In conversation with… writer Darrel Bristow-Bovey

Prize-winning screenwriter and travel writer Darrel Bristow-Bovey talks to us about his latest book, a new examination of one of the greatest survival stories of all time.

In conversation with… writer Darrel Bristow-Bovey

Prize-winning screenwriter and travel writer Darrel Bristow-Bovey talks to us about his latest book, a new examination of one of the greatest survival stories of all time.

In conversation with… writer Darrel Bristow-Bovey


Prize-winning screenwriter and travel writer Darrel Bristow-Bovey talks to us about his latest book, a new examination of one of the greatest survival stories of all time.

Darrel Bristow-Bovey divides his time between South Africa, the UK and a hillside on the Greek Peloponnese where he’s building a new house – but more on that later. As a ​​screenwriter, he has written several television series and feature films. He is also a travel writer and a newspaper and magazine columnist and has written five books.

His latest book – Finding Endurance: Shackleton, My Father and a World Without End – is a fascinating and deeply personal reexamination of this classic story of survival. We caught up with Darrel to ask him a few questions about his latest work and what he has on the horizon. 

Screenwriter, travel writer, author… Your work covers a wide range of topics. Do have a favourite?

Usually when I’m writing a feature film I long to be writing long descriptive passages in which nothing is happening except the leisurely unspooling of a character’s interior life, and when I’m writing a book I long to be able to able to write a pithy exchange of dialogue and leave it to the director and actors and a special effects budget to make it come to life, so the answer would usually be, “Whatever I’m not doing at the moment.”

Darrel in front of a glacier

Darrel is a screenwriter, travel writer and author (Credit: Darrel Bristow-Bovey)

But the truth is that I have never felt quite so at peace and fulfilled as I felt in the months when Finding Endurance occupied every waking minute, and filled my resting unconscious. It was a rare experience of feeling as though I was precisely where I should be, doing precisely what I should be doing.

Tell us about Finding Endurance.

The book is the product of several passions, bordering almost on obsession; the first is the historical figure of Ernest Shackleton, who has preoccupied me ever since my father first told me – when I was six years old – that he had sailed on Endurance as one of Shackleton’s crew. Of course, it wasn’t true, but I always wondered why the idea meant so much to him, and what the figure of Shackleton meant, this remarkable, formerly half-forgotten figure, straddling an ambiguous position in the history of polar exploration between success and failure, optimism and despair. That led me into an unending love affair with the Antarctic continent and all its lore and history, as well as an engagement with the climate-related threat it faces, and that in turn led me to a deep conviction that the story of Shackleton’s particular brand of optimism and endurance has something new to say to us a society and indeed as a species today, facing our own emergencies and environment-related catastrophes.

Finding Endurance book cover

Finding Endurance (Credit: Icon Books)

When Captain Knowledge Bengu, master of SA Agulhas 2, a man born into bleakest poverty in a South African apartheid township twenty minutes away from my childhood home, helped discover Endurance in 2023, I was finally convinced that I had new stories to tell, and something new to say about that greatest of all human stories of adventure and survival.

What was it like to tackle a legend like Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance

The first thing everyone asks is, “What is there new to say about Shackleton?” There’s a great deal new to say – not only because far more of the expedition diaries are available today than was the case when the first biographies were being written, and not only because the recent re-discovery of Endurance intact at the bottom of the Weddell Sea has added entirely new chapters of adventure to the story, but because the meaning of the Antarctic itself has changed since Shackleton was there. The meanings of words like “heroism” and “survival” and “endurance” have changed. We exist on a planet that feels very different to us – it has changed and we have changed in the last 109 years - and the old stories have very new things to teach us. So it was daunting to write about Shackleton and Endurance – it took a lot of reading and a lot of travelling and a lot of discovering – but it also felt like being the first person to walk across a new snowfield, leaving the first set of tracks.

Other than Shackleton, is there another explorer or adventure that you’d like to write about?

