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The Mammoth Book of Travel in Dangerous Places: Antarctic

John Keay

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Prose: non-fiction, Travel writing

Farthest South - Ernest Henry Shackleton
Born in Ireland, Shackleton joined the merchant navy before being recruited for Captain Scott's 1901 expedition to Antarctica. He was with Scott on his first attempt to reach the South Pole and, though badly shaken by the experience, realized that success was now feasible. In 1907, with a devoted team but little official support, he launched his own expedition. A scientific programme gave it respectability but Shackleton was essentially an adventurer, beguiled alike by the challenge of the unknown and the reward of celebrity. His goal was the Pole, 90 degrees south, and by Christmas 1908 his four-man team were already at 85 degrees.

The Pole at Last - Roald Amundsen
Amundsen's 1903-6 voyage through North West Passage had heralded a new era in exploration. The route by then was tolerably well known and its environs explored. His vessel was a diminutive fishing smack, his crew a group of Norwegian friends, and his object simply to be the first to have sailed through. He did it because it had not been done and "because it was there". The same applied to his 1911 conquest of the South Pole. Shackleton had shown the way and Amundsen drew the right conclusions. The Pole was not a scientist's playground nor a mystic's dreamland; it was simply a physical challenge. Instead of officers, gentlemen and scientists, he took men who could ski and dogs that could pull; if need be, the former could eat the latter. The only real anxiety was whether they would forestall Scott.

In Extremis - Robert Falcon Scott
Scott was chosen to lead the 1900-4 British National Antarctic Expedition. Its considerable achievements seemed to vindicate the choice of a naval officer more noted for integrity and courage than any polar experience, and, following Shackleton's near success, in 1910 Scott again sailed south intending to combine a busy scientific programme with a successful bid for the South Pole. On 17 January 1912 he and four others duly reached the Pole, indeed they sighted a real pole and it bore a Norwegian flag; Amundsen had got there 34 days ahead of them. Bitterly disappointed, soon overtaken by scurvy and bad weather, and still dragging sledges laden with geological specimens, they trudged back. The tragedy which then unfolded eclipsed even Amundsen's achievement and won them an immortality beyond the dreams of any explorer.

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