Terra Incognita: Travels In Antarctica by Sara WheelerTerra Incognita: Travels In Antarctica by Sara Wheeler

Terra Incognita: Travels In Antarctica

bySara Wheeler

Paperback | March 16, 1999

Pricing and Purchase Info

$17.41 online 
$24.00 list price save 27%
Earn 87 plum® points

Prices and offers may vary in store


In stock online

Ships free on orders over $25

Not available in stores


It is the coldest, windiest, driest place on earth, an icy desert of unearthly beauty and stubborn impenetrability. For centuries, Antarctica has captured the imagination of our greatest scientists and explorers, lingering in the spirit long after their return. Shackleton called it "the last great journey"; for Apsley Cherry-Garrard it was the worst journey in the world.

This is a book about the call of the wild and the response of the spirit to a country that exists perhaps most vividly in the mind. Sara Wheeler spent seven months in Antarctica, living with its scientists and dreamers. No book is more true to the spirit of that continent--beguiling, enchanted and vast beyond the furthest reaches of our imagination. Chosen by Beryl Bainbridge and John Major as one of the best books of the year, recommended by the editors of Entertainment Weekly and the Chicago Tribune, one of the Seattle Times's top ten travel books of the year, Terra Incognita is a classic of polar literature.
Sara Wheeler is the author of many books of biography and travel, including Access All Areas: Selected Writings 1990–2011 and Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile. Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica was an international bestseller that The New York Times described as "gripping, emotional" and "compelling," and The Mag...
Title:Terra Incognita: Travels In AntarcticaFormat:PaperbackProduct dimensions:384 pages, 7.95 × 5.21 × 0.82 inShipping dimensions:7.95 × 5.21 × 0.82 inPublished:March 16, 1999Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0375753389

