Wednesday newsletters always feature a hotel or flight review.
Last February, I enjoyed a sublime holiday that I will remember as my most epic journey ever: a trip to Cape Town (South Africa) and Antarctica (the 7th Continent). You can read my trip reports here:
- Review: KLM Boeing 787 Business Class from Amsterdam to Cape Town
- Review: One&Only Cape Town, South Africa
- Review: The Silo Hotel Cape Town, South Africa
- Review: First Class flight from Cape Town to Antarctica in a private Airbus A340 jet (today)
- Review: Echo Camp by White Desert, Antarctica
- Review: Trip to the South Pole & Emperor penguins
- Review: Private Airbus A340 First Class flight from Antarctica to Cape Town
- Review: KLM Boeing 777 Business Class from Cape Town to Amsterdam
Today: First Class flight from Cape Town to Antarctica in a private Airbus A340 jet
Last February, I flew in a private Airbus A340 jet from Cape Town International Airport to a blue-ice runway in Antarctica, an extraordinary journey which took around 5 hours and 30 minutes. The flight was operated by the airline Hi Fly and chartered by White Desert, the first and only operator taking guests into the rarely seen interior of Antarctica. White Desert has been pioneering luxury travel in the White Continent since 2005 and uses either a Gulfstream G550 or an Airbus A340 to fly its guests, explorers, scientists and freight to its camps and several research centers in Antarctica. When its Airbus A340 touched down in Antarctica for the very first time last year, it made headlines around the world. Guest can book the flight as a day trip (with three hours on the ground in Antarctica) or opt to stay at one of White Desert’s luxury camps in Antarctica (with activities including hiking, abseiling, fat biking, and trips to the South Pole & Emperor penguins).
Have you ever traveled to Antarctica? If so, what was your experience? Leave a comment.
- Flight route: Cape Town to Wolf’s Fang Runway
- Airline: Hi Fly
- Aircraft type: Airbus A340-300
- Aircraft registration number: 9H-TQZ
- Departure time: 7 pm
- Arrival: 10:30 pm
- Miles: 2300 miles (4630 km)
- Flight time: 5 hours and 30 minutes
- Seat: 1K
- Class: First Class
In this review (more information & photos below my YouTube video):
- About White Desert
- Safety briefing
- Airport lounge
- Airbus A340
- First Class cabin & seat
- Landing in Antarctica
1. ABOUT WHITE DESERT
Pioneers of luxury travel in Antarctica, White Desert was established by record-breaking polar explorer duo Patrick and Robyn Woodhead in 2005. Born out of a desire to allow people other than scientists and polar explorers to see the wonders of the interior of Antarctica, the company has been established for 17 years and employs 120 people from 17 different nationalities. The company is vertically integrated and the only operator to fly guests by private jet directly from Cape Town to Antarctica, landing on their own unique blue-ice runway. Founded with environmentally conscious principles at its core, White Desert’s mission is to create a positive impact on Antarctica’s future (a bit similar to what the safari industry has meant for environmental conservation in Africa).
Here’s some more information about White Desert’s founders Patrick and Robyn:
- Patrick Woodhead grew up in England and as a teenager, heard the stories about the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’ and names such as Shackleton and Scott. Determined to follow in their footsteps, he joined the youngest and fastest team to ever reach the South Pole in 2002 and then went on to lead the first ever East to West traverse of Antarctica, covering 1850km (1149 miles) in 75 days. Outside the polar world, he has been on many successful expeditions, summiting unclimbed mountains in Tibet and Kyrgyzstan, kayaking down uncharted rivers in the Amazon and being part of the team to set the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. In 2015, he rejoined some of his old teammates to break the record for the fastest traverse of Greenland. A passionate advocate for the environment, Patrick is a member of the Royal Geographical Society in London as well as being a speaker for The Prince’s Trust charity.
- Robyn Woodhead grew up in Cape Town in a family of intrepid travelers. From the beginning, adventure travel was in her DNA. After graduating from the University of Cape Town, she moved to London where she set herself up in the world of travel marketing and PR, going on to found a UK-based luxury travel marketing and advertising agency. After an expedition to Antarctica in 2005, Robyn turned her attention to the other end of the planet and skied the last degree to the North Pole in 2006, thereby becoming the first South African to reach both Poles. Robyn has been involved in responsible Antarctic travel since 2006 and is on a mission to create true “Antarctic Ambassadors” – former high-profile White Desert clients who then go on to make a difference through their own networks, helping to secure the future and protection of Antarctica.
Sustainability is at the very heart of White Desert’s mission and the company does everything it can to manage its impacts on the Antarctic environment. White Desert has been carbon neutral since 2007 but the company’s largest environmental challenge is of course 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 but the company is tackling that problem in different ways:
- Over the next two years, White Desert aims to replace all Jet A-1 fuel it uses for its flights to, from and within Antarctica by Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). SAF is produced from waste oils and fats through an innovative process that significantly reduces lifecycle carbon emissions, creating an 80 percent smaller carbon footprint compared to traditional Jet A-1 fuel. SAF combustion also produces fewer particulates and sulphur oxides (SOx), thereby greatly reducing the quantity of soot particles emitted. This is particularly significant in Antarctica as the black color of the soot absorbs the heat of the sun, exacerbating snow melt.
- Until renewable aircraft fuel exists on the commercial market, White Desert offsets all its flights, activities and projects to ensure that it achieves net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Working with the UK-based Carbon Neutral Company, White Desert sponsors a well-established tree planting project in the Amazon rainforest. The group is also exploring sustainability opportunities closer to its home in South Africa, namely seagrass meadow regeneration projects.
It’s also important to keep in mind that White Desert does not only fly tourists to Antarctica, but also explorers, scientists and tons of freight for research centers.
