The Worst Journey In The World is considered by some literary critics as the finest travel book ever written. Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s vivid account of the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition is an epic read – an almighty piece or writing, and an inspirational tribute to the human spirit. But it’s also a tragic tale, one which saw the legendary Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Dr. Wilson, Lawrence Oates, and others succumb to horrendous conditions.
Cherry-Garrard (1886-1959) wrote and published the work in 1922, a decade long delay brought about due to his efforts in World War I. When the crew set off, one must remember the British Empire was in its last death throes, but there was still very much a pioneering sense of British stiff upper lip in the air. Whilst his work reserves this for posterity, it’s also a fascinating account of an expedition that took a famous and tragic turn.
The Worst Journey in the World
In 1910 Cherry-Garrard, only 24, headed off to the South Pole with Scott’s team in an attempt to reach the Pole. At the time, this would have marked the first occasion anyone had managed such a colossal feat. Scott also planned extensive scientific studies of the region, so this was about much more than national conquest and chest thumping ego time.
To say our writer is detailed is an understatement. In this enormous and detailed account, we’re treated to insights on every part of the Antarctic expedition. This includes the nightmarish journey to the pole (via boat, obviously, in the famous Terra Nova vessel) through astonishing storms – at one point, a mule was carried off the boat by a wave to certain doom, only to have another wave launch it back onto the ship into its exact stable.
Such bizarre and terrifying incidents became commonplace on a mission fraught with danger at every turn. Whilst the Brits set up base in a modest looking hut (still standing, as you can watch in the below clip) and began their research, there was also the need to push on and try to reach the South Pole.
The Worst Journey in the World isn’t named after that fateful push. Rather, it’s Cherry-Garrard’s account of his appalling trip with Dr. Edward Wilson to recover an Emperor penguin egg as part of his research into evolution. They travelled across the Ross Ice Shelf in complete darkness in temperatures of −40 °C, barely making it back alive.
Cherry-Garrard was part of the expedition to reach the South Pole, too, but wasn’t selected for the final push (a decision that saved his life). This section of the book is made up of Scott’s diary entries (plus those of other crew members), alongside the Cherry-Garrard’s tales about the many hazards of the Antarctic.
It was late 1911 when Captain Scott led a party of five in the push for the South Pole, which they reached in January 1912. There they found they’d been beaten by Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s expedition a month earlier. In the dramatic trek back, they were then plagued by unusually horrendous weather that left them stranded and unable to reach safety.
The diary entries from Scott from this time are poignant and spell out the impending doom, but also detail heroic deeds. Th most famous of these are Oates’ last words: “I am just going outside, and may be some time” – sacrificing himself to the wilderness (his body was never found) to provide the others with a chance. Scott’s last diary entry was on the 29th March 1912 – their bodies were found over a year later in a mission to recover them.
Throughout the work, there are an amusing number of descriptions regarding the mischievous Adélie penguin colony. These comical little creatures are highly inquisitive, so took great interest in the arrival of the Brits (as you would!), but this attention was largely unwanted.
Captain Scott grew irritated by their relentless efforts to stuff their beaks into everything the British expedition was up to. You can read some of the best antics over on the Wikipedia page under Adélie penguin behaviour, as researched and contributed by our very own Mr. Wapojif a few years ago. Our favourite moment is:
"Meares and Dimitri exercised the dog-teams out upon the larger floes when we were held up for any length of time. One day a team was tethered by the side of the ship, and a penguin sighted them and hurried from afar off. The dogs became frantic with excitement as he neared them: he supposed it was a greeting, and the louder they barked and the more they strained at their ropes, the faster he bustled to meet them. He was extremely angry with a man who went and saved him from a ver sudden end, clinging to his trousers with his beak, and furiously beating his shins with his flippers."
Ever since reading this work, we’ve remained in adoration of the penguin species as a whole. They’re particularly bizarre, waddling about the place in a self-absorbed manner. Over 100 years after the British expedition, it emerged the troop was horrified by the deranged sex lives of the beasts, leaving them to cover this side of their behaviour up.
As unpleasant a revelation it may seem, for all their cute and comical behaviour we must remember they’re wild animals. Survival is at the forefront of their daily activities, as well as a set of fairly basic animal instincts.
The British Empire
Just over two weeks after the Terra Nova tragedy, the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage. The British Empire then endured a nightmarish time of it during World War I, so the 1910s was a pivotal moment in the history of the country – it was a marked shift away from previous successes towards the torrid state of affairs we’re in these days.
What Apsley Cherry-Garrard documented was something of a last hurrah for the British Empire. But what we can also take from this masterpiece is the men who put their lives at risk in the names of scientific study. The British Expedition wasn’t about winning the race to the pole, it was about discovering an unknown wilderness. They achieved that and then some, with their little shack from 1912 still standing as a testament to their efforts.
This incredible book stands as a testament to that and is a time capsule for an era which seems so dramatic, modern, and yet archaic in our eyes. It’s one hell of a read. Over 100 years later, it’s full of daring, tragedy, and a heroic sense of can do. It represents an era of British history that’s fallen by the wayside, but it’s also one that ensures Captain Scott’s progressive efforts have been reserved for endless future generations.