The subtitle of Gavin Francis’ travel memoir would be a reasonably concise answer to the question: “What comes to mind when you think of Antarctica?”. While ice and emperor penguins are the more obvious responses to be expected from those who have never been there, it is the silence of such a remote landscape which Francis dwells on in his account of the fourteen months he spent as the base-camp doctor at the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley research station on the Caird Coast. What becomes clear from reading ‘Empire Antarctica’ is that claustrophobia and isolation are also major factors, although that would have made a much less satisfying book title.
So remote is Antarctica “it is said to be easier to evacuate a casualty from the International Space Station than it is to bring someone out of Halley in winter”. Floating on the Brunt Ice Shelf on the Weddell Sea, Halley is inaccessible for around ten months of the year when the sea ice freezes over. As a continent with no permanent residents and the most extreme climate on the planet, few people visit Antarctica and even fewer experience a whole winter there with just thirteen other people, very limited communication with the rest of the world and no sunlight at all for 114 days of the year. The environment poses all kinds of physical and psychological challenges and the screening process for working at Halley is rigorous. Thankfully, Francis didn’t encounter any serious medical emergencies during his time at the base and with just a handful of patients to attend to, he had a lot of time for reflection.
I read Francis’ latest book Adventures in Human Being last year and while I was less keen on some of the philosophical digressions, I enjoyed reading his prose which is highly engaging. His evocative and lyrical descriptions of the vast Antarctic landscape are very detailed and he recounts a wide range of experiences from exploring a crevasse to the unglamorous everyday tasks required to keep the base running and even an attempt at penguin dissection and taxidermy. As well as his modern-day activities at Halley, Francis looks at the stories of several polar explorers including many who are less well-known than Ernest Shackleton and Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Needless to say, the winter weather conditions I experienced in January whilst reading this book during my commute to work were definitely put into perspective.
Through his truly unique experience, Francis’ account of life in Antarctica offers a fascinating blend of history, science, travel and nature writing. Those who like reading non-fiction which covers a similarly diverse range of genres such as H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald or Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker would definitely enjoy this book.