White Desert: On the Forefront of Luxury Travel and Sustainability in Antarctica

While on a trip to Antarctica with ultra-luxury tour operator White Desert, American astronaut Buzz Aldrin looked out to the snow-covered mountain and told founder Patrick Woodhead that the continent reminded him of the moon. At this moment, the idea for White Desert’s third and latest camp was born.

“I wanted it to look like what they thought the future was going to look like in the 1970s,” says Woodhead, recalling how he used his childhood love of Star Wars and Star Trek to further inspire the design.

Once guests make landfall on Antarctica’s interior via private charter plane, they are welcomed into one of Echo’s six domed Sky Pods that evoke the seminal age of Space Exploration. The pods’ floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows give way to astonishing views of the lunar-like landscape that captivated Aldrin. However, like everything at White Desert’s camps, they are also designed with function and sustainability in mind. The pods’ curvature enables them to withstand high winds and the gigantic windows save precious energy by heating the room with sunlight.

White Desert operates at the intersection of luxury and sustainability, two goals that Woodhead has found can coexist in complete harmony, and often even complement one another. Echo and its sister camps, Wolf’s Fang and Whichaway, are at once beautiful, comfortable and minimally intrusive to the fragile Antarctic ecosystem.

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. 

A Visionary and Trailblazer Gets His Start

Before making his first trip to Antarctica, Woodhead summited unclimbed mountains in Tibet and kayaked down uncharted rivers in the Amazon. He’s an intrepid spirit, so it’s no surprise that his first trip to the seventh continent was record-setting. He and his expedition team were the first to complete the 1,850 kilometer, 75-day trek across the entire continent from east to west.

Woodhead knew his team would need an innovative strategy to accomplish this colossal and dangerous journey. Instead of carrying their gear across the icy terrain, he decided that they should attach it all to kites and let the high winds help them. This had never been attempted before in a polar environment, but proved integral to completing the journey.

He had another revolutionary thought while sitting in his tent during a brutal storm.

“Why is it that polar explorers and the odd scientists are the only ones who get to experience the interior?” he wondered.

Then, and now, the main way to reach Antarctica is by ship, which only allows travelers to explore the coast. However, venturing into the interior is an unrivaled opportunity to be surrounded by white snow as far as the eye can see and connect with nature in relative solitude.

“This year, 120,000 people went on cruise ships, but for me the deep field, the interior is where it’s at,” says Woodhead. “To see [Antarctica] with a small group of people gives you that sense of discovery and serendipity. It’s magical to see a penguin when you’re standing by yourself, but when you’re surrounded by 100 other people, it kind of loses its appeal a little bit.”

Woodhead knew that there must be a way to allow travelers to immerse themselves in the awe-inspiring remoteness and isolation that the interior offers without enduring a grueling trek.

“Here we are, sitting in a tent, having spent almost 80 days starving to death, dreaming of luxurious food and a beautiful bed! Why couldn’t we create a camp where normal people could come experience the interior, but do it in a luxurious way?”

This is what White Desert has been pioneering for the last 18 years. In fact, many argue that White Desert’s itinerary is more luxurious than a cruise ship, since it flies guests over the infamous Drake Passage that cruisers-goers must endure.

A White Desert journey begins in Cape Town, South Africa, where travelers board a private charter plane that soars over icebergs to Wolf Fang’s Runway, the only exclusively private jet runway in Antarctica. Once the plane touches down, travelers are transported to one of White Desert’s three camps secluded in Antarctica’s interior: Echo, Wolf’s Fang or Whichaway. Guests are immersed into the pristine white landscape that used to only be accessible to extreme explorers and researchers with the most luxurious accommodations, while resting assured that they are leaving a minimal footprint.

Related: Just Back From Antarctica with White Desert

Operating in Antarctica

Many assume that Antarctica is the “Wild West” since it does not have a single governing body. However, Woodhead insists that this is not the case.

All operations on the continent are governed by the Antarctic Treaty, a document signed by 56 countries, including the United States. Enacted in 1961, the treaty asserts that no party can claim territorial sovereignty over any part of the continent and that the land can be used for peaceful purposes only. In 1991, the Antarctic Environmental Protocol was created as a complimentary legal document to the treaty that set forth stringent parameters around human activity. Shortly after, tour operators and national governments pooled together their resources to create the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, which serves as the overarching regulatory body for tourism on the continent.

Individual countries are responsible for incorporating the Antarctic Treaty and Environmental Protocol into their domestic law. White Desert is overseen by the British Foreign Office, which Woodhead applauds for holding him and fellow tour operators to rigorous standards that he is committed to following and even surpassing.

“I think the first moment when we went into the interior of Antarctica, we realized that we’re treading in a very fragile wilderness. So from the very beginning everything had to be done in a sensitive way. That goes across our entire logistical supply chain, which is vast and I often joke White Desert is sort of infantry mlitalia…. We have an icebreaker ship, we have traverses that go 6,000 kilometers pulling fuel around Antarctica, we have five different aircrafts,” says Woodhead.

