23 April 2019
Adventure is in my genes. I was born while my parents were on safari in what is now Zambia, in 1942. I grew up running wild on our farm in Kenya and when I would ask my father – a colonel in the King’s African Rifles – where we were going on holiday, he would reply, “somewhere we can’t drink the water”.
In 1962, my parents and I founded a safari company, Abercrombie & Kent, and since then I’ve packed a lot in. I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro, hiked to Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan and circled the earth along the Equator. I was the first to journey from the source of the Upper Amazon to where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean and I’ve been to Iraq with some special forces. I have been to the edge of space in an English Electric Lightning, travelling at mach 2.2 at 21km up, and have also been to base camp Everest. I was officially the last person in the 20th century to stand on the North Pole, after a quick swim.
Like all dedicated travellers – and anyone who has caught the adventure bug – I still have more places I want to explore. I travel approximately 270 days each year; I’m obsessed with the Been app, which reveals that I have visited most of the world’s countries. In the next few years I want it to be 100 per cent. The desire to see the whole world is the driving factor behind Inspiring Expeditions by Geoffrey Kent, a series of trips which have been personally designed by me.
My recent expedition to the South Pole is my latest and perhaps most challenging adventure. Along with seven intrepid guests, I spent the latter part of December 2018 in this vast wilderness. For the past three years, I have been occupied with an obsession to go on a journey across Antarctica. Like my hero of heroes, Sir Ernest Shackleton, I dreamed of getting to the South Pole. Unlike Shackleton, who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic, I wanted to do it in comfort and five-star style.
When most people speak of their trips to Antarctica, they will have travelled by cruise ship from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula, a 1,300km chain of mountains and volcanoes that juts north towards South America. My expedition was to a dramatically different destination. Antarctica is mind-bogglingly big, and the area that I’m talking about can’t be accessed by cruise ship. To put it in perspective, to get to the South Pole from our base inside the Antarctic Circle required an eight-hour flight, a refuelling stop and the crossing of a time zone.
Our group – consisting of three men in their late teens/early 20s, two couples in their 60s and me – set off from sunny Cape Town in mid-December. As we crossed the Antarctic Circle, we entered a world of continuous sunshine. We landed on the first of three ice runways (or more aptly iceways) that A&K constructed in Antarctica for this journey and got our first glimpse of the land of snow and ice at a place named Wolf’s Fang.
Here Antarctica is a high desolate white desert where temperatures in summer rarely get above -20°C and the winter average is -60°C. It never rains here and the snow that falls is sparse. With less than 20cm of snowfall a year, Antarctica is technically a desert. It is so dry that with the correct kit on, you feel warmer than on London’s streets on a particularly grim day. It’s the last true wilderness on our planet. It’s the final frontier; the only place where a traveller can feel genuinely remote and know that their footprints may be the first. And if they’re not, well, what a club to be part of. From our base camp in an oasis – a series of rocky outcrops amongst the ice – over the course of eight days our group flew to Atka Bay to view the large colony of emperor penguins there; learned winter skills; explored ice caves; visited both Russian and American research stations; climbed a peak in the Drygalski mountain range; and ventured to the geographic South Pole.
From the top of Mount Inspiring (the virgin mountain which our group summited for the first time in the company of Marko Prezelj, four-time Piolet d’Or winner) staring over this vast expanse of white in awe of nature at its most elemental, it’s hard to imagine the flux that this continent is undergoing. Very sadly, Antarctica has experienced an air temperature increase of 3°C – five times the average rate of global warming as reported by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This heating up is causing change: perennial snow and ice cover are melting, glaciers are retreating and some ice shelves have collapsed completely. In the past 60 years there has been a loss of 25,000 sq km of ice shelf. The flora and fauna are being impacted too. In fact, they are facing an existential threat.
Emperor penguin numbers have declined by up to half in some places and the number of breeding pairs may fall by 80 per cent by 2100. One of the greatest, yet least seen, wildlife spectacles on the planet, the colony of 6,000 breeding pairs at Atka Bay is extraordinary. Two and a half hours by plane from base camp, thousands of adolescents are finding their feet and snow bathing to cool off in strong sun while their parents fish. Though unused to seeing people up close, these animals are under threat from human action thousands of kilometres away.
We reached the Pole two days and 107 years after Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who won the race to the South Pole. Amundsen had gained renown five years previously for being the first to sail the Arctic’s fabled Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Standing at the designated marker at the lowest point on earth, you are able to walk around the world in just a few steps. Surrounding the marker are flags from the 12 signatories of the Antarctic Treaty that sets aside the continent as a scientific preserve. It’s a good place to reflect on the adventure of getting here and wonder about what’s going to become of this white desert.
And finally, I have South Pole printed in my passport.