Readers on Reading

In the 2019–20 summer, before the world turned inside out, I worked alongside expedition guide, historian and writer NINA GALLO. Our weeks aboard took us to the magical corner of the world that is the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. Nina is a generous guide and lecturer with a sparkling personality and a deep passion for nature. One day during the voyage, surf conditions at the Falklands meant that we three girls driving Zodiacs—Nina, myself and Liz Pope—could not safely leave our boats ashore; instead, we stood off out beyond the breakers until needed. As a guide, these quiet times are few and far between, treasured moments, rafting our boats together to chat and laugh and ponder our happy lot in life amidst spectacular surrounds. All of it a privilege.

As part of this series I invited Nina to share a little of her adventurous life, a favourite recent read, and her sparkling new book Antarctica. Over to you, Nina.

Nina Gallo

Someone recently described me as an unlikely author, and I think that’s a good way to describe it. I definitely wasn’t expecting to write a book when I pitched a couple of articles to the Australian Geographic magazine earlier this year. But that’s the way it worked out, and I’m pretty excited about it!

I spent about five years at University, studying everything from astronomy to psychology, politics, Mandarin and Chinese medicine, before finally graduating with an Arts degree in English. Which made sense, because I’d loved reading and writing since I was a kid. Come to think of it, I remember dreaming of writing for National Geographic. But who doesn’t want to write for them? I dismissed the dream as unrealistic, and trained as an adventure guide instead.

It’s been a wonderful and circuitous journey that led me to working as a historian on expedition ships in Antarctica, and I feel so grateful for the whole thing. After dropping out of history class at thirteen, I graduated high school. I spent many years drifting around taking all kinds of jobs: selling climbing gear in Sydney, working in bars and restaurants in the Yukon, serving beer in Wales and wine in Melbourne. 

Writing became part of my professional life about ten years ago when I started writing websites, blogs and social media posts for small businesses. Eventually this expanded to preparing strategic communications plans and carrying them out, and I still do this today.

About five years ago I landed a job on an Antarctic expedition ship as a shop manager and trainee guide. I’d read about the expeditions of Scott and Shackleton, but once I was there I found myself entranced by the wild, intense human stories of the Antarctic—so many strange, little-known tales of humans at their limits. The politics was fascinating as well. I started reading voraciously, preparing presentations on some of the cool quirky stories I found.

I kept writing for myself in the background, and every now and then an opportunity comes up to write a great article on something I care about. This year, with the bicentenary of the first confirmed Antarctic sighting, seemed like a good time to share some Antarctic appreciation. I feel so fortunate that Australian Geographic took a chance on me and let me write this beautiful book about a place I love so much. 

A recent adventure (with a touch of misadventure)

Last January I had a wonderful little jaunt in Patagonia. I hitched a ride to where the blue-grey Rio Electrico rolls over polished stones on its way down from the ice cap. There’s a delightful trail that starts here,weaving back and forth through the forest across hand-cut wooden bridges.

I stopped at Piedra del Fraile (Friar’s Rock), a little hut surrounded by colourful lupins. From here I turned south, to head into the mountains. I wanted to get up to Paso del Cuadrado (Square Pass), a pass that looks down into the deep glacial valley separating Cerro Torre from the jagged granite spires of the Chalten Massif.

A couple of days later I went up again, this time with an Italian woman I’d met in the hut on the rain days. The morning was kingfisher-blue and glistening – none of the ominous foreboding of the other day. We tramped up the hill, familiar now, and made it easily to Piedra Negra. Paso del Cuadrado beckoned, its distance oscillating the way high things do in the clear alpine air of the morning.

We skirted a frozen tarn and started hopping up a brilliant ochre-coloured spur to the base of the glacier. The snow on the glacier was sugary, and in borrowed crampons, our progress was slow. But at the top, the world fell away. We looked down breathlessly over the shadowy void between two mountain ranges, a groove scored by glaciers long-gone. The scale was impossible. No words came, so we grinned and drank a little maté instead, before heading down.

In what ways does your new book Antarctica inform our ideas about the frozen continent?

