On Terra Incognita, the age of exploration, the rise of the hero and the limits of possibility.


What a title to live up to in this post that sees me immersed in new discoveries about our past explorers of Antarctica – Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton. By chance, coincidence or design, my discoveries have been instigated by my son’s purchase of a rather nice Folio edition of Scott’s Last Expedition, in the year that marks the 100th anniversary of Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole. I have become fraught with a thirst for knowledge of Scott and Shackleton and for what drove them on to challenge themselves to the very limits of possibility.

Self promotion first (it’s all ‘me, me, me’ springs to mind – the glorious Stephen Fry in  Sherlock Holmes..) I am tweeting extracts from Scott’s Last Expedition, on a day by day basis, @ScottsDiaries, and also, doubly binding my long-suffering followers on @HMStack with further extracts and my musings.

The splendid Captain Robert Falcon Scott in uniform is an impressive sight, yet I would have said some time ago, that I was a Shackleton, rather than a Scott man. I fear I have reversed my earlier thoughts here, or else, rest in limbo ‘twixt the two.  I echo the sentiment of a brilliant quotation found on the Antartica Fact File – “Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”



In reading Scott’s diaries, I am struck again and again by the great sensitivity, eloquence and joy of his writing. It is divine and I have lost my heart entirely to this man who lived and died long before my life began, yet I feel that  his presence is extraordinarily strong, as I read the words he crafted so skilfully in his daily writings.

I am inadequate to describe my utter admiration and respect for Scott’s self-belief, courage, vision and his fortitude. I suspect I would have been rather in awe of his presence, and not a tiny bit infatuated by the great man and his incredible self-belief and spirit of adventure. It saddens me greatly that I am reading close to his final words. It is a diary I would rather wish did not have to end.

Terra Incognita’or Unknown Land, strikes me as a remarkable phrase. It is a term used by cartographers to denote lands and regions that have not been mapped. I imagine now, there is very little of our land that has not been charted, but at the turn of the last century, much was yet to be discovered.

It was the Sixth International Geographical Congress meeting in London in1895, that inspired the desire in many, to conquer lands previously unknown. The Congress’s mission

“That this congress record its opinion that the exploration of the Antarctic Regions is the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken. That in view of the additions to knowledge in almost every branch of science which would result from such a scientific exploration the Congress recommends that the scientific societies throughout the world should urge in whatever way seems to them most effective, that this work should be undertaken before the close of the century.”

The site www.coolantartica.com states that ‘adventurous men were drawn to this arena like a magnet’ and so, the curtain was opened on the ‘Heroic Age’.

I watched the tv drama Shackleton recently, feeling rather guilty the while giving my attentions not to Scott. I was enthralled. Kenneth Branagh is remarkable as Ernest Shackleton and leads me to that tangled never to be answered question, is it the character I admire and adore, or the actor playing the character..? Well, there are twitterings aplenty about Branagh a ce moment. I recall how this great man had the theatrical world at his feet, almost two decades ago, so enduring has been his brilliance. But here I am distracted. Do forgive.

For further details on Shackleton, you would do well to consider the detailed accounts of his achievements on these sits – http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/shackleton_ernest.shtml

or find out more about Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic expedition. 

For those with a thirst to read and discover more, as myself, I must point you to this most excellent site from the University of Cambridge Scott Polar Research Institute – http://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/shop/books/exploration.html

There is still a great fascination with what motivated Scott, Shackleton and a small handful of other men, to explore lands unknown, to endure the most demanding, challenging, threatening of landscapes, for great periods at a time. I am struck that whilst enduring the most horrendous conditions, Scott prepared meticulously for his death, as he had prepared so earnestly for his exploration, so many years before, writing letters to so many of his family and of his crew men’s family.

In his “Message to the Public”, Scott set out his defence of the expedition’s organization – :

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last … Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.

Who amongst us takes such risks, explores so far and wide that we travel where none has travelled before? Who amongst us pushes outwards, onwards to the limits of possibility? It is a safe life most of us lead, muddied with a little discontent, a smattering of envy, moments of contentment, the comfort of family and friends. We are shielded from so much and know little of real danger.

It seems to me, the limits of possibility no longer reside in the external, those lands beyond our imagination, charted or uncharted. The limits of possibility, in this age when so much is explored and much more exploited, reside within us all. Possibility rests in our hearts and in our minds.

Do follow a link and find out more about Scott or Shackleton on Cool Antartica, or the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute. So much good work is continuously being done, and much that I have been ignorant of, too long the while.

May good fortune accompany you on your travels, where’er they may be.

Finally, I will conclude with a quotation, with credit to www.coolantartica.com

Great things are done when men and mountains meet; They are not done by jostling in the street – William Blake


About HMStack

Independent Education Consultant (SEND) delivering local, regional and national services to providers within the public, private and third sector. Passionate about creating the context for positive change working with and on behalf of children, young people and their families, the conference and public policy sector and training organisations. An eclectic mix of clients includes schools and other educational settings, museums and heritage, service children and British Armed Forces support organisations and providers across the public, private and third sector. Educational writer, blogger and philosopher and aspiring screenwriter, inspired by drama and literary adaptations.

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