Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler

1996. 337 pages. Hardcover. Random House.

From: the public library

Recommended by: Olduvai Reads

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 wild, threatening nature and brought out the worst in some of the characters.  The Antarctica in Terra Incognita, while far from benign, is a place where a profound peace can be found, and where the rest of the world is put in perspective.

Sara Wheeler is an excellent writer, conveying the varied moods of her Antarctic travels: wonder, frustration, bonhemie, and a good deal of humor.  Most of all, she shows the reader how and why she fell in love with Antarctica.

I like travel writing where the writer offers some self-revelation, because travel is so much about personal connection with place.  However, Wheeler’s narrative is not self-centered.  It is clear that she is genuinely interested in other people and their work and she describes them with warm detail.  In particular, near the end of her travels, she bonds with an artist named Lucia who is also there on the Writers & Artists program.  The two of them share a hut in a field camp for weeks.  As most of the narrative has her switching her company constantly, it was nice to see her spend some extended time with this new friendship.

I really enjoyed learning about the varied communities of the Antarctic and the culture that is heavily shaped by the environment and the multinational demographic.  While most places are welcome, Wheeler does encounter an off-putting boys-club atmosphere at one particular base.  Historically, men have thought of Antarctica as their domain and some of that attitude still existed in pockets.

Wheeler does describe the travails of the famous Antarctic explorers in the book, and intersperses them with her own travels.  Because she hops around a bit with the history, I kind of wish there had been an appendix with a chronology of Antarctic exploration.  Also, I wish there were some photos to illustrate some of the landscapes that Wheeler describes.

Overall, this was a highly enjoyable book and I recommend it if you like travel writing, or are curious about Antarctica, or even just looking for a good non-fiction read.  I think I will be seeking out more of Sara Wheeler’s writing in the future.

Other reviews:


Books Do Furnish A Room

Crafty Green Poet

Mirthful’s bookblog

Olduvai Reads

Peacock Feather Dance


Filed under Non-Fiction

3 responses to “Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler

  1. olduvai

    I’m glad you liked it!

  2. i’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately, but i haven’t tried any travel writings yet. this sounds like the perfect place to start though! thanks for the book review!!

  3. Jason

    That was a fun book. I appreciated it even more since they had the replica of Scott’s hut in the Antarctic exhibit at Kelly Tarleton’s in Auckland. Now if only I could figure out when a good time would be to plan a trip to Antarctica…

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