured the airport terminal which appeared as vague lights in the night and with each breath disappeared entirely behind the rich plumes of condensing vapour escaping from between the teeth of my broad smile, I was back in China and I was going caving.

After a slow drive out of town through the mist and snow I met Erin Lynch and Duncan Collis at a farmhouse that was to be our base for the week. The following morning the three of us, accompanied by the ubiquitous Chinese entourage, this time consisting of three university students, a man in camouflage combats and Mr. Zhang who was the owner of the house we were staying in, made the 40 minute walk from the farmhouse to the cave entrance.

The snow was beginning to melt as the day warmed up slightly but the sun still failed to penetrate the mist that lay like a shroud around the sides of the valley we followed. As the river unwound before us past paddy fields and farmsteads, the hills on either side closed in and rose up to terminate the valleys progress in a huge limestone headwall. Although I had already been told the details of the cave entrance, the unfolding reality of it still elicited the surge of excitement in me that I often feel necessary for my own survival. Gradually the roof of the gaping maw and the dark shadow it concealed came into view but with this vast cavern still some 100m or so distant out attention was snapped closer to hand. The churning brown waters of the river worked their way over and through a massive natural dam caused by an evidently recent and impressively large landslide to be engulfed by several forbidding holes in the valley floor. We skirted around the edge of the sink and onto the more tempting entrance beyond, along the now dry riverbed.

Duncan in Da Dong

The vast dome like entrance towered above our heads and scampering along the boulder littered floor I felt like an ant crawling into the shelter of a giant snail shell. My whoops and cries echoed back from distant walls and mingled with the sound of unseen rushing waters.

A near perfect set of flowstone stairs that must have been chipped out long ago, led from the floor, up the left hand wall, to almost summit a high terrace of Gour pool dams stacked like defiant ramparts guarding a large fossil inlet at roof level. To the right of this the main passage crossed in front of us with upstream and downstream continuations drawing us onward.

Mr. Zhang interjected at this point. Some of our entourage were wearing trainers, unsuitable footwear for a stream passage; he suggested we explore the high level inlet first. Given that we were staying at his house and eating his food it seemed appropriate to do as he requested.

The last section of flowstone up to the inlet was very steep and obviously required a hand line at least. We were still putting the final touches onto the survey though and the man in camo was obviously itching to push on. Trailing our tape sling behind him he climbed deftly to the top. Unfortunately his belaying skills did not match his climbing abilities and his hand over hand technique was too much for me. Leaving Erin and Dunks to finish the surveying I climbed up after his first victim. A few metres off the ground however the climbing suddenly became very committing. Decent hand and foot holds vanished, to be replaced by sloping and worn flowstone that required a great deal of concentration and good balance. At this point I decided that camo's belaying was better than nothing and grabbed a firm hold of the sling he tossed down to me. Yet again the rural Chinese displayed excellent physical ability paired with a complete disregard for their mortality.

Sacre bleu! chamber in Da Dong

The passage was very wide at the lip of the inlet but it soon narrowed to a more familiar width. After some pretty passage the inlet started to descend, the floor became coated in increasingly sticky mud and finally disappeared beneath the surface of a small but deep pool that barred dry progress but not progress altogether. It was obvious to us that we had reached a partially drained sump and the lack of draft indicated that the actual sump probably wasn't far off. We decided to leave this miserable lead for another day after we had killed off all the better stuff that was on offer elsewhere. It was below freezing outside and getting wet now would only ensure more misery on the walk back to the farmhouse.

The University students however could not understand our excuses though and whilst Erin tried to explain them I became increasingly tempted by the way on. Maybe I was trying to save face but I hadn't been caving in over two months and the caving so far that day had hardly qualified being totally pleasant in almost every respect. Taking the end of the tape I waded out into the water, ducked underneath where the roof lowered and immediately spotted the inevitable. Loud glooping and popping noises confirmed the visual; there was no doubting I had found the sump.

