Antarctica is the world's seventh continent, and for many, it represents the final frontier of adventure travel. It's a place so remote that few will ever experience it; and so beautiful that those who do remain under its spell forever. Largely untouched by humans, it is the ultimate wilderness; a fantasy land of blue-tinged bergs that belongs to no one but the penguins colonizing its ice floes and the whales sounding in the deep.
There are several ways to reach Antarctica, the most popular of which is to cross the Drake Passage from Ushuaia in southern Argentina. Other possibilities include flying in from Punta Arenas in Chile; or booking a cruise from New Zealand or Australia. In the past, research ships have embarked on Antarctic expeditions from both Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, but as yet, there are no regular Antarctic cruises scheduled for departure from South Africa. However, for those with a considerable budget, South Africa does offer one option for tourist travel to the end of the Earth.
Luxury tour operator White Desert prides itself on being the only company in the world to fly into the Antarctic interior via private jet. Set up by a group of explorers who traversed the continent on foot in 2004, the company offers four different Antarctic itineraries. All of them depart from Cape Town and touch down approximately five hours later inside the Antarctic Circle. They are based at White Desert's own luxury Whichaway Camp, which is entirely carbon-neutral. It is a masterpiece of old-world luxury inspired by early Victorian explorers and includes seven spacious sleeping pods, a lounge and dining room, and a gourmet kitchen staffed by an award-winning chef.
White Desert itineraries include:
- Emperors & South Pole: This eight-day itinerary takes you from Cape Town to White Desert's Whichaway Camp. From here, you'll embark on daily activities ranging from ice tunnel treks to scientific research base visits. You can learn survival skills like abseiling and ice climbing, or you can simply relax and absorb the breathtaking beauty of your surroundings. Highlights include a two-hour flight to the emperor penguin colony at Atka Bay (where penguins are so unused to human contact that they allow visitors to come within a few feet); and a flight to the lowest place on Earth, the South Pole.
- Early Emperors: This five-day itinerary is a more affordable alternative especially designed with wildlife photographers in mind. After touching down at Whichaway Camp, you'll be able to take part in daily activities including 4x4 excursions, rope walking, and a challenging climb across a blue ice glacier to the summit of the rocky ridge that towers above the camp. The main event is the two-hour flight to a 6,000-strong emperor penguin colony at the time when the chicks are taking their first steps off their parents' feet. You'll be able to photograph the sleek adults and fluffy chicks at incredibly close quarters.
- Explorers' Academy: Join this four-day itinerary to discover the Antarctic in the company of renowned polar explorer and endurance athlete, Ben Saunders. Saunders led the longest human-powered polar journey in history, and knows everything there is to know about surviving (and thriving) in the world's most inhospitable environments. Under his tutelage, you'll learn all about polar nutrition, how to pack an expedition sled, how to drive a 6x6 ice vehicle, how to safely traverse a glacier, and more. On one of your nights in Antarctica, you'll get to put your new skills to the test during a polar campout.
- The Greatest Day: Geared towards those with limited time and an infinite budget, The Greatest Day itinerary lets you experience the wonder and remoteness of the Antarctic interior in just one day. After the five-hour flight from Cape Town, you can choose to board a smaller propeller plane for a scenic flight, ride across the ice on a fat bike, or join a 4x4 excursion. At the end of the day, you'll hike to the top of the ridge above the camp for unrivaled views of the surrounding landscape and a Champagne picnic. Your drink will be chilled with blocks of 1,000-year-old glacial ice.
Happen to own your own private jet? Enquire directly with White Desert about their fully customisable Owner's Club itinerary which allows you to safely touch down at Wolf's Fang runway under your own steam. You can then spend up to eight days exploring the continent from Whichaway Camp before flying back to Cape Town.
Although no Antarctic cruises currently depart from South Africa, it is possible to combine your polar adventure with a visit to beautiful Cape Town. Several cruise companies offer trans-oceanic itineraries that depart from Ushuaia and travel to Cape Town via Antarctica. One of these companies is Silversea, whose Ushuaia - Cape Town itinerary lasts for 31 days and visits the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Shetland Islands, the Falkland Islands, and South Georgia. You'll also visit the remote islands of Tristan da Cunha, Gough Island (home to one of the largest seabird colonies in the world), and Nightingale Island.
Traveling by sea offers the opportunity to experience the Antarctic in the same way that the explorers of old would have done. It also creates better opportunities for whale-watching and pelagic birding; however, those that suffer from seasickness should be aware that the Southern Ocean has a reputation for being very rough. It is undeniably the most affordable option.
Seeing Penguins in South Africa
Although prices seem modest in comparison to those advertised by White Desert, for many of us, cruises like Silversea's are still well over budget. Don't despair, however; penguins are one of the major highlights of an Antarctica trip, and you can see them without leaving South Africa. The Western Cape is home to several African penguin colonies, the most famous of which is the one at Boulders Beach. Here, you can walk within a few feet of nesting penguins and even swim with them in the sea.