Taking tea with Gus Hiddink and other stories of Korea, 2008
by Tim Francis
This is another one of those ‘we were looking for an excuse to go there’ caving trips. Korea had always been in the back of my mind after having caved with Yong Shik Park and Dong Woo Kim over the years but it’s a long way and the known caves are not internationally renowned. However, last year we found out that the 13th biannual Vulcanospeleology Conference was to be held in Jeju Island, a volcanic island to the south of the Korean peninsular. Ed Waters from the SMCC had told us that the 12th conference in Mexico had been a laugh so we thought, ‘why not’?
Words have no wings but they can fly a thousand miles
You don’t get a lot of lava caves in the Mendips, let alone the UK (apparently there is one in Scotland about 8ft in length) so our involvement in the conference was not going to be of domestic interest. Rather, it was a tenuous connection to the MCG expeditions to Argentina. We’ve been focusing upon the small outcrops of Jurassic gypsum and limestone on the edge of the Andes near Malargüe, Mendoza province. In reasonably-close proximity is a huge area of lava flows associated with the Payun Matrú volcano. This area is extremely remote, the terrain and weather challenging and with only about 20 known caves. None are of any great length. But the vastness of the lava flows suggests that there will more discoveries in the future. I felt sure I could cobble together a few slides for a talk so off we went.
If you want catch a tiger, you have to go to the tiger’s cave
Somewhat battered after a long flight via Dubai we landed at Incheon Airport, Seoul on Sunday 31st August. Right after exiting the gate we were greeted by Yong Shik, and we hardly recognised him all dressed up in a smart suit. He works for United Airlines so has an ‘access all areas’ pass. He guided us across Seoul via the train link to the domestic Gimpo airport where we were able to catch an earlier flight to Jeju than planned. On our arrival we were soon made aware that the conference was exceptionally well organised and exceptionally well funded. Colour co-ordinated conference staff met all the delegates at the airport and free buses were laid on to take us to the venue; “The Sunshine Hotel”. We arrived in time to snaffle down a few canapés and complimentary drinks before heading to bed, our bodies not quite knowing where we were or what time of day it was.
Even a fish wouldn't get into trouble if it kept its mouth shut
I mentioned that the conference was exceptionally well organised. And indeed it was. The conference pack included bound copies of the proceedings and a field-guide, a poster, and several books. And despite the best efforts of the large British contingent it was also a serious science conference. Add on the effects of jet lag and we did struggle a bit in some of the lectures. But we stuck to the ‘experienced cavers, enthusiastic amateurs’ storyline which I think was sufficiently compelling to explain our presence. The prize for the dullest lecture went to the overrunning “A short history of the UIS” and the most original were two lectures from a ‘Malcolm-esque’ chap from Japan who spoke no English at all apart from chirruping “very good” after each slide of dense data during “Studies of XRF Analysis, X-ray Analysis, K-Ar Age Determination and Polarisation-Microscope for Lava, Jeju Lava Caves, Korea”. Other lectures were on diverse topics such as the Dodo, tree moulds and Immanuel Kant.
You will hate a beautiful song if you sing it often
Ah, the socialising. The conference opening was a very formal affair with addresses by various local dignitaries, conference organisers and UIS gravy-trainers. And on the first evening we had a formal open-air banquet on the hotel lawn overlooking the sea. The Governor of Jeju even gave the opening speech. The buffet was huge, the soju flowed, fireworks lit the sky, the soju flowed and the Governor was last seen being eased into his limo. The hotel food was ok but our best food experiences on Jeju were at local restaurants on the fieldtrip days. Yong Shik and friends also took us out to a Korean sushi restaurant which was excellent. Traditionally, meals are partaken cross-legged at low tables which play havoc with western calves, thighs and knees. And bear in mind this was a conference attended primarily by aged cavers. Eating is fast and furious which is tricky to manage with Korean chopsticks – these are metal rectangles rather the usual wooden variety and are thus much harder to master. Many evenings were spent in the hotel basement bar. Beer came in huge jugs and Soju came in teapots. The conference was concluded with a karaoke evening. Our Korean hosts were extremely professional singers and none of the international delegates came close to matching their expertise. The Beatles and mournful love songs featured predominantly. The Brits managed to murder a few numbers; Richard did us particularly proud with his noted enthusiasm. It’s the taking part that counts.
