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Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica

3.85  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,277 Ratings  ·  83 Reviews
It is the coldest, windiest, driest place on earth, an icy desert of unearthly beauty and stubborn impenetrability. For centuries, Antarctica has captured the imagination of our greatest scientists and explorers, lingering in the spirit long after their return. Shackleton called it "the last great journey"; for Apsley Cherry-Garrard it was the worst journey in the world.

Paperback, 384 pages
Published March 16th 1999 by Modern Library (first published January 1st 1996)
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Community Reviews

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Simon_Cleveland_Ph.D. Simon_Cleveland_Ph.D.
Once in a while a person accidentally stumbles on an especially annoying book. One written particularly because a desperate publisher made a phone call, or mailed a letter with a check to an author with the words: "It's time to write another one, Shirley..." and the author hurled herself to write, without a plan, without ideas and the only thing that came out was a dull diary filled with self pity, anti-Americanism, sexism and generally criticism... Well, this is one of those books and I truly f ...more
Jul 04, 2012 Laurie rated it it was ok
I usually enjoy travel books written by women. Antarctica is on my bucket list. I ran hot and cold on this book. I more enjoyed the experiences she had with the interesting people and characters she met along the way than with the history lessons. I understand the need to put some of what she saw in historic perspective. It took me a long time to get through this book, I think because I felt it would come to a screaming halt each time she gave one of her history lessons. Don't get me wrong I fin ...more
Alex Kurtagic
Jul 11, 2013 Alex Kurtagic rated it did not like it
Writing a boring book about the most extreme environment on Earth is quite a feat, but this author achieved the seemingly impossible. I pushed through to the end, but it felt like wading through mud. The book is mostly about Wheeler's personal feelings and reflections about Antarctica during her seventh-month visit to the continent, and while she had read the literature of exploration, she was not able to supply anything profound or remotely interesting; her literary style is pedestrian, her ins ...more
Richard Simpson
Wheeler manages to humanise the Antarctic,to give an icy abyss a human face. Most of all she achieves this with her historical lessons, a retelling of the endeavours of Scott and Shackleton, for example, but which she also tries less successfully with her metaphors which liken the colours of the landscape to identifiable features of human life, i.e. 'The sky was streaked with faint emerald shadows, splaying out in several directions to the horizon, changing shape, spreading and bleeding into the ...more
Jan 25, 2016 Mary rated it really liked it
It dragged a bit in places, but Wheeler is such an engaging and vivacious writer that I didn't even mind. Those who know me know that I hate the outdoors and extreme cold, but this book made me think that going to Antarctica sounds like a boatload of fun! (I don't think I'll actually go, but it's fun to daydream.) Interesting history of Antarctic exploration woven into the narrative of her experience (7 months total living in different areas of the continent). Homegirl did her research, too! It' ...more
Dec 26, 2015 Rochelle rated it really liked it
Ambitious, clear-eyed, well researched, intelligently and perceptively written, humorous and the first book written about travel in Antarctica by a woman. Sara Wheeler spent time "on the Ice," and produced a great book about her travels through the South Polar regions. I loved this book because she was so passionate about it. That passion led her to read all that she could get her hands on about the discovery of, and many expeditions to, Antarctica. Her thirst for understanding, in-depth and at ...more
Feb 10, 2016 Laurie rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Laurie by: NG Traveler
In her writing, Wheeler has a knack for immersing herself in the places that she visits, and teasing out the stories of the location and the people.

She has been appointed writer in residence in Antarctica, and sets about visiting as many of the bases across the continent that she can. Her easy going manner makes it easy for her to fit in with the predominately male staff. She writes about the characters in each of the bases, and the antics that they get up to, and the way that they cope with the
Jan 11, 2011 Jen rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Armchair travelers who have trouble with cold climates
Summary from the back of the book: "It is the coldest, windiest, driest place on earth, an icy desert of unearthly beauty and stubborn impenetrability. For centuries, Antarctica has captured the imagination of our greatest scientists and explorers, lingering in the spirit long after their return. Shackleton called it "the last great journey"; for Apsley Cherry-Garrard it was the worst journey in the world. This is a book about the call of the wild and the response of the spirit to a country that ...more
Jun 21, 2009 Ginevra rated it liked it
This book is a fascinating account of life on Antarctica, and the allure that the continent has had on previous generations. This is primarily a travelogue, but does describe the early exploration of Anatarctica and some of the current research efforts. In the first part of the book, Sara describes in an abundance of detail the characters she meets and daily activities on several research bases. It seems a bit long-winded, but at the same time, I thought it was indicative of the landscape. Much ...more
May 21, 2010 Christy rated it really liked it
Shelves: travel
In a nutshell:

During her travels in Chile, British travel writer Sara Wheeler was introduced to the allure of Antarctica. Later she gets the opportunity to visit Antarctica, sponsored by the U.S. funded Writers and Artists program. The scientists and other Antarctic inhabitants take her along to their bases and camps spread out over the vast, extreme continent.


Last month I read White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean, a thriller set in the Antarctic. In that novel, the continent had a wil
Sep 28, 2009 Lara rated it really liked it
Sometimes beautiful, sometimes a little tedious, but mostly a great read, especially (as has been noted by others) the last third, which takes place in winter. Up until that point, Wheeler's vignettes sometimes seem a little scattered, which perhaps makes sense, as she seems to spend her time flying from one camp to the next, never spending too much time in one place or with the same people. It's interesting to get a feel for the differences between camps there, about the types of people who end ...more
Aug 27, 2011 Allyson rated it it was amazing
I love, and loved everything about this book, from the cover which is incredible to the pages within.
I read it about 10 years ago, well after it was written and it held up and even expanded upon a second read. How it existed in my memory was simply an essence, a whisp of it's feel and to revisit that sensation and have it enlarged upon was a true treat.
This book is incredibly personal and the language and reflections so exceptional I want to give it to all of my closest friends and family so the
Amy Rudolph
Dec 03, 2014 Amy Rudolph rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book does a nice job of conveying what it must be like to live in Antarctica and the special sort of person for whom Antarctica is an addiction. A travel writer, Wheeler took a short excursion to Antarctica from Chile and became obsessed with returning there for an extended stay. Indeed she did return there 3 more times, for a total of seven months. She describes vividly what must be incredibly beautiful scenery and unforgiving climate, as well as the large and small practicalities of livin ...more
Mar 07, 2016 Kris rated it liked it
I have mixed feelings about this book. It took me a long time to get through it. Part memoir, part history, the author describes her visits to Antarctica as a writer-in-residence. Sometimes I enjoyed her history lessons (she is a scholar of South Polar expeditions), sometimes they got in the way of the narrative. Sometimes her descriptions of living in Antarctica made me feel like I was there, and sometimes they were tedious. The most interesting parts for me were when she compared her experienc ...more
Feb 09, 2013 Evan rated it it was amazing
In one phrase: "Terra Incognita" is captivating from the first paragraph to the last. Wheeler is that rarest of authors: She has created a book that is part essay, part memoir and part history that alternates between musings on her experiences as a researcher at the South Pole, the scientific goings-on she is observing, and the century of explorations that precede them. Her use of language is superb: highly "literary" but always accessible, and the story with which she frames the book -- her yea ...more
Gill Crane
Dec 02, 2014 Gill Crane rated it it was amazing
Brave lady! A great account of a trip to the Antarctic and I enjoyed every minute. She isn't very complimentary about the British Scientific Survey team and I subsequently met one of them who was there at the time. He refused to comment but I got the impression she wasn't on his Christmas list!
Cathy Cooper
Jul 04, 2016 Cathy Cooper rated it it was amazing
I picked this book up at the airport because I liked the cover. I was also mildly interested in the topic. However after reading it, I made my mind up to go down to the Antarctic and I have never regretted that decision. This is a good example of a book that changes people's lives.
Feb 17, 2016 Alaska rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this was interesting and educational at the same time. Living in a cold climate albeit not as cold as the Antarctic, the adjustments made to survive there was quite fascinating. The only thing I worried about with the book was how was Sara's liver going to survive!
Feb 28, 2009 Yofish rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-on-tape
British woman writing about Antarctica. Maybe a little longer than it needs to be. She intersperses stories about the 'original' explorers (especially the big four: Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton, and Mawson) with her own experiences. Apparently she's been a little obsessed with it for a while, and she arranges to spend some time there as a (relatively rare) resident writer. Most current 'inhabitants' are scientists ("beakers") of various nationalities---more New Zealanders than you might expect. I ...more
Becky Cajati
Mar 31, 2016 Becky Cajati rated it it was amazing
Loved this book. Her thoughts seemed to match my current frame of mind. The wilderness of Antarctica makes the author withdraw from the everyday worries of life and instead consider the existentialness of our being on this planet as wonderful, thinking beings.
Mar 06, 2015 Erwin rated it did not like it
Shelves: abandoned
Boring. Not a good writer... Try a far more interesting journey to a similar place in Travels in Siberia instead.

