A talk on the Arctic and Antarctica

From East Africa to the Arctic and Antarctica. Including Shetland. Gavin Francis has led my idea of a dream life.

Last night I went along to Lerwick library to listen to Gavin Francis talk about his two books. I can’t believe I’d not heard of him before as I consider myself to be quite aware of all the travel writing books on the Arctic and Antarctica. I only knew about last night’s talk because of an article in the Shetland Times promoting the event. The article mentioned he’d started his Arctic journey in Unst which is another reason I’m surprised not to have come across him before as I’d thought I’d read all the travel writing books which mention my favourite island in my favourite archipelago.

Gavin Francis is a medical doctor who had spent some time working in East Africa and at the end of his stint he felt the need to go somewhere completely different to the heat and crowds of Africa. The Arctic is a bit different to Africa so this was where he headed using the Great Bear as a defining boundary (he visited places the constellation can be seen from) and concentrating on the European Arctic rather than the American.

He followed a route that led him from Shetland to the Faroes and into Iceland and Greenland, before exploring Spitzbergen and Scandinavian Lapland. To add extra interest to his journey (as though these places aren’t already interesting enough!) he followed routes documented by early writers. Shetland, for example, was written about over 2000 years ago by an early Greek traveller, Pytheas, who visited around the time the brochs were being built. As his journey went on he followed the writings of far more up-to-date and modern explorers e.g. the Vikings. 

Obviously he didn’t get cold enough in the Arctic because not long after he headed off to Antarctica to spend a year working as the resident doctor on British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Base. It took a while to get there on a boat that went via the Falklands, South Georgia and Bird Island. Once there it was all hands to the deck unloading two thousand drums of kerosene. A couple of weeks later, when the unloading was done, the ship left and it was time to settle in to life with just 13 other people.

About half the people on the base are scientists of various disciplines and the rest are support staff, such as the doctor, a chef, mechanics and engineers. He says he hasn’t gone into much detail about his role as doctor due to there being so few people it would be too easy for people to know who he was talking about and this would of course break medical confidentiality issues. Instead he talks about his time spent partaking in non-medical activities, such as trips out to visit the neighbours; a colony of emperor penguins. With the onset of 24 hour darkness there was plenty of time to observe the night skies and become familiar with constellations and blase with auroras. He also found time to write ‘True North’, his book based on his Arctic travels. Since returning home to Scotland he has written his second book; ‘Empire Antarctica’.

His talk last night, was divided into two half hour sessions, one for each book, with a 15 minute break between and a Q&A session at the end. The talk was engaging and interspersed with a few short readings from his own books and those of relevant others. He also passed around a few artefacts, such as his boots and gloves (big, bulky, heavy) and an emperor penguin egg (pointy, bumpy, slightly larger than a duck egg). The library was full, with people even sitting upstairs in what would have originally been the choir (it’s in an old church). Many of them were older and although there were a lot of locals present, there were tourists other than myself. I sat next to a Dutch lady who was in Lerwick with her husband on their yacht. They have sailed all over the world, including all the places Gavin spoke about. They funded their nomadic, floatational lifestyle by running a yacht business and the lady also wrote books and magazine articles on sailing and their travels.

Now I have even more ideas buzzing around inside my head. I love all the inspiration I get up here from all the amazing people I’m constantly meeting. I hope I continue to get ideas and inspiration from Orkney, though I’m sure I will. I leave on the ferry tonight.

Author: Anne

Join me in my journey to live a life less boring, one challenge at a time. Author of the forthcoming book 'Walking the Kungsleden: One Woman's Solo Wander Through the Swedish Arctic'.

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