Empire Antarctica

Bookshelf: Empire Antarctica

Empire Antarctica – Gavin Francis

Empire Antarctica
Empire Antarctica

The Antarctic is the only continent that has no indigenous human inhabitants. The only people who occupy this ice-covered continent are scientists, kept company by penguins, seals, and other birds and marine mammals. Medical doctor Gavin Francis spent 14 months there at the British Antarctic base called Halley Research Station. He was drawn to the post by the prospect of the solitude he would experience and by the “blankness” of Antarctica – without human inhabitants, it lacks a cultural and historical context in the sense that we experience culture when we travel to other destinations. He was also enamoured of the emperor penguins that breed on the continent, and desired greatly to see them.

This is a beautifully written book. Francis steeped himself in the writings of explorers who visited the continent before him, and in the scientific literature of emperor penguins (though he does not mention having watched March of the Penguins or Happy Feet – clearly a gap in his research!). He alternates between lyrical and scientific frames of mind, evocatively describing the exploration of an ice cavern and then, in detailed practical terms, the dissection of a baby penguin. He does not mention very much about his human companions at the base, and I was glad of this. It gives a good sense of how he experienced his year on the ice – there were some other people there, but he was largely wrapped up in his internal experience of the place.

Francis structures his book around the passage of the seasons. This is a logical choice, as in Antarctica the cold and darkness of winter are magnified to the most extreme degree possible, only to be completely cast away by the endless days of the polar summer (not much warmer, however). There is enough information about the mundane details of his life on the base to satisfy one’s curiosity (for example, the modern outdoor clothing they used was so warm that even in a blizzard he could not feel the wind through his layers). But the focus is squarely on the continent itself, its beauty and inhospitable extremes. His descriptions of the emperor penguin colony close to the base, and the Adélie penguins found along the coast, are exuberant and moving.

The existential angst experienced by Francis as the end of his posting in the Antarctic draws nearer – should he return to civilisation? What should he do with his life? – is magnified by the lack of distractions on the ice. After a largely uneventful (yet fascinating to read about) year, he describes his subsequent life choices – marriage, three children – quickly, and glosses over what must have been a substantial period of adjustment to life in warmer, more populous climes. This is an incredible book that made me want to go to the ice, and stayed in my mind for some time after I finished reading it.

You can also read reviews from The Economist, the Telegraph and the Washington Times. Francis wrote for The Guardian about his experience at the end of the world – it’ll give you a good sense of his writing style.

You can get a copy here, here or – if you’re in South Africa – here.

If you’re as ice-obsessed as I am, also check out Endurance (for some historical context), and Ice Patrol.

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Clare

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.

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