Too many rowers make the ship go up the mountain
Conference fieldtrips were a mix of show caves and geological sites. These were all attended en masse by conference delegates, staff (including ‘Camera Girl’ and ‘Waving Man’) and various hangers-on all driven around in two coaches. Think Saga with torches. We were also constantly followed around by the local TV camera crew and newspaper journalists. Thus those unable to attend the conference could get a resume each night on the local news! Jeju Island is known as the Love Island as it is very popular with honeymooners so all the tourist sites tended to cater for that particular target audience. Jeju also seems to be very popular for school trips so we were often swamped by massed hoards of schoolchildren; and I mean whole secondary schools not classes. At every location we were stopped for group photos presumably for each of the conference sponsors.
The caving highlight was the Manjang-gul lava tube. This forms an important part of the Jeju World Heritage Site and it is certainly an impressive site. One kilometre of its total 7.4km length is open to the public. It’s just like you’d expect a lava tube to be: huge stomping passage, rounded passage walls, globules of lava, weird shapes, very sharp and very black. The show cave section ends in what is apparently the world’s largest lava column. It was difficult to photograph but apparently looked impressive on the evening news. The other lava cave we did that week was in Hallim Park, a large swathe of botanical gardens in the West of the Island. The main path of the gardens dips underground in a couple of places and you wander along 500m worth of The Hyeopjae and Ssangyong caves. It was quite pleasant.
Above ground we visited such delights as the Seongsan Ilchulbong Tuff Cone, columnar joints at Daepodong, sweeping sea cliffs of tuff at Suwolbong and the Jeju Stone Park. In the distance Mount Hallasan dominates the landscape of Jeju wherever you are and there are secondary fumaroles all over the place. Indeed Hallasan is actually the highest point in Korea. Overall Jeju is a fascinating landscape and not something I’d really experienced before. I would definitely recommend a stop over in Jeju Island if you are ever in the region.
There is a hole to escape through even when the sky collapses on us
In the second week the MCG representatives elected to head back to the mainland, rather than attend the post conference fieldtrips. Yong Shik had planned a packed schedule for us and along with various members of his caving club we did a representative mix of limestone caves. After a quick stop at his apartment near Gimpo airport we drove across the country to the limestone region of Yeongwol-gun.
This is a four to five hour drive depending on how horrendous the Seoul traffic is. Dong Woo came along as well for most of the week but travelled up by coach. What strikes you as you travel around Korea is how hilly the country is, even Seoul. Beyond Seoul the country is extremely rural and most of the hillsides are heavily wooded. Think of it as an Asian Slovenia (if that helps!). The first couple of nights were spent in a sort of bunkhouse type accommodation, which makes for an excellent cavers’ base for the area. Each night we were treated to some fantastic cooking by Yong Shik’s club members. We certainly tried a huge variety of different dishes. It soon became apparent that every meal occasion in Korea involves chilli, most involve soju, and if you can’t take hot food, even at breakfast, then Korea isn’t for you.
Cross even a stone bridge after you've tested it
The first trip we tackled was Seopdong cave. This has been open for about 10 years and was intercepted by a stone quarry. The quarry entrance is a hot 10 minute hike up the hill from the road so it wasn't too bad an introduction. We headed off in several groups into the cave as the initial crawl is decorated with some quite nice helictites. Beyond are a short ladder pitch and a jumble of Burrington style passages. The highlight though is a big fossil conduit hidden around the back. There are some flowstone banks, wriggly chokes in the floor and some good formations in places. We climbed up one rock slope to see some mud pillars on the floor.
Richard took a bit of a tumble on the way down but there was no damage done.
The next cave we tackled was Eummundong. The walk into this cave was a very different affair. It is located half way up a thickly wooded hillside and is desperately difficult to find. The last time our hosts had tried to find the cave it had taken them seven hours. It’s also a mosquito magnet especially when six sweaty cavers arrive as the starter and main course rolled into one. Eummundong is almost entirely vertical straight from the off. We did three of the four pitches and all were in the 30-50m range. A few dropped pebbles told us that the last pitch would have landed straight into a deep pool so we didn't bother with it; I think it dries up in the dry season. Most ledges still have a liberal coating of rocks so we spent a lot of the off-rope time huddled under rock lips trying to keep out of the firing line.
