As his Jaguar coupe hugs to the bend of an A-road just outside Hull, the straight-talking speleologist Andy Eavis says, "I have probably been responsible for the discovery of more unknown places than any other living person." It's a bold claim, and coming from a chap in a sharp suit, it sounds rather incredible.
But it makes you think. Given the fact that his assertion is probably accurate, why isn't Eavis better known in Britain? In China, it's a different matter. There, he is practically a celebrity, a result of his introducing caving to the country in the early 1980s and helping to discover many of its caves.
Of course, to the international caving community, Eavis needs no introduction. His impressive CV includes an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.
Eavis, now 55, silver-haired and somewhat stocky, was born near Alton, Hampshire, but moved with his family to a farm in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, while he was a baby. In his youth, he milked cows each day before and after school. However, he had little interest in becoming a farmer himself. He did well at the local grammar school, attaining three A-levels, and later went to Leicester University where he read mining engineering.
Taking the plunge
Eavis's first expedition, part of his university studies, was to Norway in 1969. It was at this point that his life-long passion for caving began. As out conversation turns to this subject his typically no-nonsense manner becomes more elaborate, and his level of enthusiasm goes up a notch or two.
It transpires that the weekend after we meet he's due to attend a reunion of his 1975 expedition to Papua New Guinea--the first that he organised. A six-month, 24-person excursion, it was no small undertaking--especially for someone in his mid-20s. "I can't believe that I could have done that," he says. The expedition budget was 80,000[pounds sterling], a sizeable sum in 1975.
His wife, Lilian, who gave up work as a medical social worker to have their three children, has often accompanied him in his travels. I ask him if Lilian is as enthusiastic a caver. "She's never been in anything other than a show cave," he replies. Her support for him has never wavered, however, and Lilian has often acted as expedition secretary.
The 1975 expedition was a positive start to Eavis's leadership career--the team discovered more than 50 kilometres of caves. "We returned in a small blaze of glory," he declares, obviously still proud of the achievement.
But what is the attraction of dark, dank places? "You're in a passage that is at least a million years old. And nobody has ever been in there before," he says. "Discovering a huge chamber or a new cave is like a drug. Once you experience it, you want it again and again."
The next big adventure-to Gunung Mulu, northern Sarawak-was in 1978. The main concern of this multi-disciplinary RGS expedition led by Robin Hanbury-Tennison was to study the forests (Caves in Mulu hills, April 1979). Eavis says he and his chums took advantage of RGS logistics and British Army knowledge gathered for an aborted expedition. "We went in and had a wonderful time," he says. "Just five of us discovered 150 kilometres of some of the biggest passageways on Earth."
The major discoveries of the 1978 expedition included a cave they named Clearwater, which Eavis believes could be the world's largest but "it is difficult to quantify". The musically minded team also christened nearby caves Creedence and Revival. "If you're naming bits of the planet you're allowed to do things like that," he says. "The French, bless them, name everything after themselves. The British refuse to name anything after themselves. I named a cave in France after Lilian," he adds. But it wasn't just a romantic gesture. "I did it to upset the French."
The expedition served to whet Eavis's appetite. "We returned wide-eyed with discovery and immediately decided that a follow-up trip was needed," he says. …