Woodhead and his team look at the entire supply chain and assess how everything—from people to food and waste—is moved in and out of the continent to ensure minimal environmental impact. Every camp was designed to be dismantled. The structures were masterfully built to withstand the harsh Antarctic winds without the support of concrete. All waste is vacuum-sealed and taken out of Antarctica to be composted. Food and beverages are removed from their original packaging, so no single use plastics are brought onto the continent and weight on planes is minimized. Due to all the logistics involved, it costs $36.80 just to transport a single can of coke to a White Desert Camp!

The tremendous effort that it takes to make these experiences in the interior possible do not go unnoticed by guests. After her recent stay at Echo, Indagare COO Eliza Harris remarked, “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.”

However, Woodhead is very aware of the challenges that lie ahead and keen to innovate.

“We’ve been doing it for 18 years. We’ve got much more efficient. We’ve got much smarter in the way we operate. But still, we get thrown this curveball every now and then. And wow, we learn again, scratch our heads, and then go and redesign stuff. It’s kind of fun.”

Right now, White Desert is pioneering the use of renewable energy in Antarctica. All the camps are heated with solar energy and the company is in the process of transitioning to entirely electric vehicles. Eventually, Woodhead hopes to have an entire fleet of vehicles that can be charged with solar power.

Woodhead is also not blind to White Desert’s largest environmental hurdle: aviation emissions. Going deep into Antarctica’s interior is one of the defining characteristics of a White Desert experience, and that is only possible for the average traveler by plane. However, planes produce relatively large amounts of carbon emissions.

“I don’t want to tinker around with little things and avoid the elephants in the room. I want to affect the main thing, which is the fuel we use,” says Woodhead. “White Desert is at the forefront of pioneering a safer, more modern, more efficient aircraft.”

White Desert is the first company to explore the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in Antarctica. Made from waste oils and fats, SAF has been found to have an 80 percent smaller carbon footprint compared to traditional jet fuel. SAF combustion also releases significantly less soot, which is crucial for the Antarctic ecosystem because the black color of the soot absorbs heat, hastening snowmelt.

White Desert is testing the use of SAF during the 2022-2023 season, and Woodhead predicts that the company will transition to this fuel for all their flights within the next three years. White Desert is simultaneously investing in modern, fuel-efficient aircrafts. Combined, Woodhead is optimistic that this will make their emissions fall dramatically.

As White Desert transitions to SAF, the tour operator has committed to carbon neutrality by investing in carbon off-setting projects. Woodhead is particularly excited about nascent blue carbon projects, which focus on marine and coastal ecosystems. White Desert is currently focused on supporting carbon-offset programs growing seagrass, which captures carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests. It only covers 0.2 percent of the seafloor right now but absorbs 10 percent of the oceans carbon every year, making it an extremely effective tool to combat climate change.

Related: Indagare’s Guide to Antarctica

Traveling to Untouched Places: The Ethics and Lessons

Antarctica feels otherworldly and encourages travelers to engage with their surroundings in a whole new way.

There is no cellphone service, daylight hours evade our common notion of time, and activities are wholly dictated by the weather. Travelers are challenged to abandon their routines and simply be in the moment. 

“Antarctica can be kind and benevolent and nice to you on sunny and windless days, and you think ‘Oh what’s the big deal down here.’ And the next day you get a hurricane that comes through and you realize just how small and insignificant and exposed you are,” reflects Woodhead. “There’s a very humbling element to this. It drives away egos and gives you your place in the world.”

Once one surrenders to nature, the continent offers travelers the opportunity to make serendipitous discoveries that cultivate a deep appreciation for nature. Even Woodhead, who has been traveling to Antarctica for over two decades, is constantly stunned.

“I’ve been there hundreds of times and it still is a thrilling, extraordinary place to visit. I’m still discovering stuff. We found ice caves the other day that I’ve never been into before that were just mind-blowing and beautiful,” Woodhead recalls with awe.

The idea that they’ve been on our doorstep, that they were literally 150 meters away from the camp and we had never seen them before…. what else is out there?” he wonders.

Woodhead strongly believes that travelers with the privilege of visiting the remote continent have a responsibility to share their experiences with others and advocate on its behalf. To him, this is how White Desert—and tourism, more broadly—can make an impact.

“When people go and immerse themselves in [Antarctica], it’s tangible. They really understand how fragile our planet is, and that is a message they then bring back,” affirms Woodhead. 

He encourages people to post about their experiences on Instagram and share them with their professional networks so that they can inspire change across all sectors of society and industry. When people share and apply the lessons they learn through travel to their daily lives, tourism becomes a catalyst for positive change on a grand scale. 

“If tourism is done responsibly and it’s done with a light footprint, I think it’s an enormous power for good,” says Woodhead.

Related: Adventures in Antarctica

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. 

– @natsp on March 23, 2023




“When people go and immerse themselves in [Antarctica], it's tangible. They really understand how fragile our planet is and that is a message they then bring back." 
~ Patrick Woodhead, White Desert founder

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