From Africa to Antarctica

Visiting the frozen continent is the trip of a lifetime and adventures can begin and end in Cape Town


The view is breathtaking. Almost as far as the eye can see is white. A few dark shapes poke out from what otherwise looks like a glistening carpet. These, as guide Philippe Barthez explains, are nunataks, the tops of mountains rising above an ice field or glacier.

I blink to be sure the strange scene is real. Just a few hours earlier we were in warm, sunny Cape Town. But now, we’re deep in the little-explored interior of Antarctica, so far inland there is almost no life except for the occasional Adélie penguins wandering by.

Thousands of people visit the world’s coldest and driest continent every year, but “about 99%” take a cruise, according to White Desert co-founder Patrick Woodhead. His company flies people down – a trip which takes about 5.5 hours from Cape Town – in an Airbus A340 or business jet between mid-November and early February (summer in Antarctica) to Queen Maud Land. It’s possible to stay a day, a week or longer at one of the three camps they operate in the huge, eternally snow-covered area.

Learning the landscape

Antarctica is not as cold as expected. It’s still a few degrees below zero, but the bright sun reflecting off the dazzling white landscape – which really does seem like vanilla icing on a cake – makes visitors glad of their skiing goggles. At this time of summer, the sun is also always up.

It’s so warm, I’m actually sweating slightly while following guide Philippe across the snow to a nunatak aptly called ‘Cheesegrater’ because its exposed rock is pockmarked with holes. These holes, he says, are formed by small pieces of sand and pebbles being blown in circles by the wind against the rock, drilling into it over thousands upon thousands of years.

We descend into the ‘scoop’ around it, basically a huge dip in the snow created by the sun shining on the rock and melting the snow and ice at the base. The melting has moulded the ice into incredible abstract shapes even Picasso couldn’t come up with.

“Step with purpose!” Philippe calls out, showing how to walk across slippery ice that glows from within the same blue colour as sapphires. Even with metal, spikey crampons attached to the bottom of our boots – boots bought before the trip, along with polar gear like thermal pants and tops, though some equipment like a thick jacket and warm Baffin boots has been provided – it’s a challenge to remain upright without falling over.

Small, moss-like lichen grows on some of the rocks. It’s amazing that anything can grow here, and we take care not to step on it so as not to disturb the delicate ecosystem. It’s also incredible to see so many brown polar skua seabirds flying overhead. They soar, swoop and dive, making us envious about how spectacular the scenery must look from their high vantage point.

Incredible experiences

Hiking is one of many activities to choose from. There’s also cross-country skiing, riding orange ‘fat’ bikes with studded tyres and much more.

Among the most thrilling moments comes during the first full day of what’s supposed to be a week-long visit. We trek past skyscraper-sized ice walls to climb another nunatak called ‘Snowbird’. The air is so crisp and dry it feels like I can bite into it like an apple.

We reach a ledge and I’m attached to a thick rope connected to the rock and held by Fred, another guide whose preternatural strength reminds me of a rugby player or gorilla. I’m then told to jump off the ledge. Abseiling down is perfectly safe, Fred says, adding that he’ll be holding the rope the whole time. But the ground is dozens of metres below. What if the rope breaks or something else happens? “Not possible,” he says.

Heart pounding, I approach the edge. The wind seems to have picked up as I look down. I feel dizzy too, and nauseous. I say a prayer – and step off the ledge.

I scream almost the entire way down. But Fred’s right – nothing happens as I’m gently lowered to the ground. It’s so much fun, so scrambling up the nunatak to do it again is the next move.

Safely ensconced

Above: Shark Fin nunatak.

The camp is called ‘Echo’. Because this isn’t a cruise, there’s no sleeping anywhere but on the ice. But the solar-powered camp is composed of six igloo-like pods with heating, electricity and soft beds, and they even have their own toilets. ‘Roughing it’ this is not, not when you can look out the huge, curved windows while in your pyjamas and not feel cold in the slightest.

The pods are next to a central complex. Inside are showers, which have blissfully hot water. There’s a dining pod, kitchen, bar/lounge area and even a library filled with curios like fossilised shells.

The camp is also proudly South African. Jenna and Sarah, the Capetonian chefs, whip up meals for guests and staff – everything from succulent roast beef and aubergine wraps to fried calamari. They even let me make cheese rolls one morning for everyone – an important part of cultural identity for me as a Kiwi, far from home.

Richard, who makes sure everything stays running by doing things like looking after the solar panels that power the camp and shovelling snow to be melted for water, is from Zimbabwe. Camp manager Caitlin, Samantha the front of house, Brittney and James the camp assistants and Luke the Antarctic operations manager are also South African.

As the days go on, chatting with these people is as rewarding as any of the activities, which is saying something, given that one day I find myself exploring a natural snow cave that seems to go on for several kilometres.

It also becomes easier to see why many guests return from trips as advocates for looking after Antarctica’s fragile ecosystem. As Woodhead says at one point, “There’s adventure out there, and it’s important to foster it.”

After a week here, I am more than ready to do that. I also want to stay.
Text and photography | Ben Mack
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