Exploring Antarctica’s White Desert
Exploring Antarctica’s White Desert
In 2005, record breaking polar explorer, Patrick Woodhead, was stuck in a tent, waiting out a storm. He and three teammates were in the midst of a 1,850km traverse of Antarctica and none of them had left the tent for four whole days. They were getting low on supplies and, even worse, starting to tell the same stories.
Despite the cold and confinement, they wondered why only scientists and the odd polar explorer got to see the real Antarctica – by that they meant the interior of the continent. They knew thousands of people travelled on cruise ships around the periphery, but the interior itself remained almost completely untouched. They had already found it to be a surreal and incredible place, so why shouldn’t others be able to experience it for themselves?
In that little tent, Patrick and his fellow explorers planned out a new kind of camp. One that would be comfortable and heated, with fibre-glass pods with en suite bathrooms, double beds and great food (of particular interest given their situation). There would be bona fide polar explorers as guides, with only a select few clients coming to the camp each season to experience the immense beauty of the continent at their own pace.
The other aspect was that it must be environmentally sound. With 24-hour sunshine and the intensity of the wind they had already experienced, they knew the camp’s energy would need to come from Antarctica’s natural resources: wind and solar. They were also determined to go further and create their own zero impact policy, with all carbon emissions being offset through a portfolio of carbon projects.
A decade has passed since that time in the tent and now White Desert is a reality. It is the first and only luxury camp in the interior of Antarctica. Starting from Cape Town, South Africa, each year, only four groups of 12 clients take off to a place that is officially known on the departure board as “Unknown International Runway”. They cross the mighty Southern Ocean and into 24hrs continuous sunshine before landing on a custom-built ice runway that shifts every season like the polar ice cap beneath it.
Clients then transfer via 4×4 to “Whichaway” Camp – a modernised, polar version of an African Safari lodge that is perched on rocks and looks out over a 200ft icefall. The campsite includes three large futuristic domes that house the kitchen, dining and living area, including a library and communications room. There are six additional fibre-glass sleeping pods to be shared by guests, each heated and complete with a washing area and toilet, and a separate ablutions pod where hot showers are the order of the day.
“Most people who travel to the Antarctic see it from the decks of a cruise ship, with the odd ‘expedition’ to shore on a zodiac,” explains previous White Desert client, Julian Hayward-Albani. “Here you get to wake up and walk right outside to explore the ice cap on foot like Scott and Shackleton, in the company of knowledgeable scientists and experienced explorers. You’re right in the middle of it.”
Patrick believes in “immersing yourself in nature without damaging it”. Easier said than done in the Antarctic, however, as Julian points out, “The sheer complexities of the logistics on a trip like this are mind-boggling.” Thankfully, Patrick is supported by a team of experienced and capable lieutenants, including his wife (another record-breaking polar explorer), who help to coordinate every detail and ensure that each guest is individually taken care of, whether they want an egg-white omelette, another bottle of champagne or a guided trek to see the spectacular ice tunnels that sit below camp, nothing is too much trouble.
“Once you get there,” says Julian, “you can do as much or as little as you like.” There is no set itinerary and no pressure, though you are at the mercy of the weather, which can change quickly and dramatically. Every day the group is offered a variety of activities that guests can pick and choose from, such as roped walks across the ice cliff, venturing deep underground in a series of ice tunnels or simply picnicking on the edge of the rock oasis and looking out towards the icebergs on the coast.
“We teach you everything you need to know, but you set the pace,” says Patrick. “Its your holiday after all.”
Previous guests have been known to set new world records with hot air balloon rides and even a polar swim! When TV presenter, Bear Grylls, came to the camp, he did a whole range of adrenalin-fuelled activities and even summited a totally unclimbed peak. While others, such as a royal family from the Middle East, were content with taking in the views and the absolute silence of a place that is so completely uninhabited.
“The sound of the thermafrost, the wind and the ice crystals crunching beneath your feet is like having wind chimes all around you…,” says one of White Desert’s previous clients.
Perhaps the most popular excursion of all is a flight across the high polar plateau to visit the Geographic South Pole, where clients are able to follow in the footsteps of explorers such as Scott and Amundsen (albeit having taken a slightly easier route to get there!). After walking around the world in just a few paces, the nearby American science station offers an opportunity to learn about the groundbreaking research done at such a remote location, while there is even a gift shop to buy the ultimate in mementos.
After the South Pole, clients are then flown to an enormous Emperor penguin colony that only a few tourists ever get to experience.
“They are completely fearless and friendly,” says Julian. “To be able to stand so close to these amazing creatures is truly breathtaking.”
Trips can also be arranged to visit the local Russian science base – visitors are hard to come by in these parts, and are consequently, always welcome. Many guests are keen to explore the glaciers, ice caves and tunnels, which showcase a stunning array of changing blue hues with the light, depth and ice formations. “You can even sleep in an igloo of your own making if you are feeling particularly explorer-y!” says Patrick.
Gourmet meals are prepared by an award-winning South African chef and served family-style using fresh ingredients imported from Cape Town. Dinner may consist of roast lamb, asparagus tips and butternut mash, duck liver parfait with crispy melba toast and quince jelly, or even lobster for lunch at a picnic on the edge of a lake. At night, guests gather to discuss their adventures, while Patrick and his team tell stories of the early explorers and how they suffered, starved and triumphed. “Which is ironic,” adds Julian, “as you sit there sipping your champagne. But you can actually learn the skills of a polar explorer if you want to, which is exciting.”
At 62,000 euros per person, these experiences don’t come cheap. So, is it worth it? “Yes, definitely,” says Julian. “There are precious few places left in the world where you can safely and comfortably experience this kind of remoteness, purity and isolation… far from humanity and any pollution. Out here, you can’t help but face your mortality. It’s man against the elements… a daunting thought.”
For those adventurous souls who may not have sufficient time or funds to sign up to an eight-day trip, White Desert is offering a ‘Greatest Day’ expedition which will give 20 guests a rare opportunity to experience Antarctica in a single day and for only 9,800 euros. “At midnight our clients will leave the heat and dark of Africa and travel 4,200km due south,” explains Patrick. “Once there, our guides will take them on a number of adventures – there are treks to see the nesting sites of Adelie penguins, glacier walks, and even a chance to have a sauna at the nearby Russian science base!” The day will culminate in a champagne lunch prepared by one of Cape Town’s best chefs. Though the trip is short, it is a unique chance to see the hidden interior of Antarctica at a more affordable level.
Patrick remains pleasantly surprised that a brainchild of four shivering explorers has gone on to change the landscape of Antarctic travel, and proud that the idea has enabled clients such as Julian to experience the serenity of the Antarctic wilderness. “It’s rare that a ‘holiday’ changes you, or rewires your perception of the world in some way,” says Julian. “But a trip to this part of the world does that, and I’m not sure you can ask for much more!”
Prices per person (all ex-Cape Town and all-inclusive)
Greatest Day: 9,800 euros, 1 day.
Emperors and South Pole: 62,000 euros, eight days.
Emperors and Mountains: 42,000 euros, eight days.