The last time Australian Geographic released a book about Antarctica was in the 1990s. I think this edition has come at the perfect time. 

When we look at the human history of Antarctica, we tend to break it up into different eras: the sealing and whaling eras, the heroic era, the scientific era. But our era has yet to be named, and I suspect the decisions we make over the next few years may define it. 

The past twelve months have been really significant for Antarctica. Last November (2019), a group of nations met in Hobart to discuss new protections for the oceans around Antarctica, but weren’t able to reach consensus on how this would work. In December we celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty, the ground-breaking international agreement that sees Antarctica managed collaboratively by 54 states.

January 2020 was the 200-year anniversary of the first confirmed sighting of the continent by the Irish, Bransfield—or was it the Russian, Bellingshausen? The jury is still out. And through the summer of 2019–20, over 70,000 tourists visited Antarctica, almost twice as many as in the 2015–16 season.

Tell us something that this strange year has shown you

This year has shown me that we humans are kinder and more resilient than we might have thought. Most of us, in Australia at least, have lived through a period of growth, comfort, convenience and prosperity that may have no equal in human history. This year has dealt severe blows, restricting our freedoms and rocking the foundations of our steady, predictable trajectory. It has undermined a stability we took for granted, and yet there has been so much kindness, so much positivity circulating around the globe. So much rising up in the name of justice for the vulnerable, realism about the climate. Of course, it hasn’t all been happiness and joy, but I’ve been so heartened to see this swell of humanity in the world despite the challenging times we find ourselves in.

A favourite recent read?

I’m really enjoying The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. It’s completely re-shaping my (admittedly patchy) understanding of natural history. Here’s a guy who has penguins, squids, mountains, even ocean currents named after him; at one point he held the record for the highest mountain ever climbed (Chimborazo, 6,267 meters / 20,561 feet, in 1802). He inspired Charles Darwin and was Goethe’s contemporary. How had I never heard of him?! The Invention of Nature is also extremely well-written, a really rollicking read. 

Antarctica by Nina Gallo is published by Australian Geographic and available from bookstores and online. Learn more about Nina at www.ninagallo.squarespace.com

A Radiance of Women

When I began working in my late teens, I was largely innocent to inequities between work opportunities for women versus men. It seemed the unquestioning norm that men, primarily, took up leadership roles while women, primarily, took supporting roles. After all, things had come a long way since my mother’s time. Back then in the fifties, as a young married woman her bank would not allow her to have a savings account in her own name, and employer rulings meant that many in her circle, once married, were compelled to surrender their careers.

Mrs+D+front+coverRecently I read Lynne Leonhardt’s meticulously researched Step Up, Mrs Dugdale, a novel based on the life of Australian suffragette Henrietta Dugdale. Henrietta’s story set me firmly down within the awful confines of a late 19th and early 20th century world, where married women were regarded as property with no legal rights of their own, where the efforts of a few battled long and hard for a move toward equity, for changes to unjust marital laws and property ownership, for a woman’s right to vote—freedoms I take as givens in this cruisy 21st-century world.

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Photo ©Karen Povey

Thanks to the courageous voices of each generation, women in Australia are largely afforded choice and opportunity. I am thankful for the choice to take up writing studies at a time and age that was right for me, for the opportunity to forge a self-made career rich in experience. In my seasonal shipboard role, which began in 1998, I am part of an exciting momentum that places women as leaders, acknowledged for their skill, experience and personal qualities. May such recognition cast itself across all the colours of the spectrum.

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As thoughts turn to International Women’s Day 2020, my shout of cheer goes to the radiance of women I know, whose extraordinary lives enrich and inspire my own. Amongst them are adventurers, artists, archaeologists, ambassadors, animal lovers, bush walkers, biologists, birdos, carers, caretakers, climbers, climate crusaders, coordinators, educators, editors, gardeners, graphic designers, glaciologists, garlic growers, heroines, historians, hairdressers, kayakers, killer cooks (the harmless variety), larrikins, life savers, leaders, literary agents, managers, mothers, mentors, medicos, naturalists, novelists, performers, peace makers, potters, poets, polar guides, photographers, publishers, playwrights, readers, recyclers, swimmers, students, scientists, stewardesses, snowshoers, ship’s officers, speech pathologists, station leaders, Scrabble lovers, travellers, teachers of little ones, teachers of big ones, trail blazers, tireless volunteers AND fellow Zodiac drivers.

