`It's not like the old days, when you had to eat seals and penguins'

SARA WHEELER has the most enviable job in the world - she travels to far-flung places and writes about them. The latest passport stamps were acquired when she went to Antarctica for seven months in 1994-5. Her purpose? "Hanging around gathering material for my book." Life in Antarctica is no picnic, says Sara. "Once, when I was sharing a camp with another woman, we had an 11-day white out. We lost radio communication, our vehicle had broken down, and we were running out of everything. When the weather sets in there's nothing you can do, we just had to wait for the weather to break." The pair survived on dried food. Says Sara: "We were quite a long way from starving, but you start counting the days. You get fed up with not having fresh food. But it's not like the old days, when you had to eat seals and penguins!" The coldest temperature Sara experienced was minus 115F, with wind-chill. "At that temperature, if you throw boiling water into the air it freezes before it hits the ice." Sarah survived the weather with "lots and lots of clothes" and little tricks she picked up in survival training. "You learn ways of going to the toilet without taking your trousers down," she says with a laugh, adding: "of course it's much more difficult for girlies!" Antarctica is bigger than Europe, but there is no indigenous population, just a series of base camps and national science programmes. Says Sara: "There are several countries that claim a bit of Antarctica - Britain being one - but those claims aren't recognised, so effectively it's a bit of a free for all. They are all anxious to stamp your passport because in some kind of unofficial way it sanctions their claim." The Chileans, the Italians, and the British all stamped her passport. She also has a rare South Pole stamp from a visit to the US base there. "Antarctica is the ultimate travel destination because it's a blank sheet. There is the absence of the clutter of daily life - it's just pure ice."

8 Sara Wheeler's book "Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica" is published by Vintage. (pounds 6.99.)

Rosanna Greenstreet

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