Terra Incognita

Sara Wheeler

With the sun scorching down from a hot-blue sky and the electricity playing hooky, is it any surprise that my thoughts turn to a stark, white landscape, the horizon elegantly cluttered with icebergs, where there's nothing to disturb the peace and quiet but noisy penguins? It's probably the recency effect too, as I've just snapped shut Sara Wheeler's wonderful “Terra Incognita”, Travels In Antarctica. And thanks to her, I'm something of a trivia queen on all things Antarctic, and will be happy to bring you up to speed. So please say this after me: Antarctica is the highest, coldest, windiest, driest continent; there are bits out there where it hasn't rained in the last 2 million years; the ice-sheet in places is a whopping 15,000 feet thick. Now the ice bristles with penguins, colonies of which smell like an ‘ammonia factory' and sound like a ‘football ground during a match', but don't try stalking polar bears, there aren't any! Instead, you'll be surprised to find refrigerators (a bit like that selling-fridges-to-Eskimos joke), and it's chiefly used to thaw food. Oh and since this continent famously belongs to nobody, please don't bother planting a flag on your next visit.

Sara's Antarctica, however, isn't merely a compendium of extreme facts and figures. She says a visit to this continent — almost otherworldly in its isolation and raw beauty — is life-altering. And being a woman in the ‘womanless white continent of peace' (as she quotes an admiral's vision for Antarctica) brings an altogether different perspective, a sharp, sensitive one. Living there was like ‘getting to know a person. It's like having a love-affair (…) it's all different and overwhelming and intoxicating, and I don't know where it is going to end'.

It works because…

This is no macho tale of heroism, huskies and hardship and neither, thankfully, is it a cushy cruise-trip visit to the South Pole. Instead, Sara spends several months there, helicoptering her way from one base to another, meeting scientists (one married to his Harley Davidson, another, nicknamed ‘Seismic man', sets off explosives to study under-ice geology), and relishing the romance of sleeping in an igloo in the ‘perishing cold'. The highlight of the book — besides the sparkling prose and the irreprehensible humour — is surely the strong skein of history woven into the narrative. Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen were, to begin with mere text-book figures; but Sara brought them to life, took me to their camp sites, and told me their tales of triumph and tragedies. And that, perhaps, made it a little easier to understand why the early explorers would've undertaken such a ‘punishing journey', the ‘ambitious battle of minds'; because, before David Attenborough beamed frozen images into every living room, they had to necessarily journey to see for themselves, and the ‘discovery' would've been reward enough for them. But why go today, if you're not drilling into the ice-core or studying penguin feet? Because Antarctica's ‘poignant beauty' is ‘almost unbearable', and there is no place else where you can ‘live in such splendour again'. If you, like me, think a trip is a touch out of your reach, find it within the pages of this endearing book.

And this one stays with you…

‘Later, we took the boats out and followed a minke whale around the bergs, sailing through Daliesque arches and poking into cold blue grottoes. The sun was low; and the honeyed air was so still that the growlers and the bergy bits were barely moving. It was a golden evening. A day like that made everything worthwhile.'

Keywords: Terra Incognita