A modified Hyundai Santa Fe has become the first passenger car to drive across Antarctica and back again, making a trip from Union Camp to McMurdo and back to Union Camp, as well as the first wheeled passenger vehicle to drive across the Ross Ice Shelf.
Taking part in the journey was Patrick Bergel, the great grandson of Ernest Shackleton, the famous Antarctic explorer who was beaten to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen and whose quest to cross Antarctica from coast to coast thwarted when his ship was crushed by pack ice.
The journey with the Santa Fe and three support vehicles was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s failed attempt to cross the polar continent.
The modern day expedition was led by Gisli Jonsson from Arctic Trucks, the company that modified the Santa Fe for its trans-Antarctic journey.
A key, and the most visible, change to the Santa Fe is the fitment of the heavy-duty low-pressure tyres. This necessitated huge wheel arch extensions, completely new sub-frames at both ends, and a rebuilt suspension setup.
In order to account for the rugged terrain and large tyres, the vehicle’s overall gearing was reduced by installing new gears inside the wheel hubs.
Jonsson says the car’s tyre pressure was around one-tenth of regular road tyres, so the vehicle would drive “on top of the snow rather than ploughing through it”. In fact, the tyres are so pillowy soft, “you can drive over someone’s hand and it wouldn’t hurt them”.
Other changes to car include a larger 230 litre fuel tank, and an engine pre-heater to help deal with the extreme temperatures. Hyundai points out the engine, its management system and transmission were completely stock standard.
The Antarctic Santa Fe was powered by a 2.2-litre turbo-diesel motor, but instead of regular diesel, this car used jet fuel. According to Jonsson, this was done because “all operations in Antarctica run on it”, including vehicles, and the fuel can stand temperatures as low as -58 degrees Celcius.
During the journey, the car averaged around 30km/h, although 50 to 60km/h was the mean for many stretches. On some really smooth sections the car managed 100km/h for short periods of time.
The expedition had to carry its own fuel with just two fuel cache locations along its return journey. With explorers and scientific missions entrusted with leaving the continent in pristine condition, the expedition had to carry all its waste back.
Thanks to modern technology, the team had it much easier than explorers during the golden era of Antarctic exploration. Nonetheless they still had to camp out in the bitter cold, melt snow for water, and, probably, pee into bottles.
The convoy were able to carefully pick their way through crevasse-filled fields, over glaciers, past an active volcano, and travel with a degree of certainty during whiteout conditions thanks to up-to-date satellite imagery and GPS location data.
With temperatures as touching as low as -28 degrees Celicus, the team drove for 30 days, and sometimes for up to 20 hours per day.
Bergel recounts: “The driving was incredible. There’s no visual stimulus and with your body connected to the vehicle, your brain goes a bit haywire. I started to make up things, like seeing trees and forests around me, and after one 20-hour driving day, despite doing shifts, I was falling into the steering wheel, and the tracks in front of me kept flipping in and out.”