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I switch off my headlamp just to feel the depth of the darkness. At first there is nothing. But then, as my pupils adjust, I’m surprised to make out a faint, ghostly light ahead. I pick my way through the rubble, almost running from excite­ment, rocks scattering beneath my feet and echoing in the invisible chamber. Traversing up a steep slope, I turn a ridge as if on a mountainside and am stopped in my tracks.

An enormous shaft of sunlight plunges into the cave like a waterfall. The hole in the ceiling through which the light cascades is unbelievably large, at least 300 feet across. The light, penetrating deep into the cave, reveals for the first time the mind-blowing proportions of Hang Son Doong. The passage is perhaps 300 feet wide, the ceiling nearly 800 feet tall: room enough for an entire New York City block of 40-story buildings. There are actually wispy clouds up near the ceiling.

The light beaming from above reveals a tower of calcite on the cave floor that is more than 200 feet tall, smothered by ferns, palms, and other jungle plants. Stalactites hang around the edges of the massive skylight like petrified icicles. Vines dangle hundreds of feet from the surface; swifts are diving and cutting in the brilliant column of sunshine. The tableau could have been created by an artist imagining how the world looked millions of years ago.

Jonathan Sims catches up with me. Between us and the sunlit passage ahead stands a stalagmite that in profile resembles the paw of a dog.

“The Hand of God would be just too corny,” he says, pointing at the formation. “But the Hand of Dog does nicely, don’t you think?”

He clicks off his headlamp and unweights his gimpy ankle.

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