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Exploring Antarctica's White Desert

A British polar explorer takes glamping to the ends of the Earth with his luxury safari-style camp in the middle of the Antarctic ice sheet. Jet-setter Julian Hayward-Albani tells us all about it.

“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 Julian, a recent guest of White Desert Antarctica. “Here you get to wake up and walk right outside your tent 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.” It’s precisely this kind of exclusive access that has seriously cashed-up travelers paying top dollars for the privilege of following in the footsteps of the greatest polar explorers, minus the hardship and dangers they faced. In fact, Shackleton would be rolling in his icy grave if he could see this five-star crew and their set-up.

White Desert's private jet just landed on the ice runway in Antarctica

White Desert is a luxury safari-style camp in the middle of the Antarctic ice sheet. The brainchild of Patrick Woodhead–an accomplished polar explorer himself, as well as an experienced mountaineer, Indiana Jones-type adventurer, and published author–the camp caters to the uber-elite transporting up to 12 guests across the Southern Ocean to the land of the midnight sun via a luxury private 727 jet from Capetown, South Africa. Destined for what is officially known as an “Unknown International Airport,” the jet lands on a blue ice runway that shifts every season like the polar ice cap beneath it. Arriving in the midst of this desolate beauty, guests are then driven across the ice to Whichaway Camp, a polar version of an African safari camp, perched on top of a 200-foot icefall. Dotted around the white expanse, the campsite includes two large dome tents that house the kitchen, dining and living area, including a library and communications area. There are five additional sleeping tents shared by guests, each heated by their own stove with a separate wash tent, complete with shower. Inside, accommodations are basic but comfortable, with fur throws and rugs to snuggle into when the wind kicks up and rattles the tents, which it frequently does. At such moments, ropes are erected between the tents to prevent guests from getting lost in the whiteouts.

Whichaway Camp, Antarctica

The eco-friendly camp is solar and wind powered and dismantled each season so that it remains carbon neutral. White Desert adheres to a zero impact policy in keeping with the Antarctic Treaty created to protect the unique and delicate environment. 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 whole team of experienced and capable lieutenants, including his wife, who help to coordinate and ensure that each guest is individually taken care of, whether they want an egg-white omelet, another bottle of champagne or a guided trek to see the nearby ice waves frozen like spectacular sculptures. The staff and guides are all record-breaking polar explorers in their own right, yet everyone pulls their weight in a variety of ways.

Climbing the ice waves

“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. Everyday Patrick gets together with the group and offers up a variety of activities for guests to pick and choose from, such as rock climbing, kite skiing, plein-air painting, and trekking. “No experience is necessary,” he explains. “We teach you everything you need and want to know, and you set the pace, whether you are tackling a technical rock and ice climb on nearby Nunatak Mountain or abseiling into an open crevasse.” Previous guests have been known to set new world records with hot air balloon rides and even a polar swim! However, says Patrick, “If you want to just stay at camp, you can kick back with a chilled glass of wine and watch the massive ice cliffs and ice waves from the deck off your tent.” Julian concurs, “Just the silence out there is amazing… we’re not used to hearing…nothing. The sound of the thermafrost, the wind and the ice crystals crunching beneath your feet is like having wind chimes all around you… it’s a beautiful noise.”

Enjoying the view and the silence at Whichaway Camp

Perhaps the most popular excursion of all is a visit to see the famous Emperor penguins at the Eskroem ice shelf. “They are completely fearless and friendly,” says Julian. “To be able to stand so close to these amazing creatures is a truly breathtaking experience.” Trips can also be arranged to visit the local Russian and Indian science and research bases–visitors are hard to come by in these parts, and 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,” says Patrick. There are also replica Scott and Shackleton pyramid tents to sleep in for those who want a truly authentic experience, short of eating seal meat and blubber.

Julian and friend at the Neumeyer Empire Penguin Colony

Fare here is altogether different: gourmet meals prepared by a South African chef and served family-style. Using fresh ingredients imported from Capetown, 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 colleagues tell tall stories and give presentations and lectures about Shackleton and how they roughed it, “Which is ironic as you sit there sipping your champagne,” laughs Julian. “But you can actually learn the skills of a polar explorer if you want to, which is exciting.”

At $45,000 per person, you could buy yourself a brand new car instead, but in this day and age, you have to ask yourself, what would be better for the environment… and for you? For an opportunity to go to the end of the earth and immerse oneself in the depths of the great white wilderness on the trip of a lifetime, it doesn’t sound unreasonable…

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.”

In the words of Ernest Shackleton, “We had suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down yet grasped at glory… but we had reached the naked soul of man.” You won’t have to suffer, starve or grovel on this journey, but you will get as close as you can to feeling like an explorer on a polar expedition with some pretty tall stories of your own to tell for years to come, and that’s priceless.

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Price: US$45,000 / 32,500 euro’s per/person for 10 days, all-inclusive, ex-Capetown. Too rich for your budget? Polar Cruises and Wilderness Travel offer a variety of trips for much less, starting at $5990 for a twin share.

Dates: Itinerary 1, 17-27 November; Itinerary 2, 27 Nov-7 December; Itinerary 3, 7-17 December; Itinerary 4, 17-19 December 2010. Book early, as trips are limited to 12 only and require a lot of planning and preparation.

What to Bring: White Desert has a list of gear you will need to purchase. Expect to pay at least US$2,500 per/person. The wind chill can get down to -25c, but most of the time you will be comfortably wearing your jumper at 5-10c. The polar glare is blinding, so you need strong sunglasses and 100+ sunscreen for protection. Be sure to bring a good camera and plenty of cards… you won’t want to miss this photo op.

Latest posts by Kate Ayrton

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