Bookshelf: Endurance

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Alfred Lansing


Sir Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer who mounted an expedition to the Antarctic in 1914. The intention was for a group of men to traverse the Antarctic continent from sea to sea: the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The expedition did not go as planned; before landing on the continent the expedition’s ship, Endurance, became trapped between ice floes and could not be moved. I’m going to tell you practically the entire story here, but since it’s a historical event it’s not as if I’m spoilering it. Furthermore, if you read one book this year, you should read Endurance. Even foreknowledge of the events it recounts won’t dim your enjoyment.

The men spent six months on board their ship as she drifted with the ice, and when it became apparent that it was about to be completely destroyed by the ice, they decamped – along with their sled dogs – to an ice floe. The floe drifted still further, and when it in turn started to break up – after about five months had passed – the men took to the small boats that they had brought with them from Endurance, and headed for the closest attainable land. Their voyage to uninhabited Elephant Island took a week, during which time the men did not sleep and had very little to eat. They were exposed to the full force of the Southern Ocean, but managed to land on the island and establish a camp.

Shackleton selected a small subgroup of the men, and in the James Caird, a 6.85 metre wooden boat (for scale, just a bit longer than our rubber duck) they set out on the 1,300 kilometre trip to South Georgia Island, where there was a whaling station and contact with civilisation. This voyage took two weeks of herculean effort. Shackleton and his men then crossed South Georgia Island on foot – scaling incredible elevations with no appropriate mountaineering tools and clothing that was threadbare and unsuitable for the environment by dint of its prior length of service as part of their wardrobes. After wrangling to obtain a vessel and attempts thwarted by ice and weather, a boat was able to rescue the remainder of the crew, who had been waiting on Elephant Island for over three months, eating seals and penguins.

I spoke so incessantly about this book while I was reading (actually listening to) it, and afterwards, that it must have driven Tony mad. The courage and resourcefulness of the expedition members astonished me. They entered a hostile environment, one hundred years ago (compare modern preparations for a trip across the Antarctic), and existed in harmony together, in a range of bitterly perilous situations, without loss of good temper or – incredibly – of life. They took photographs and many of the crew kept meticulous diaries, enabling a detailed reconstruction of the events. I suspect that a large part of my enjoyment was related to the fact that I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Simon Prebble, who has a beautiful, expressive voice and was able to bring the diary entries of the crew to life using their various accents.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

There’s a magnificent photo essay about the Endurance (with the expedition photographer Frank Hurley’s original pictures) here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.