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Whio, Wellington. 2017. 312pp, 380 colour photographs, 13 maps and surveys. Hardback, 320mm × 255mm. NZ$79.99 (approx. £42)

ISBN 978-0-473382-79-7

CavesThe names of Marcus Thomas and Neil Silverwood will be recognised by regular Descent readers as cavers from New Zealand closely linked with exploration. In Descent (245) Marcus wrote an excellent article about how Stormy Pot was connected with Nettlebed Cave, a major achievement, and produced the accompanying graphics. We had already seen some of Neil’s photographic work, but in this – and more recently in Descent (257) – it shone from the pages as a showcase of imagery by this world-class cave photographer. And now, the pair (having been at the sharp edge of exploration for the past twenty years) have teamed up again to produce Caves.

Caves is an outstanding achievement, crossing the line from caver-only relevance to appeal to a broad readership while maintaining the sense of exploration and joy of the sport. Where not all mountaineering books are enjoyed by climbers, Caves joins those few books in print that will be read and appreciated by the public as much as by cavers. Think ‘large format coffee-table book with hwyl’ – to borrow from the Welsh, ‘a stirring feeling of emotion and energy’.

At first opening, Caves is striking with an open, clean layout packed with photographs, many full-page or as double-page spreads. The binding and printing and presentation is excellent, right down to the double-folded dustjacket for strength. And then you get into the text.

Twelve chapters cover the islands, opening with one on geology but then taking specific cave systems or catchment areas one by one until closing with what might come in the future. The book closes with the story of how the images and maps were created, a nice additional touch (learn here of how many cameras were lost to water in the making of Caves). Thus we have the Nettlebed to Stormy story told as a trip through a mountain, history blended with modern approaches to descending Harwood Hole, the jungle destination of Megamania and a host of other cave names that may be equally unfamiliar to those who have not caved there. It matters not: this is an exciting story, told with passion and flair. Do not expect to resist turning the page – open the book, you will be lost to its riches.

There’s always one downside before you reach an up (just like caving), this time specifically over the cost. NZ$79.99 is entirely realistic for a book of this standard – in fact, given its 2.6kg weight, it is astoundingly good value, with postage included for in-country orders direct from distributor Potton & Burton. However, postage from New Zealand is astronomic, making this a very expensive purchase at a total of NZ$132 (about £70). So, the good news is that Speleo Concepts in Germany has imported Caves, so you can buy a little more locally for E62.90 plus postage.

Check for more information and a flavour of the photography, and for European sales (it may be possible to claim a 7% refund of the German VAT applied to books, so do enquire if placing an order).

Finally, don’t think of this as a book about New Zealand caves. Think more of a stunningly attractive book about caving and exploration that brings home the sense of wonder in the underground, the anticipation and the impact it has on lives. Let the words of Mick Hopkinson, quoted by Neil, complete this review: ‘I can’t remember anything that happened last year at work, but I remember vividly every day I spent underground.’ Somehow, that sums it all up.

Chris Howes

First published in Descent (259), December 2017