Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica by Sara Wheeler

Introducing: Brushing Off the Dust!  Old reviews revisited.

brushing off the dust

Before I launched this current public blog I used to write and share book reviews with a small circle of friends elsewhere. I discovered some of my all-time favourite reads during this semi-public blogging period and have been meaning for a while now to start importing some old reviews over here to Roxploration. I would like to thank Carole of Carole’s Chatter for finally giving me the impetus to start doing this with her call for recommendations of book bloggers’ favourite travel literature. You could probably have  guessed in advance the location featured in my contribution to the list.

Terra Incognita

First published: 1998 (New Ed: Vintage Digital 2010)
My copy: bought on Kindle
First read and reviewed by me: October 2011

Memorable quote: “All places are more than the sum of their physical components, and I saw that Antarctica existed most vividly in the mind. It was a metaphorical landscape, and in an increasingly grubby world it had been romanticised to fulfil a human need for sanctuary. Mythical for centuries, so it remained.”

Thoughts:
Pure. There are lots of clichés about Antarctica being a place of purity. Perhaps it is all the ice;  perhaps it’s the continent’s remoteness or the fact it has no indigenous human population. Sara Wheeler’s account of this great white continent – which includes a potted history of polar exploration and science, as well as her own firsthand experiences of living there -does much to expose the myth-making behind these kinds of assumptions. Yet she also contributes to them, simply because Wheeler’s writing itself is so pure. Her prose honestly has this sort of the incandescent quality; certain phrases and descriptions of hers would shine on and linger in my brain long after I’d turned the (virtual) page. In this respect, Terra Incognita really is the perfect marriage of style and substance.

Although it is really just an episodic collection of impressions and experiences, the book – and Wheeler’s journey  – divides into three distinct sections, each with their own distinct narrative pace. The first third is very fast paced, dealing with Wheeler’s arrival on the continent and her time using the American base, McMurdo, as a departure point for lots of short stays with scientific research groups dotted across the surrounding area, including a stay at the Pole itself. Just as the landscape, ostensibly uniform white, is actually characterised by so many different colours and types of icy terrain, so this section deals with all the cultural and geographical differences between the different camps, belonging to researchers of many nationalities. As a writer among scientists, Wheeler earns the status of detached insider and as she learns how to live and survive on the ice she gives us snapshots of her new colleagues, from the humorous to the melancholic – poking fun at the obsessions of what she calls “the frozen beards” but also admiring their work and learning to share their idiosyncratic passions.

There is a lot of activity in that first section which is a sharp contract to the second leg of her Antarctic odyssey, a protracted stay at Rothera, the British base of the Antarctic peninsula. I have to say this section made me feel slightly ashamed of my country. While the other nations were welcoming and accepting of Wheeler, the Brits – in her depiction at least – seem to run their base like a 1950s all boys public school, in which a woman was a distinctly unwelcome addition. The slower pace of this section gives Wheeler a chance to reflect on the political history of the continent, and of course on past explorers. She ties this narrative in so neatly with her own very honest and heartfelt experiences that it never once feels dry.

After a brief period back in London – where she is already pining for the ice like a long lost lover – the final section of Wheeler’s journey sees her back in the environs of McMurdo, where she establishes “Wooville” her own Antarctic camp, living with another female artist in the shadow of Scott’s Hut. This is the highlight of Wheeler’s trip: having enjoyed varying levels of hospitality from other Antarctic residents she is finally free to interact with this most seductive and dangerous of landscapes in her own way. The clarity of the landscape inspires some incredibly thoughtful prose on the nature of life, on depression, on religion, and on wanderlust.

Living, as she does, in the shadow of the Terra Nova expedition hut, the early explorers necessarily play an important role in Wheeler’s narrative (at one point she gets the metal key to the hut frozen to her lips!) After all, their myth has shaped the legend of Antarctica for all subsequent visitors. Yet what I love about Wheeler’s work is her mix of respect and plain old, myth-busting common-sense. She is not afraid to poke fun at the early expeditions and to highlight the mistakes they made, and the way their legacy has been inflated (mostly by the white upper class men who came after them). This attitude makes this feel like a very honest, Antarctic narrative and Wheeler’s voice as a woman and a feminist is a welcome change from some of the more common testosterone fuelled polar narratives out there. The only exception to this carefully measured appraisal of past polar heroes is – perhaps predictably – Wheeler’s treatment of Cherry-Garrard, whose biography she went on to write. But, sharing it, I was happy to indulge that particular fixation. When Wheeler visits Cape Crozier, the site of Cherry, Birdie and Bill’s winter journey, her language assumes the tones of a pilgrimage and I have to confess I was moved to tears by it:

When I spotted the remains of [Cherry’s] shelter, my heart contracted. It was as if they were going to appear from behind a rock, their necks frozen, smiling through cracked lips. As the ground came up to meet us, my eyes filled with tears. I pulled down my goggles. I hadn’t realised how close we had become, these dead explorers and I.

Amen to that. But honestly, this a fascinating travel book: a series of wonderful character sketches, a survival narrative, a feminist diary and a pocket history of the only unowned continent on the planet all rolled into one. I really felt like I was there with her for so much of it, which is probably the closest I’ll ever get to the place. Read it, relish it.

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6 Responses to Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica by Sara Wheeler

  1. LaVagabonde says:

    I read this book years ago and really enjoyed it.

    • roxploration says:

      Thanks for stopping by – your blog looks interesting too, I’ve just been having a look.

      Terra Incognita is a great read, Wheeler’s written a book about her travels in the Arctic too (“The Magnetic North”) which is also worth a read but I don’t think that one is quite as enjoyable as this one.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Antarctica – interesting. THANKS for sharing.

    Stopping by from Carole’s Your Favorite Travel Books. I am in the list as numbers 11, 12, 13, and 14.

    Elizabeth
    Silver’s Reviews
    My Blog

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Nice blog…followed you by e-mail.

  4. Pingback: Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard by Sara Wheeler | Roxploration

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