Read: Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler

The very gungho writer Sara Wheeler spent 7 months in Antarctica, the first foreigner to be accepted by the American National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists’ and Writers’ Program (isn’t it great that they actually have such a programme?) and Terra Incognita is the result of her time there.

Wheeler, whom the scientists and support staff call Woo thanks to the W-002 tag the foundation assigns her, spends time not just with the Americans but also ventures out to stay with the Italians and the New Zealanders on their Antarctic bases. To get to the British though, she makes an incredibly roundabout voyage to the Falklands (via London) in order to catch a British Antarctic Survey plane to the Antarctic Peninsula. Forgive my ignorance but I had no idea that that Antarctica was that huge! So in case you, like me, are not too knowledgeable about this continent, here are some did-you-knows.

– is 1/10 of the earth’s land surface
– is 1 1/2 times the size of the US
– has about 90% of the world’s ice
– is on average, three times higher than any other continent
– never rains and rarely snows

Now that was already a huge eye-opener for me. And it was just in the introduction!

But Terra Incognita isn’t about the facts and the figures. This is a very personal journey, it is a lifestyle, a community.

“Antarctica was my love affair, and in the south I learned another way of looking at the world.”

This book is a great mix of personal travelogue, science and exploration, and history. The reader learns quite a far bit about the Big Four (explorers that is): Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, Douglas Mawson and their indomitable spirit. I finished the book wanting to read more about these early Antarctica explorers, and luckily Wheeler affixes a good list of further reads, both fictional and non-fictional. I’m definitely adding many of these to my TBR list!

I found myself constantly admiring Wheeler and her hardiness (she roughs it out in an igloo despite the fact that she constantly needs to reseal it and finds her things covered in snow), her gungho-ness (she seems quite willing to go anywhere, do anything) and her ability to connect with people (in the British camp though, she initially finds it hard as the all-male camp has a very all-male attitude). It made me admire the people who live and work on this continent, especially those who winter there and spend time outfield.

A good sense of humour definitely is an important survival skill there, and the observant Wheeler entertains the reader with the occasional chuckle-worthy insights such as the McMurdo weather department’s broken windometer mounted on plaques, with inscriptions such as ‘Damaged by wind, 95 knots, 25 October 1987’. The last in the long line said, ‘Dropped by Bill Sutcliffe, 23 March 1990. Winds calm.’ I laughed out loud now and then while reading the book, never quite expecting a book about this icy continent to be that funny.

Definitely a recommended read.

Book provided by – my library

This is my first read for the Reading the World Challenge, for the Antarctica leg. It was a great way to kick off the challenge.


  1. One day I hope to get to Antarctica, but until then, this book sounds like a great introduction to the continent and life at the bases there. I hadn’t intended to read the world this year, but the way things are going, I may need to read an Antarctica book anyways!


    1. I hope you do manage to get to Antarctica! I definitely would never have thought of reading an Antarctica book were it not for the reading challenge.


  2. I’m so glad the Reading the World Challenge took you somewhere you might not otherwise have gone – and I love the sound of this book. I think I’ll have to add this one to my pile too. My Dad spent a year with the British Antarctic Survey (a long time ago!) so the Antarctic has always held a fascination for me – but I haven’t read any contemporary accounts.


    1. Wow that’s pretty exciting! He actually spent time in Antarctica? What did he do there?

      And yes, if not for the challenge I’d never have thought of reading about this continent. And now I would love to read more about it, especially about the early explorers.


      1. My dad was officially base doctor and did some obscure medical research, really as a reason to be there – his passion is botant/nature with particular reference to the Polar Regions so that’s why he was there!

        And yes, those early explorers provide some pretty amazing subject-matter!


  3. I definitely want to read this book. I saw it at the library when I was there last and almost picked it up but I already had a sizeable stack so made a mental note to get it on another day.


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