Isolation in Antarctica: One Woman’s Story

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Robyn Woodhead, founder of luxury Antarctic travel company White Desert, is well placed to teach us a thing or two about coping in isolation. In the brutal yet magical landscape of Antarctica, Robyn endured three months completely alone after transport complications meant she had to send the rest of her team home. With just two books for entertainment and dehydrated meal sachets in the way of “comfort food”, Robyn camped out in the blistering cold so that the opposing team could get their resupply and continue with the mission.

Although extreme, this kind of adventure was not new to Robyn. While other 13-year-olds might have spent their holidays in front of the television with an ice lolly or basking on a sunlounger, Robyn and her family were climbing Kilimanjaro, trekking to Everest base camp and exploring East Asia.

So when Robyn flew her nest in Cape Town, she wasn’t afraid to fly far away, and landed in Notting Hill, London. “It was London, New York, or Hong Kong. And I thought, ok I’ll try London, they speak English there.”

Three years into a settled West London life, that intrepid spirit was resurrected when Robyn’s Cambridge-born boyfriend, Patrick, began talking non-stop about Shackleton and the original great explorers. Tales of Peary, Scott and Amundsen traversing terrains few had braved before entranced Robyn; “I fell in love with those stories”. The seed was planted.

“In 2003, we hatched a plan to recreate Shackleton’s expedition, where they had two teams, one starting on the East of Antarctica and the other on the West, with the idea for one to drive and one to man haul and meet in the middle, and then support each other back.”

After months of planning, in November 2004 Robyn left her advertising job and that plan became a reality.

Far from the six-course tasting menus, cosy bedrooms and well appointed en-suites she now offers the likes of Bear Grylls and Prince Harry, Robyn’s first venture into the Antarctic started on a Russian cargo plane with a toilet strapped to the back with bungee cords.

In the coldest climate on Earth, with a disorienting 24 hours of sunlight, where no rain has fallen for two million years, Robyn watched the plane fly away. “Everything is white. There is nothing else. And your breath, it almost freezes in your lungs.”

Separated from Patrick by the width of a continent, Robyn and her three-man team began adapting to polar life. They learned to wash with ice and prepare and share dehydrated food.

Being on the driving team, you’d be forgiven for thinking Robyn had lucked out—but nothing in Antarctica is simple. “When we loaded up our vehicle we started realising we were just going to get stuck.” The next 10 days would be a laborious process of driving and digging, and driving and digging, and digging, and digging, until there was far more digging happening than driving.

A White Desert client trip

Kelvin Trautman

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