Readers on Reading

In this post I invite an inspirational guest reader to share a little about their life and a recent favourite book. 

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Rachael Mead

I first met Rachael Mead in 2011 during a writing residency at Varuna the Writers House, a sanctuary set on the edge of Australia’s Blue Mountains. I spent my time there with an inspiring group of women writers, sharing dinners, ideas, snatches of our own writing. During a casual conversation Rachael told me of her husband, a paramedic who, on Rachael’s birthdays, would paint her a replica of a favourite famous painting. The image of that gift as an expression of love grabbed me. Rachael gave me permission to explore the idea in short fiction which slowly, glacially, led to ‘The Forgeries’, most definitely NOT a story about Rachael or her husband, but about the fragile nature of creativity.

TFITP coverThis small window into Rachael’s life introduces a talented poet and short story writer, arts reviewer and bookseller, who lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills in South Australia. Rachael’s had an eclectic life, working as an archaeologist, environmental campaigner and seller of books both old and new. She has an Honours degree in Classical Archaeology, a Masters in Environmental Studies and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide. Rachael is the author of four collections of poetry, and I recommend all of them: The Flaw in the Pattern (UWA Publishing 2018), The Sixth Creek (Picaro Press 2013) and the chapbooks Sliding Down the Belly of the World (Wakefield Press 2012) and The Quiet Blue World (Garron Publishing 2015).

I invited Rachael to share something she treasures about her life.

Rachael: Being able to travel. My husband and I met on an archaeological excavation and since then we have leapt at every chance to experience the wild and lonely places of the world, whether it’s throwing the swags in the back of the car or heading off on overseas adventures. I’ve been extremely privileged to have visited Antarctica twice, camping on the Ross Ice shelf in East Antarctica and crossing the Drake Passage by ship to the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The only continent I’ve yet to visit is North America but, with an Iranian stamp in my passport and a history of environmental activism, ticking this continent off the list may prove a little challenging under the current administration. In the meantime I’d love to do a little more long distance hiking, so early in the New Year we hope to lug our backpacks around the western end of Kangaroo Island, which lies off the coast of South Australia.

Clockwise: Kayaking in South Georgia, 2013; Rachael with orphaned Lowland Mountain Gorilla while volunteering in Limbe Wildlife Rescue Centre, Cameroon 1996;  Imax Crevasse, Ross Ice Shelf, East Antarctica 2005. Photos ©Rachael Mead

On Instagram I’ve been following Rachael’s recent wind-whipped adventures around Iceland and Scotland. Was there a favourite book along the way?

Living MountainRachael: I love researching the ecological and cultural histories of the places we visit, so while driving through the Scottish Highlands I read a title that had been on my ‘must read’ list for a while. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd is a gorgeous piece of nature writing and deservedly a classic. The book is a loving, lyrical and ecologically precise account of the Cairngorm Mountains by a woman who spent much of her life exploring this harsh and beautiful landscape by foot. Shepherd wrote this book in the mid-1940s but it remained in her desk drawer until 1977, finally finding a publisher at the same time that other classics of the genre by male writers such as Matthiessen, Chatwin and McPhee were being published to great acclaim. As a lover of nature writing, reading this book was an absolute delight, not only as a poetic and intimate account of a wild landscape but as a landmark piece of nature writing by an extraordinary woman. Every time I used a Scottish five-pound note (which bears her portrait) it felt like I was paying tribute to a newly discovered literary heroine.

Another ‘must read’ piece of nature writing is this poem by Rachael Mead from The Flaw in the Pattern, the first in a sequence of seven poems chronicling each day of a trek though the Tasmanian wilderness.

These clouds that cap the world

Walking the Overland Track, Tasmania – Day 1

We set out, climbing towards the tight lid of clouds,

our whole week hanging from our collarbones.

