I recently had the opportunity to speak with Robert Swan, the first person to have walked to both the North and South Poles, about his travels to Antarctica and and his organization, 2041, which seeks to preserve the most desolate place on earth. From his first inspirational experiences on the ice to his don’t-leave-home-without yellow backpack, here are are the things that keep this professional traveler going.
Fodor’s: I’ll ask the question everybody wants to know first: what is it like to stand on the South Pole? Is there a logbook where you can sign your name? A large collection of flags? A pole even?!? What’s the view?
RS: The South Pole is like nothing else on earth. When I was there, only a small amount of people had ever been to the South Pole. My expedition followed in the footsteps of the great explorers before me, and marked the end of a long and arduous journey, as well as the beginning of a new chapter in my life. While there is no logbook, there are flags from all the Antarctic Treaty signatory nations, as well as 2 actual poles: one is the ceremonial south ‘pole,’ that never moves, and the other marks the actual geographical South Pole, which moves with the polar ice sheet.
Fodor’s: What is the mission of 2041 and how did your organization begin?
RS: After my expeditions to the North and South Pole, where I personally experienced the effects of global warming and climate change, I realized that somehow in the process I had gained a platform to tell my story. I made a promise to Jacques Cousteau and Sir Peter Scott to use my story to preserve Antarctica for future generations. I founded 2041 as part of that commitment. Our mission is to inspire the next generation of leaders to adopt sustainable, renewable energy practices and take action now in regards to climate change so that Antarctica is never exploited for its resources.
Fodor’s: When was your first visit to Antarctica, and how did the visit match up with your pre-visit expectations?
RS: I first visited Antarctica as a field guide with the British Antarctic Survey at a research base several years before my first expedition. Experiencing the place that had captivated me for so many years simply strengthened my resolve to come back. While I was feeding sled dogs and moving equipment the Antarctica of my imagination was being replaced by the Antarctica of reality, and for me, Antarctica came through and lived up to the mystique.
Fodor’s: When you trek in Antarctica, what evidence of human activity do you see left behind? Have you ever come across artifacts of the historical expeditions (Scott, Shackleton, etc) that went before you?
RS: On my South Pole expedition, approximately 2 days after leaving the Scott Base and until 2 days before reaching the South Pole, there were no signs of human existence, anywhere. At the South Pole, there is a small American scientific research station staffed by scientists and logistics personnel. While wintering over in Antarctica prior to setting out on the Footsteps of Scott expedition, we were incredibly fortunate enough to spend time in what was Scott’s original Antarctic hut.
Fodor’s: You’ll be taking your International Antarctic Treaty Expedition in November. Meanwhile, the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting is seeking to limit tourist access to the Antarctic. How do we as a global community strike the right balance between inspiring people by taking them to a place, and limiting access to that place in order to preserve it?
RS: I have seen the incredible inspiration people get from visiting the Antarctic to change their own lives, and seen what they are able to accomplish as a result of their experiences. The key lies in leading responsible programs—sustainable programs with real results and follow-through that have the power to help protect Antarctica for the future. We focus on taking people from across the globe—from young students to business leaders from international companies; people who probably wouldn’t ever experience Antarctica otherwise—to see this place that is so close to my heart.
Fodor’s: If I went to Antarctica, what measures could I take to make sure I was seeing it in a responsible, sustainable way?
RS: Travel with 2041! But in all seriousness, at the very least, people should ensure that their tour operators follow IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) environmental guidelines.
Fodor’s: You start your Inspire Antarctic Expeditions in Ushuaia, Argentina. What local cuisines/customs/hotels/attractions do you find most memorable there? What would you say are Patagonian “must-sees”?
RS: We start our program with a trek up the Martial Glacier in Ushuaia. Our program begins as soon as our participants arrive in Ushuaia, so there isn’t much time to experience Patagonia built into our expeditions. It is a wonderful region, but anyone traveling to this part of the world should be ready for flight delays/cancellations/changes without notice. We usually just post a 2041 Team Leader at the airport to collect everyone, as their schedules have usually changed drastically by the time they finally make it to the bottom of the world!
Fodor’s: When you’re exploring the ice fields, what warm place do you dream of being that you’ve never been to? Where would you like to go to kick back on the beach with a Corona?
RS: It seems that my lot in life is to travel for a living. As part of my lifelong commitment to get the message out about climate change and renewable energy and preserving Antarctica, I find myself in China one day, Australia the next, and Canada the week after. Therefore, I most often dream of home. Wherever I am—cold, hot, wet, dry, stormy, or mild—I dream of being home.
Fodor’s: You’ve been all over the world. What items do you always pack, regardless of when and where you go?
RS: I pack a suit, my camera, my computer, my cell phone, and a Red Bull. All this modern technology which we seem incapable of living without, nowadays, all goes into the yellow backpack that I’ve had for 20 years. That yellow backpack goes with me everywhere.
Fodor’s: What is the single most important thing to pack for a trip to Antarctica?
RS: Respect. The most important thing you can bring to Antarctica, and the most important thing to come away from your trip with, is a renewed respect for Mother Nature and a commitment to preserve the last great wilderness on earth for future generations. That said, few people are able to experience the Drake Passage without wondering if they’ve had quite enough of Mother Nature’s power!
About Mr. Swan
Robert Swan is the first person to have walked to both the North and South Poles. An active lecturer, he regularly leads Antarctic expeditions. He divides his time between London, New York, and Antarctica. Visit www.2041.com for more information about his organization and www.antarctica2041.com for more information about his his new book.