White Desert’s luxe explorer camp invites you discover the seventh continent in unparalleled style
Antarctica represents the ultimate adventure. As a destination for explorers and scientists, ‘extravagance’ is a word few would associate with its icy expanse, but that’s a perception White Desert has subverted, as founder Patrick Woodhead tells Tracey Porter.
Travellers who have visited Antarctica say it is a transformative experience. Some see shades of blue they never knew existed; others feel they have sampled what it might be like to live on Mars. While there are more than 35,000 passengers cruising the Antarctic Peninsula each year, the interior remains the preserve of just 300 intrepid adventurers. To see its wonders and commune with the research scientists there is one of the world’s greatest privileges.
White Desert invites you to discover the seventh continent in the sumptuous style of a 19th-century safari, complete with freeflowing champagne and indulgent camp accommodation. Nestled in a lunar-like landscape between a frozen lake and towering walls of ice, its six state-of-the-art fibreglass sleeping pods represent the finest luxury to be found in Antarctica. Each one features heating, Saarinen chairs, fur throws, animal-skin pillows and cut-crystal toothbrush holders in the ensuites. A lounge pod with library was added during the 10th-anniversary renovations in 2016, along with a dining room of fur-lined chairs, where guests enjoy three-course gourmet meals.
Each season, between November and February, small groups of no more than 12 guests board a Gulfstream G550 departing White Desert’s Cape Town base. Flying in over the Southern Ocean, the jet lands on a blue-ice runway before guests are transported to the camp.
The duo behind it all Such an ambitious initiative could only have come from the minds of true polar explorers. Co-founders Patrick and Robyn Woodhead first conceived the concept for a camp for discerning travellers in 2003 when they found themselves stuck in a tent while traversing the South Pole. At the height of a four-day storm, the pair began to question why only explorers and scientists
were found in Antarctica’s forgotten interior. Why not ‘normal tourists’ too?
Starting in 2006 from a base of just three staff – Patrick, Robyn and a chef – today White Desert has 56 personnel. Despite the fact that it aims to restrict numbers at just a dozen guests per rotation, the camp has now hosted over 800 guests with past residents including Prince Harry and Bear Grylls.
Woodhead says guests who have attended the camp come in all shapes and sizes with the youngest being “a very adventurous” 12-year-old and the oldest being astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who completed the safari at 87.
While they are not expected to have polar exploration credentials, guests are required to have at least a basic level of fitness to make the most of the excursions, the likes of which include a climb up nearby Nunatak mountain to see the view over the ice waves and a sauna at the nearby science station.
“Due to the fact that our group size is very small, we are able to split up each day into different activities, with
“There are visits to science bases, 4WD excursions and picnics in scenic locations, or exploring the ice tunnels near camp.”
different effort levels. For those after lots of arduous treks and adrenaline, we can cater for this, but the majority of our clients are looking for something much less strenuous and we adapt the activities accordingly. There are visits to science bases, 4WD excursions and picnics in scenic locations, or exploring the ice tunnels near camp.”
Choose your adventure
There are currently three adventures guests can choose from, with prices starting from AU$9000 per person. An entry-level adventure, ‘Greatest Day’, invites guests to experience the Antarctic interior in 24 hours, starting at Cape Town and culminating in an adventurer’s picnic at the base of nearby Nunatak before heading back to the heat of Africa.
At the other end of the scale is an eight-day trip costing $104,200 per person that combines emperor penguins with a flight to the lowest point on Earth: the Geographic South Pole. Only those who make the journey are eligible to purchase one of the bespoke Bremont watches that feature a map of Antarctica, 90-degree dial, South Pole destination timer and an engraving of the date they arrived at the pole.
The third tour, referred to as the ‘Ice and Mountains’ safari, costs $44,000 per head and offers a four-day adventure taking in the dramatic Wolf’s Fang (Ulvetanna) peak.
Due to extreme weather conditions, itineraries often require a degree of flexibility. Woodhead describes the South Pole as a “complex flight that is weather dependent”.
“Getting to the emperor penguins is less of a challenge, as they are closer, but still we want clients to have enough days to experience these magnificent animals, while also having enough time to enjoy our camp and all its incredible activities,” he says.
Woodhead concedes his small but experienced team is well accustomed to displaying pliancy when it comes to the unique requests of camp patrons.
“Our clientele is varied, but one thing that unifies them is that they are often extremely interesting people. There is an obvious price tag attached to our experience, but more than just being high-net-worth individuals, we seem to attract curious and adventurous people looking for something entirely unique,” Woodhead says.
01 Penguins galore 02 Ice waves © Marko Prezelj 03 The dining room 04 The camp’s unique location © Marko Prezelj 05 Arrive by jet. All images © White Desert