ISBN - 13:9780375753381


Read from the Book

INTRODUCTION   “It is the last great journey left to man,” Shackleton said. He didn’t mean that we all had to pack our crampons and set off, ice axes in hand. For Shackleton, Antarctica was a metaphor as well as an explorer’s dream. “We all have our own White South,” he added. It is true that for me Antarctica was always a space of the imagination—before, during and after my own journey. No cities, no bank managers, no pram in the hall. It has been said that before the ice came Antarctica was the site of Atlantis, the ancient civilization that disappeared in a cosmic gulp. When I went there I learned that Atlantis is within us.   Until I was 30, my relationship with Antarctica was confined to the biannual reinflation of the globe hanging above my desk, its air valve located in the middle of the misshapen white pancake at the bottom. As far as I was then aware, the continent was little more than a testing ground for men with frozen beards to see how dead they could get. Then, in 1991, I traveled several thousand miles through Chile for a book I was writing. As I prodded around in the hinterland of the national psyche I discovered that the country did not come to a stop in Tierra del Fuego. A small triangle was suspended at the bottom of every map. They called it Antártida chilena. So one day in February I hitched a lift from Punta Arenas to King George Island, off the tip of the spindly Antarctic peninsula, on an antediluvian Hercules belonging to the Chilean Air Force.   With nothing but Chile on my mind and a carpetbag on my shoulder I climbed down the steps of the plane into the rasping air and shook the bearpaw extended by the wing commander who had been appointed as my minder. I looked out over the icefields vanishing into the aspirin-white horizon. Above them, a single snow petrel wheeled against the Hockney blue.   Much later I climbed a snowhill with a Uruguayan vulcanologist. There was no sound on the top of the hill except the occasional tap-tap as the vulcanologist scraped snow into a specimen tin, and as the shadows lengthened on the rippling Southern Ocean I looked beyond the small base in the foreground and thought—that’s an ice desert bigger than Australia. Antarctica is the highest continent, as well as the driest, the coldest and the windiest, and nobody owns it. Seven countries might have “claimed” a slice for themselves, and there might be almost two hundred little research camps, but it is the only place on the planet not owned by anyone.   Standing on the edge of the ice field in a wind strong enough to lean on, squinting in the buttery light, it was as if I were seeing the earth for the very first time. I felt less homeless than I have ever felt anywhere, and I knew immediately that I had to return.   When I left, wedged into the same decrepit Hercules, I wrote Terra Incognita on the cover of a virgin notebook.     I discovered that the ancient Greeks had sensed it was there because something had to balance the white bit at the top of the globe.* Medieval cartographers had a stab at mapping it and called it Terra Australis Incognita, the Unknown Southern Land. For centuries, everyone thought it was rich, fertile and populous and that finding it would be like winning the National Lottery. It was Captain Cook, the greatest explorer of all time, who sent the message back to the Naval hydrographers fidgeting through the long reign of George III that no, down here there are no golden fields or burgeoning trees or tall people with flaxen hair. Down here there is only cold hell.   After that most people forgot about Antarctica for a while, and when all the other white spaces on the map had been colored in, they came back to it. The British were especially keen on Antarctica, as they had done Africa and spent much of the nineteenth century fretting over the Arctic. By the time the twentieth century rolled around they were fully engaged in the great quest for the south, and it culminated in the central Antarctic myth, that of Captain Scott, a man inextricably woven into the fabric of the national culture.   Once I had glimpsed it, the Antarctic remained lodged in my mind’s eye. I forced my friends to sit in empty cinemas whenever Charles Frend’s 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic resurfaced and we watched John Mills stride across a psychedelic backdrop that made the continent look like a seventies album cover. Bernard Shaw had used Antarctica as a metaphor, T. S. Eliot recycled Antarctic material in The Waste Land, and I found it in Saul Bellow, Thomas Pynchon, Václav Havel, Doris Lessing and Thomas Keneally. When I went to the National Theatre I found that Tony Kushner had set a whole scene of his epic Angels in America down there. All places are more than the sum of their physical components, and I saw that Antarctica exists most vividly in the mind. It has always been a metaphorical landscape, and in an increasingly grubby world it has been romanticized to fulfil a human need for sanctuary. Mythical for centuries, so it has remained.   It took two years to organize the journey. During that period I was accepted as the first foreigner on the American National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists’ and Writers’ Program. The two years unraveled in a seamless roll of letters, interviews, meetings, conferences on two continents, endless freelance work, exhaustive medicals and long walks through the bowels of the Foreign Office in London to get to Polar Regions, which was a long way from anywhere else in the building and the temperature dropped as I approached it. Nobody knows what my dentist and I went through to satisfy the punitive requirements of the U.S. Navy. My tattoo was logged in the Disabilities and Disfigurements section of the British Antarctic Survey’s medical records. Three weeks before departure I had to undergo various unpleasant tests to document that my heart murmur was not one of the uncommon kind likely to stage a rebellion on the ice. The cardiologist in Harley Street who applied himself to this task was Brazilian, and I had made an appointment to collect the results at eight o’clock on the morning after Brazil won the World Cup. I sat taut with tension on the steps outside his elegant practice, clinging helplessly to my dream until he fell at my feet out of a taxi, his tie undone, shouting, “You have the best heart I have ever seen.”   At the British Antarctic Survey predeployment conference in Cambridge I was woken each morning by the padding footsteps of a dog handler in the chilly corridors of Girton College, and on the last night I sat in candlelight under dour oil portraits of tweed-skirted Victorian scholars in the Great Hall, listening to Barry Heywood, the head of BAS, telling us in hushed tones that we were about to experience the time of our lives.   I sat in Scott’s cabin aboard Discovery in Dundee and stood in pouring rain on the Eastern Commercial Docks in Grimsby among excitable relatives waiting for the James Clark Ross to arrive at the end of its long journey from Antarctica. Week after week Shirley, the obliging information assistant at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, unlocked the dust-encrusted basement so I could get at the fiction section, which was hidden behind dented tins of film spools and cardboard boxes of dog food. At the same Institute I worked my way through blubber-splashed pages of leather notebooks inscribed by the men who gave Antarctica a history. Reading them all was like looking at an object through the different angles of a glass prism. On assignment in India, I escaped to find the headquarters of the Indian Antarctic Programme in the asphyxiating concrete heartland of New Delhi. When I reached its ramshackle eighth-floor offices, the air-conditioning had just sighed to a stop and a tall secretary in an orange sari was fanning herself in front of a photograph of a pristine snowscape. I drank warm beer outside railway stations in the south of England, waiting to be collected by veteran explorers long since retired, and later, in their neat homes, liver-spotted hands turned the stiff black pages of cracked photograph albums. In Hampshire I was entertained by Zaz Bergel, granddaughter of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer’s Antarctic explorer, and when I put on my coat to leave she said, “Grandfather was much happier there than anywhere else.”   There were psychological preparations too, though these were more difficult. In the Foreword to a seminal book about the opening up of the continent I read: “Some of the most prominent challenges of polar living fall into the provinces of mind and emotion, rather than muscle and matter.” In the same book a man with many years’ experience on the ice wrote: “The Antarctic generally wields a profound effect on personality and character and few men are the same after a stay there.” I wasn’t afraid of loneliness; I had learned that it doesn’t arrive on the coattails of isolation. All the same, I was apprehensive about where Antarctica would take me, and about seeing my life sub specie. Robert Swan, who walked to both Poles, told me that going to either is like wiping away your life on a child’s magic slate.  

From Our Editors

Antarctica has long been a geographical target for those with a sense of wanderlust and passion for adventure. The very name evokes images of a harsh, desolate beauty and journalist Sara Wheeler captures the icy continent's strange allure brilliantly in this illuminating volume. From the doomed expeditions of Scott and Shackleton to details of her own seven-month adventure in Antarctica, the acclaimed Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica is travel writing at its most compelling and entertaining.

Editorial Reviews

"A triumph . . . I cannot believe that anything better will ever be written about Antarctica." --Daily Telegraph"Compelling . . . leaves the reader with a visceral understanding of the mysterious, even sublime power the poles have exertedon the human imagination, and the desolate beauty that resides there amid the glaciers and icebergs and penguins."--Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times"I have read many accounts of polar exploration, but never one which so touchingly describes its emotional topography. . . . What she has done could not be done better." --Richard Eyre, The Independent "The first funny book about Antarctica." --Los Angeles Times