Once we were all back down the climb we began to head up the main upstream passage. We felt we would be able to link this up quickly with the sink on the surface and hoped it would be easier passage for our gym shoe clad accomplices. Dropping down off the Gour pool dams we arrived at the waters edge. Light from the entrance filtered in to cast shadowy impressions of a passage gradually fading to black and the small river was dwarfed by the massive arcs of rock that curved high above it.

We forded the first river crossing and continued with the survey, running out our 50m tape measure to its full extent. Mr. Zhang, in his wellies, ferried all the others on piggyback across the succession of wades necessary to negotiate the river as it meandered down the passageway as if it was bouncing from one wall to the other.

After several hundred metres the river became a large pool and the passage doglegged to the right to head back in almost the same direction from which it had come. The water looked deep and the passage gave no alternative. Luckily the opposite wall consisted of a vast boulder pile that we opted to explore first. Clambering up over it, then down through it revealed a second streamway entering here. Time was running out on us however, we were due back at the farmhouse for supper so we packed up the survey kit and turned tail, helping Mr. Zhang piggy back the others across the river bands as we went.

The following day saw us heading back to the cave, accompanied only by the man in camo. He was wearing wellies that day and he seemed more than physically capable so we would have had no worries about pushing on downstream, had it not been for the weather. Overnight there had been considerable rain and it continued to drizzle as we made our way to the cave that morning. Most of the snow had melted as a result and the river we followed was now a swollen chocolate coloured mass of tumbling water.

Flood waters

We knew that our chances looked bleak and with more rain forecast for later by the man in camos, they were even worse. Despite this we felt the need to check it out. Partly out of that perverse desire that cavers have for witnessing caves in flood from a safe distance. As we predicted, the brown torrent looked even worse in the confines of the cave and even our crazy man in camos didn't want to go any further, a fair indication that onward progression really would have been suicidal. We made the decision easily, return to the farmhouse, nip out to purchase a couple of crates of beer and spend the rest of the day getting drunk!

I awoke the following morning with the deep suspicion that I was coming down with the flu but as I slid into a chair next to the fire and spotted the beer bottle caps from the previous night, I knew that my suspicions were unfounded. Despite the slight hangovers, myself and Duncan at least were in very high spirits. Most of the previous day had been dry, it hadn't rained over night and now patches of blue sky gave the sun opportunities to remind us of its warmth. We went out to check the river level and were stoked to see that it had dropped remarkably. We were most definitely on for it!

An hour or so later we were wading through the first river crossing and gaping in awe at the ridiculously large 50 metre wide, 50 metre high passage that presented itself to us in the atmospheric half light from the entrance. Sparkling cascades of tumbling drips fell from cracks in the roof, forming beautiful strands of glistening light as the droplets caught the sun.

As I approached Duncan at his survey station he told me he could see daylight ahead. Maybe it was a skylight? Maybe it was another entrance? We pressed on with the light behind us receding to a faint glow and the light ahead confusing us with its formation of shadows, where was the light coming from? At Duncan's next survey station I climbed the boulder pile that led eventually to the left hand wall proper.

"3, 2!" I yelled to Erin.

32 metres for god sake! in most of the caves I have surveyed a measurement of 32 centimetres to the wall would be more believable. From my vantage point high above the other two though I could make out our worst fear. There in the distance was a second colossal entrance with our river snaking towards it and back out to daylight. "Buggerations!" Returning to the others I related that our fun was almost over and then began walking on to find the next survey station. I dropped down to the waters edge and followed it until the second entrance began to come into full view. As I took in the surroundings through strained eyes things didn't quite add up. With increasing excitement I hurried along the bank, my eyes flitting from the river to the entrance, to the gaping black space that began to occupy an increasingly large portion of the left hand wall.

"It"s an inlet!" I yelled. "The entrance is a bloody inlet!"

