Antarctica is a continent so infrequently visited that few have a grasp on the complexities of the land – to most, it’s just a large mass of ice with polar bears and penguins (there are no polar bears in Antarctica). Oh, and Al Gore’s really worried that it’s melting. British author Sara Wheeler corrects this with her excellent Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctic. The travel memoir has Wheeler travel to Antarctica, joining camps and chronicling her journey. One would expect that the subject would lend the book a severe or austere theme. After all, many have traveled to the Artic, only to perish in its unforgiving conditions. But it would be a mistake to assume that Terra Incognita is a dour read; instead, it’s a lively, warm, and enthusiastic work of a woman whose life has been irrevocably changed by this very unique experience.
While gender politics and feminism appear as minor themes in the book, Wheeler’s gender provides the author with some interesting perspective on traveling to Antarctica. Few women have done it, and even Wheeler herself felt the nasty sting of sexism and chauvinism by many of her fellow travelers. And though most of the people she comes across are wonderful and helpful, she doesn’t obscure the frat boy atmosphere that such a self-consciously “brave” or “masculine” act such as traveling to the South Pole create. Also, Wheeler was one of the few campers who was not a scientist (in one particularly lovely passage, she’s roomed with an American artist, and the two bond).
What’s so interesting about the book is not just the grand details of the panoramic scenes that Wheeler describes in an expert voice. What’s fascinating are the minute details of how the camps existed. The tiny communities that live in the Artic are equipped with restaurants, bars, libraries. And while the travelers must do without a lot of creature comforts, Wheeler still writes of a colorful Italian cook who can whip up gourmet meals and a fully-equipped bar. At times it feels as if Wheeler is writing about another planet, especially when she indulges in jargon when describing her natural surroundings – and again, because a scant few will really know what Wheeler’s writing about, these moments while edifying and educational, can also feel foreign and alien – so it’s the moments where Wheeler talks about throwing together a bread and butter pudding for dinner, or a Christmas tree erected during the holidays that ground the story and make the seemingly impossible, possible: she’s able to write a relatable story about traveling to the Artic.
And Sara Wheeler is funny. Very Funny. Again, the subzero temperatures and the tragic history of Artic exploration doesn’t necessarily lend itself to comedy, but Wheeler mines some great moments from the cultural divides that come up when she’s relating to her companions (her artist pal being from America, is tripped up by Wheeler’s allusions to British class stratification, which result in torturous, but hilarious exchanges). Readers will appreciate that from such a cold, unfamiliar and frightening place, Wheeler was able to craft such a humane and endearing tale.