Together with her husband, Patrick, Robyn Woodhead offers the ultimate luxury experience for those lucky enough to explore the South Pole in unprecedented style. From touching down in a private jet to witnessing jaw-dropping landscape; embarking on high-octane adventures to watching the local wildlife in its awe-inspiring natural habitat. Accommodation is in luxury pods, heated via solar panels powered by the 24-hour sunlight. All of this, obtained with a strict zero-impact policy. The White Desert camp is carbon neutral, and solar powered wherever possible, making this once-in-a-lifetime experience truly unique.
Based in Antarctica, somewhere associated with adventure and exploration more than opulence, White Desert is now more than ten years old. How did the idea for a ‘full-service luxury travel experience’ come about?
In 2005, Patrick and I embarked on a crazy expedition together to traverse the entire Antarctic continent, which won a second World Record. While sitting in a tent with our fellow explorers in an Antarctic storm, we wondered why Antarctica was only the preserve of the odd explorer and a few scientists. We came to the realisation that taking a few people to this place could be a way for us to both share our love of Antarctica and highlight the importance of preserving it for future generations.
We felt that Antarctica was juxtaposed to luxury, a land for explorers, not high-end tourism. Luxury travel to the two of us is about capturing memorable experiences and Antarctica is the most unique experience a human can have on this planet. Something we wanted to share with people.
While you set up White Desert with your husband Patrick, it’s fair to say that like the wine industry, the world of exploration has typically been male-dominated, is this something that is changing?
There has been a perception that Antarctica is a land of extremes, and therefore only suited to hardened male explorers. The first woman to set foot in Antarctica was Caroline Mikkelsen, a Norwegian, in 1935. A mere 24 years after the first Norwegian walked to the South Pole. Since then, there have been many female polar explorers and scientists. One notable example is Maria Klenova who created the first Antarctic Atlas.
Many of our senior White Desert staff are women. One of our stars - Agnieszka Fryckowska is Wolfs Fangs indomitable Runway Manager and polar medal recipient. I feel you need a good balance of the sexes to operate a thriving business anywhere these days, as they both bring unique aptitudes to any environment.
What difficulties have you faced in setting up the camp and bringing luxury to life in the middle of such an inhabitable place?
The two of us set up White Desert without any outside investment. We re-mortgaged our home and put everything we had into the business, both financially and emotionally. We both feel that the greater the calculated risks you take in your life, the greater the possible rewards.
One of the biggest challenges we faced when setting up the business, was a lack of insight into the flight-logistic complexities of operating in Antarctica. Watertight planning was essential, as it is at least a five-hour flight from the nearest shop! This tends to focus the mind on all the details coming together on time. We don't have the luxury of making mistakes or forgetting anything. Antarctica has a habit of trashing your best laid plans, so you need to be agile and incredibly resourceful.
What makes the Clos19 x White Desert safari a once-in-a-lifetime experience?
Just like White Desert, Clos19 caters to those who already have access to some of the best experiences in the world. They are looking to collect the ultimate life experiences, whether that be a limited-edition rare champagne or experiencing an otherworldly place like Antarctica, where only a handful of people have been.
Our start point is Cape Town, where we meet clients and fly them five hours due South, by private jet, into our blue ice runway in Antarctica. From there, they spend a day with emperor penguins at Atka Bay, then have a chance to explore brilliant blue ice waves and tunnels. Followed by a visit to a nearby science base where you can learn about incredible climate change research projects, before ending with a luxurious sauna. The experience also includes a gastronomic journey– sumptuous Clos19 signature feasts and tastings of the iconic champagnes, wines and spirits.
Having played host to many of the world’s rich and famous, how do you host with the wow-factor in Antarctic conditions?
I think one of our client’s favourite part of the trips, aside from the digital detox, is the ability to do as little or much as they like. This is true luxury. Antarctica itself is the wow-factor. If we take our guests for a trek to the nearby ice caves, they go for a long walk, but when it’s time to stop for lunch, we choose a backdrop with breath-taking views and complete wilderness. We set up a beautiful table set on the ice with chairs draped in sheepskins for warmth and comfort and a delicious meal is served in the middle of the frozen tundra.
