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Journeys Beneath the Earth

David William Gill

Self-published. 2020. Revised edn, viii+288pp, 32 b&w and colour photographs, 5 maps and surveys. Softback, 150mm × 226mm. £34.93

ISBN 979-8-6175-4974-6

David W. Gill has released his autobiographical account of his caving exploits, Journeys Beneath the Earth, describing his fifty-year career as a world leading underground explorer. Dave, or ‘Grotty’ as he is also known, based himself in the Peak District’s foremost caving club, the Eldon PC.

In his description of his birth in 1941 in Ancoats, Manchester, he says: ‘cots were then in short supply and I was so tiny they put me in a cardboard box’. His exploration of the underground in Derbyshire began in the 1950s and he became a leading figure in the Derbyshire CRO and was part of the development of the callout system that saved many cavers in the era of the 1950s and ’60s.

Soon he found a love for the wild places, escaping the smog and industry of Manchester for the freedom of the Derbyshire hills and dales. There he met potholers and fell in love with the idea of discovering the underworld of limestone caves and formations. He describes the expeditions that took him around the world from the remote Pacific island of East New Britain, Papua New Guinea’s highland limestone river caves, to the Russian limestone massifs and Europe’s deepest cave at the time, the Gouffre Berger, where in 1967 he met the then leading European cavers. This led to him joining the UK’s leading cavers to help the Chinese government to map some of the enormous river caves that provide hydroelectric power and irrigation to the population.

David describes the 28 major expeditions he either led or was part of. The foremost, he says, ‘Was the 1984/5 expedition based in Buxton with a core group of Eldon club cavers and some UK based explorers who went on to become leaders in the caving world.’ Taking two years to organise, the twelve-man team explored what is now acknowledged ‘as the world’s most challenging river cave’. British Sugar sponsored the Untamed River Expedition team to Papua New Guinea and enabled the £50,000 expedition to take place. A two-week journey took them to explore the one thousand feet deep and quarter mile wide hole in the earth’s crust, with the major Nare River system at its base, flowing down a steep incline through the mountains.

The expedition captured huge media attention and David describes the constant demand to make TV and radio appearances on the team’s behalf. He quotes a BBC TV journalist as asking, ‘This surely must be a little boy’s dream, taking a few builders who cave from Buxton, to this extremely dangerous place.’ The team, of two builders( Des Marshal, and Alan Gamble), a Sheffield University tutor (Steph Gough, deputy leader), a Chapel-en-le-Frith teacher (Dave Arvescough), a college lab technician (Dave Sims from New Mills), a photojournalist (Rod Leach from Buxton), and the invaluable Dr Steve Reay (medical adviser). Also on the team were Capt. John Salmon (Army doctor), Steve Dickenson, the well-known Buxton character Ken Kelly, and geologist Jim Hook. The book of this expedition, authored by David, is one of the eleven other titles he has to his name, and demonstrates how as a trainee electrician and aircraft builder at Woodford he became a renowned geologist karst cave expert and learned environmentalist in the Sarawak caves.

David also described one of the many times his life was on the line. ‘As I traversed a cave passage to avoid a large void of unknown depth, I slipped and as I fell to certain death, my rope bag harness caught on a stalagmite boss, only a few centimetres in height. Though hanging upside down over the void I managed to right myself and carry on exploring.’

He concludes his book with how he became the development officer for the Gunung Mulu National Park in Malaysia, where he now lives with his wife and recently greeted his third great grandchild. He writes with insight into the human arena, quoting philosophers Gandhi, Einstein and other worthies. It is fascinating read for adventure addicts, technical and sporting cavers. It is all related with a self-deprecating, gentle humour.

To my mind the 288 page illustrated book shows David to have been one of this country’s foremost explorers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Had he chosen a more ‘glamorous’ activity like mountaineering, his achievements would have yielded a sporting honour of some kind, even an MBE.

Caving is still a relatively minority sporting activity but to enter a world where humans have never set foot with its grandeur of calcium formations, and crystalline beauty is just as exciting as setting foot on previously unconquered summits.

Rod Leach