Armchair Travel: 10 Books to Explore Antarctica

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I’ve long had a fascination with Antarctica, being captivated by stories of exploration and discovery in Readers Digest books at my grandparent’s house on long Scottish summer afternoons.  Primary school trips to see the polar vessel RRS Discovery in Dundee, the three-masted barque that took Scott and Shackleton on their successful first voyage south, and to the penguin enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo, where I met Sir Nils Olav (then just RSM of the Norwegian King’s Guard), further fuelled that interest.

So I’ve been in an absolute whirlwind of excitement since finding out I’ve finally got the opportunity to go for myself; the realisation of a long-burning ambition.  I’m part of the team from the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust that will be based at Port Lockroy, to run the famous Penguin Post Office, for the 19/20 season.

In preparation, I immersed myself in Antarctic-themed reading, and these are some of my favourite books.  Until you get the chance for yourself, these books will transport you South.  I’ve also rated each book by the amount of penguin content it contains, not as a comment on the quality of the writing.  They’re all good books, Brent.

  • Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent – Gabrielle Walker

An excellent book covering everything you could possibly want to know about the “last great wilderness”, and the people drawn into its icy grasp for science, discovery and adventure.  Walker weaves together personal stories gleaned from her travels in Antarctica, from the heroic age of exploration through to current climate breakdown studies, from scientists in the distinctly earthbound fields of geology and ecology to cosmetologists looking into deep space and deep time.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧 /5

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RRS Discovery next to V&A Dundee on the side of the Tay.
  • Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Alfred Lansing

Lansing is a powerful storyteller, and this is one of the most epic stories ever.  In 1914, the Endurance* set sail for Antarctica to establish a British base on the continent, and attempt the first overland crossing of the continent, but became trapped in the pack ice long before reaching her destination.  The shifting, thawing, and freezing ice splintered the vessel, stranding Shackleton and his crew on the floes.  The rest of the expedition is far more remarkable than the original plan, and against all odds, all survived.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

*a three-masted barquentine, which I know you needed to know.  Discovery, pictured above, is a barque.

  • The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard

As the youngest member of the team accompanying Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole, Cherry-Garrard was one of only three survivors of the expedition, and part of the rescue mission that discovered the frozen bodies of his colleagues. His account pieces together diary extracts from other team members, adding details of scientific endeavours and anecdotes of resilience and endurance in the frozen south, touched with survivor’s guilt.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

Polar Exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has been devised.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard

  • Icebird – David Lewis

I’ve included book recommendations on sailing expeditions in the previously Armchair Travel series, but this one is, without doubt, about the greatest and most terrifying feat in singlehanded sailing; a solo circumnavigation of Antarctica in 1972.  Leaving Australia, Dr. Lewis sailed out of radio contact for three months.  On reaching Palmer Base on the Antarctic Peninsula, he revealed his 32′ (9.4m) steel cutter had capsized and dismasted twice (and would do so once more before the end of the expedition).  A phenomenal undertaking to read as a non-sailor, and your worst nightmare if you are a sailor.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

  • Alone in Antarctica – Felicity Aston

In 2012 Aston became the first person to complete a solo ski journey across the Antarctic land mass using muscle power alone**, taking 59 days to cover 1,744km (1,084 miles).  Having worked as a British Antarctic Survey meteorologist, Aston was familiar with the landscape and weather conditions she was to face, but not with the solitude and sensory deprivation in the vast white expanse of the polar plateau.

Penguin rating: 🐧/5

** Norwegian Børge Ousland made the first solo ski crossing in 1997, using a kite to assist his 3,000km (1,864 miles) journey, crossing from sea to sea.

  • The Last Viking: The Life of Road Amundsen – Stephen Brown

An excellent biography of Amundsen, the ultimate polar explorer, who in the UK is often sadly view as the villainous foil to Scott’s heroic failure.  The Norwegian expedition to the pole was meticulously planned, using indigenous knowledge gleaned from Amundsen’s time with Inuit in the Arctic, and relied on dog teams to haul sleds rather than mechanical transportation and manhauling.  In addition to winning the South Pole, he was the first to lead expeditions to traverse the Northwest and Northeast passages, and with Italian aeronaut Umberto Nobile, was first to reach the North Pole.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

  • End of the Earth: Voyaging to Antarctica – Peter Mattheissen

An account of his time spent guiding guests on Antarctic voyages across the Southern Ocean, carved out in sparkling, spare prose, at a serene, glacial pace through the geology and ecology of the continent.  His trademark austere writing style will not resonate with all readers, but the book is worth persisting with until it becomes all absorbing.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

