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Just Back From Antarctica with White Desert

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Indagare’s Eliza Harris reports on her trip deep into the Antarctic interior, where she hiked across ice sheets, had close encounters with Emperor penguins and experienced a spirit-cleansing journey away from civilization. 

We walked across a river of glass through mountains cloaked in crushed diamonds. We stepped beneath the ocean and wound through a sparkling tunnel of frozen waves. In a season outside of time, when the sun never sets, we confronted the infinite.

Antarctica traffics in the mythic, with a raw landscape that catches the imagination with its majesty and an isolation and remoteness that is profound. While there are many cruises around the peninsula, there is only one way to actually stay on land in luxury and experience the interior of the continent and that is through White Desert, an expedition camp started in 2005 by polar explorers Patrick and Robyn Woodhead. In early December, I spent a week there, and it was the most immersive, intense, magical and memorable travel experience of my life.

The destination asks a lot of you. Going in, I knew I would be stripped of the trappings of civilization (complete digital detox, almost no human settlements, no plants, no scent, very little life). I didn’t realize how many mental constructs would go, too. In Antarctica, you have to let go of everything. There’s sunlight 24 hours a day in December, so there’s no natural rhythm to the day. Time has no meaning. You don’t know if it’s morning or night or what day of the week it is or why any of it would matter. Location has no meaning; it’s just endless ice and snow in every direction. You are cut off from the world and must rely on your guides and trust them completely. Weather is an enormous presence. It is the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent on earth and a typical day might have 40-50 mph katabatic winds arise out of nowhere. This means for any activity or flight, there is no predictability; you simply have to be nimble and grab windows of opportunity the moment they arise. Whatever you have and are back home has no meaning here. You are irrelevant, a speck of dust. Whether or not you are ready for it, Antarctica forces upon you a deep humility and surpassing vulnerability. But what it gives back is pure adventure, fun and joy.

The Journey to Antarctica & White Desert’s Camps

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Wolf's Fang Runway. Photo by Eliza Harris, courtesy Indagare
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Photo by Eliza Harris, courtesy Indagare
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Up above a White Desert Camp in Antarctica. Photo by Eliza Harris, courtesy Indagare
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Photo by Eliza Harris, courtesy Indagare
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Photo by Eliza Harris, courtesy Indagare

The excitement begins when you board one of the company’s private jets—either the Airbus A340 or the Gulfstream G550—in Cape Town and fly five hours to land on the Wolf’s Fang ice runway at 71 degrees south, the only exclusively private runway in Antarctica. White Desert is a marvel of vision and logistics, like something out of a James Bond film. You can’t believe someone actually made this happen; it seems so far-fetched. There are 50 White Desert staffers living in Antarctica just taking care of the runway and flight operations. The company is carbon neutral. Before each international flight, the runway is groomed with a PistinBully machine being driven at 2 mph for 22 hours. This creates friction and grooves that look like corduroy. At the beginning of the season, team members drive the fuel to Dixie’s Camp, the refueling station on the way to the South Pole. It takes a full month to complete the drive across the ice, with someone in the front seat whose job it is to hold a big machine that warns of upcoming crevasses.

White Desert is made up of three separate camps. Whichaway, the flagship, is set on the shores of a freshwater lake on the Schirmacher Oasis. Echo is brand-new (our group were the first guests to stay) and is futuristic, with tricked-out pods with picture windows overlooking the view. Wolf’s Fang is more rustic and casual. Each camp has six individual guest accommodation pods that are domed to handle the wind, as well as additional pods for dining and lounging. They are all cozy and heated and serve as a base from which to explore. Each camp can accommodate up to 12 guests. The vibe is similar to a tented African safari camp: full wilderness immersion with just enough infrastructure for comfort.

Antarctic Activities

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Eliza (left) and fellow White Desert Camp travelers. Photo courtesy Eliza Harris
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Photos by Eliza Harris, courtesy Indagare
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Photo by Eliza Harris, courtesy Indagare
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Photo by Eliza Harris, courtesy Indagare

Your days are spent doing outdoor excursions. The two most coveted are the journey to the South Pole, which I didn’t do, and the visit to the Emperor penguin colony, which I did. On our penguin adventure, we took a 2.5-hour flight down to the coast on a Basler BT-67, a plane specially adapted to fly in Antarctica. We were able to spend three hours with the penguins. When we arrived, there were thousands of penguins hanging out on the snow. (The colony can count up to 28,000.) The babies, still covered in grey fuzz, were striding around flapping their wings and waiting for their parents, who were off gathering food in the ocean and dodging vicious leopard seals. The chicks were very curious about us and would waddle over to investigate. We needed to stay five meters away from them, and you would sometimes be backing up from one and find another approaching you from behind. In the distance, you could see a huge iceberg and the adult penguins skiing back towards us on their bellies single file, propelling themselves with their flippers like surfers. When they got close, they would stand up, waddle along calling out for their chicks, have a joyful reunion and then feed their babies, beak to beak. Their coats shone iridescent gold and white. The sound they make is musical, with all of them chirping and calling. That colony is only ever seen by scientists and White Desert guests, an extremely rare treat.

