After almost two years of planning, Royal Enfield has pulled off a ride of epic proportions. What does epic mean, given that other expeditions by the Indian motorcycle manufacturer have included journeys to the Karakoram Pass and the Everest Base Camp? This time, two riders—Santhosh Vijay Kumar, lead rider and Dean Coxson, senior engineer—on purpose-built motorcycles embarked on a 39-day expedition across the continent of Antarctica, from the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole via the South Pole Traverse, a route that is similar to the one followed by famed polar explorer Roald Amundsen in 1911.
We caught up with one of the riders, Santhosh Vijay Kumar, to talk about this one-of-its-kind motorcycling expedition.
Planning and executing a ride of these proportions is no mean feat, especially given the times. Tell us a bit about how it all took shape.
The idea was first floated in 2020. On any such expedition, the logistical partner is critical. And there’s only one entity in the world that is authorised to operate on the continent of Antarctica—Arctic Trucks. But while that aspect of the planning was a no-brainer, there was the issue of actually coordinating before we were fully prepped to set out. There was quite a bit of travelling involved, and owing to Covid restrictions, I often spent three to four weeks quarantining at various destinations just to make it for meetings that wouldn’t last beyond a couple of days. Then there were the bikes, which needed to be shipped from our tech centre in the U.K. all the way to Antarctica. And there was the testing to figure out exactly what we needed to do with the machines.
We had the first round of testing in September of 2020 and the second one in July, 2021. And while these things were progressing, we were on weekly calls for the last two years, aligning all our efforts to ensure everything went off smoothly. Keeping everything going, especially in light of the state of the world, was among one of the biggest challenges to overcome.
What were some of the modifications that had to be undertaken on the bikes?
We naturally wanted to keep most things on the bike stock, as drastic changes always increase the chance of failure. The only thing we changed on the engine was the front sprocket, putting in a smaller one to get higher torque at lower RPMs. Snow is soft and high RPMs are not what you want, otherwise you’ll just spin the wheels and dig in further. The other thing to change were the tyres, you want them soft and flatter on snow, so as to increase the contact patch and not put too much pressure on the snow and break the surface. Over the two rounds of testing, we tried multiple tyre options and figured out the ones that work best. We had to get tubeless options as we would operate on very low tyre pressure on the expedition. Then we also got rid of the centre stand, as it added unnecessary weight for a function we would never use while on the ride. Apart from these, the only other change was that we removed the engine oil cooler as the temperatures we would operate in would not require this.
While organising permissions, partners and the bikes are crucial steps, I’m sure there had to be extensive preparation involved for the riders themselves, both physically and mentally. Tell us a bit about what you did to ready yourself.
Of course, the physical part of the training, while critical, is not too complicated. The difficult part is to prepare yourself mentally. I have done a lot of riding in the mountains, and I went on one to Zanskar right before the expedition to make sure I was ready. I also tried certain breathing exercises, which at least to me, seemed to work to keep me from feeling too cold in extreme temperatures.
I also did a whole lot of reading of accounts by polar explorers and mountaineers, to understand what it takes to survive those conditions. It taught me a lot of important things. Yes, we have ridden extensively in the mountains, but it’s also crucial to ensure that you stay mentally strong through all kinds of situations. The other absolutely critical thing is to think of your team as a family—which is something that we did rather well. We were constantly in touch, quarantined together, and got to know each other really well, even by the time we hit the continent to start the expedition.
Now tell us about the expedition—the challenges, the triumphs, and everything in between.
We landed in Antarctica at Novolazarevskaya. Dean (Coxson, senior engineer and the other rider from RE) and I got there first to test the bikes. We were carrying nearly three and a half tonnes of equipment and fuel because once we left Novo behind, we wouldn’t come across any people until we got to the South Pole. It was critical to make sure all the tents could be set up and dismantled properly, that all the rations were stored properly; details were particularly important because even one malfunctioning lever could delay our schedule.
The weather was pretty decent in Novo, although it was a little strange to see the sun simply go round in circles and never actually dip below the horizon. Temperatures hovered between -15 and -18 degrees Celsius and it was fairly relaxed for the first couple of days. But then the wind picked up on the third day and we realised how much colder it can get. The next six days, we drove often for 24 hours straight before breaking for 8-12 hours. We were first making our way to 83 degrees South, where we would have exhausted the fuel for the support trucks and would have to refuel. This is where fuel is air-dropped and kept in dumps for those crossing the continent.
As you travel inward from the edge of the continent, the landscape is mesmerising, with mountains surrounding you as you make your way through the valleys. But then, after those first 300-odd-kilometres, you hit the plateau. This is when everything around is completely flat. You can travel for days and it would still feel like you haven’t moved an inch, since there’s no reference point for any distance covered. Even small tasks such as setting up tents can become a challenge with strong winds. Just before we got to the highest point of the plateau, which is about 3,840 metres above sea level, one of the trucks broke down. And while we had expert mechanics with us, given how thin the air was, many people started feeling the adverse effects of altitude sickness.
After refuelling at 83° S, we encountered some really difficult terrain. Sastrugi are wave-like snow and ice formations on the surface caused by the wind, some of them half-a-metre high. And they went on for hundreds of kilometres. Because of this, we couldn’t travel in a straight line and had to carefully navigate our way across. Once the torturous part of the ride was over, thankfully there was some smooth ground to cover. The last degree to the South Pole, which was a little over a 100 kilometres, was possibly the hardest ground to cover: it took us 13 hours.
