Flying to the frozen land isn’t easy or cheap, but the experience is mind-blowing. Tracy You talks to luxury travel firm White Desert on how to travel to the southernmost continent with safety and style – and a big dose of fun
As the most remote continent on earth, Antarctica is the crown jewel of adventurous travelling. Since commercial trips to the frozen desert began in 1950s – when Chile and Argentina took more than 500 paying passengers by boat to the South Shetland Islands – the charm of the sweeping ice sheet, gigantic icebergs, and fluffy baby penguins has only grown.
From November to the following March every year, Antarctica is the coolest destination in the Southern Hemisphere. Although the majority of Antarctic visitors arrive by boat, some operators are now offering high-end land tours facilitated by chartered aircraft, such as White Desert. Founded by British explorer Patrick Woodhead, the company organises luxury Antarctic expeditions ranging from two to eight days.
White Desert bills itself as, “The only land-based luxury operator on the continent”. The company works with South African aviation operator, The Antarctic Company (TAC) on air transportation, buying specially allocated seats from TAC on an Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft to fly from Cape Town to Antarctica, then a DC-3 (a Basler turboprop conversion) to take guests further to see Emperor Penguins and to the South Pole.
Woodhead, founder and Managing Director of White Desert, said one of the biggest challenges of flying to Antarctica is the weather. He explained: “The landscape is mostly white, so low cloud is particularly difficult to deal with.”
Experienced weather forecasters and the latest satellite imagery are used to interpret the highly changeable weather conditions in Antarctica. Woodhead says staff at the German Antarctic research centre, Neumayer III, produce much of the forecasting for the area, and he says: “It is a very windy place and this creates sidewind issues for planes as well as whipping up the ground snow and further reducing visibility.”
As an avid explorer himself, Patrick was a member of the youngest team to ever reach the South Pole in 2002 and led the first traverse of Antarctica from east to the west in 75 days. He is also a PPL holder and flies a Cessna 182.
He says: “The Illuyshin is operated by pilots that have flown onto the ice runway at Novo over 100 times. The plane is also purpose-built for rough landings. The DC-3 pilots have hundreds of hours of experience landing on snow and ice as the planes operate in the Canadian High Arctic for half the year and then fly South to Antarctica for the remainder.”
The key to deal with such changeable weather is not to push any situations. Patrick said: “If the forecasters have doubts as to whether it is safe to fly, then the planes are grounded and the clients are delayed. It is always a balancing act of being cautious.”
Other challenges are the scarce resources and infrastructure: White Desert’s airplanes land on Novo Runway, a basic landing strip on Queen Maud Land and part of Russian Antarctic research station Novolazarevskaya.
“There is not much in the way of support that you usually get from flying anywhere else in the world,” Patrick add. “Fuel has to be brought in by ship and dragged more than 50 miles to the actual runway.”
A UNIQUE LANDSCAPE
Despite the difficult flying conditions, once travellers reach Antarctica, what’s ahead of them is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. White Desert offers two types of set itineraries: a two-day safari for those on pressing schedules, and an eight-day in-depth tour to see the Emperor Penguins, the Southpole or Antarctic mountains.
The number of Antarctic visitors in 2013 exceeded 37,000, most of whom come from the United States (42.1%), United Kingdom (10.5%) and Canada (8.4%). However, only a small proportion get to see Emperor Penguins with their own eyes, one of White Desert’s specialities.
The company’s Client and Media Relations Officer Robyn Woodhead said most clients choose to join the eight-day ‘Emperor and Mountains’ or ‘Emperors and South Pole’ trip.
Robyn explained the highlights of these trips, and said: “Our clients spend a few days at our fibreglass pod camp, in which each client gets an en-suite sleeping pod and gourmet food every day.
“They then go on a trip to an 8000-strong Emperor Penguin colony to visit the penguins just as the chicks are hatching, so it’s quite a site seeing one of Earth’s last great natural spectacles.”
For the South Pole trip, travellers will then go on to visit the southernmost point on Earth, and for the mountain trips, they get to experience a taste of the unclimbed Antarctic mountains – exactly what the real explorers and scientists experience while exploring Antarctica.
White Desert also offers bespoke itineraries for groups up to 12 people. Apart from having full control of when to go where, guests also get to experience activities inaccessible to normal travellers, for example a flight along the 60-metre-tall ice barrier or 4×4 trips into the Wohlthat Mountains.
Robyn stresses that White Desert is the only carbon-neutral travel operator in Antarctica, with accommodations and other aspects running on wind and solar power.
“We believe that the greatest wilderness on Earth deserves to be seen by a select few who will grow to love and respect it, leaving only their footsteps when they go home filled with once in a lifetime memories,” she said.
At the moment, private jets owners are not allowed to fly to the Antarctica on their own due to the complex permissions of the Antarctic Treaty parties, IAATO member regulations and the relevant ice runway requirements.
But if you have a private aircraft and wish to hop on the White Desert tour, whiz to Cape Town International Airport, and join the group from there.
White Desert, prices range from €25,000 for a two-day safari to €59,000 for the “Emperors and South Pole”
Cape Town International Airport
IATA code: CPT
Runway dimensions: 3,201*61 meters, 1,701*46 meters
Novo Airbase No IATA or ICAO code
Located on Queen Maud Land roughly 75 km from the Antarctic coast