White Desert Dreaming: A father and son trip to Antarctica
Christopher and Teddy Wilmot-Sitwell embark on a father and son trip to Antarctica, on an adventure like no other
Like all the best things, it just fell into place. After my son, Teddy’s, dream of a long university vacation spent backpacking was curtailed by Covid, a graduation present of travel seemed natural. But what exactly – and where?
Teddy was volunteering post-degree at the Asociacion Sol y Luna in Peru, so was already in South America and fulfilling some of that travel yearning when I texted him in early October with an idea. ‘Can we meet in Chile in December?’ After a couple of minutes came my impatient follow-up: ‘If so, do you fancy travelling with me to Antarctica?’ This elicited an immediate response, certainly a lot faster than any ‘When are you going to sort out the junk in your room?’ messages, which litter most father-son WhatsApp histories. On December 1 we were packing our bags in a hotel room in Punta Arenas – the next morning we would be on a plane to the Antarctic continent.
Even the most world-weary traveller would be excited by the prospect of setting foot on their seventh continent, but to do so buoyed by the youthful enthusiasm of one of Sir David Attenborough’s most faithful followers, was to multiply my excitement. Years of Sunday evening viewing of Planet Earth, supplemented with Christmas Box sets of the series and its awe-inspiring variants had culminated in 2022, fortuitously, with Frozen Planet 2. We were more than ready. We had even re-watched those segments at the end of every programme, when they show how it was filmed (our favourite bits, we both agree).
But nothing can prepare you for the reality of Antarctica, the wilderness and the size. Extreme does not seem an adequate description and 5.4 million square miles (twice the size of Australia) are just words until you see it for yourself. After more than two hours by plane to South Shetland – and 150 nautical miles of navigation South – and we’d barely made a dent in the charts of ‘Terra Incognita’, a fact that starts to put the place into context.
While we were blessed with calm seas and blue skies, which accentuated the beauty of the ice and the magnificence of the mountains and icebergs, these perfect conditions also made us recognise quite how challenging imperfect conditions might be – and how modern ships and equipment made our experience such a privileged one. The achievements of great explorers such as Shackleton, Amundsen and Scott are now even more extraordinary and unfathomable to me.
The landscape and scale and remoteness would have been more than enough to wow, but the wildlife hit every high note, with the team of guides and scientists on hand to answer every question the cherry on top. We weren’t even in peak whale season, but every day brought close encounters with humpbacks; first a blow, then a curving back and fin as the whale breached and finally the slow-motion salute of the tail or fluke. And then there were the penguins, which accompanied every zodiac boat trip and punctuated every ice trek.
As with all the best presents, a big part of the pleasure is in the giving. In this case the giving was also the sharing – talk about a win-win. And win we did. Every single day – blessed doesn’t even come close.