Between 1910 and 1912 two teams raced to be the first to reach the South Pole. The result is well-known – the Norwegian Roald Amundsen made it there first, employing dogs and skis to great effect, while the British party, led by Captain Scott, ended in disaster, with Scott and his companions dying just 11 miles from their base.
This book charts those two expeditions as well as Scott’s earlier voyage (1901-04) and the expeditions of Ernest Shackleton (1907-09 and 1914-17). It lays bare in sometimes horrifying detail the sheer physical trials and the almost unbelievable hardship that the explorers must have faced over several years, fraught with frostbite, scurvy and starvation. An entire chapter on food is particularly successful at conveying the privation suffered, and also provides a critical comparison between Scott’s trip and the far more successful one led by Amundsen.
Produced by the National Maritime Museum Greenwich, the authors evidentially admire the explorers, describing them as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘inspirational’. Yet they also present a pleasingly balanced account of their characters and flaws. In particular, Scott’s insistence that man-hauling sledges was a more noble art than using dogs is assessed as the disaster it was, and his nature (he was at times insecure and prone to irritability) is analysed alongside his undoubted skill. Shackleton too, though clearly likeable and charismatic, is revealed to have had terrible money problems.
As the companion to a current exhibition, the book is enhanced by original photographs and details about the other men who joined the expeditions. Through this detail, South provides a full and thrilling account of this great age of polar exploration, conjuring a time in which explorers were lauded as British heroes.
Though some readers may sympathise with Churchill’s interpretation that ‘enough life and money has been spent on this sterile quest’, it is hard not to admire the perseverance and bravery of the explorers; men such as Captain Oates, who on sacrificing himself to the blizzard, said only: ‘I am going outside and may be some time.’
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