And then there are the incredible and remote Polar Regions. Antarctica’s icy interior in particular has inspired a century of intrepid and ground-breaking expeditions. Tales of these fearless explorers and their pioneering journeys under extreme adversity are an absolute inspiration to us all.
So it is not easy to narrow it down but here are some of my all-time favourites.
The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara
Che is perhaps one of the most iconic figures of recent Latin American history and this book is a wonderful classic from his early adulthood. It starts with two young guys who go on a journey for fun down through Patagonia with their broken down old motorbike ‘La Poderosa’. Just like many gap year students after them they enjoy the freedom of the road and the adventures that come their way. What is most illuminating though are the final chapters when for the first time they experience extreme poverty, disease and injustice which they had previously been protected from. It is the story of the very start of a political journey for Che that eventually took him to Cuba to meet Fidel and then to his tragic end in Bolivia and gives you a feel for the real man behind the legend.
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
This is one of my all-time favourites partly for its whimsical style but also for its insight into a bygone era of travel. Written in the post-war era, travels to such far flung destinations were beyond the realms of most people’s comprehension in Europe and the far-off wilds of Patagonia must have seemed almost fantastical. Delightfully, he also writes with tongue-in-cheek irreverent style, setting off in search of dinosaur remains and the hiding place of the infamous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or popping in for tea with Welsh immigrants. If you don’t already have a hankering to explore the rugged landscapes of Patagonia already, one delve into this eclectic series of short stories will hook you in.
Eight Feet in the Andes by Dervla Murphy
I have read other travel books by Murphy before, relishing her humorous self-deprecating style. She possibly wins the award for under-statement when describing some pretty tricky situations as she travels through some of the world’s most extraordinary, inaccessible and quite frankly dangerous countries. Usually alone and on foot, this time she ventures into the Andes with her daughter and a local mule hired in a Peruvian village – hence the ‘eight feet’. This endearing journey through the remotest villages and traditional communities of Peru is a brilliant read for anyone thinking of taking off on hiking adventures in the Andes. It is a funny, sometimes heart-breaking and absolutely compelling tale of their walking trip in the mountains, eventually finding their way back to civilisation.
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Cherry as his expedition mates called him, was a member of the ill-fated Scott expedition to the South Pole in the early 20th century. This was the era of the first extraordinary, brave and extreme journeys undertaken by explorers to this forbidding region. There are of course many tales but none has touched me more than this one. Of course, his account of finding Scott and companions in the tent the following year and finally laying them to rest is compelling. Equally page-turning though is the tale of his scientific mission into the Antarctic interior in winter prior to the South Pole attempt. At temperatures of -50 or more their teeth shattered and they had to chip their way out of sleeping bags each morning – all in aid of research into Emperor Penguin behaviour. The true age of the gutsy explorer!
Alone in Antarctica by Felicity Aston
This is thoroughly modern tale of inspirational bravery and determination. It’s one of those books that makes you realise we are all capable of great things when we really put our minds to it. Felicity was the first woman to attempt the coast to coast traverse of the Antarctic continent through the South Pole alone and with no machinery, hauling suppliers herself all the way. The account of her scaling the steep glacier in gale-force winds to get onto the high Antarctic plateau is truly terrifying! The way she keeps her mind active and spirits up during the journey is absolutely incredible. An inspirational read for anyone attempting their own expedition, however big or small and a lesson in conquering fear.