Tragic, terrifying and one of the best travel books ever written

November 24, 2011

Contributed by Nimish Dubey

It is rare to see an adventure or travel being hailed as a literary classic, but this status has been accorded to Apsley George Bennet Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. Apsley Cherry-Garrard is best known for being part of Robert Scott’s ill-fated 1910-13 Antarctica expedition in which Scott and his friends raced against Roald Amundsen to be the first to reach the South Pole. Scott and four of his teammates did reach the Pole on 1912 but only to discover Amundsen’s team’s flag already fluttering there. All five died on their way back, casualties of terrible weather and according to some, poor planning.

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Apsley Cherry-Garrard was not part of the team that made the dash to the Pole. In fact, he was not supposed to be going to Antarctica at all and was a last-minute selection. His main task on the expedition was to get some eggs of the Emperor Penguin, which he accomplished at great personal hazard, suffering so badly from temperatures that went as low as minus sixty degrees Celsius that his teeth shattered due to constant chattering. He was also part of the team that laid depots of fuel and food on the path that Scott’s team was to take on its way back from the Pole – ironically, Scott and his team were found dead eleven miles from one of the depots.

It is the harrowing of this expedition that Cherry-Garrard narrates in The Worst Journey in the World and he does so with no mere skill. The book spans more than six hundred pages, but really comes into its own when the temperatures dip in the Antarctic. You can almost sense the chattering teeth, the shivering bodies and most of all, the sheer exhaustion of a team that had started out the expedition with such high hopes.

To all this later gets added the gloom of knowing that their comrades who had set out for the Pole are inevitably dead, something they were helpless to prevent in spite of all their know-how and planning. So bad was the weather in Antarctica that although Scott and his men are believed to have died around March 29, 1912, an expedition to find out what had become of them could be made only in November that year.  You can sense the despair building up in the author’s heart as he reveals how members of the team realised by April that their charismatic captain was dead. The discovery of the bodies in the tent along with their letters and Scott’s diary detailing their last days is one of the most moving passages of the book.

This is in many ways a terrifying and harrowing tale but Cherry-Garrard has to be credited for telling it so well and even managing an odd spark of humour. Those spoilt by the racy and sensational narration of books like Krauker’s Into Thin Air might find The Worst Journey in the World tedious and even ponderous in comparison. Our advice: be patient and stick with it. It covers a three-year journey into what was at that the unknown. One can learn of how people waded through the snow at a time when air conditioning was unknown, clothing and equipment was archaic and the chances of surviving a change in the weather were slim. For a book written in 1922, it is amazing that it has some very good photographs and maps too. But in the end, it is the depth of feeling with which Cherry-Garrard writes that will stay with you. It is difficult not to be moved when he concludes by writing:

“Exploration is the physical expression of the Intellectual Passion.

And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, “What is the use?” For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.”

Small wonder that National Geographic Adventure rated it as the greatest adventure book of all time. A must read. If you do not feel upto buying it or cannot find it in your local bookstore (in spite of being reprinted several times, it is still rare to find), you can download it free of cost from Project Gutenberg by clicking here.

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