The surreal world that spread within the caves of Son Doong was a leaf out of the unimaginable for three Emirati sisters Reem, Noora and Mahra Al Mulla, who dared to scale down into the world’s largest cave in May this year. At more than 200m high, 150m wide and 7km long, in Quang Binh Province of Central Vietnam, why the cave, a stretch of natural rocks, vegetation, flora and fauna is a humbling and belittling experience, the Al Mulla sisters tell Yasmeen Maqbool
It was a long way down to eternity,” Reem begins, “Donning our hard helmets and headlamps, we silently entered through the darkness enveloping us with just the headlights illuminating our path. A few hundred feet in, we reached a mountain of boulders. And one misstep on a slick boulder could mean a fall of more than a hundred feet.”
What prompted the three sisters to embark on such a journey? They believe that they were destined for it. “It is a cave so massive that a 747 can fly through its largest cavern and a space so mesmerizing that it begs you to answer whether you are still on this planet at all!” says Mahra, “I was so awed that I almost cried.”
Though discovered in 2009, the cave, in the heart of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park – a UNESCO heritage site, has been opened to public only recently. “And anyone who plans to be part of the expedition has to wait in a long queue, but we got our confirmation in a week’s time,” the girls say excitedly.
“It all worked out for us.” Mahra brought the cave on the table from her travel bucket-list and it did not take too much convincing for the three intrepid travelers to backpack and head out for it! “We just didn’t think too much and set on our first joint sisters’ trip to test our limits.”
Describing the entrance to the cave, the girls pan a scene of a hazy and exhilarating opening, that something magical was awaiting them just beyond the 80m drop down the misty hole. “To our amazement, the cave presented landscapes found nowhere else. Enormous stalagmites rising from the ground and statuesque stalactites hanging from the ceiling like an alien species. Jungles emerged inside the cave from nowhere. It was as if the ceiling of the cave had given way and a scene set from The Lost World had been set up in the middle of nowhere. It was so surreal that you had to see it to believe it. Misty clouds enveloped the whole scene, a result of the cave’s own localised weather system. And the cave passages, adorned with ancient fossils, offered evidence of the millions of years that have passed.”
With 25 porters, safety experts and guides, over five days they explored the entire length of Son Doong Cave, Hang En Cave, as well the Ban Doong ethnic minority village.
The girls put themselves through a test like never before. “We not only dove into the infinite darkness of the caves, but bouldered, hiked, crawled, hauled, walked through sticky muddy paths, crossed underground streams, wore moist damp clothes and used wipes, at the most, for dry baths.”
And if that had not shaken them enough, these city girls had to use buckets for toilets and share their facilities with rats, bats and centipedes.
When asked if these ‘creatures’ ever scared them, the girls joke, “We had invaded their home. They should have been scared of us.”
But then giving a more thoughtful answer Reem says, “When put in a situation you seize to feel the fear pangs. You feel you are part of the universe and one with nature.”
Besides, the entire experience was more like being in a meditative state and living in the present!
Being fit is a prerequisite. In fact, the briefing describes the trail as difficult for even the physically active. “We had to be fit, active and physically ready for the challenge before us. We had to immediately put ourselves on a regime and ready ourselves by practising walking with a seven kg backpack on different elevations and terrains, rock climbing and trekking.”
Reem says, “The one common thread that weaved all the ten at the expedition from across the globe – New York, Sydney, Vietnam, Mexico, Serbia, Latvia and the UAE, was that each of us had had enough of the city and wanted to escape from it.”
Adds Mahra, “We learnt a lot about ourselves and realized what we are capable of when put to the test.” She explains that it is very similar to our lives. “We think our goals are so far away but if we move towards achieving our set goals we will be able to reach it quicker than just thinking about it.”
Summing up their adventure in a positive note Noora says, “Son Doong made me more grateful and taught me not to take anything for granted.”
Photographs by: Khan and Noora Al Mulla