This land casts timelessness at our feet,

unfurling like an old rug, ragged and enormous.

We are superimposed here, stepping into an epic.

Trees glow in wet light, the sky flat as an ironed sheet.

Everything is so magnificent it feels ridiculous, like words

in the mouth of Dorothy Parker. This is beauty beyond

necessity, the way it usually is, but on its own terms,

the golden mean redundant and symmetry just a neat idea.

For seven days we will walk, each carrying our own burden

of what we think we need, our sweat and aching joints.

We tread the silvered vertebrae of the track

one foot after the other, learning the bleakness

of repetition. The sky drops on our heads,

fog enfolding us in silence and cold.  Ahead,

I watch my partner’s shape dissolve then reappear

fiercer than ever, like love over time. I draw endurance

from my aquifer and keep pushing through this weather

that has nowhere better to be, striding among

these clouds that cap the world, my hair netting sky.

Read more of Rachael’s poetry and see her photographic images at: http://rachaelmead.com/

Antarctica

 

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King penguins at Gold Harbour, South Georgia, in the early part of the Antarctic summer. ©Robyn Mundy

What a crazy and unexpected year 2018 has become, thanks largely to a new part time work role that I happily agreed to, having exploded into a juggernaut. The consolation I hold onto (and it’s a big one) is that my efforts might make a positive difference. But with many hours consumed, I have turned into an absent friend and non-communicator. My work desk, once stacked with writing research and photos and scribbled notes of dialogue, has been taken over by To Do lists and a utilitarian work diary, Week To A Spread. Christmas cards relegated to the side table are gathering dust, remnants of glitter glinting from their envelopes, the senders, still waiting to be acknowledged, unaware of how precious their greetings are to me. (I’m sorry. I’m sorry). A stack of novels waiting to be read occasionally glares at me from my bedside table; they’ve all but given up. I’ve abandoned testy Twitter and gone for Instagram — a voyeur rather than a contributor — because there’s something lovely, and effortless, in ‘liking’ a world of beauty, travel and glee beyond my own.

Well, enough of that. Time to post a few images with a reminder that just back there, just beyond the corner of my sights, lies another world. Antarctica. I hope you enjoy this photo selection from four voyages, November through January, to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia. It’s not all blue skies and sunshine. You’ll see a dolloping of wild weather and snowfall which, for those of us onboard, often makes for some of the most memorable moments of all.

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You think getting ready for work takes a long time? For this chinstrap penguin at Hydrurga Rocks, preening is a major undertaking to coat every individual feather and hard-to-get-at spot with waterproofing oil before heading back out to sea. ©Robyn Mundy

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What makes this glacial berg so blue? The bluest ice is often very old ice from far down in the glacier, compressed under tremendous weight. Air bubbles have been squeezed out of the ice, allowing light to penetrate deep into the ice and reflect blue light waves. The penguins don’t mind a bit of blue ice either. ©Robyn Mundy

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About one in every 300 Antarctic fur seals are born blonde. No one but we onlookers seems to take much notice. ©Robyn Mundy

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No getting chubby on one of our Antarctic expeditions. Our boys take healthy eating to heart… 😉

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But our wonderful stewardesses and Hotel Manger sneak a few extra tidbits onto the plates 🙂

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Early season at Enterprise Island, where pancakes of ice form with cold overnight temperatures. Nearing winter, these pans coalesce to form a sheet of sea ice that covers the ocean until the following spring. ©Robyn Mundy

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Skontorp Cove, and who can resist a glacier on a perfectly still morning? ©Robyn Mundy

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Kayaks and Zodiacs lashed down as we cross a wild Scotia Sea. ©Robyn Mundy

 

 

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It’s not only the remarkable place but the people we travel with that makes working in Antarctica so special. ©Robyn Mundy

Image of the Week

Wave: Land’s End Study II. Cape Denison, Antarctica. ©Alasdair McGregor. Gouache on paper, 52 x 38cm.

Imagine being commissioned to paint en plein air at the world’s windiest location recorded at sea level.

