More catch-ups on recent reads. Eowyn Ivey's novel, To the bright edge of the world is about a journey through Alaska in the early days of exploring the interior of the land. Partly based on a real expedition, it follows both the physical and mental battle of the explorers, and also follows the mental exploration of the leader of the explorer's wife, who left alone at an army base turns to photography, also in its early days. It was beautifully written, and I particularly loved the contemporary correspondence between an archivist and the inheritor of the explorer's correspondence.

Having said which, much as I enjoyed it, the novel faded from my memory soon after I read it; but this may be because my next travel read was Cherry Apsley-Garrard's astounding book The worst journey in the world, his account of Scott's expedition to the South Pole. Garrard was the youngest member of the party, and it was to haunt his life forever after.

Garrard was the last person to be chosen to take part in the Expedition. As well as being a close friend of "Birdie" Bowers, who he adored as a friend, looked up to as a father figure, and was inspired by scientifically as a mentor; the main reason Garrard was chosen was for his indefatigable cheerfulness, which would be much needed and tested on this expedition.

Memorial to Cherry Apsley-Garrard,
in his polar expeditionary kit, at
Wheathampstead Parish Church
The worst journey of Garrard's title wasn't actually the journey to the Pole itself, but his expedition to find a penguin's egg, along with his friend and colleague, Bowers. Bowers was looking for the missing link between dinosaurs and modern-day birds. At the time (I don't know if this is still considered to be true) penguins were believed to be one of the oldest bird species, and the one that was most closely related to its reptilian cousins. Anyone who has seen March of the Penguins will be aware of the extreme conditions in the Antarctic at the time of year that the penguins are laying their eggs, and of the battle that the parents undergo to enable the precious eggs to be hatched. Bowers and Apsley-Garrard battled the elements to try to find a single egg that they could take back to examine the foetus in greater detail.

On their return, it was miraculous that they both survived, Bowers was selected to join the primary expedition that would go all the way to the South Pole, along with another great friend "Titus" Oates. Unfortunately mainly due to the particularly harsh weather that season, and the loss of a quantity of heating oil, Scott and his party perished not that far away from the home base where Apsley-Garrard and the rest of the team were waiting. Garrard was amongst the party that found and buried the members of the Polar Crew.

In many ways this was a difficult book to read. It is clear reading Garrard's account that even at the time of the expedition, there was a degree of opposition from the general public to the use of animals on the expedition. I knew that horses had been used extensively, what I hadn't fully realised was how much the horses had suffered on the journey, I was also shocked to discover that built into the plans of the expedition were the death and planned consumption of the horses. The dogs didn't seem to be looked after much better, and I struggled with the cruelty of this.

There's no denying the courage of the men who took part in the expedition. And it was a unique experience to view such an expedition from an insider's perspective. I loved Apsley-Garrard, whose good nature and kindness shone through. It was an astonishing expedition for someone so young to be involved in; and I'm sorry to say that the enormity of the expedition coupled with the First World War, just as Garrard returned from the Pole was to haunt him for the rest of his life. The young happy boy was never the same again. And yet there is a wonderful optimism about the book despite the sadness at its heart. Garrard is able to make the best of the small things in life, and hold them up in the most difficult times. As he says "If you march your winter journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin's egg."


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