South Pole: The coolest road trip you’ve never heard of

Nikki Ek­stein gets be­hind the wheel on the trip of a life­time, a two-week drive across Antarc­tica

Irish Examiner - Supplement - - USED CARS -

Look­ing for the next great undis­cov­ered drive? What about driv­ing so far south you ac­tu­ally hit the South Pole?

You can make this dream drive hap­pen on a roughly two- week- long road trip across Antarc­tica — with Ex­plo­rations Com­pany.

Sound in­trepid? That’s just the start. Trav­ellers will have a chance to hike Antarc­tica’s high­est moun­tain, Mt Vin­son (it clocks in at 10,000ft); cross- coun­try ski across the tun­dra; and lo­cate the point on the Earth where all 24 time zones meet and time loses all con­ven­tional mean­ing. And if all the stars align, you can even try to break the world record for the fastest Antarc­tic cross­ing.

It’s all part of two ex­clu­sive trips that ac­com­mo­date no more than six trav­ellers a piece — at a price tag of €150,000 per per­son.

“Th­ese sorts of things just don’t get done, and that’s what makes it so special,” said Ni­cola Shep­herd, owner and di­rec­tor of Ex­plo­rations Com­pany, whose forte is in link­ing trav­ellers with world-class con­ser­va­tion­ists in the world’s wildest cor­ners, such as Botswana and In­dia. Here in Antarc­tica, it’s cli­mate re­searchers who she’s con­nected with — and who orig­i­nated th­ese frozen voy­ages.

Weather is just the first of many chal­lenges. (The tem­per­a­tures can eas­ily hover around mi­nus- 50C.) Since pas­sen­gers need at least 10 days to com­plete the driv­ing cir­cuit to the South Pole and back, it’s un­ap­peal­ing to take a slow ship to get to Antarc­tica it­self.

In­stead, guests fly in on a Rus­sian Ilyushin- 76 jet. It looks “a bit like the grim reaper” on the out­side, joked Shep­herd, but it’s by far the most com­fort­able way to cross the Strait of Mag­el­lan. By the time the air­craft lands on Antarc­tica’s iced- over run­way, a fleet of spe­cialised 6x6 trucks await to be­gin the real jour­ney.

The po­lar- adapted ve­hi­cles — a fleet of 19 retro­fit­ted Toy­ota Hiluxes pow­ered by a spe­cially for­mu­lated, freeze-proof fuel — are the purview of Arc­tic Trucks, a com­pany that has fa­cil­i­tated trips for Top Gear and Bri­tish roy­alty. ( Prince Harry used them on his 2013 South Pole char­ity trip for Walk­ing With the Wounded.)

The route fol­lows the foot­steps of 1950s ex­plorer Sir Vivian Fuchs from the Ronne ice shelf to the Ross ice shelf. Only 23 peo­ple have ever com­pleted the 1,850km-long cross­ing, and more than half of them were on Fuchs’s team.

To make things just a lit­tle eas­ier, Arc­tic Trucks pro­vides you with spe­cialised out­er­wear to keep trav­ellers as ap­pro­pri­ately dressed as pos­si­ble.

The crew in­cludes a chef, who flies in enough in­gre­di­ents to make meat-and-carb­heavy meals that power the day’s ad­ven­tures.

Cham­pagne toasts are lit­er­ally built into the itin­er­ary. And al­though they don’t have run­ning wa­ter, the mo­bile camps are well in­su­lated and have pri­vate bath­rooms with dry flush toi­lets — staffers will even put hot wa­ter bot­tles un­der your pil­lows to keep things nice and toasty.

But this isn’t a lux­ury ho­tel ex­pe­ri­ence; this is the drive of your life. And while it’s ex­pected to take 10 days from start to fin­ish, you can never re­ally know.

“Wind is the most detri­men­tal fac­tor,” said Shep­herd. “Vis­i­bil­ity can be zero on cer­tain days. You can get snowed in. You’d have to stay in camp those days, play cards, and wait for the first clear­ing.

“As much as this is sold as a tourist trip, it’s not a jolly old hol­i­day — it’s an ex­pe­di­tion,” ex­plained Shep­herd, who spoke from her head­quar­ters in Glouces­ter­shire, UK.

For each trav­eller in the con­voy, there are about four staf fers: Medics, re­searchers, and lo­cal ex­perts who are adept at nav­i­gat­ing the all-white land­scape.

Trav­ellers need to pass phys­i­cal fit­ness eval­u­a­tions to make sure they can han­dle the ex­treme con­di­tions.

“Peo­ple lose a lot of weight on th­ese trips, just be­cause your body is work­ing so much harder to keep warm,” ex­plained Shep- herd, adding that none of the ex­cur­sions would re­ally be con­sid­ered very phys­i­cally de­mand­ing in any other cli­mate.

So who’s the tar­get au­di­ence? Fund man­agers and bankers have been the ones to book thus far.

“It’s not nec­es­sar­ily for ex­treme ad­ven­tur­ers who have al­ready climbed Kil­i­man­jaro,” said Shep­herd.

“It’s more for peo­ple who have a fas­ci­na­tion for Antarc­tica but don’t want to go on a great big ship with hun­dreds of peo­ple. Or for those who want to do some­thing dif­fer­ent to stretch them­selves and un­der­stand their own great po­ten­tial.”

Pic­tures: courtesy of The Ex­plo­rations Com­pany

A road trip where ev­ery­one con­stantly wants to pull over — for all the right rea­sons.

The Arc­tic truck fleet in­cludes both 4x4 and 6x6 ve­hi­cles, ideal for this de­mand­ing ter­rain.

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