Meet my friend and shipboard colleague Alasdair McGregor. If Alasdair wasn’t such a nice guy, he could be really irritating. That’s because he can rightfully  lay claim to not one but several creative talents.

Alasdair began his working life as a professionally trained architect but has devoted years to writing and painting, esteemed in both regards. Alasdair has written numerous books: you name it: natural history, architecture and design, biography, great explorers. With my own Antarctic background, one of my faves is his brilliant biography Frank Hurley: A Photographer’s Life.

As a writer and visual artist, Alasdair has spent significant creative time in Antarctica. In the 1980s he took part in a mountaineering expedition to sub-Antarctic Heard Island. In the late 1990s he was artist and photographer for two expeditions to Mawson’s Huts at Cape Denison in Commonwealth Bay, recorded as the windiest place on earth at sea level. Alasdair’s painting, Wave: Land’s End Study II, comes from his Commonwealth Bay experience. Here is what he has to say about it.

Spending seven weeks in early 1998 camped on the ice at Cape Denison was an immense physical and artistic challenge for me. For a plein air artist, it was not just the cold, but the ferocious winds for which this stretch of Antarctic coast is justly infamous that had me apprehensive from the start. But I need not have worried. There were fine and calm moments every few days and I made the most of them. I was particularly fascinated by the spectacular ice cliffs that stretched away to the horizon to the east and west of the tiny cape. The cliffs were the physical, and in many ways, the psychological limits of our existence. So near and yet untouchable, I would venture to what Mawson’s expedition dubbed Land’s End and John O’Groats to paint the cliffs in all lights and at all times of day. To me they the essence of frozen motion and this is what I sought to capture in my work.

Learn more about Alasdair and his wonderful creations at www.alasdairmcgregor.com.au

Readers on Reading

In this section I invite an inspirational guest reader to share a little about their life and their recent favourite book.

Picture bobbing across the South Atlantic Ocean on a small ice-strengthened vessel, the subAntarctic island of South Georgia still vivid in your mind, the Falkland Islands in your wake, westward bound for Tierra del Fuego. This is where you will find my colleague and guest reader ELENA WIMBERGER. Elena has spent several Antarctic and Arctic seasons working as Hotel Manager aboard MV Polar Pioneer, a mighty little ship that carries adventurers to wild and wondrous places.

 

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Kitted up for adventure, Elena Wimberger spent a good while hoping for an opportunity to explore the slopes of the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo ©Alan Burger

When it comes to outdoor adventure, you’ll find Elena raring to go. She claims that despite attending school for 16 years, graduating in Political Science and Spanish, she received her true education through time spent outside…

EW: Growing up spending summers in the North Cascade mountain range of Washington State, USA, I learned the value of a good walk in the woods. This led me to forego a sane and sensible career choice following graduation, and instead ask to be dropped off at the Mexican border, with pack in tow, in order to take a very long walk home… I spent the next five months on a trail meandering north to the Canadian border.

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Where better to try out your skis than on a favourite slope? Elena Wimberger at Neko Harbor, Antarctic Peninsula. Photo ©Alan Burger

Elena, share with us something you love about your life:

EW: While my love for travel and experiencing new places has been a major directive throughout my life, I treasure the surrounding landscape where I’’ve grown up and call home: the Pacific Northwest in the USA. I live at the base of the Puget Sound, surrounded on one side by the Cascade Mountain Range, and the other, a lovely waterway full of islands which leads out to the Pacific ocean. The temperate climate creates a luscious green panorama filled with evergreen pines and sword fern undergrowth. The beauty and easy access to outdoor exploration makes this area a very special place to be and I feel very lucky to have this as my home base.