After Eummundong we moved areas to Jeongseon. En route we did a bit of hill walking and doline spotting in an area of rare pampas type grasses called Mt. Mindungsan. On arrival we had a banquet style meal at an historical village / tourist attraction; Ararichon Folk Village. The food was the best so far but again it was taken cross legged. The last two nights were spent in holiday lodges. Each lodge had the traditional under-floor heating complete with log fire. We were absolutely sweltering but the owner seemed very keen to keep the fire going in case we got cold.
Starting is half the task
Our last wild cave was Sanho Cave (Pop corn cave). This had a serious walk in that took an hour and a half to two hours. The first hour was a slog up a boulder strewn gulley. A typhoon a few years ago had created a massive torrent that had brought down huge tree trunks, boulders and all manner of debris. This ended at the base of a waterfall. From here it was a dispiriting scramble up wooded scree slope. Again this showed how tricky it is to find caves in Korea despite the large entrances. There is a huge expanse of limestone hills to explore but these would require a great deal of manpower, time and energy to reward the explorer.
Sanho Cave starts of as a really big cave broken up into several large chambers by small pitches. The second pitch can be bypassed by a crawl in the floor; we all went one way in and one way out. Beyond the third chamber and third pitch the cave changes character. A heavily boulder choked rift can be followed at a high or low level. The higher level has some invigorating climbing and terminates in a large flowstoned choke. There are plenty of bat bones as well. The whole area drafts well so I’m sure more passage will be found in the future. The lower route is a bit ‘more squeezy’ but again closes down in an area of formations.
The return back down the hillside and gully was a race against time. As dusk descended we scrambled down the scree slope and boulder hopped down the gulley. In the fading light we heard Buddhist chants echoing around the hillsides. A reclusive Buddhist / spiritualist was playing chants out over a load speaker which was a very atmospheric experience. When we arrived the music was turned off and her and her husband came out and served us tea.
Remember, even monkeys fall out of tree
The last evening in Jeongseon was a soju fuelled affair and your author rather over-did things. Ouch. The next day, after washing the ropes, we decamped and headed off to visit Hwanseon Cave. This is apparently the finest streamway cave in Korea and is now a dramatic show cave. Ask the others what it looked like; I stayed in the car sleeping off the night before. The further reaches are entirely off-limits to cavers other than during special events such as the regional conference a few years ago. This is a shame as the cavers tell us that there is potential for more passage.
It's darkest underneath the lamp stand
At the end of our stay we had a couple of days in Seoul, staying with Yong Shik and his family. Fantastic hospitality – many thanks! Yong Shik took us on a bit of a tour of Seoul and mostly to places he’d not bothered to visit as a local. We went to the caving club room at his old university. A couple of current members were there and we were able to browse their surveys, hear tales of prowess, ooh-and-ah at their kit store. Elsewhere in Seoul we tramped some of the usual tourist haunts. On the Friday night we were taken out for one last meal in a popular Korean restaurant followed up by tea in a tea house apparently frequented by Gus Hiddink of World Cup fame. Despite us only ordering tea, even this involved chilli flavoured nibbles. On the Saturday Richard and I followed this up by spending a pleasant few hours in what must be the most expensive tea house in Korea. The tea pouring ceremony was exact and elaborate, and the green tea flavoured waffles made for an unusual accompanying snack. More shopping, more tramping the streets and then the long grim flight home. What a trip.
Dress the monkey in silk and it is still a monkey
After our enthusiastic stories of the lava fields of Argentina there is now talk of the 15th Vulcanospeleology Conference being held in Malargüe in 2012 (the 14th is in Australia). If so we’d get out there beforehand and find some caves so that the delegates have something to visit. Well it’s a good excuse anyway.
MCG team: Peat Bennett, Richard Carey, Tim Francis, Caroline Suter. (Other Mendipians present: Phil Collet, Hayley Clark, Martin Mills, Christine Mills, Ed Waters, Chris Wood)
Mendip Caving Group. UK Charity Number 270088. The object of the Group is, for the benefit of the public, the furtherance of all aspects of the exploration, scientific study and conservation of caves and related features. Membership shall be open to anyone over the age of 18 years with an interest in the objects of the Group.