  • The Library of Ice – Nancy Campbell

A journey into the beauty and power of the forces of nature, combining travel writing, memoir, science narrative, and literature, on a tour to observe the icy cold corners of the earth before they become irreparably diminished.  Beautifully and poetically written, with an artist’s eye, and an engrossing read as Campbell moves from curling rinks to cryo-labs to the crevasse that concealed Austrian iceman Ötzi.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

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My Antarctica “shelfie”.
  • Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins – Gavin Francis

Francis was posted to the isolated Halley V research station as base doctor for a 14-month deployment, driven by a longing to see penguins since a childhood visit to Edinburgh Zoo, where my own fascination with Antarctica began.  A blend of personal memoir, polar history, and nature writing, meditating on the isolation and solitude of his experience.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

  • Penguins Stopped Play – Harry Thompson

Yes, this is a book about cricket.  About a rubbish village cricket team with an epic losing streak at that.  But this hilariously funny and touchingly poignant account of an incompetent, disaster-filled attempt to play a match on every continent, including Antarctica, is the perfect companion book for tales of heroic expeditions, proving that passion and endurance in the face of tribulation isn’t just the reserve of adventurers.  Thompson is an excellent writer, and provides a handy chart of fielding positions, if like me silly mid off, cow corner, and third man mean nothing to you.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

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Have you enjoyed any of these books?  Which ice adventures would you recommend for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.

What I’ve loved this Summer

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done:

Through this summer most of my travels have either been onboard Irene, or around the areas where the ship has been based.  After completing the TGO Challenge, and taking part in an interview for a winter job, I returned to Oban to rejoin the ship.  After a quick turn around, we picked up Kag, our kayaking guide, and a bunch of boats, and headed out to explore the islands of the Inner Hebrides.

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Looking back at Oban from the middle of the Sound of Kerrera

Our first stop was the sheltered water of Loch Spelve, on the eastern side of Mull, to wait out high winds and feast on mussels from the local farm and foraged seaweed.  As I was pottering about in the tender I had a phone call.  I was successful at the interview.  I got the job!  Or more accurately, I was going to be part of the team to do the job.  More about that below.

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Deckhand Dan, possibly the least successful fisherman on Irene.

Once storms abated, we headed through the Sound of Mull and round Ardnamurchan Point to the Small Isles, spotting a couple of minke whales on the way.  We dropped anchor off Eigg, under the imposing An Sgurr, for a couple of nights, and I was fortunate to join the group for an paddle along the east side of the island accompanied by singing seals and diving gannets.  Kag also introduced us to the concept of sea diamonds, which made kayaking in a total downpour seem damply magical.

Back in Oban we had time for a quick crew turn around and a couple of great nights out, before heading out.  This time we turned southwards, heading for Jura, and the sheltered water of Loch Tarbert, and Islay, dropping the kayakers in near Ardbeg for a paddle round to Port Ellen, with as many whisky stops as they could manage.  On the return leg, we called in by the islands of Oronsay and Colonsay, anchoring in beautiful Kiloran Bay for a barbecue on the beach.

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Irene at anchor in Kiloran Bay, Colonsay.  An extremely damp beach recce, but the weather dried up overnight for a beautiful stay.

At the end of June I had what felt like my first proper holiday in a very long time.  I spent five days on the Isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides, and was blessed with the best weather conditions.  A spot of rain on the first afternoon, just enough that I didn’t feel I was missing out while I caught up on sleep after leaving the ship.  Then beautiful sunshine and light winds to cycle around from one end of the island roads to the other, and stopping off at spots around the island to hike, swim, birdwatch and beachcomb.

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The sweeping silver sand beach at Feall Bay, Isle of Coll

At the end of my leave I returned to Irene in Swansea, to move her round to Cornwall for the final months of the season.  We stopped off at Lundy on the way, anchoring overnight beneath the cliffs.  A 1am wake-up call to move anchor at the turn of tide turned out to be one of the most magical experiences of the voyage, as thousands of Manx shearwaters swirled through the air around us, through the rigging, and called out from their burrows.  A stowaway bird emerged from the hawsepipe the following morning, and I helped her back to the sea.

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At anchor off Lundy in the Bristol Channel on our way between Wales and Cornwall.