What I had thought was a corner was in fact an immense junction. I forded the river that had swollen to more than twice the size of the original and chose a survey station. Looking downstream into the inky blackness I reveled in the sudden drug like rush that once again began pounding through my veins causing the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end. We surveyed up the inlet first. The floor of the passage at this point was an almost flat beach of cobbles and as we laid out the survey legs towards the spectacular portal of light I could not resist the urge to break into a run. Holding the tape measure aloft I whooped and laughed at the sound of the tape spooling out at high speed. Max after max followed as we mapped 300m of die straight passageway from junction to entrance.

Looking down Champs Elysees in Da Dong (Rich for scale)

This entrance was arguably more impressive than the first. It did not have the towering steps of flowstone, but you could see all the way back to the junction, the passage gradually becoming darker and darker and smaller and smaller in perspective as it bored it's way into seeming infinity. I imagined it could easily have been the inspiration for Jules Verne it conjured up such images of endlessness. We did not linger any longer than necessary though, impressive as it was this entire stretch of passageway took back seat compared with the downstream continuation, with the huge river sliding off inexorably into the deep blackness of unknown.

With the doubling of the volume of water the river crossings had become significantly hairier than before. Time was running low, we enjoyed the grandeur of half a dozen more survey legs, accompanied by the endless stream of expletives used to describe the passage dimensions, before turning and heading back leaving the way on more enticing than ever.

Upon our return to the farmhouse we were slightly annoyed to discover that we had fallen short of surveying a full kilometre by a mere 10 metres. We decided there and then that we would, cave dimensions permitting, get a grand in the book the following day. So it was with now practised efficiency that we went to work on the third trip into Da Dong.

A short distance on from the previous days limit we encountered two transit van sized boulders that obstructed the streamway at a sharp bend creating a deep pool in their wake. We tested the depth of the water and concluded it was more than thigh deep. Both Duncan and Erin opted to remove their undersuits at this point and we all ensured that the dry bags we carried were sealed with plenty of air inside to provide buoyancy. In the event the water was only crotch deep, not enough to be truly unpleasant but enough to generate yelps of shock as the water came in contact with sensitive regions.

With the excitement over we resumed our usual progress downstream. In places where the water charged along narrow sections we reminisced about the level of water two days previously and chuckled to ourselves for even thinking we could have come downstream under those conditions. These suspicions were confounded when a short distance further, the river cut across the middle of the passage from right to left in front of a morass of gigantic boulders. The river itself pounded over, round and under smaller boulders in its path creating and intimidating cataract of white foam. Selecting a suitable crossing point we teetered over the tops of a couple of blocks allowing us to pass safely to the other side. A confusing route through the boulder forest found us standing in a wide and sandy fossil passage, the river having taken a more dramatic route elsewhere. Opting for the easier route we continued on into the silent, beckoning darkness.

The fossil route was immediately obviously not entirely fossil. A steady stream of flood debris was passed and in particular a staggering number and variety of shoes, slippers and wellies were noted. The passage eventually widened considerably and an active flowstone inlet cascaded down from high on the right hand wall to form an incongruously small stream along the vast passage floor. Immediately after this the passage narrowed again. Straight ahead the stream trickled into a 5 metre wide vadose canyon, whilst high on the right a fossil inlet could also be made out. With downstream fever still reigning supreme we entered the canyon drawn on by the desire to find more huge trunk passage and follow it all the way to the resurgence. The going was slow in the flood overflow however, there were several climbs down and many deep pools of fetid water to traverse around. As we progressed each traverse became more taxing than the last with an increasing risk of creating a large splosh into water we had already established contained both sanitary towels and hypodermic needles. After one last desperate pool crossing and faced with more of the same only worse we opted to pursue other leads.

Back at the fossil inlet a short climb up a flowstone wall gave access to narrow passageway. Once again we resumed surveying at speed but quickly entered a confusing area with mysterious drafts and false leads. After climbing up a large slope and poking around in boulders we were rewarded with what we were after, popping out at the top of a very steep boulder slope of the "small family car sized boulder" variety. We had time for one last survey leg before we needed to turn around so, trailing tape, I negotiated my way down over the boulders. I found the descent terrifying and made no secret of it. Huge holes winked at me from between the blocks and a fine layer of dust made me doubt the grip of my wellies. With great relief I reached the bottom, established the way on and put in the days last survey station. As I made my way back up, Duncan established my ineptitude by climbing down the boulders with an uncharacteristic cat like grace. What a Muppet!

