An unprecedented race across the UNESCO-recognized Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, home to Son Doong Grotto- the world’s current largest- held both participants and spectators spellbound.
The “amazing race,” which wrapped up on Thursday, was organized for the first time ever by Oxalis Adventure Tours, a local tour operator, within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
The park, located in the central province of Quang Binh, boasts Son Doong Grotto- the world’s current largest; and Thien Duong (Paradise) Grotto- Asia’s longest, along with scores of other cavernous marvels.
The race covered a total length of 30 kilometers and involved a clutch of taxing challenges including canoeing, trekking through boundless expanses of pristine forests, traversing through treacherous, rugged terrains and crossing pitch-black underground streams, which pushed the participants’ to their very limits.
Less than two months from being launched online, the race drew some hundred participants.
The organizers finally decided to trim them down to only nine teams of five members each.
Though racers came from different countries and backgrounds, they shared their ceaseless passion for exploring natural wonders and seeking thrills.
What came as a nice surprise was that most of them are office and civil service workers, female teachers and dancers, who tend to be deemed unlikely adventure seekers.
Dang Dinh Si, an employee at Oriental Sky Travel Co., a travel firm based in Hue City in the central province of Thua Thien- Hue, shared that his five-member team comprised two other Hue natives, another from Hanoi and the other from Ho Chi Minh City.
Three female maths teachers at a school in HCMC also teamed up with their two friends from France and the U.S. for the race.
Before showtime, Howard Limbert, 58, an expert from the British Caving Association and head of the exploration team that has detected hundreds of caves in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang area over the past 25 years, mapped out the treacherous itinerary and warned racers of the tremendous challenges that they would be faced with.
The expert could not hold back his anxiety about the racers, who were all new to such strenuous challenges.
Limbert and his wife made a last-minute decision to join the racers along with a medical care provider.
British caving expert Howard Limbert (center) and his wife (right) are pictured in a cave in Phong Nha- Ke Bang National Park in this Tuoi Tre file photo.
Nguyen Chau A, director of Oxalis Adventure Tours, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) Newspaper that the event was meant to build a thrilling playground for young people, raise funds for the construction of three libraries in the province, further promote the provincial tourism potentials and provide jobs for locals in remote poor areas.
The race of amazement
The racers showed up on Wednesday morning in Tuyen Hoa District, where they soon found themselves maneuvering dugouts with great caution along Phu Nguyen underground river.
Its rocky bed and shallow water posed a daunting challenge to amateur rowers, who were set on reaching Tien (Fairy) Grotto, some five kilometers from the river’s headwaters, at 4:00 pm.
There were sections of raging currents where some dugouts collided, leaving one sinking.
After successfully crossing the river, the contenders trekked a distance of almost three kilometers across rugged, slippery terrain to make it to Tien Grotto on time.
Despite the organizers’ markings, some teams went astray and ended up lost before tracing back to the destination some time later.
No race members completed the ordeal without scratches or bruises, but they were hugely relieved to survive it and fight another day.
They were tended to by over 30 porters from Oxalis Adventure Tours, who normally take care of those joining tours to explore the breathtaking Son Doong Grotto.
The race members spent the night in tents after being informed of what the following day had in store for them.
Luu Van Long, of HCMC-based Vietmark Co., who designed the race, warned that the trials awaiting the members the following day would be four times as overwhelming as those on the first day.
The teams might choose to take on or opt out of the fazing challenges, including canyoning steep slopes which tower almost 30 meters tall and wrestling with the pitch-black underground rivers which snake themselves through grottos, he cautioned.
Racers had a hard time conquering the rocky terrain. Photo: Tuoi Tre.
The next morning saw the members panting while trekking through a stretch of over 20 kilometers of jagged terrain, including Hung Nhai, Hung Run and Dung Slopes.
The teams then waded with great caution in an underground spring beneath Doi (Bat) Cave.
The intimidating cave, which is over 50 meters in length and is eerily murky, was previously home to flocks of forest bats.
The race began to gather momentum and heat as the teams picked up speed and crawled across Chuot (Mice) Cave, which nestles deep inside La Ken Valley.
Thong Nhat team triumphantly emerged as the winner of the four-hour ordeal.
Part of the Phong Nha- Ke Bang National Park. Photo: Tuoi Tre.
Tourist arrivals to Phong Nha peak since 1993
The Phong Nha- Ke Bang Tourism Center, based in Quang Binh Province, said they received 11,000 tourist arrivals on Thursday, April 30, which is part of the combined Reunification and Labor Days holiday.
The number is the largest since the Phong Nha- Ke Bang National Park was open to the public in 1993, the center noted.
It also welcomed 7,800 arrivals on Wednesday and expected an influx of between 6,500 and 7,000 each day for the holiday’s two remaining days.