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The Most Creative Answer to "How to get to Antarctica?"
When intrepid travelers ask how to get to Antarctica, SmartFlyer travel advisors come to the table armed with the answers.
While there are a handful of vetted operators traveling to Antarctica, it remains the most elusive continent to set foot on. But getting there is just part of the journey when we set up clients with our partners at White Desert. The company was founded not only on its mission to connect travelers to this difficult-to-reach part of the world but also to create a positive impact on Antarctica’s future. Carbon Neutral since 2007, White Desert was the first Antarctic operator to trial Sustainable Aviation Fuel on the seventh continent.
Your SmartFlyer travel advisor can dive into availability and the different camps – Whichaway, Echo, and Wolf’s Fang – but we’re here to start with the story behind the brand. To capture the full picture, we sat down with Patrick Woodhead, Co-Founder and CEO, to hear about his vision, and how White Desert has evolved since 2004.
SmartFlyer: Patrick, you fell in love with Antarctica on your first visit in the early 2000s. What inspired your initial visit and what were your first impressions?
Patrick Woodhead: When I was a teenager, I had the great fortune of listening to a talk given by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a man dubbed “the world’s greatest explorer.” The impact of hearing his story undoubtedly led to me pursuing my career in polar exploration. I’ve taken part in several expeditions in Antarctica since my first visit in 2002, the first as a member of the youngest and fastest team to ever reach the South Pole.
In 2004, the idea for White Desert occurred on a separate expedition while we were on a 2000-mile traverse across Antarctica. It was hard, it was cold, and we were stuck in a tent. But during that time, we came up with this wonderful dream of flying in via private jet, staying in luxury accommodations, and incredible food. We dreamt up this whole experience while we were in this uncomfortable setup; we just thought, “Wouldn’t it be extraordinary for other people to see a place seen by fewer than 800 tourists a year?” To put that in context, more people try to climb Everest each year than get to the interior of Antarctica.
SF: How long did it take after that first trip to ideate what became White Desert? Was sustainability always a part of your core mission?
As Sir David Attenborough says, “No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
PW: The first – admittedly more rustic – iteration of White Desert was founded in 2005, roughly a year after the idea came to be. My lifelong journey into Antarctica began with the same tenets I hold all these years later: I was adamant that sustainability and luxury would remain at the heart of the White Desert operation. As Sir David Attenborough says, “No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”Two decades later, I’m proud to say this philosophy still stands true. At White Desert, we are constantly looking to the future of sustainability and pioneering new technologies. When we first started building the camps, we did huge environmental impact assessments and designed a camp with no foundation. So when we leave, there’ll be literally no trace.
From the very beginning, we designed our entire supply chain to eliminate plastics and that has not changed nearly twenty years later. We backload smaller items of rubbish on every flight. When it comes to bigger items, all of this refuse is traversed back to the icebreaker vessel and shipped back to Cape Town. We then have an operator in South Africa that recycles all items that can be such as plastics and metal – while the human waste is composted.White Desert has been Carbon Neutral since 2007. We offset all our flights, activities, and projects to ensure that we achieve net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We are also investing in blue carbon initiatives which focus on seagrass restoration projects. Our team ensures that exploration into these exceptional wildernesses can be done mindfully, always in harmony with the environment, and without losing our signature sense of pioneering luxury.
SF: We’ve been told that space exploration inspired the White Desert concept. Tell us more about how you see the two worlds converging.
PW: Space exploration has revealed such mysterious landscapes across the Universe. This quest for the unknown – and once found, the enjoyment of watching it – inspired the design of the ’Sky Pods’ at Echo, our most recent eco-camp. The design of the ‘Sky Pods’ at Echo was based on my childhood fascination with space travel and a dream to explore the farthest reaches of the galaxy onboard the Millennium Falcon. White Desert holds a fantastic relationship with several astronauts who have visited Antarctica. I was lucky enough to host Buzz Aldrin on his trip to Antarctica, an unforgettable moment in my life. One very famous astronaut, Colonel Terry Virts, former ISS commander, commented that the mountains in Antarctica were the most beautiful that he had seen across Earth. Antarctica is also the closest place on Earth to the surface of Mars and the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
SF: We’re often asked how to get to Antarctica. What does the journey look like for White Desert clients?
PW: All of our trips depart from Cape Town, South Africa to Wolf’s Fang Runway – our blue ice runway in Antarctica. The flight is just five hours and passes across the Polar Circle, soaring over thousands of icebergs and passing into 24 hours of continuous sunshine.
SF: We love that you’ve created “The Greatest Day” for those who are limited on time. Tell us about this epic experience.
PW: I wanted to create “The Greatest Day” journey as a chance for our guests to experience the real interior of Antarctica in a single day – something few people on Earth have the chance to do. The Greatest Day adventure includes three to four hours on ice which allows guests to experience a taste of Antarctica before returning to Cape Town. It is a singular bucket list adventure that highlights just how small we are as humans in contrast to the grand scale of this remote and pristine continent.