Da Dong valley with cone karst in the distance

The following day was our last day in Zhangjiajie and we were eager to leave the cave on a high note. Back at the bottom of the boulder slope we ate the baozi we had bought in the village that morning. Baozi would hardly constitute suitable cave food in the tight Yorkshire potholes I have become intimately familiar with but in Da Dong a picnic hamper with champagne and four dozen rounds of smoked salmon sandwiches could easily be transported intact to our current limit. Although they had long since gone cold the large pork dumplings were immensely satisfying.

We followed another narrow canyon on from the previous days survey station but were soon being serenaded by our own voices echoing back at us out of the eternal darkness. As the echoes became louder, the black space expanded to engulf us as we popped out into the side of a huge passageway. Thinking we had relocated the trunk passage we whooped for joy. Unfortunately, after letting our eyes adjust to the deeper black of the large passage and focussing all our lights in the same direction it became apparent that the way on would not be that straight forward.

Following our instincts to the right we teetered across the megaliths that constituted the floor. The silence of the huge chamber and it current fossil state belied it's true character. The far wall was stacked deep with huge quantities of flood debris. Piles of sticks and branches interspersed with colourful clothing reminded us of the quantity of water that sought passage through this subterranean network during rainy season. In the middle of the flat wall that terminated the right hand end of the chamber was a high canyon. I walked across a flat boulder to inspect the climb down into the continuing passage only to find myself recoiling from a vertical drop of 20 metres straight into a debris strewn canal. We could see from our vantage point that there was no obvious way of traversing the canal and looking at the walls that plummeted 30 metres from ceiling to water without a hint of horizontal movement we guessed the water would most likely be deep as well as unsavoury...

Reluctantly we rock hopped our way to the black space at the opposite side of the chamber. Gradually the walls funnelled in until the passageway was less than 3 metres wide yet still 30 metres high. Our position on top of the boulders was becoming less tenable until eventually we were forced to turn back and find an alternative route at stream level. The passage narrowed further until the walls were no more than 1 metre apart and still soaring upward, fortunately deep scallops on the walls provided perfect traversing conditions above the sometimes deep and still scummy water.

This extraordinary passage didn't last long however and we were soon staring up into a huge black space with fat grins on our faces. We were now very confused though, we appeared to have done a full circle and it felt like we were heading back in the direction of known territory. Could we really have missed something or were we completely disorientated and about to stumble into something new?

Rich was a bit excited by Da Dong

As the space beyond us grew bigger so did our confusion. We surveyed on speculating into which passage we might emerge but this only seemed to beguile us more as we argued one way and then another. At last, from a vantage point high on a boulder Duncan recognised where we were and pointed out one of his old survey stations.

With disbelief we carried on until we were all stood in familiar surroundings around the small nail varnish dot of the permanent survey station. We were at the end of the huge fossil passage and had come in from ceiling level above the first flood overflow we had found. How on earth had we missed a 30 metre wide lead? In our defence, a large rock pillar blocked the view of the passageway leading off making it less apparent at first glance. Secondly, if you have been lucky enough to explore large passages before perhaps you will agree with me that locating leads, even ones that are 30 metres wide is more difficult in the agrophobic blackness of huge passages.

With a survey loop closed and all our leads pushed to satisfactory yet not terminal limits it was time to go home. We leave three excellent downstream leads and two upstream leads. Downstream holds an unknown quantity of potential as we have no idea where the resurgence is. What can be said for sure is that the cave still holds fantastic opportunities for some incredibly good fun exploration and I for one rate it as my best caving holiday ever.

This expedition was part of an ongoing effort to explore and map caves in China by the Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society, an international caving club. A return to Zhangjiajie is planned for March 2004. See www.hongmeigui.net for more information about Zhangjiajie, future expeditions, and caving in China, including maps, survey data, photos and more.