21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Enticing tale of journey to a 'sleeping beauty',
This review is from: Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins (Hardcover)
This story of working for a year as a doctor for the British Antarctic Survey at its station at Halley, the closest BAS outpost to the South Pole, is full of terrific insights on life on the edge of the world.
Francis had already travelled to the Arctic and written about it in True North, but this was the first book of his I had tried. He sets out his mission to secure the much sought-after job, and explains his fascination both with the imagined "solidity, silence and enormity" of Antarctic (so different from his busy life in Edinburgh) and with emperor penguins, which he had learned showed no fear of humans (so you could walk up close to observe their ways). And soon he is off, departing from unglamorous Immingham on the Humber on the RSS Ernest Shackleton, an ice-breaker, heading south. References to the likes of Shackleton and Scott are woven in throughout... the book is as much a history of Antarctic adventure as a travelogue.
The freshness of the writing comes from the sense of cutting loose from the iPad world, and of going back to basics and trying to understand an alien place (rather like Thesiger in the Arabian deserts). Francis points out early on that cartographers refer to blank spaces on maps as "sleeping beauties" - which struck me as being a lovely phrase. The book is good on such details.
He describes Halley and its inhabitants (whose mental health suffers due to the isolation of the station) and is called upon to provide fillings for rotten teeth - he admits worrying what would happen if he were to fall seriously ill, as no-one else could treat him. And he is soon delighting in the "immensity of nothing" of his surroundings, seeing many a penguin and flying in a Twin Otter as far as 81 degrees south on one scientific expedition. This is as close to the South Pole as he goes.
After his year of pottering about Halley and coming to terms with the solitude and emptiness of the landscape (and observing the emperor penguins, even dissecting a dead chick), he admits to feeling "like a monk broken free of the cloister" when he returns to normal life. Empire Antarctica gives an unusual and colourful insight into a chilly existence... one of the least visited places on the planet.