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CULTURAL

Firsthand accounts of daring polar exploration & unbelievable tales of survival

by Amy Poulton

Think of Antarctica and you think of desolate, empty landscapes and unforgiving, icy desert. However, the most remote and harshest of environments also make for the most difficult challenges and therefore the best stories, especially those of daring polar exploration and unbelievable tales of survival.

Here, we share 12 of our favourite books about Antarctica, which best provide context for those looking to learn more about this intrepid and fascinating destination.

From autobiographical accounts written by Antarctica's pioneering explorers, to detailed wildlife guides, to an amusing spin on Antarctica's "foodie scene," this list of Antarctica books is sure to inspire you to take the polar plunge yourself and get you ready for an Antarctic cruise adventure:

1. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing

One of the most incredible stories of the Antarctic is the true tale of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s survival after his ship, The Endurance, became trapped and crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea.

Alfred Lansing brings this great polar adventure to life and his book is considered to be the definitive account of Shackleton’s heroic journey, surpassing Shackleton’s own account in his South: The Endurance Expedition (though that’s well worth a read too).

2. Mawson’s Will, Lennard Bickel

Douglas Mawson faced some of the most difficult hardships in his polar exploration, which is no mean feat considering the many stories of survival which come from exploring the Great White Continent. The loss of his travel companion, his dogs, his supplies, the skin on his hands and feet, insane weather conditions, starvation, disease, snowblindness… Mawson’s unbreakable spirit still inspires 100 years after his Antarctic expedition ended.

There’s also a foreword by polar explorer and Mawson admirer Sir Edmund Hillary in praise of "the most outstanding solo journey ever recorded in Antarctic history."

3. The Birthday Boys, Beryl Bainbridge

Bainbridge fictionalises Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed South Pole expedition in her re-telling of the infamous Antarctic journey. She captures the unendurable landscape as well as the done damage to the human spirit, as the crew fail to make it to the South Pole first and later, come to face their own mortality.

Lemaire Channel Antarctica

4. Race to the Pole, Ranulph Fiennes

Proclaimed by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the world’s greatest living explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes is also a huge fan of Robert Falcon Scott. In this historical biography, Fiennes aims to recreate the most accurate account of the doomed Scott expedition, by gaining access to the Scott estate and information from key players, including Scott’s polar rival, Roald Amundsen.

5. Scott and Amundsen: The Last Place on Earth, Roland Huntford

Huntford is the author of a trilogy of polar biographies, with this recount of the race to reach the South Pole as the first in the series, noted for its use of original Norwegian sources.

The book re-examines the driving ambitions of both Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, as they plan their expeditions to compete for the most coveted prize in exploration. Amundsen’s successful mission saw the team plant Norway’s flag first, whilst Scott’s never made it home.

6. Race to the South Pole, Roald Amundsen

If you’d like an even more in-depth account, then Amundsen’s essays and diary entries also make for a fascinating read. The polar explorer starts far in the past, examining the history of Antarctic exploration, then follows the preparation of his own expedition, with the final section sharing diary entries from his race to the South Pole, punctuated by black-and-white photography of the successful expedition.

South Georgia Island penguins in Antarctica

7. Alone, Richard Byrd

In 1934, Byrd set out on his second Antarctic expedition, having piloted the first flights over both the North and South Poles. He had his sights set on further exploration, "to taste peace and quiet long enough to know how good they really are." However, isolated in the polar night without hope of release until spring, Byrd’s physical and mental health starts to suffer, and he realises he is slowly being poisoned by carbon monoxide.

Published in 1938 and an enormous bestseller, this incredible true narrative documents the author’s battle to survive and stay sane in one of the most unforgiving environments on the planet.

8. Forgotten Footprints: Lost Stories in the Discovery of Antarctica, John Harrison

Though the adventures of Antarctica’s great polar explorers are well documented, what about the other, lesser-known players who helped map the continent? Harrison mixes history, geography, myth and legend, as well as personal anecdotes to create a collection of stories from merchantmen, navy men, sealers, whalers, scientists, aviators and more, who were all drawn to the unknown land.

9. Natural History of the Antarctic Peninsula, Sanford Moss

Aside from the numerous narratives detailing human history on the southern continent, Antarctica’s natural history is equally as fascinating. This account of harsh environments and the miraculous abundance of life found in them examines both plant and animal life, including favourites such as penguin, seal and whale species.

Antarctica ship expedition

10. Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, Jason C. Anthony

If you’re looking for something completely different, try this award-winning culinary guide to Antarctica. although Antarctica is certainly not well-known for its cuisine, Anthony weaves together stories of castaways surviving on seal blubber and penguin meat, expeditions stretching rations or improvising gruel, whilst today Antarctic kitchens are at the far end of the world’s longest supply chain.

11. Terra Incognita, Sara Wheeler

A modern Antarctic story, Wheeler spent seven months in Antarctica to discover what brings people to the coldest, windiest and driest place on Earth. She encounters scientists, tourists and dreamers, all of whom became enchanted by the icy desert’s beauty and impenetrability. The call to the wild is relatable to every travel enthusiast, whilst Wheeler questions if Antarctica exists perhaps most vividly in the mind.

12. Antarctica Cruising Guide, Peter Carey & Craig Franklin

For a practical approach, we recommend Carey and Franklin’s detailed guide to the Great White, packed with colour photos, wildlife guides, maps, ship information, history, as well as tips on how visitors can minimise their impact during their visit. Have a read of our Responsible Travel Guide to Antarctica for more.

If you're interested in polar exploration, find out more about our Antarctic cruise tours, call our team of Luxury Travel Specialists for a chat about travelling to Antarctica, or fill out our no-obligation enquiry form with details of your dream trip.

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