When we got to the South Pole, the weather was brilliant. We had been used to –35°C for such a long time that the –26°C at the South Pole felt great. Moreover, the skies were clear and there was no wind. We were down to just a layer or two, and the mood was generally buoyant.
After this, we set out for 84° S on the other side. As we passed the US station, we noticed the surface was perfect, as the Americans had recently undertaken some movements in the area and it made going for us very convenient. The journey was fairly smooth until we got to 85° S, when we noticed some clouds, a worrying sign. And surely enough, the weather worsened soon.
While temperatures didn’t really drop much, the wind speeds were averaging around 60kmph and went up to as much as 80-90kmph. It doesn’t snow a lot in Antarctica, but when the wind blows, it moves the snow from one place to the other. And the resulting whiteout can be extremely disorienting. Between 84-88° S, we couldn’t see mountains just 60 kilometres ahead. GPS trackers are accurate only up to 20 metres, enough margin to land in a dangerous situation. We couldn’t find any older tracks either, and realised we had strayed off course and into very deep snow. So, we took a call to camp for the night.
When we woke up, our tents had almost entirely been buried in snow and the wind was still howling away. We had two options—either push on to the Ross Ice Shelf or turn back. Also, with limited fuel, we realised we had to be back at Union Glacier by a certain date. The weather report forecast bad conditions for the next five days. And visibility wasn’t great back at the South Pole either. We decided instead to make our way to 86° S and camp there.
The visibility was slightly better there, but not ideal. We camped for a few hours but I couldn’t sleep. I could hear the wind picking up and insisted we push on. But we only made it some 30-40 kilometres. We couldn’t see beyond three feet and with the sastrugi, any time you hit anything, the bike would be thrown off balance. Fortunately, after reaching 87° S, visibility improved.
By the time we got to 89° S, everyone was completely spent. We had been riding for 18-19 hours straight and some suggested we stop. But I insisted that we carry on, and pushed on. About 15 kilometres from the station, I had lost all feeling in my fingers. The exhaustion after riding over 300 kilometres was unimaginable. But I knew if we stopped, we would simply not make it. When we got to the South Pole camp, the chef graciously provided us with lunch, after which came some much-deserved sleep. When we woke up, the weather had gotten bad again, and it continued for the next four days. But the moon was up at the South Pole and the chef kept cooking us these delicious meals. Ahead of us, lay the long, nearly 1,200 kilometre journey to Union Glacier, that too, through bad weather.
On our way to the glacier, we met people who were skiing all the way from Union Glacier to the South Pole, with whom we shared food and swapped stories. This was one of the most humbling experiences on the entire ride. There you are, riding across Antarctica, imagining you’re the coolest cat ever; and then along come a bunch of people who have essentially walked across 1,200 kilometres of Antarctica.
Around halfway between the South Pole and Union Glacier is a fuel dump and camp site, which is also home to the world’s only toilet with a guest book. A dry toilet might not seem like much, usually, but out there, literally and figuratively in the middle of nowhere, it gives people dealing with extreme circumstances some semblance of normalcy.
Arriving at Union Glacier was somewhat like the experience at Everest Base camp, where you’re surrounded by the coolest of the cool. There were explorers who had scaled the highest peaks on every continent and been to both poles. We met many accomplished adventurers there, and along with a whole lot of fun, we learnt much from the amazing interactions. The next few days were spent relaxing and riding the motorcycles around the area. Christmas Eve was celebrated with much pomp and then finally, on the 29th of December, we flew back.
One of the campaigns that has been much spoken about is #LeaveEveryPlaceBetter. Given how difficult even the minutest tasks became in such extreme conditions, how did you manage to ensure you left nothing behind?
So, we had a number of processes in place, which made it quite easy to adhere to our principle of leaving no traces behind. Food packets were only opened inside tents or vehicles as the wind was much too strong, so there was hardly any chance of spillage anywhere outside. And when we took down the tents, we made sure the top layer of the snow was removed and put into waste barrels. As for human waste, we had disposable bags that we used and dumped in the waste barrels. Honestly, when we reached the camps, whether at the South Pole or Union Glacier, it was always a relief to know someone else would be figuring out how to get rid of your waste.
Even for fuel, we put down mats wherever fuel was being filled so that any spillage would be absorbed immediately. But even then, sometimes accidents happen, and we did spill some onto the snow. But we immediately dug a deep and wide hole across the spillage area and dumped all the snow in the waste barrels. The waste barrels were all carried back with us so they could be treated and disposed off properly. It might not be possible to leave a place better, but we definitely ensured we left it as it was.
This was obviously a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Tell us about some of the things that you saw, felt, experienced or learnt, that really stood out for you. And what would your advice be to somebody who would want to undertake similar journeys?
This is something I have learned across years of riding in the mountains and, of course, the continent only reinforced this belief. You have to read up, learn about the place, and most importantly respect it. It’s almost a natural reaction to be humbled when faced with the might of nature. Those days that I spent there were the closest I have come to having an otherworldly experience. It didn’t feel like any place on Earth and was like being on an alien planet.
So, importantly, read all the literature you can get your hands on about the place. Read about what can go wrong and how people have overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. It’s also essential to understand how to function in such extreme weather conditions and have a fair bit of experience before you commit to such an adventure. You have to experience –15°C before you can get to –30°C. And remember to have fun. That’s what makes everything worth it, and sometimes, it even gives you the motivation to carry on.
Samarpan Bhowmik is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Ever on the lookout for novel experiences, he believes the best way to travel is to do it slow. He hopes to hitchhike the length of South America one day.