Norbert Casteret: Ten Years Under The Earth

November 12, 2015

51hNP8b8IZL._AA160_When I was eighteen, I visited two wonderful places in the Pyrenees, in the Ariège region of France. The first was the Grotte de Niaux, a cave adorned with marvellous prehistoric cave paintings, which one had to visit with a guide, carrying acetylene lamps. And the second was a marvellous underground river, La Labouiche, along which one travelled in flat-bottomed punts through a world of bizarre rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites. So when I came across this little volume, one of the original cerise Penguin travel books, I had to buy it…

Norbert Casteret seems utterly fearless, braving danger, underground caverns, rivers, potholes and tunnels almost without a thought, and with a neglect of health and safety that could only come from an explorer of nearly a century ago, who, it seems, was often accompanied by his brother, wife and mother on his expeditions.

Some parts of his description, which involved wriggling through narrow underground crevices, I could hardly bring myself to read, so claustrophobic did I feel. But he describes well the thrill of exploration and discovery; he explains how early man lived, the flora and fauna and rock formations in the underground caves. The chapter on bats is particularly interesting, and about halfway through, one realises he is writing at a time when scientists had not worked out how bats use their sense of direction, and how they manage to avoid obstacles… You get a very clear picture of a man in love with the landscape of the Pyrenees, a close observer of so many things, an intrepid explorer from his earliest years. There is a certain thrill to the book, and a lot of explanation. There are some ancient, blurry black and white photos – his explorations took place in the 1920s and the book was first published in England in the 1930s.

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