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  • Published: 1 November 2012
  • ISBN: 9781446484821
  • Imprint: Vintage Digital
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 272

Empire Antarctica

Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins

Empire Antarctica is the story of one man and his obsession with a continent, as well as a joyous paean to the emperor penguins that inspire and reassure him. Combining an evocative and enchanting narrative with a sublime sensitivity to the natural world, this is travel writing at its very best.

It is said to be one of our oldest stories: a young man goes to a far-off land in search of a mythical and wondrous beast. For years, Gavin Francis yearned to go to the remotest place on our planet, to see one of the strangest beasts alive. This is how he came to spend fourteen months living alongside emperor penguins as the base-camp doctor at Halley, a profoundly isolated British research station on the Caird Coast of Antarctica. So remote, in fact, it is said to be easier to evacuate a casualty from the International Space Station than it is to bring someone out of Halley in winter.

This prospect of silence and solitude also drew him south: to a place with no distractions and very little human history, but one that offered a rare opportunity to explore the world of the emperor penguin. Masters of endurance, they flourish in this coldest and most inhospitable region on earth, and Gavin wondered whether he could learn something from them.

Following the penguins throughout the year – from a summer of perpetual sunshine to three and a half months of winter darkness – we are guided through the strange moods and manners of Antarctic living. Amid the ice and austerity, where the legends of Scott and Shackleton still loom large, Gavin Francis explores the hardship of living at 50 degrees below zero, and the unexpected comfort that the penguin community bring.

Empire Antarctica is the story of one man and his obsession with a continent, mapping not only a place but landscapes of the mind. Combining an evocative and enchanting narrative with a sublime sensitivity to the natural world, this is travel writing at its very best.

  • Published: 1 November 2012
  • ISBN: 9781446484821
  • Imprint: Vintage Digital
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 272

About the author

Gavin Francis

Gavin Francis was born in 1975 and brought up in Fife, Scotland. After qualifying from medical school in Edinburgh he spent ten years travelling, visiting all seven continents. He has worked in Africa and India, made several trips to the Arctic, and crossed Eurasia and Australasia by motorcycle. His first book, True North, was published in 2008. His next book, Empire Antarctica, was shortlisted for the Costa and Ondaatje Prizes and won Scottish Book of the Year in 2013. He contributes regularly to the Guardian, London Review of Books, and the New York Review of Books. He lives in Edinburgh


Praise for Empire Antarctica

A finely written account of an extreme experience of the Antarctic, worthy to stand beside some of the great travel narratives in the English language.

RSL Ondaatje Prize Judges

Empire Antarctica is the embodiment of everything I admire in travel writing -- a great journey, intense isolation, wide reading, vivid writing, scientific research, and something in the nature of an old-fashioned ordeal. That Gavin Francis is a medical doctor, with an important role to play in the darkness and cold at the ends of the earth, is a bonus. I loved this book.

Paul Theroux

One of the best travel titles I have read in a long time. Thoughtful, lyrical, extremely well written, it’s a triumph.

Giles Foden, Conde Nast Traveller

A beautiful, profound and highly readable account of a remarkable personal adventure. Francis’s pacing is deft, his prose vivid, his research worn lightly. This is probably as close as most of us will ever get to experiencing a modern polar winter. Empire Antarctica is surely destined to become a standard, not so much of travel as of staying very still.

Ed O'Loughlin, Daily Telegraph

Francis’ best writing (and it is excellent)... is Robert Macfarlane on ice. This writing achieves the ‘quilted quality’ of silence, and through it we are brought to a new landscape of words.

Katherine MacInnes, Literary Review

A Sunday Times Travel Book of Month: 'A book full of wonder. Brilliantly imagined, superbly brought to life'

Anthony Sattin, Sunday Times

This is the sort of book that gives obsession a very good name. Here, in a cold, silent place you realise that obsession is another name for love. And love leads to extraordinary and beautiful writing -- this is a wonderful book

Sara Maitland

A valuable addition to polar literature, vividly describing the brutal, but beautiful, realities of undergoing an Antarctic winter

Ranulph Fiennes

An extraordinary book -- lyrical, precise, intoxicating and with a remarkable spiritual depth

A.L. Kennedy

One of those rare books that leaves you with an almost breathless sense of the wonders of the planet. Beautiful, erudite and informative, it speaks joyously of the indomitability of Man and the natural world alike

Esther Woolfson

Mesmerising and memorable


An awe-inspiring memoir of a modern-day pioneer who writes with a poetic style and descriptive flourish that is part education, part enthrallment, and wholly entertaining.

Shari Low, Daily Record

Part-travelogue, part memoir, part natural history book, a fascinating, lyrical account of one of the strangest places on earth and its majestic inhabitants.


He writes beautifully about the strange other-worldly allure of this habitat of ice and snow

Siobhan Murphy, Metro

He perceives...continuous sights, sounds and sensations, writing as vividly and as fiercely in darkness at noon or in sunlight at midnight

Iain Finlayson, The Times

Excellent mix of travel and nature writing

Nic Bottomley, Bath Life

Lyrical and enjoyable account

Tom Robbins, Financial Times


Lesley Glaistor, Scotsman

[An] intense and lyrical portrait... shines with a clarity and lyricism descended from Thoreau


His [Gavin's] description of what he found out about himself and his re-navigation of his personal compass in this bleakly remote location is utterly compelling

Janet Archer, Scotsman

Travel writing at its very best combining evocative narrative with a sublime sensitivity to the natural world

Edinburgh Evening News

A brilliant combination of Antarctic essay, travelogue and autobiography. For a man that wanted to be alone, he writes so well you're there with him

John Lloyd, TheBookbag

An absorbing account of life at the end of the world

Alastair Mabbott, Herald

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