We finished our voyage in Newlyn, which became our base for the next month for voyages to the Isles of Scilly and Brittany, and very quickly one of my favourite places.  As a working fishing port, life here lacks the softness and sanitation of nearby coastal villages.  You wouldn’t be wrong to describe the place as rough or gritty, especially after a night out to the Swordfish pub, once considered one of the roughest in the UK, but the richness of the stories I found was compelling.

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Irene of Bridgwater sailing in Mount’s Bay. Photo credit: Penzance NCI
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Irene approaching Newlyn harbour under full sail. Photo credit: Penzance NCI
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Sailing onto the mooring alongside in Newlyn. Photo credit: Penzance NCI

I’d been looking forward to visiting the Isles of Scilly all summer, however weather conditions were not in our favour.  One drizzly grey voyage, and another blown out by an Atlantic storm.  However the Brittany trip was fantastic, with a few days exploring around Tréguier and Ile de Bréhat, and a wonderful wildlife-filled channel crossing, with common dolphins accompanying the ship from sunrise onward.  The only disappointment was that we arrived back to Newlyn on the very same day a humpback whale was filmed lunge feeding just a couple of miles away, and we missed it.  Check out the awesome photos on the Lone Kayaker’s blog, including one of Irene passing St Michael’s Mount. 

On my next leave I caught up with the rest of the team for my new job for a couple of days in London to get to know each other better, and for the chance to bombard Lucy, returning for a second season, with hundreds of questions about what to expect.

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Keeping lookout from the top of the lightbox
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Sailing onto our mooring outside Charlestown Harbour.

Back on Irene, we relocated the ship to Falmouth, using it as a base to explore the coast from The Lizard and Start Point, visiting Salcome, Fowey, and Mevagissey, as well as a favourite anchorage in the Helford River.  With big winds forecast on a couple of days, we also explored the upper reaches of the Fal above Trelissick Gardens.  At the very end of August we dropped in by the Classic Sail Festival at Charleston Harbour, deep in Poldark country.  So many beautiful boats that I want to sail on.

 

The new job!

So, it’s going to be very different this winter.  I’m extremely excited to share the news that I’ll be heading to Antarctica, to spend the southern summer season working in the Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy.  I’ll be part of the team helping to run the Post Office and greet visitors to the island, and have the responsibility to monitor the resident penguin population through the season.  I’m beyond overjoyed about it all, though a bit daunted at the prospect of four months on a small island in a remote setting.

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My summer love list:

Books: It’s been difficult to find time to read through the summer, but long train journeys to meet the ship in Swansea and Newlyn were perfect. I read Empire Antarctic: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis, taking screeds of notes.  I also discovered the fabulous Beerwolf pub/bookshop in Falmouth, and succumbed to temptation, buying a couple of copies of Granta Magazine.

TV Show: When I’m off the ship I can catch up on watching films and TV that I don’t usually get the chance to see.  The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance has me so excited.  I absolutely adored the film when I was young.  And, inspired by my time in Cornwall this summer, I’ve got really into Poldark.  For the traditional sailing ships, not the shirtless scything, honestly.

Clothing: I’ve been living in shorts and flipflops for the past three months.  I don’t think I’ll ever manage to wear proper shoes again…

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Equipment: I think my most used bit of kit through the summer has been a heavy duty drybag with a shoulder strap that I discovered in the magic middle aisle of Aldi.  It’s been perfect for getting back and forward to the ship in the dingy while we’re on a mooring buoy or anchorage.

Food: Have you ever found a restaurant so good that you go back again the following night to finish off the menu?  The Sound Pantry in Newlyn is one of those places. The most delicious home-made Portuguese food for dinner two nights in a row, plus a morning visit to pick up pasteis de nata for our coffee break.

Treats: I spent an afternoon in the galley with our ship’s chef Alex and learned how to make the most fantastic baklava. So good.

What’s next:

These next few weeks are going to be an exciting time, as I prepare for spending the next few months living in Antarctica and working at the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy.

I’ve also got a few hiking trips planned, including the Great Corset Caper, where I’ll join with a bunch of awesome women to take on Pen y Fan, in the Brecon Beacons, wearing period costume.  I have to admit, I’m very nervous about it, particularly the corset.

Thanks for following These Vagabond Shoes.  You can keep up to date with my adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  And look out for plenty of penguin facts to fill the time while I’m out of contact down south.

Read about my spring adventures here.
I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or plans you have for the season ahead.
Let me know in the comments below.