While the Antarctic provides a vision of a better world, the Arctic is where our past and our present are catching up with us.
I am not a winter person. The only good I can say about each passing chilly day is that it brings me that much closer to the end of the season. And if, like me, you find that winter is just too over-romanticised in north India, it may be a good idea to visit the northernmost and southernmost ends of the earth to get some perspective on what it is like to bide time in truly cold zones. Sara Wheeler, a British travel writer now in her fifties, is a veteran of these journeys, and has documented them vividly in her books, Terra Incognita (1997) and Magnetic North (2010). Sure, Antarctica and the territories in the Arctic Circle are freezing cold and mostly snowy white, but it is interesting to be told how, other than that, they are poles apart.
Wheeler had spent seven months in Antarctica with the US National Science Foundation in the mid-1990s, yielding Terra Incognita. (I recently lost my much-read copy of that book and so revisited that journey in essays collected in Access All Areas.) The desire to visit the southern continent struck her during a visit to Chile, when she noticed that a triangular chunk of territory was shown along with the coastal South American strip on every map — while international protocols entertain no national claims on Antarctica, it seems Chile has no qualms about asserting its claim to 1.25 million square kilometres of its territory. To cut a long story short, Wheeler was soon enough in residence in an igloo in Antarctica, and as you may imagine, it was not exactly idyllic: “When camping in the Antarctic, you take so many items into the sleeping bag to prevent freezing that there is barely room to get in yourself. You always need your waterbottle in with you, and in a crowd the babywipes (the polar substitute for washing), camera, batteries for the tape recorder, underwear ready defrosted for the next day, and any odd scientific equipment that happens to be lying around. It is like sleeping in a cutlery drawer, in a deep freeze.”
However, she followed up that description of her ordeal with the view that would greet her outside the next morning: “When I scanned the 360-degree