At Whichaway another day, we hiked down a rocky mountain to the shore of the Southern Ocean, where an ice shelf had pushed against the land, forming an ice tunnel that we were able to walk through. We donned crampons and followed our guide’s advice for optimal grip: “Walk with your feet flat on the ground and stomp like you’re proud and fierce.” The sides of the ice tunnel were grooved in waves and the whole thing glowed a royal blue with gradations of teal and robin’s-egg blue rippling along. When we came out the other side, we walked along a winding frozen river that was perfectly smooth, surrounded by hills that were completely encased in sparkling, textured, crystalline ice like spun sugar. It was a dreamscape. Each moment was surreal and surpassingly beautiful and like nothing I had ever seen.

Another day we learned to ice climb with crampons and axes. One of the best parts of White Desert is the incredibly accomplished staff. Guide Marko Prezelj is an extremely distinguished Slovenian mountaineer with key first ascents in the Himalayas. Head guide Manu Guy is a base jumper. Vila Gissurardóttir, the manager at Whichaway, was the first Icelander to ski solo to the South Pole, a journey that took her two months. To spend time with them and hear their stories is a privilege and there are no better people to trust in such a savage environment. The ice climbing set up allowed flexibility for different fitness levels. One of the guides had climbed to the top of an ice wall and anchored ropes so that we were always safe and roped in. You could do as much or as little as you wanted. One member of our group with a fear of heights promised she would do only three feet, but it was so fun, she went back for a second round and got quite a ways up the ice wall. Others in the group did the full wall multiple times, whooping as they rappelled back down. Whatever your fitness level and personal risk profile, White Desert meets you where you are.

Every day, we would wake up, don our expedition gear and wait for the guides to tell us what we were doing: perhaps hiking a nunatak, glacier walking, abseiling (rappelling), rock climbing or cross-country skiing. There were multiple guides, so we could tailor our days to just the right amount of exertion. Because we were so well-equipped, we were never cold, and the experience of wind was more being buffeted by it and leaning into it than being chilled by it. (As the Norwegians say, there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.) Spending our full days outdoors in the rugged climate was bracing and invigorating and there was always a celebratory vibe when we returned to the warmth of camp, had a cocktail and a sauna, and laughed and shared stories from our day over a three-course dinner. The food was excellent, with ample amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables that had been brought in with us upon our arrival.

Precious, Holy and Spirit-Cleansing

Being away from civilization for a week was spirit-cleansing. I will remember marveling at all the different blues in the ice floe seracs on the lake. I will remember the total silence but for the hollow clatter of ice crystals like a steady rain showering down with each whack of our ice picks and the tinkle of melting ice slipping down the mountain side. I will remember the white silhouettes of snow petrels soaring above the glacier.

Antarctica demands everything you have physically, mentally and spiritually. In return, you have access to a holy place that few have gone or will ever go to, a beauty and grandeur that are unsurpassed, a deeper understanding of yourself and your place in the world, and moment after moment, sight after sight that will be with you forever. Adventure is inadequate to describe it. It’s also incredibly fun, and we laughed pretty much all day. The myriad of activities reconnects you with your inner child. I thought the trip would be about the landscape, but it was just as much about the bonding and camaraderie with my fellow travelers and the extraordinary staff.

There are certain precious days in your life where you are confronted with the full mystery and majesty of the world, leaving you overcome and emotionally fulfilled. White Desert gave us those moments every day. We felt everything so intensely: intimidation and relief, joy and awe, our own fragility and insignificance—and, above all, a profound sense of just being so awake and so alive. What a gift.

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer to start planning a future trip to Antarctica. Our team of polar travel experts can match you with the right itinerary and activities that are right for you. 

– Eliza Harris on December 21, 2022

Quotable

White Desert is a marvel of vision and logistics, like something out of a James Bond film. You can’t believe someone actually made this happen...

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