National Geographic : 2011 Jan
Some cave pearls are the size of baseballs, larger than any the cavers have ever seen. the largest cave in the world---and they might be right. ere are longer caves than Hang Son Doong---the Mammoth Cave system in Ken- tucky, with 367 total miles, holds that record. ere are deeper caves too---Krubera-Voronja, the "crow's cave," plunges 7,188 feet in the western Caucasus Mountains of Georgia. But for giant passages, there are few caves that can compare. At the time of the Limberts' discovery of Hang Son Doong, the largest passage was thought to be Deer Cave in Malaysian Borneo's Gunung Mulu National Park, which was recently surveyed at 1.2 miles long, 500 feet wide, and 400 feet tall. But as the explorers would eventu- ally determine, using precise laser instruments, Hang Son Doong is more than 2.5 miles long with a continuous passage as wide as 300 feet and, in places, over 600 feet high. "We weren't actually searching for the largest cave in the world," Deb says. But she's thrilled that the cave's newfound fame might improve the lives of local villagers. A er ve days of hiking, hauling, and crawl- ing, the expedition is still only halfway into the cave. Counting all the cavers, scientists, a lm and photography crew, and porters, we are a team of more than two dozen, which seems to have slowed us down. Besides that, the going gets dangerous as we climb through the break- down in Watch Out for Dinosaurs: One misstep on slick boulders could mean a fall of more than a hundred feet. When we reach the next skylight, the Garden of Edam (another cheesy pun), it's even bigger than the rst, almost as wide as the roof of the Superdome in New Orleans. Below the opening is another mountain of breakdown with a jungle of hundred-foot-tall trees, lianas, and burning Rare cave pearls, most of them dime-size here, fill dried-out terrace pools near the Garden of Edam in Hang Son Doong. This unusually large collection of stone spheres formed drip by drip over the centuries as calcite crystals left behind by water layered themselves around grains of sand, enlarging over time.