Down a dark, dark tunnel, in a dark, dark cavern, you’ll find Robbie Shone, camera poised to capture what lies beneath the earth’s surface. For many, the idea of venturing into an abyss is heart stopping, but this subterranean shutterbug has made it his business to brave the unknown and, literally, bring to light some of the most untouched and isolated parts of the globe.
While he was above ground, we took the opportunity to chat to this unique explorer.
Where was your last trip?
My last caving trip was to Sicily, where we explored lava tubes on the side of Mount Etna.
Where is your next trip?
My next trip is to Slovenia to explore ice caves. Slovenia is known for having many spectacular ice caves, along with Austria and Switzerland.
What is your first travel-related memory?
My first ever travelling experience outside of the UK was to the Himalayas in Nepal back in 2000. I explored the Annapurna Range on a group tour for about three and a half weeks. It was spectacular. After that trip I realised I wanted to go and see the world.
Aisle or window seat?
Definitely a window seat, because you can spend the whole flight looking out of the window and forget that you’re stuck on a plane.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
About a week before I leave, I get things out of the cupboards and off the shelves and lay them out on the floor around my office so I never forget anything.
Favourite city or country or region?
I like the Lake District in England. I’ve got a lot of childhood memories of going there with my parents, who taught me all about life outdoors.
I also like China for the food and the fact that it’s so different from my way of life as an Englishman. I like exploring places that are different to what I am used to and meeting people that live polar opposite lives to me.
What drew you into exploring and photographing caves?
I studied art at university in Sheffield. I chose Sheffield because it’s really close to the Peak District and at the time I wanted to become a rock climber. But a friend on my course persuaded me to join the university’s caving club. On our first trip, we went down a cave called Alum Pot in the Yorkshire Dales – I assumed it would be a one-off experience, that I’d go back to rock climbing afterwards. But the moment I went into the cave I was absolutely blown away.
At the same time, I started doing photography at university, so I put down the paintbrush, picked up a camera and took it into a cave. It was the perfect way to combine my love of art with my passion for caving.
How does it feel going down into a cave for the first time?
We simply don’t know what percentage of caves are unexplored because they’ve never been found. That feeling of exploring the unknown as you abseil into a big hole is really, really exciting. If you can imagine that more people have been to the moon than some of the caves I’ve explored, I think that puts it into context.
A cave is like a time machine; it won’t really have altered since it was formed hundreds of thousands of years ago. In that time so much has changed on the surface – dinosaurs came and went, prehistoric man became modern human beings – but the cave remained the same, so you’re going into a world that existed all that time ago.
What are the challenges of photographing caves?
The biggest challenge of photographing a cave is the lack of light. So you have to take all your light sources into the cave. On some shoots you have to drag or push bags of equipment through very tight passes, so it can take hours of physically demanding work before you finally reach your location. Sometimes you can spend hours just to get to an underground campsite, where you stay overnight before you go on again.
What has been your most unforgettable travel memory?
We were in Greenland last year, trying to take stalagmite samples from caves. My girlfriend is a scientist and she wanted to take the first ever climate record from caves in the northeast corner of the country. All the information we have on climate change in Greenland is from ice cores which date back 130,000 years; but if you date a stalagmite from a cave, you can go back around 500,000 years.
The caves are so remote, the only way we could get there was to fly up the east coast of Greenland in a small aircraft. But even when we landed we had to cross a 20km lake in a small inflatable boat, and we had to do it in two journeys because we had so much equipment. Then, once we got all the equipment to the base camp on the other side, it was still a 33km hike to get to the valley where the caves where. We had to carry all the equipment in stages over four days; leaving some at checkpoints along the way, returning to get the rest the next day.
It was such an epic journey, and we were only at the location for about three days out of three weeks before we had to do it all over in reverse!
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
I have a habit of collecting unique weapons; a blowpipe, a machete, a dagger with a bone handle… something that’s traditional for the destination.
What is the best or worst piece of travel advice you’ve received?
The best: don’t be put off when people say you can’t go there because it’s too dangerous or you’ll never get that done in a day. We live in a world where there is so much health and safety, and while I think it’s important to not ignore that, if you have a dream, find a way of doing it.
What’s your biggest travel fail?
I was on a caving expedition and I had been given a waterproof container to keep my camera equipment dry. I’d been using the container as a buoyancy aid while we floated about two or three miles down this underground river, but when we got to the cave entrance, the container felt unusually heavy. I flipped open the lid to find the box had flooded with water, right up to the top. Everything was floating around; my camera, lens, flash gun, batteries, all of it was totally destroyed.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfil?
I wouldn’t spend it in a cave, if that’s what you’re thinking! I would probably go to an isolated island with my girlfriend and spend the whole week there.
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
Similar to the advice before: don’t be put off by people saying you can’t do something. If you have a desire to travel, then go for it.
Robbie was recently featured on San Miguel’s Rich List. See his story at sanmiguel.com/richlist or check out some of his incredible photography at shonephotography.com.