And now to your favourite book of recent times:
The Brothers KThe Brothers K – by David James Duncan is a title that plays on Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, as well as referring to a strikeout in baseball, denoted by the letter K.
EW: This is a masterpiece of a story, more like a mural than a single work of art. Starting in the mill town of Camas, Washington in 1956, The Brothers K tells the interwoven story of the Chance family – a baseball-playing father, an overly religious mother, four sons and twin daughters. The story is narrated by the youngest son, Kincaid (Kade), as he observes the trials and tribulations of his three older brothers and two younger sisters growing up in America in the ’60’s and ’70’s. Humorous yet profound, Duncan weaves a beautiful tale about family, coming of age and the circumstances of life, using baseball as the medium that brings it all together. Each character is profoundly mortal in a different way and watching each member of the Chance family navigate their way through the many curve balls life throws with a distinctive, albeit at times belated, sense of grace, leaves you wanting more from the start.
“ He said, there’’s two ways for a hitter to get the pitch he wants. The simplest way is to not want any one in particular. But the best way, he said which sounds almost the same but is really very different, –is to want the very pitch you’’re gonna get. Including the one you can handle. But also the one that’’s gonna strike you out looking. And even the one that’’s maybe gonna bounce off your head. “ –—Papa Toe, The Brothers K
With thanks to my inspirational guest reader Elena Wimberger as another adventurous Antarctic season draws to a close.

Readers on Reading

In this section I invite an inspirational guest reader to share a little about their life and their recent favourite book.

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Ann of the Kimberley

Ann Ward is a rural doctor who has spent her career working in the outback of Western Australia. Ann worked as a Flying Doctor in Meekatharra from 1989 to 1992, and since then as an Obstetric Rural GP based in Kununurra. Ann was born in Malaysia to a Chinese mother and an English father. At five years of age her family migrated to Australia and settled in Perth where Ann was educated and lived until her early twenties.

Ann is an inspiring woman on numerous counts, including her connection with wild places:

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…equally at home in the Antarctic

I have always had a love and a passion for wilderness, places where few people journey, places that require some skill to survive, places that are truly wild and beautiful and connect me to the earth. For me, that has meant places like the Himalaya, Antarctica and the Kimberley region of Western Australia. I feel privileged to have spent time time there.

Tell us something you treasure about this aspect of your life.

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I love stories. Every week for 23 years, as part of my work in Kununurra, I have flown in a light aircraft to the remote Warmun Aboriginal community in the East Kimberley as the Clinic doctor. I feel a strong bond with this community and feel grateful to have worked there. I have learnt much from this experience and I feel it is now a fundamental part of my own life story. I have shared happiness, laughs, grief, joy and stories with these Gija people and I am grateful for this privilege.

How about your recent favourite book?

The History of RainHistory of the Rain by Niall Williams. I love this book. It is many stories, spanning four generations and is woven together with the forces of nature: the river, the rain. I was totally absorbed by the main character Ruth Swain, an intelligent, fundamentally optimistic and whimsical Irish teenager, recently bedridden by a blood disorder that threatens her life, but which affords her time to read avidly and to contemplate her life and the lives that came before her. She has a wonderful, optimistic, funny turn of phrase—Mrs Conheedy had a face as lumpy as a turnip and shoulders you can imagine her carrying sheep on—even at the saddest of times. She is strongly attached to her eccentric poet father and to her shining twin brother (who appears part way through the book) and whose demise profoundly changes all that she knows.
History of the Rain is very well written, with Ruth using capital letters with gay abandon for emphasis. She predicts a Brilliant Career for me if I will only Trim Back.
It is a lovely, poignant story that made me want to continue reading past its end.

Outback HeroinesA fine recommendation from my inaugural guest reader Ann Ward. If you find Ann’s own life story as inspirational as I do, read more about her in Outback Heroines by Sue Williams (Penguin, 2013).

Writing the Wild

Welcome to Writing the Wild, a blog for and about writers and writing, readers and reading, creators and their images. Having just travelled back from the Antarctic Peninsula, still caught in that strange long-haul lag between then and now, it seems fitting to share a recent image of ice, taken at Point Wild off Elephant Island. Antarctica has been a big part of my life for some years but it’s impossible to ever tire of the beauty and art of ice.

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Striped iceberg at Point Wild

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But to the here and now…

On returning home I was thrilled to receive advance copies of my new novel Wildlight, being published by Picador on 1 March, and in book stores on 23 February. Check out the Wildlight book trailer herekindly produced by Matt and Heather at Passionfruit Creative.