Monday, April 11, 2011

Terra Incognita, by Sara Wheeler

Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, by Sara Wheeler.  Random House, 1996.  351 pp.  0-679-44078-X.

... in which a travel writer spends seven months living and working in Antarctica.

This is the first of a pile of books that I have to read, all centered around the Arctic and Antarctic.  For Terra Incognita, Sara Wheeler, a British travel writer and biographer, got a grant to spend a summer in Antarctica as part of a writers' program.  She spends about six months in Antarctica through the Antarctic summer (approximately October through March), and then returned to spend an additional month (August) there at the tail end of the Antarctica winter.  While she is there, she spend her time moving between various bases and field camps, traveling with different kinds of scientists, and generally absorbing the culture associated with the most desolate continent on Earth.

The interesting thing about Antarctica is that it does not belong to one single nation, and is the only place on Earth that is totally devoted to science and learning.  The Antarctic Treaty, first established in 1961, establishes everything south of 60 degrees S as a scientific preserve, owned by no nations and belonging to all.  Multiple countries have their own established research bases, at various points on the Antarctic continent, with the largest base being McMurdo Station, operated by the USA.  Wheeler makes McMurdo her first stop, and for most of her time in Antarctica, it serves as her base station.  From here, she leaves on smaller excursions to go with scientists to study penguins, ice chemistry, ice physics, Antarctic geology, astronomy, weather, climate and atmosphere, fish, bacteria... you name it.  Throughout her journey, she not only describes the science taking place, but also the scientists, the support staff, and the culture at each location.  She also discusses the history of Antarctic exploration, including famous explorers like Captain Cook, Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton, and the British hero Robert Falcon Scott.

The book is separated into three sections, each detailing a part of her journey.  The first part, The Antarctic Continent, covers the period of time when she was based at McMurdo, which is on the side of Antarctica closest to New Zealand.  In this part of the book, Wheeler is welcomed with open arms and visits more research sites and meets more people than at any other point in the book.

The second part covers her time on the Antarctic Peninsula.  For those unfamiliar with south pole geography, the Antarctic Peninsula is closer to South America.  To get from McMurdo to the peninsula, it was necessary for Wheeler to fly from McMurdo, Antarctic to New Zealand, and then to London, and then to the Falkland Islands (off the southern tip of South America) and then back to Antarctica, this time on the peninsula side.  Interestingly, the culture on this part of the continent is strikingly different; very much a boys' club, she finds herself being something of an outcast among the men who resent her presence.

The final part of the book covers her return to Antarctica during the southern hemisphere winter, in August.  Arriving at the end of winter, Wheeler meets a woman who is there to paint watercolors of the sea ice and the glaciers.  The two of them establish their own small research camp, about twelve miles from McMurdo, devoted to the arts, rather than the sciences.

I really enjoyed reading this book.  Travel writing can sometimes be hard to wade through, if the author is not sufficiently engaging.  Luckily, Wheeler does a great job filling the book with her interesting observations and her sly sense of humor.  She blends her experiences with the historical parts of the book well, so that we get historical context for each location that she visits.  She also does a good job describing the people and activities in Antarctica, describing how people live and the experiments that go on there.

The book could have benefited from a few pages of pictures.  I would have liked to have seen some photos of what the camps and bases look like, and I certainly enjoy photos of penguins and glaciers!  The book also could have really benefited from the inclusion of some larger maps, maybe a pull-out.  The maps that are included in the book are small and require a lot of flipping back and forth if you want to consult them.  My final complaint is that I would have liked to have seen even more historical background... I really enjoyed reading about the old expeditions to Antarctica.

Recommended reading for people who enjoy travel writing, or who have an interest in life at the poles.

4/5 stars

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