It was almost exactly 100 years ago that Sir Ernest Shackleton set off on his final Antarctic expedition, the Trans-Antarctic Crossing. He’d already been beaten to the Pole by Roald Amundsen, so was aiming to cross the continent instead when disaster struck. His ship sank in pack ice, the team living on its wits for more than a year until Shackleton sailed a lifeboat for 720 miles to South Georgia, from where a rescue could be launched.
This winter Shackleton’s great-grandson, Patrik Bergel, has completed the journey Ernest started. However, Bergel has not only crossed the continent, but done it in style – driving a Hyundai Santa Fe and becoming the first person to drive from coast to coast.
“I think the fact that we were the first to cross the Antarctic in a wheeled vehicle meant that it wasn’t easily achievable,” explained Bergel. “The fact that we were the first definitely added something to the expedition and made it much more meaningful.”
Bergel knew of his family history but never expected to follow in Shackleton’s footsteps, especially in a sensible family car. “Hyundai knew of Shackleton’s expeditions and wanted to make this journey with a member of his family at its focus, so it was a fairly easy decision to decide to go.”
Driving a Santa Fe out of the showroom and onto the Antarctica ice shelf isn’t an option, so the team’s car was adapted by expedition leader Gísli Jónsson, one of the most experienced Antarctic explorers of the 21st Century. The modifications included fitting giant heavy-duty low-pressure tyres, requiring new sub-frames, suspension and gears to be fitted inside the wheel hubs.
“People who have a lot of experience of Antarctica know what it does to machinery: basically, anything and everything falls apart,” says Jonsson. “This was the first time this full traverse has ever been attempted, let alone doing it there and back.”
In temperatures down to minus 28 degrees Celsius, the convoy crossed the Leverett Glacier to the Traverse, then passed the Trans-Antarctic Mountains to Mount Erebus volcano, which Shackleton had been the first man to climb in 1908. From there it was new territory for the expedition as they drove onto the Ross Ice Shelf. This glacier, hundreds of feet deep, lies beyond the continental land mass – and the Hyundai became the first wheeled passenger vehicle to drive across its unique hazards. Those hazards were serious enough to require each of the vehicles in the convoy to be tied together, should one tip over a deep fissure and into the abyss.
The other big challenge was the whiteouts, where visibility dropped to just a few metres. In all, the team endured 30 days of pummelling terrain, driving up to 20 hours a day. Finally, the record-making Santa Fe made it back to base: mission accomplished.
“From previous experience, we were expecting more trouble,” admits Jónsson. “The longest repair stop we had was 45 minutes for a loose bolt!”
Bergel, for whom it had been an emotional journey, adds: “Compared to what my great grandfather did, this was one thousandth as hard and I don’t think we’re under any illusions about that. But it’s still quite something to be the first to do this in a wheeled passenger vehicle.”