There’s big, and then there’s ‘so big that you have your own weather system’ big. Er Wang Dong, a colossal cave network stretching 42 kilometres under Southwest China, is a self-sustaining world that fits into the latter category. Lush green forest, rapids, waterfalls, streams, and remarkably, even layers of clouds can be found deep inside the cavernous labyrinth.
Dating back 440 to 488 million years, a period known as the Ordovician period, Er Wang Dong was by no means unknown of, but curiously it appears to have been completely unexplored until only a few years ago.
Generations of local nitrate miners have known that there was something special, not to mention huge, lying beneath China’s 195-metre-deep Niubizi tiankeng sinkhole, but it was only when a team of 15 explorers and photographers from the Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society bravely hunkered down into its depths in 2013 that its sheer size and scale became apparent. Remarkably, not a single one of the system’s vast underground tunnels and passages revealed any signs of having been explored by man, nor of even being touched by light, before.
During their exploration of Er Wang Dong, the 15-strong team also a made discovery that is truly mind-blowing in its vastness. Cloud Ladder Hall, a huge cathedral-like space within the cave system that measures more than 500,000 sq. ft. with a roof at least 250 meters high, is, for those familiar with their Tolkien, almost a naturally formed Moria. It may come as little surprise that this cave is one of the biggest, most impressive caverns in the world – so big, in fact, that when it was discovered, the aptly named Cloud Ladder Hall was full of thick fog-like clouds that drastically hindered visibility and gave this splendid underground hall a feel of the ethereal.
Of course, caving can be a terribly dangerous business, and it was noted by the expedition team during a number of explorations that water frequently rose to dangerous levels, especially following rain in the area. If this magnificent place is somewhere you’re thinking of adding to your bucket list, you’d do well not to go in too far unless you’re an expert with a keen understanding and thorough experience of all things caving, or have a well experienced guide helping you to traverse the potentially fatal maze.