3. SAFETY BRIEFING
A mandatory safety briefing is organized by White Desert on the day before the scheduled flight into Antarctica. During my trip, the meeting was held at Ellerman House, one of Cape Town’s most exclusive hotels (which I reviewed here).
The briefing began with a short presentation by Patrick Woodhead, CEO of White Desert, and his wife Robyn, who are both world record-breaking polar explorers. The presentation included details about the plane, the journey and the camp. Robyn also explained the Antarctic Treaty System, which regulates international relations with respect to Antarctica, Earth’s only continent without a native human population. 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. We were also shown a short video from the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) explaining our responsibilities whilst on the continent.
During the briefing it was announced that our flight had been pulled forward by a day due to weather circumstances. White Desert has a team of meteorologists that determine the best days to fly as there needs to be visual conditions to land in Antarctica and low winds to maintain safety. It’s the main reason why guests are required to arrive in Cape Town two days prior to their scheduled flight, as the exact timing of the flight is entirely dependent on the prevailing weather in Antarctica.
At the end of the briefing, the White Desert staff went through our luggage to ensure that we had all the clothing required for your time in camp and during your activities. They explained what we needed to pack into our hand luggage so that we were prepared for our landing in Antarctica. A mini-shop by a third-party supplier was present at the meeting, where additional items could be purchased in case there was a need of that.
An luxurious amenity kit was also provided to all guests during the safety briefing. It comprised a water bottle, cap, ear plugs, and a writing kit.
4. AIRPORT LOUNGE
Two hours prior to the confirmed flight, White Desert picked me up from my hotel in Cape Town and dropped me at the airport’s Execujet Private Lounge, a facility which is used for private flights. Here, a lounge was available to guests, and it was also the perfect time to meet other travelers who had signed up for this White Desert trip. Once the plane was ready for boarding, we were driven by car to the international terminal, where we had to go through border control and the security check-point, before being taken by bus to the aircraft stand.
5. AIRBUS A340
The Airbus A340 that flew us from Cape Town to Antarctica – a journey of 5 hours and 30 minutes – was privately chartered by White Desert and operated by Hi Fly. Hi Fly is a fully certified airline with two air operator certificates, one issued by Portugal and the other by Malta. The company has no scheduled destinations and specializes in worldwide aircraft leases for airlines, tour operators, governments, companies (such as White Desert) and individuals.
Its four engines redundancy and very long range make the Airbus A340 the ideal airplane for this type of remote mission. The A340 airframe that flew us to Antarctica was stationed for the entire month of January in Cape Town, shuttling guests, researchers and freight between South Africa and Antarctica on behalf of White Desert. The plane, with registration number 9H-TQZ, was built in 1997 and used to fly for Singapore Airlines (1997-2004) and later Emirates (2004-2013), before joining the Hi Fly fleet.
6. FIRST CLASS CABIN & SEAT
The ex-Emirates A340 jet offered 267 seats in First, Business, and Economy Class, but passengers were seated in the premium cabins: the 42 Business Class seats were assigned to White Desert staff and guests who had booked a daytrip to Antarctica, while White Desert’s camp guests were seated in the First Class cabin, which had 12 seats in a 2-2-2 layout.
All cabins had a vintage look as the plane still featured the old Emirates cabin design. In First Class, this meant lots of gold and wooden trims, fitting Emirates’ signature style. The First Class seat, while old, was still very comfortable but nonetheless dated compared to today’s First Class seats. A monitor – displaying the flight route – was hidden in the seat’s center armrest while the seat’s other armrest held the tray table, the seat controls and a handheld remote. The angle lie-flat seat allowed a recline to a near 180 degrees.
During this flight, a 3-course dinner was served shortly after takeoff. The menu read as follows:
- Starter: Carpaccio of beetroot & tomato with whipped cheese mousse and tapenade
- Main course: Charred beef fillet topped with wild mushrooms, served with potato dauphinoise and sautéed green beans
- Dessert: Greek lemon cake with a passion
Portions were a bit on the small side but the meal was decent nonetheless (although the food paled in comparison to the fine cuisine offered at White Desert’s flagship camp Echo in Antarctica).
A tablet with a small selection of movies and documentaries was provided, as well as noise cancelling headphones. The inflight magazine was replaced by a flyer preparing us for our landing in Antarctica. The Airbus A340 was not equipped with WiFi.
9. LANDING IN ANTARCTICA
One hour prior to landing, the captain turned the cabin temperature down and passengers were required to change into their Antarctic kit. The last part of the flight was extremely scenic as the giant aircraft slowly descended over the magical Antarctic landscape on its way to Wolf’s Fang runway, a blue ice runway which is privately operated by White Desert. Arriving at Antarctica truly felt like an emotional experience that I had never felt before during all my years of traveling around the globe.
There are no airports on the White Continent, but there are 50 landing strips and runways, Wolf’s Fang being one of them. The runway is named after Wolf’s Fang Mountain (Ulvetanna in Norwegian), one of the most iconic mountains in Antarctica, which dominates the runway’s skyline. Incredibly, it takes 22 hours to groom and prepare the runway prior to a jet landing and White Desert has a dedicated team on site which constantly monitors the runway. Wolf’s Fang is designated a C Level “airport, which means that only highly specialized crew can fly there due to challenging conditions.
Upon landing all passengers were welcomed by White Desert’s ground team in Antarctica (which counts more than 80 staff members from more than 17 nationalities). A 4×4 Arctic truck took us from the runway to Echo camp, a 15 min drive among staggering beautiful iced landscapes. To be continued …
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How do I book this?
@Harshil Shah – Can all be done through White Desert, but be ready for some sticker shock, I believe day trips are $15,000 PP and overnight packages are like $100,000 PP.
So much for the environment