How living like Scott in Antarctic freezer changed Sara Wheeler’s life

penguin talk

penguin talk - Credit: Archant

Sara Wheeler says her close up brush with penguins while writer in residence at the South Pole “fundamentally changed my life”.

The Hampstead resident slept in Captain Scott’s bunk and was snowed in for 10 days during her seven-month stay in Antarctica back in the 90s.

Now the award-winning writer is giving a talk at London Zoo’s penguin beach as part of a series linking writers with endangered animals.

Bristol-born Wheeler, who has written extensively about the north and south poles including Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition, said: “For the last two months of my stay I camped with one other woman, the artist in residence, on the sea ice around Ross island.

“The emperor penguins used to visit our camp and because they have no land-based predators, they were completely unafraid.

“They would stand around for ages and look us in the eye.

“For a country girl like me it was extraordinary to see wild animals so close and to develop a relationship with them.

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“It fundamentally changed my life because you could see much more acutely the interconnectedness of everything, the symbiotic relationship between animals and humans and how they are only afraid of us if we have harmed them.”

Wheeler says in the same way, global warming, which is affecting the penguins’ habitat, is about “interconnectedness” – “how you can’t isolate one thing from another”.


Beyond its coastline Antarctica, a landmass one-and-a-half times the size of the USA, is an “abiotic zone”.

“There’s no biological life, which as a writer I found extremely compelling. No-one’s meant to be there, the only way you can survive is if you bring in stuff from outside.

“It’s incredibly moving to see Scott’s hut when you have read their diaries and understood what they went through.

“I slept in Scott’s bunk and listened to the wind throwing stones against the walls. It increased my admiration for the early explorers enormously. They ventured into the great unknown without radios or satellites.”

Wheeler herself fell victim to the extreme, swift weather changes that led to Scott’s death.

“A blizzard came up and we couldn’t go out of the tent for 10 days. It’s a much more violent environment than one has ever experienced – not a place for humans.

“I was lucky the painter was extremely agreeable, we got on very well. At least I could write, her paints froze.”

But although she found herself suited to the isolation of Antarctica, others have found it less easy to deal with the enforced close quarters with fellow human beings.

“One Russian scientist killed another with an ice axe over a game of chess. The Soviet response was to ban chess at the south pole!”

She adds: “I didn’t find the isolation as difficult as coming back living in Hampstead, taking the kids to school, the stuff of life crowding in. By comparison the Antarctic was easy, simplified, cleansed.”


She believes that appealing simplicity is part of what repeatedly drew explorers like Shackleton back to the frozen wastes.

“I understand the incredible pull, why they wanted to be there despite the difficulties of getting there. Shackleton said Antarctica didn’t exist, it was a metaphor for the inner life.”

“To say it is escape is demeaning it, but out there important things have predominance – you think about things beyond the gas bills.”

Wheeler, now 53, had her two sons in her early 40s and is glad she became a mother “late in life”.

“I had done all the stuff I needed to that I couldn’t do with them.”

She has taken them to the Arctic and to other regions and puts her nomadic bug down to the fact that she didn’t travel at all during her own childhood.

“The day that the whiff of aviation fuel doesn’t make me giddy with delight is the day I give up.

“I envy people who can find it all within but I have to get out there.

“It’s less about going towards something, more to do with leaving everything behind, casting off the shackles.” As for the zoo, she believes it plays a valuable role in teaching people about animals and conservation.

“My children learned about animals from the zoo. I have seen in my travels the battle for all of us to survive on the same small planet and the role that zoos have these days is to educate young people as to what that means, this big competition between us all on earth, it’s not straightforward.”

The talks ask each writer to respond creatively to their chosen animal, with a poem, a talk or a piece of prose. Zoo keepers are on hand to answer questions about the animal’s welfare and conservation.