Icebergs ahoy! Direct flights from Cape Town to Antarctica signal new era in adventure tourism

For just R800,000 you can now beat the heat in the perfect chill-out destination

14 November 2021 - 00:00
Prospective clients should be warned: trips to the ice don’t come cheap.
Prospective clients should be warned: trips to the ice don’t come cheap.
Image: Andrew Mandemaker

Boutique tourism company White Desert has begun direct flights direct from Cape Town to Antarctica, where well-insulated tourists are getting up close with icebergs and emperor penguins. 

Antarctic tourism and exploration is booming, due partly to the way the Covid pandemic has led to pent-up demand for “bucket list” trips. Cape Town has become a convenient springboard for flights to one of the world’s last pristine wilderness areas. Flight time is five-six hours.

White Desert said this week it had enlisted an Airbus A340 — which in its normal configuration can carry upwards of 300 passengers — to add to a Gulfstream jet ferrying tourists, scientists and support crew to various locations on the Antarctic mainland, including the company’s two tourist bases. 

“Our clients fly from all over the world and set off from Cape Town,” said White Desert spokesperson Mindy Roberts. “We use a mixture of the Airbus and the Gulfstream to take our guests in and the group sizes are very small — only 12 guests per camp.”

Prospective clients should be warned: trips to the ice don’t come cheap. “The lead-in rate for the trip is $52,000pp [about R795,000] and that includes everything from the time you leave Cape Town until you return,” Roberts said.

Emperor penguins on Snow Hill Island, Antarctica, gaze down at their chick. Tourism to the continent is booming as the pandemic eases.
Emperor penguins on Snow Hill Island, Antarctica, gaze down at their chick. Tourism to the continent is booming as the pandemic eases.
Image: Getty Images

Included in the price is a 2½-hour flight in a ski-plane to visit an emperor penguin colony numbering 28,000 birds.

Those on a budget might want to consider the company’s “greatest day” option — 24 hours of continuous summer daylight, a champagne picnic lunch and the chance to climb a nunatak, which is a mountain peak sticking out of an ice field. All for just $14,500pp, flights included. 

The company accommodates guests in igloo-style heated polar pods or state-of-the-art tents at two sites, Wolf’s Fang and Whichaway. Visitor activities include ice-climbing, walking through neon-blue natural ice tunnels and abseiling. All garbage, including human waste, is flown or shipped off the continent to minimise the impact on the environment. Ice is melted for water, and food is buried in “ice larders” by catering staff and later retrieved.

The addition of the Airbus means the company now has space to ferry more scientific teams and their cargo to research bases, including that of the South African National Antarctic Expedition.

A South African former White Desert staff member, Melissa van der Walt, said working on the ice presented unique challenges: “Food arrives in ice boxes and you bury them. Then you put a little map of where you buried all your food. I could never find my cheese.”

It does something to you. I think it has something to do with the simplicity of life down there. The nothingness
Melissa van der Walt, former Antarctic tourism staffer

Van der Walt, a veteran traveller, said Antarctica was unlike anything she had experienced across the globe. “There is something magical about it. All those who have had the privilege of going there say the same thing — it does something to you. I think it has something to do with the simplicity of life down there. The nothingness.”

White Desert says the long-range, wide-bodied Airbus improves efficiencies and helps to reduce  the company’s environmental footprint. 

“Although a bigger plane, the Airbus is a safe, modern aircraft that is significantly more fuel-efficient than other aircraft that are traditionally used to fly into Antarctica,” a company media release said.

“The use of the Airbus also contributes to an overall fuel reduction across White Desert’s operation, as it delivers fuel directly to the runway in Antarctica. Normally, fuel is taken by icebreaker ship from SA to the Antarctic. It is then driven 700km to reach its location. This whole supply chain has now been streamlined.” 


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