Will Hunt

(Simon & Schuster, £16.99)


Based on what he’s written here, Will Hunt seems to be a man who has spent much of his life perched on the brink of an epiphany. One of the things we learn from Underground is that the subterranean world has traditionally been a transformative place, and like many of the people in this story Hunt went down into it and came back changed. What begins as an account of Hunt’s youthful fascination with underground spaces, the illicit thrill of exploring forbidden subway lines, forgotten bunkers and hidden chambers, starts to sprout words like “liminal” and “sacred” and turns into something much deeper and more universal.

The high point of the early phase is the chapter recounting his project to cross Paris (illegally) using only subterranean means. Much of Paris was built from limestone quarried out from beneath the city itself, leaving vast hollowed-out areas. The trek took Hunt and his small team an exhausting 38 hours, and his account of it awakens genuine awe and wonder at the secret world they’ve uncovered. Everywhere, they find evidence of previous visitors and occupants – even a cinema – revealing a shadow world that’s been right under people’s noses for generations.

Eventually, Hunt’s personal obsession forces him to acknowledge the scale of humanity’s wider fascination with burrowing under the earth, and his later expeditions are more purposeful. He travels a mile underground to a laboratory researching micro-organisms that live deep inside the Earth, and considers theories that life began in its crust before stumbling to the surface. He discovers that the first complex creature on the planet was a burrower, and when he visits the subterranean city of Cappadocia in Turkey he’s struck by how closely it resembles side-views of ants’ nests. Before long, Hunt is having to “walk the songline of the marlu” before being granted entrance to an ancient red ochre mine in Australia, and it’s dawning on him just how many creation myths involve the ground and how frequently caves figure in the world’s religions.

By the time he meets ant expert Walter Tschinkel, he can barely contain himself from sharing his theory: “When we dig a hole in the earth and climb down underground, we are engaging in truly eternal behaviour, going all the way to the roots of the evolutionary tree, past our earlier mammalian ancestors, past the first vertebrates, down to the origin of multicellular life.” Underground ends up as a meditation on a shared human heritage, a relationship with the Earth hardwired into the architecture of our brains.

Hunt’s journey through time and the human psyche is so sweeping (from micro-organisms to the roots of shamanism) that it can be quite an exhilarating experience. But even if that sounds too esoteric, chapters like the aforementioned Paris expedition, and how Hunt’s quest for the NYC graffiti artist REVS connects with 14,000-year-old clay bisons in a cave in the Pyrenees, are thrilling pieces of travel writing. One way or another, Underground will permanently change the way you see the ground beneath your feet.