Waste of time.
Jun 06, 2016 Jenni rated it liked it
Meh... Just okay. I figured a travelogue written by a woman who had spent time in Antarctica couldn't possibly let me down, but I found myself struggling to get through this one at times.

I agree with the other reviewers who found her writing style boring and dry, and her quick bursts of history lessons to be distracting. There aren't too many travel memoirs written by women who've traveled to Antarctica, though, so beggars can't be choosers. I think a little infusion of wit or humor could have a
Nov 24, 2011 Stacy rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed reading abaout Sara Wheeler's adventures in Antarctica. Sara is writer from England who had a fascination with Antarctica and was able to get herself signed up in the Arts and Literature Program on the American base in the South Pole. Her writing is insightful and at times comical. Along with her day to day experiences traveling around the pole and visiting with various outposts of different countries, Wheeler recounts the stories of the early pole explorers that I found even mo ...more
Nov 02, 2010 Susan rated it liked it
Read this book for Southwest evening book group - interesting account by an English travel writer. Having seen a couple of films on PBS about English polar explorers Scott (who died on the ice) and Shackleton (who rescued his stranded "Endurance" crew in an unbelievable adventure), reading about actually living and working in the Antarctic was enjoyable. Some of her writing describing the people she encountered was annoying -- a little too "precious" for my taste. But her descriptions of the lan ...more
I enjoyed this book a lot, though the occasional scientific diversions sometimes distracted from the narrative.

The author is a great writer, with lots of colorful and descriptive tools in her arsenal. I enjoyed the fact that she wove historical anecdotes and scientific concepts into the book. The main scientific thrust of this book is the effect that climate change is having on Antarctica, which is awful but true. Still, I felt that was a bit too much of a focus.

But when she's writing about the
Jan 21, 2015 Jocelyn rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Young British travel writer spends the better part of a year in Antarctica. Her narrative shifts back and forth from her present to Antartic history, so that at first I felt yanked around. But overall I "really liked" this book, with its vivid descriptions of otherworldly terrain, fauna, and human beings. The human population is quite diverse in terms of nationalities, but quite homogeneous in terms of age, gender, and occupation. This is because you can't go to Antartica unless you are in good ...more
Alan Thomson
Mar 02, 2015 Alan Thomson rated it really liked it
Excellent account of her stay in the Antarctic. Very well written with lovely insight into life near the pole
Feb 08, 2012 Ambur rated it really liked it
I really liked Terra Incognita. Sara Wheeler is hilarious, and I loved the little bits of humour that she interspersed throughout her narrative. Plus, I loved Seismic was like a bit of a love story interwoven into the first part of the book...he was sorely missed by me in the rest of it. :P

Anyway, after reading this one, I'm definitely tempted to start planning my trip to Antarctica, it'd be a great place to spend my winters....since it's warmer there then in Canada at the time...24 hou
Jun 20, 2015 Russell rated it liked it
Good picture of what life in scientific laboratories in Antarctica is like, told with a good bit of humor and introspection.
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Sara Wheeler was brought up in Bristol and studied Classics and Modern Languages at Brasenose College, University of Oxford. After writing about her travels on the Greek island of Euboea and in Chile, she was accepted by the US National Science Foundation as their first female writer-in-residence at the South Pole, and spent seven months in Antarctica.

In her resultant book Terra Incognita: Travels
More about Sara Wheeler...

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“I believed that what mattered to God was the direction I was facing not how far away I was. Sin it seemed to me was the refusal to let God be God.” 6 likes
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