The most remote and untouched continent in the world Antarctica does not have a permanent, native human population—besides the scientists who set up base for months at a time on rotations. It was once a far-fetched concept to even be able to travel to this challenging destination, due to lack of resources and setup on the scarce land. But it's been centuries since explorers first discovered the unchartered territory and travel has undoubtedly come a long way. Luxury British tour operator White Desert Antarctica curates tailor-made itineraries for one-of-a-kind expeditions to the Geographic South Pole, with a strong commitment to sustainability. Discerning guests can expect a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, from staying in the beautiful, luxury campsite that takes 'glamping' to a whole new level, to arriving by private jet and embarking on glacier hikes by afternoon. Adventures run from seeing the magnificent Emperor Penguins in their natural habitats to zip-lining across ice lakes. We speak to the founder and director of White Desert Antarctica, Patrick Woodhead, who shares his first journey to the region in 2002 in the midst of a 1,850km traverse of the Antarctic continent, on how to thoroughly experience Antarctica with White Desert.
Could you tell us about White Desert and its adventures available in Antarctica?
Established by record-breaking polar explorers, White Desert Antarctica has been pioneering luxury in the interior of Antarctica since 2005, offering guests bespoke, environmentally conscious experiences that include visiting the emperor penguins and the Geographic South Pole. Travelling by private jet to a blue ice runway in Queen Maud Land, guests have a wide choice of activities, including climbing, trekking, yoga, photographic safaris and exploring ice tunnels, all from the comfort and hospitality of White Desert’s luxury eco-camps at Whichaway Oasis and Wolf’s Fang (newly launched for the 2021/22 season).
When was the first time you visited Antarctica and how was your experience?
White Desert co-founder and CEO, Patrick Woodhead, grew up in England and as a teenager, heard the stories about the heroic age of exploration and names such as Shackleton and Scott. Determined to follow in their footsteps, he joined the youngest and fastest team to ever reach the South Pole in 2002 and then went on to lead the first ever East to West traverse of Antarctica, covering 1850km (1149 miles) in 75 days. Robyn Woodhead, Patrick’s wife and fellow White Desert co-founder completed an expedition to Antarctica in 2005. Robyn then turned her attention to the other end of the planet and skied the last degree to the North Pole in 2006, thereby becoming the first South African to reach both Poles. On finding their inspiration for White Desert, Patrick says, "My three teammates and I were in the midst of a 1,850km traverse of the Antarctic continent and all of us were feeling a little defeated. For four days the storm had raged outside. We were getting low on supplies and – even worse – starting to tell the same stories. We wondered why only scientists and the odd polar explorer ever got to see the real Antarctica. By that, we meant the interior of the continent.” And so the two polar explorers, with several world records under their belts, founded White Desert Antarctica in 2005. Patrick and Robyn had identified the opportunity to introduce their guests to the wonders of the forbidding and rarely seen the Antarctic interior, but, despite the challenges, they wanted to provide a level of hospitality and comfort like nothing else on the continent.
Not too long ago, it was very difficult to visit Antarctica as a traveller – and it still is quite difficult. How does White Desert aim to bridge this gap and curate an unforgettable experience in this remote land?
White Desert has over 16 years of operational experience in Antarctica and operates its own fleet of aircraft and overland transport that enables them to craft luxurious experiences in Antarctica that are simply unmatched. A maximum of 12 guests travel in uncompromising comfort across the mighty Southern Ocean in a private jet. During the five-hour flight, the African night turns to day as we soar over thousands of icebergs and pass into Antarctica’s 24 hours of continuous sunshine. After landing on the ancient blue ice of Wolf’s Fang Runway, guests are whisked away to Whichaway Oasis, our flagship luxury retreat with breath-taking views across the freshwater lakes of the Schirmacher Oasis, or to Wolf’s Fang Explorer, our newly-launched adventure camp in the imposing mountains of Queen Maud Land.
Could you tell us about a typical day-to-day experience for a traveller on White Desert?
After awaking in their luxuriously heated accommodation, guests will enjoy a hearty breakfast that includes freshly baked bread and delicious brewed coffee to energise them for the day’s activities that lie ahead. Adrenalin seekers can traverse the spectacular mountains of the Henriksen Nunatak and master ice-climbing under the guidance of our expert UIAGM mountain guides. Those who enjoy more laidback pursuits can opt to fatbike around our Explorer Loop, relax with a restorative massage treatment or enjoy a spectacular champagne picnic on ice complete with 10,000-year-old ice cocktails. At White Desert guests can be as adventurous or as relaxed as they wish.
What are some exciting features to look forward to on an expedition?
Notable highlights include a visit to the incredible penguin colony at Atka Bay, which was the site of the first episode of Sir David Attenborough's ground-breaking documentary Seven Worlds, One Planet. Here guests have the opportunity to view and photograph 28,000 Emperor Penguins and their newborn chicks. Climbing enthusiasts can take part in our annual Virgin Summit trip and stand on a peak where no human has ever stood before. There is also the opportunity to fly to the lowest point on earth — the Geographic South Pole of course!
How does White Desert incorporate sustainability?
White Desert believes that responsible tourism is a genuine force for good. We support Sir David Attenborough’s stance on the transformative power of wilderness travel, when he said, "No one will protect what they don't care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced". The vast majority of our tourists return from Antarctica as ambassadors for the Continent’s conservation. Furthermore, by using our aircraft to deliver scientists to their stations, we assist in vital, ongoing climate change research White Desert does everything it can to manage its impacts on the environment, including:
Providing logistics support for vital climate change research programmes.
Only using highly fuel-efficient aircraft.
Becoming the first Antarctic operator to use Sustainable Aviation Fuel.
Designing our eco-camps as temporary, removable structures.
Exporting all waste from Antarctica for recycling /responsible disposal.
Using photovoltaic panels and solar air heaters.
All images courtesy of White Desert Antarctica.