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Madhouse at the End of the Earth: A voyage into the unknown, marooned in a white sahara

The 1898 Belgica expedition was the first to endure an Antarctic winter — with a ‘less than ideal’ crew

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The Belgica anchored in what would come to be known as the Gerlache Strait, in the first few weeks of 1898. © De Gerlache Family Collection

The Belgica anchored in what would come to be known as the Gerlache Strait, in the first few weeks of 1898. © De Gerlache Family Collection

Frequent fellow travellers Frederick Albert Cook and Roald Amundsen. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Frederick A Cook Society

Frequent fellow travellers Frederick Albert Cook and Roald Amundsen. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Frederick A Cook Society

Commandant Adrien de Gerlache and an emperor penguin captured on the pack ice. © De Gerlache Family Collection

Commandant Adrien de Gerlache and an emperor penguin captured on the pack ice. © De Gerlache Family Collection

Dinner in the wardroom. From left: Arctowski, Amundsen, Lecointe, Racovitza, and de Gerlache. Photo courtesy of Fram Museum

Dinner in the wardroom. From left: Arctowski, Amundsen, Lecointe, Racovitza, and de Gerlache. Photo courtesy of Fram Museum

Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

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The Belgica anchored in what would come to be known as the Gerlache Strait, in the first few weeks of 1898. © De Gerlache Family Collection

Antarctica may be “the planet’s icy underworld”, a place where “the water ended and the snow began, as if the ocean had risen halfway up the Himalayas”, in the words of Julian Sancton, but it also stinks, owing to the “mammalian pungency of seal colonies”, the “putrescent breath of whales” and the “rotten seafood reek of penguin rookeries”.

Almost utterly inhospitable, the continent therefore appeals hugely to the strange psychology of the explorer, with their “masochistic pursuit of struggle”, as Sancton writes in his new book, Madhouse at the End of the Earth. Their very eyes seem “to contemplate infinite expanse much further away”.


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