SF: You have three camps: Whichaway, Echo, and Wolf’s Fang. How are they different from one another?
PW: White Desert’s uniquely located camps are designed to be easily dismantled and removed, leaving no trace on the pristine environment. A true oasis of luxury and adventure lies nestled deep within the glacial landscape of Antarctica. Our flagship camp, Whichaway, got its name because when I was looking for a place to build the camp, I got lost and wasn’t sure which-a-way to go! Set on a series of freshwater lakes, Whichaway camp is situated on a rare rocky outcrop at the edge of an ancient glacier. Sophisticated and luxurious, Whichaway camp is encircled by an enormous cliff made of iridescent blue ice. The six-bedroom pods are elegant and warm, while the communal spaces provide the perfect base for meals, cocktail hours, and relaxation between activities – including a Canadian cedar sauna.
Inspired by astronauts and used by explorers, Echo Base is utterly unique. Entering the camp feels like stepping off planet Earth and entering a galaxy far, far away…spires of rock pierce the glacial landscape, towering kilometers straight into the air; surrounded by some of the planet’s most spectacular scenery, Echo’s distinctive ‘Sky Pods’ look more suited to a colony on Mars. Each of the six bedrooms is equipped with expansive floor-to-ceiling windows, connecting you to the lunar landscape outside. The ‘Cosmos’ – our central hub comprising lounge, library, and dining and shower rooms – offers guests a chance to savor sophisticated yet unpretentious meals, connect with the earthly moonscape views in all directions, or lose oneself within the infinite space of an Anthony James art installation.
Wolf’s Fang is our expedition and transit camp. Wolf’s Fang caters to our more adventurous guests and is the ideal base for them to explore, with six state-of-the-art sleeping tents around a welcoming central lounge and dining area. Wolf’s Fang blends luxury with a light environmental touch and its style draws on the golden age of polar explorers.
SF: What does a typical day look like for a White Desert guest?
Their day comprises of anything from abseiling off a nearby nunatak, ice-climbing, or a gentle hike to view the mesmerizing ice tunnels and ice waves at the edge of the continent.
PW: On a trip with White Desert, our guests will awaken in the comfort of their heated pods at either Whichaway or Echo Base. A hearty breakfast of freshly baked bread, brewed coffee, and a variety of hot breakfast items awaits them in the communal dining area. After breakfast, our high mountain guides will chat through the day’s activities with our guests – weather-dependent of course – as we are in the world’s most mercurial environment. Their day comprises of anything from abseiling off a nearby nunatak, ice-climbing, or a gentle hike to view the mesmerizing ice tunnels and ice waves at the edge of the continent. Our signature highlights also include a visit to the Emperor Penguin colony at Atka Bay – a spectacle of more than 28, 000 breeding pairs and their chicks.
After such an exhilarating day spent outdoors, guests can enjoy a session with our in-camp physiotherapist or yoga instructor. A favorite feature of our camp has to be the Canadian Cedar Polar sauna – perhaps the ultimate relaxation and luxury in this part of the world. As the light dims somewhat (remember the sun shines 24/7 here!) our guests can enjoy ‘Cocktail Hour’ and sample some of our signature drinks like the Katabatic or Snow Queen. Dinner is a showcase of culinary skills worthy of a five-star Michelin restaurant. Our chefs source the finest produce from South Africa, served with award-winning Cape Vineyard’s varietals.
SF: What is the biggest misconception about travel to Antarctica that you aim to dispel?
PW: I think many people have the misconception that travel to this region cannot be done in true comfort or sustainably. The beauty of White Desert trips is that they are designed for anyone with a desire to explore this mythical continent. With a maximum of just twelve guests on any trip, we can cater to those guests wanting a more leisurely experience, simply enjoying the landscape and views. For those wanting to achieve something more adventurous, our high mountain guides can channel their inner polar explorer whilst abseiling off a nunatak, or exploring an ice cave beneath the glacier.
We had Bear Grylls on the same trip as a Saudi princess who had never seen snow before. One is trying to climb and jump off everything, the other is terrified to walk outdoors. Our clients range from former Apollo astronauts (like Buzz Aldrin) to family groups wishing to share a bucket list holiday together. Normally you can only come via a cruise ship and just touch the peninsula and the icebergs. What we wanted to show people is what explorers and a few scientists got to see, which is the deep interior of Antarctica, which is staggeringly beautiful, seldom seen, and incredibly peaceful.
SF: What do you aim for your guests to return home having felt and learned during their White Desert experience?
PW: Our hope is that the White Desert journey will forever reframe travelers’ view of their place on this planet. Hopefully, they become Antarctic Ambassadors and maybe they’ll return home to make small, which over time can have big ripple effects all the way down to Antarctica.