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Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica Paperback – March 16, 1999

3.8 out of 5 stars 49 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

When explorers such as Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, and Robert Falcon Scott all set off to Antarctica in the early years of the 20th century, the polar regions were among the last truly unexplored areas of the world--and arguably the least hospitable. Scott lost his life, pinned down in a howling blizzard only 11 miles from his supply depot; Shackleton lost his ship, crushed in the ice. Even those who survived the icy wastes did so only with enormous effort. And yet, there is something about Antarctica that beckons people; eighty years after Shackleton's voyage, Sara Wheeler answered the call, leaving her comfortable home for "the Great White." Terra Incognita is the result of her sojourn in that legendary land.

In addition to chronicling her own encounters with the people and the place, Wheeler brings the past alive as well, through vivid stories about the heroes of polar exploration: Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, and others who practically become secondary characters in Wheeler's account. But it is her interactions with the living people who make up the community--scientists, drifters, and dreamers who have settled this forbidding landscape--that make Terra Incognita a rare and worthy book. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Journalist Wheeler (Travels in a Thin Country, on Chile) spent more than two years researching and organizing a seven-month journey to Antarctica, becoming the first foreigner to join the American National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists' and Writers' Program. Her wry, lucid account of that journey juxtaposes the epic exploits of heroic early Antarctic explorers (Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amunden, Douglas Mawson, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, et al.) with her own adventures. She offers a critical survey of the literature of Antarctic exploration and provides as well insights into the historical and cultural impact of Antarctic exploration on the British and Norwegian national consciousnesses. While the hardships the intrepid Wheeler suffered are a faint echo of those endured by polar pioneers, there's still a wealth of absorbing detail to make the point: use and operation of toilets in subzero; foodstuffs and their creative preparation; transportation, be it dogsled, skis or snowmobile; proper layering of protective clothing; the leisure activities and quirks of the varied scientists and support crews ("Frozen Beards") she encountered. Along the way, she offers a rare woman's view of a thoroughly male place, tolerant of women in most cases but downright hostile in some (as in the U.K. zone). Wheeler writes elegantly and movingly about the unearthly landscape and its effects: "The twin peaks... were backlit against a pearly blue sky.... Ribboned crystals imprisoned in the ice glimmered like glowworms. It was swathed in light, pale as an unripe lemon. The scene said to me, 'Do not be afraid.' It was like the moment when I pass back the chalice after holy communion." Her book, fascinating reading for any explorer, armchair or otherwise, concludes with the recipe for her renowned "Bread-and-Butter Pudding (Antarctic Version)."
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Paperbacks
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library; Modern Library pbk. ed edition (March 16, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375753389
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375753381
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #575,060 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Linda Linguvic HALL OF FAME on June 16, 2000
Format: Paperback
Sometimes I think I must have been an Eskimo in a prior life, because I love books about the frozen north. When I came upon this book, subtitled "Travels in Antarctica", by Sara Wheeler, my imagination was immediately captured as I realized this was a whole new territory for me to explore in my reading experience.
Ms. Wheeler is a young British travel writer who spent 7 months in Antarctica in 1995 as a writer-in-residence with the U.S. National Science Foundation. What a great gig!
A lot of research went into the writing of this book. And a lot of love. She mixes all the historical details of the early explorations of Shackleton, Amundson and Scott with her own modern and female perspective of the places she goes, the people she meets and the emotional effect all this has on her as she explores the coldest, windiest and driest continent in the world.
As Antarctic explorations go, hers has a certain degree of comfort. She is helicoptered around to various bases, and even though there are periods of time that she spends in a tent or igloo or prefab shelter, she has radio contact with the base and always has a supply of food. But this, of course, is what it is like to travel to Antarctica these days, and she is fortunate indeed to have the experience of going there. This is not a tourist destination after all. And virtually everybody there is a scientist of some sort.
She describes her experiences well and I loved he sense of humor, especially when describing the differences between the bases manned by different nationalities. The Italians have the best food. The Brits are completely male, bonded in their background of English private schools and given to bawdy toilet humor and practical jokes.
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Format: Paperback
There have been many, many travel books written, but so few actually remain with you, actually transform you. Terra Incognita is one of those books.
No matter how Sara Wheeler got there, her 7-month trip through Antarctica unfolds beautifully between the eccentric and fun "beakers" she meets along the way and the intense splendor of the continent. Because of her mode of travel (spending a few days or weeks here or there, until her final 2-month stay in a shack during her last trip to see the coming of summer), Wheeler most likely got to see more of Antarctica--it's various bases, landscapes, and people--than just about anyone alive.
Added to this is a great amount of Antarctic exploration history, which makes the book seem more than just a seven-month journey . . . more like 100 years of attempts to figure out this hypnotic and enigmatic continent; reading it encourages you to do your own further research on this subject. While I do agree that there could have been more maps included, just have a globe or atlas nearby if you want to follow her travels more closely!
In my opinion, the downfall of most travel books is that the author focuses too much on him- or herself to the exclusion of everything else. Wheeler does include her thoughts, feelings--how she sees herself changing with each experience. These are never intrusive, however. The only other book that comes to mind with this sort of balance is Matthiesen's The Snow Leopard--another fantastic travel read. This book is quiet but never empty and never dull. Read it and be transported.
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Format: Paperback
This is a good choice for a predeparture read for people going to Antarctica as tourists. Of course, you can always read Shackleton's, Scott's, Amundsen's and Fienne's accounts of their epic journeys into the unknown, but that'll take you a long time, and you may be a bit distracted by the old-fashioned language therein. For a modern description of what life is like in the Antarctic nowadays, and what goes on in the head of a thirtyish female when she gets to visit (for free) with the scientists down there, you can't do better than this one.

The book is part diary of Sara Wheeler as she goes through some sort of change during her visits to Antarctica (three different trips during a seven month period, not one seven month stay as you may be led to believe at first). She's a bit too, hm, spiritual for me, "the landscape talked to me", to the degree that she suddenly decides to stop drinking alcohol, for no apparent particular reason. She describes her feelings well, although I wasn't really interested in reading about them.

The other part (and these two parts are closely intermingled throughout the book) is heaps and heaps of Antarctic history and "folklore". You get to learn all the basic facts about what happened to the pioneers and discoverers of Antarctica (with a VERY British bias, mind you), which definitely should be of basic interest to people who are going to Antarctica themselves.

"Travels in Antarctica" as a second title is not really fitting. She is not traveling. She is a guest of the American and British Antarctic Survey organisations, and is well taken care of by them, both when it comes to supplying her with equipment and with transportation. It is nothing like what traveling in Antarctica is for someone who pay their way through travel agents.

Still; good one, for what it is!
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