In 1942 a British cargo ship, the MV Dunedin Star, was en route to Egypt, carrying arms and munitions and a surprising number of civilian passengers. It ran too close to shore, to avoid German U-boats, and wrecked on submerged rocks off the barren desert of the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. Some 63 people, including babies, women and elderly men, had to survive some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth – desert sandstorms, lions hunting along the beach, the blistering heat of the African summer – for months while waiting for war-time rescue. One rescue ship wrecked off the same coastline drowning two of its crew; a Lockheed Ventura aircraft landed but couldn’t take off again. A convoy of rescue vehicles crossing the Namib to reach them sank into the loose desert sands. It’s a terrific story.

Have you visited Antarctica? How did you do your research? 

I spent time on the SA Agulhas II, the South African icebreaker that found Endurance, and I have spent time in Antarctic waters on ships out of New Zealand, Chile and Argentina. Regrettably, I do suffer mightily from seasickness and have spent many, many hours in the Drake Passage contemplating the wisdom of human beings – a life-form successfully adapted to a terrestrial environment – voluntarily returning to spend time at the mercy of a liquid world.

Darrel has travelled widely (Credit: Darrel Bristow-Bovey)

In Ushuaia, while researching the book I found a berth on a ship going down to the Antarctic peninsula and spent what felt like a year on seas the size of bad dreams, only to be told on the day of arrival that the weather wouldn’t permit disembarkation. In writing the book, I spent a good deal of time ice-trekking on glaciers, and I spent one very long night sleeping in a replica expedition reindeer-skin sleeping bag. That wasn’t on sea ice in the frozen Weddell – it was in a Canadian backyard in January - but it was chilly enough to make me grateful for my pampered life.

We know you love to travel. Do you still have a dream destination you haven't visited? 

Other than the Antarctic continent, which is obviously still my number one passion, it isn’t so much destinations that I now covet as it is journeys: I still intend to train from Moscow to Vladivostok and then by cargo ship to Yokohama. I plan to drive from Cape Town to Cairo, and from Argentina to Alaska.

What's next for you?

I am building a house in Greece, on an alarmingly steep hillside overlooking the Bay of Epidavros, and I’ve been a somewhat distant father to it over the past year. The next priority is to spend more time in the neighbourhood, hovering over it and solicitously buying snacks and beers for the builders in the hope that they might be encouraged to finish it this year. In between that, I’ll sit at a rickety wooden table under an olive tree and try to finish the scripts for a cosy crime series that I am a month overdue on delivering.

Darrel Bristow-Bovey with mountains behind him

Darrel describes himself as a nomad (Credit: Darrel Bristow-Bovey)

What luxury item would you take if you were working at Port Lockroy for the season?

My wife Jo and I are nomads – we don’t actually live in any country for longer than two months at a time but stay in a constant succession of rented apartments. Wherever we go the first thing she makes after our arrival is a specific tomato-based pasta sauce. It tastes subtly different wherever we are, depending on the local tomatoes, the local onions, the local bacon or guanciale or pancetta, but it is delicious and comforting and it makes wherever feel like home. When I took myself off for two months in a house in the Karoo to finish writing Finding Endurance, she sent me off with a rucksack’s worth of pasta sauce, frozen in Tupperware containers. Jo herself would be my first choice of luxury item, but in close second place would be a steady supply of her pasta sauce. 

Finally, what’s your favourite species of penguin?

This should be a debate between the Adélie and Gentoo penguins, both of whom fed Shackleton’s men during their long months stranded on the ice (they generally agreed that the Adélie penguins tasted better – in fact years later Frank Hurley named his first-born daughter “Adélie”).

Two African penguins at sunset

Darrel's favourite species of penguin is the African Penguin (Credit: Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock)

However, as a South African, and because I have spent many happy hours swimming with them on Boulder’s Beach in Cape Town, my favourite species of penguin has to be for Africa’s only indigenous penguin, the unimaginatively re-named African Penguin. (They used to be called jackass penguins, because of their braying call, but apparently were renamed in case they found the name demeaning.)

Finding Endurance is written as an incitement to hope: an argument for why in the face of doom and catastrophe (both personal and global), pessimism is as dangerous as obliviousness, and to use new stories and newly surfaced facts to propose a more productive way for us to think about the present and the future.

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