Imagine taking a private jet to Antarctica, enjoying a day on the ice hobnobbing with thousands of Emperor penguins, hiking to the lowest point on earth, sliding on specially designed Skidoos through the ice, and finally dining on five-star meals and sleeping in luxurious, heated pods. Sounds like fantasy? Not anymore.
With just 12 guests per trip, it gives you the thrill of venturing into a cold, windy, and dry land mass, roughly the combined size of India and China, and play explorer where fewer than 800 people have set foot in a year. Almost entirely covered by a thick layer of 1.9 km of ice sheet, Antarctica is home to 80% of the world’s fresh water, though it hasn’t rained there in two million years!
“We’re the only company in the world that offers travel by private jet to luxury camps in the interior of Antarctica,” says Patrick Woodhead, Founder and CEO of UK-based adventure travel firm White Desert. A three-time world record holder in polar exploration, Patrick’s aha! moment came during a 1,850-km expedition on foot across Antarctica with three teammates. “For four days, a storm raged outside...We were getting low on supplies. We wondered why only scientists and the occasional Polar explorer ever get to see the real Antarctica.”
The result was White Desert.
One needs to fly to Cape Town, South Africa, and take a Gulfstream 550 to Antarctica. The aircraft doesn’t land on natural ice, but on the ancient glacier ice of the privately owned blue ice runway. The Wolf’s Fang Runway is specially prepared for each flight. Due to the shifting glacier ice, this 3-km long runway is constantly recreated by Patrick’s team each season.
The trips are designed around guests’ interests and fitness levels. There’s the eight-day Emperors and South Pole itinerary, where the Emperor Penguin colony at Atka Bay is the icing on the cake — after a scenic 2.5-hour flight through the mountains, it’s the sight and sounds of 28,000 Emperor Penguins and their newly born chicks that tugs at the heartstrings. “The chicks are unafraid and often waddle up to the guests, but we make sure to keep at least five meters away from them, so their habitat is not disturbed,” says Patrick.
The seven-hour flight to the geographic South Pole, the lowest point on Earth, in a DC3 Basler (an all-weather aircraft) with a quick refuelling stop at the FD83 (Fuel Depot) camp on the Polar Plateau, is the bucket list travel destination for many. One can also opt for the four-day Ice and Mountains trip and explore the Drygalski Mountain ranges, with monoliths rising from the ice.
In the single Greatest Day Excursion, you can climb a nunatak (the summit or the ridge of a mountain that protrudes from an ice field or glacier), or drive around in a 4 x 4 and ride ‘fat’ bikes on a special track near the runway, followed by a lavish champagne brunch. And for those whom price is no bar, the Owner’s Club trip may just be the thing, where one can book the entire camp. There’s also plenty of outdoor activities to choose from—from climbing and trekking to photo safaris, ice formations, abseiling or camping overnight on a glacier.
The company’s newest camp, Wolf’s Fang, is set in the mountain range of Queen Maud Land, while its flagship camp, Whichaway Oasis, is located along the freshwater lakes of the ice-free Schirmacher Oasis, home to the Indian Antarctic Programme’s research base station, Maitri.
“Ever since I first visited these mountains I wanted to create a camp that caters to our more adventurous guests, and Wolf’s Fang is the ideal base for them, with six state-of-the-art sleeping tents around a central lounge and dining area,” says Patrick.
A 20-minute flight from Wolf’s Fang is the flagship camp, Whichaway Oasis. It sits at the base of a 200-feet icefall and has six heated six-metre long ‘polar pods’ with cutting-edge exteriors and old-world interiors.
For the luxury traveller, there is the gentle hike or Skidoo ride across the glacier. One can also take part in a yoga class or simply relax in the lounge area, and enjoy a five-star meal in one of the camp’s dining areas. The menu is extensive—from minted spinach and pea soup with crispy black forest lardons and fresh yogurt, to herb-crusted hot smoked salmon served with homemade lemon mayo, juniper crème fraiche, caperberries, cool green chili and avocado, butter chicken with pilau rice and naan. The menus are paired with award-winning wines from the Cape Vineyards, as well as top international whiskeys, and cognacs.
But, is the adventurous trip only for the fitness freak or the professional explorer? “We don’t have any specific fitness requirements to take part in the Explorers Academy trip, but guests must be mobile and physically flexible,” says Patrick.
Sustainability is at the heart of the company’s offerings. The Sustainable Aviation Fuel that powers the aircraft is said to lower carbon emissions by 80%. The camps use solar power and waste is exported for recycling. The company also provides logistics support to visiting scientists by dropping them off to their research stations.
What’s the best time to visit? “The Antarctic season runs from November to February, when the conditions are warmer (the temperature hovers above freezing) and there is 24-hour daylight,” says Patrick. “The Emperor Penguins begin to move out to sea in late January while for weather reasons we only operate our flights to the South Pole during December and January.” Prices start at $14,500 (1 day) to $96,000 (8 days). Guests need to be vaccinated one month prior to landing in South Africa, with a PCR test up to 72 hours before boarding. All staff are vaccinated, with a doctor always available on board.