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.

Armchair Travel: 10 Books about Sailing Adventures

This instalment of the Armchair Travel series is brought to you with a healthy dose of vitamin sea.

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Like travelling (and sailing), these books could bring you complete escapism, teach you new skills, and ideas or throw you in at the deep end.  So hoist the mainsail and catch the wind, and head off into the sunset with ten of my favourite books about sailing adventures…

  • Sailing Alone Around the World – Captain Joshua Slocum

The single-handed circumnavigation of the globe Slocum made on his sloop Spray was the first time such a voyage had been made.  Sailing more than 46,000 nautical miles, crossing the Atlantic three times and the Pacific once, long before radar and satellite, the understated and direct writing isn’t overwhelmed by the extraordinariness of the achievement.

  • The Kon Tiki Expedition – Thor Heyerdahl

This is my most favourite book ever, and I first read it when I was around 10 years old.  More about the adventure than sailing, this is the account of Thor Heyerdahl and his companions taking a balsa raft more than 4000 miles across the Pacific from Peru to the Tuamoto archipelago.  I was really interested by the way the crew handled the challenges, excitement, danger, and boredom of the voyage.

  • We, the Drowned – Carsten Jensen.

I loved this book, but I think it will be a challenge to explain why.  The story of the seafarers of Marstal, Denmark, from the golden age of sail to the end of the Second World War, from Scandinavia to North America to the islands of the South Pacific.  Despite the epic scope of the book, the pacing is tight, and twists and turns in the plot unexpected. The writing is beautiful and thoughtful, and the book is rich in historic detail, but it is so much more than the sum of its parts.

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  • Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

A classic children’s book set in the English Lake District in the 1920s, this is the tale of an idyllic summer of adventures, friendship, and imagination for the children of two families and their sailing dinghies, Swallow, and Amazon.  The “ruthless pirate” Nancy Blackett was my childhood hero, and after watching the film so many times, I can’t run through a meadow without throwing in a tack.

  • The Brendan Voyage – Tim Severin

Using medieval texts as a guide, experimental archaeologist, adventurer and writer Severin constructed an ox-hide curragh and traces what may have been the first European landfall in North America, around 500 years before Norse settlements and a thousand years before Columbus.  Weathering storms and treacherous conditions, close encounters with marine life, and living in the most basic of conditions.  A truly remarkable undertaking, and an insight into medieval boatbuilding technology that is little heard about.

  • The Last Grain Race – Eric Newby

In 1938, Newby, then aged 18, quit his job at an advertising firm, and signed-on as crew on the windjammer Moshulu, to sail from Ireland to Australia, round the Cape of Good Hope, and back again via Cape Horn. The Great Grain Race of 1939 was the last, with the outbreak of war later in the year. Life at sea was hard, physically and mentally, and tensions grow with the weather. Bawdy anecdotes of brawls and benders are balanced out with lush, lyrical descriptions of wind, waves and wildlife. The book helpfully includes a sail plan and rigging diagram so you can keep track of topgallants, flying jibs and spankers.

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  • One Wild Song – Paul Heiney

Writer and broadcaster Heiney’s son Nicholas, a keen sailor and poet, took his own life aged 23 after years of living with depression.  Together with his wife, journalist and sailor Libby Purves, Heiney pays tribute to Nicholas, and aims to connect with happier memories, by setting out for Cape Horn, considered the Everest of sailing.  A powerful and moving account of processing grief, beautifully written and thought provoking.

  • Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time – Dava Sobel

For centuries seafaring navigators could fix their latitude accurately with a sextant, but the calculation of longitude was far more prone to error.  The British Admiralty established a prize for the first person to develop a technique, thus ensuring their continued naval superiority, leading to John Harrison’s forty-year quest to build the most reliable chronometer of the time.  A classic of the history of science.

  • This Thing of Darkness – Harry Thompson

A fictionalised life of Captain Robert FitzRoy of the Royal Navy, commander of HMS Beagle, and pioneer of meteorology, this superbly written book is captivating from the start, and  filled with historic details. It traces FitzRoy’s voyages to chart the coasts of South America, and introduces a young Charles Darwin, trainee cleric and keen geologist, engaged as a gentleman companion to the captain on the second voyage. The two men discuss, debate, observe, and speculate, on a range of themes, until profound differences in their beliefs eventually drives a wedge through their friendship, exacerbated by their receptions by society on their return.

  • Against the Flow: The First Woman to Sail Solo the ‘Wrong Way’ around the World – Dee Caffari

More people have walked on the moon than have made a successful solo westabout circumnavigation, against prevailing winds and currents, and in 2006 Dee Caffari was the first woman to do so.  Stepping out of the comfort of a secure job, to face physical hardship, sleep deprivation, and the unpredictability of the weather, this is an inspiring account of her adventure.

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