Union Camp, Antarctica – The unusually chunky-looking Hyundai Santa Fe you see in these pictures is the first passenger car ever driven across the coldest and driest continent on earth.
Let’s define that: This near-standard 2.2-litre SUV was driven across Antarctica, from Union Camp to McMurdo Sound and back again, by the great-grandson of iconic polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.
The journey of almost 5800km, in temperatures that dropped down to minus 28 degrees, took 30 days of driving up to 20 hours a day at an average speed of just 27km/h.
But why drive across Antarctica? For the answer to that question you have to go back 100 years.
In 1914 renowned polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set out to cross the Antarctic continent from coast to coast, something that had never been done before. Both Roald Amundsen, who reached the South Pole in December 1911, and Robert Falcon Scott, who got there five weeks later and famously never made it back, were focused only on the shortest route to the pole and back.
Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition never even got started. His ship the Endurance got caught in pack ice in the Weddell Sea and was crushed; suddenly the expedition became an exercise in survival for Shackleton and his crew of 27.
In the end, he and five of his men took one of the ship’s open lifeboats and sailed it 1300km across the coldest, wildest seas in the world to the nearest human habitation, the whaling station on South Georgia Island, from where Shackleton was able to mount a rescue operation and bring the whole crew safely home in 1917.
'It can't be done'
Exactly a century later, the idea of doing what Shackleton had failed to do, but in a near-standard SUV, came from Hyundai, whose marketing manager Scott Noh approached Shackleton’s great-grandson Peter Bergel, to lead the expedition.
But you don’t just drive a car out of the showroom on to the Antarctic ice; the Santa Fe was prepared for the trip by Antarctic veteran Gísli Jónsson of Arctic Trucks – who initially said it couldn’t be done.
“People who have a lot of experience of Antarctica know what it does to machinery,” he said. “Basically, everything falls apart. People have a lot of mechanical problems with vehicles out there; even the big machines crack up and break apart, skis fall off, tracks snap and gearboxes fail.
"There are established routes to the South Pole and to the base station at McMurdo but no passenger car had ever done anything like this.”
Jónsson re-tuned the 2.2-litre turbodiesel to run on Jet A1 – the only fuel you can get in Antarctica – installed an engine pre-heater so that it would start in sub-zero temperatures, and increased the Santa Fe’s fuel capacity to 230 litres.
He raised the body with special sub-frames and suspension, and fitted huge low-pressure tyres on special geared hubs so that the car would float over the packed snow rather than plough through it. The tyres ran on about a tenth of the normal pressure to spread the weight – so low that the car could run over your hand and you wouldn’t even feel it.
It ran so lightly over the snow that on the return journey Bergel found that their tracks from the outbound leg, two weeks before, had already vanished.
“Other than that,” said Jónsson, “it was a pretty standard Santa Fe. The engine, the management system, transmission, front differential and driveshaft were all completely standard.”
The route took them through the Drake Icefall and Patriot Hills and across a featureless landscape to the South Pole, refuelling from aviation fuel dumps along the way. Then they crossed the Leverett Glacier to the Traverse, passing the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and the smoking Mount Erebus volcano, which Shackleton had been the first man to climb in 1908.
From there the expedition broke new ground as they drove onto the Ross Ice Shelf, a glacier more than 100 metres deep, laced with deep fissures, unseen until the moment that your vehicle tips over the edge. This threat forced the team to tie the Hyundai and their three support vehicles together so they could pull each other out of trouble if necessary.
After an emotional reunion with the support crew back at Union Camp, Bergel said: “My great grandfather’s expedition didn’t fail – it just took 100 years to complete.”