We have worked very hard over the years to continually evolve and improve our offering. When we visit the emperor penguin colony, we are the only tourists allowed exclusive access to a 6000-strong colony with newly hatched chicks. We have a team who are based there throughout the four-month season just to prepare the ski way for a safe landing and to ensure the strict IAATO guidelines for visits are adhered to. It’s the penguins continent, we are just visitors.
What does luxury mean to you?
The new luxury to us, is experiences. Experiences that have all the expected elements (like glorious food, impeccable service and every detail thought about), but true luxury is experiences that can transform the way you view the world. The natural world is so extraordinary and it’s not often that we stop to look around. We give guests that chance to stop and just be in the most remote place on earth.
The ‘safari’ comes complete with private jet service. What initiatives are in place to ensure White Desert’s carbon-neutral status?
Antarctica holds the key to some of the most complex and pressing global environmental issues. We decided to keep our camp at Whichaway very small, as we only sleep twelve people at a time, making us super low impact. We pay attention to the impact we have throughout our entire supply chain. It has always been at the core of what we do. Since we first opened, our camp has used solar power to heat and generate water and warm sleeping pods. While we are constantly testing new cutting-edge technologies with our unique 24-hour sunlit environment. We are the only 100% carbon neutral operator in Antarctica!
We try to impart our passion for conserving Antarctica and minimising our impact onto every single guest who stays with us. We inform our guests about how they can get involved in Citizen Science projects or pair them up with relevant polar scientific funding. We also encourage them to develop a deep passion for Antarctica. All of our clients become Antarctic Ambassadors once they leave, and many go on to support its future conservation. We don’t believe in mass tourism, but we do believe in saving what you see, and our guests are no exception to that trend.
What are the implications of getting food and drink to the South Pole and maintaining its quality?
It is not easy to get anything to Antarctica, least of all food. As a result of that, all of our food is pre- prepared in Cape Town by our team of specialist chefs. It has all packaging removed and is then safely frozen for the long journey South. We have a tented camp at the South Pole, where our guides then reheat and garnish the delicious food and prepare hot drinks for guests to enjoy at the bottom of the world.
Yourself and Patrick work hard to ensure the business continues to evolve year after year. What is in the pipeline for White Desert in 2019
We have just launched our brand new mountainside tented camp, which is set by the mountains at Wolfs Fang Runway, where we will be hosting some of the world’s top explorers with guests.
We are also launching an ‘Ultimate Antarctica’ trip, where guests can enjoy even more luxury with White Desert. This includes helicopter lunches in Cape Town, classic cars for the day before flying South to enjoy penguins, the South Pole and a few unique luxury items to take home with them.
We are also starting to work with the Antarctic Scientific Community, to provide transport in support of their important scientific work, as we see a future where there is more collaboration between scientists and responsible tourism in Antarctica.
There is always a lot going on, but the challenge is to stay focussed on doing what you do a little bit better every time you do it. Always evolving, always growing, yet always being humbled by a place and an environment like Antarctica.
You’re now a member of the Executive Committee of IAATO (The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators). What does that mean for you and White Desert now and in the future?
Giving back to the Antarctic Community to support our mission of sustainable and responsible tourism is very important to me. No one owns Antarctica, which sets it apart from every other landmass on the planet. The Antarctic Treaty signatories govern its protection, as well as all the systems, regulations and tourism guidelines created by IAATO. Every tourism operator is permitted by a treaty nation and IAATO Operators help shape policies in Antarctica for its long-term protection. Some examples of this are the development of MPA’s (Marine Protected Areas) around Antarctica and the important Tourism Growth Management work we do. Such as Climate Change Education and Outreach and more recently the creation of an emperor penguin Working Group to help manage their protection as one of the cutest (in my opinion) species on the planet.